Mitch Altman's Hacker Trip to Poland 2017
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who and when
When it comes to the Hackerspace / Makerspace movement there are few names known as well as Mitch Altman's. He co-founded Noisebridge, one of the oldest, most colorful and vibrant hackerspaces in the US and shared his experiences in Hackerspace Design Patterns talk. As a long-time anarchist and engineer hating television, he invented TV-B-Gone, a remote control capable of turning off any TV.
Mitch keeps traveling the world, visiting hacker- and maker-spaces, creative communities and anarchist squats, holding basic electronic workshops, panels on the hacker movement and overcoming depression. There's probably no other person in the world who inspired creation of as many tech communities as Mitch himself.
This year Mitch was invited as a speaker to CopyCamp, a Warsaw-based conference on copyright and patents that took place from the 28th to the 29th of September. He decided to spend three more weeks in Poland, giving talks and holding workshops in Warsaw, Łódź, Cracow and Gdansk. He shared his stories on hackerspaces, inventing, US startup ecosystem, open hardware, DARPA, Chinese Hackerspaces, fighting depression, finding a fulfilling job and many, many more...
Most of the photos in this article come from Mitch's Flickr and are licensed on Creative Commons BY-SA, which means they're free to use for both commercial and non-commercial uses. I can wholeheartedly recommend these albums as one of the best sources of hacker movement photos in the world - all ready to be put in a newspaper or a blog.
Specific albums from the Polish trip:
- Warsaw, 15-21 September
- Lodz, 22-24 September
- Warsaw, 25-29 September
- Krakow, 30th of September
- Auschwitz, 1st of October
- Gdansk, 02-03 October
- Warsaw, 04-05 October
Transhumanism in Warsaw
For most of the trip, Mitch was staying in Warsaw, the capital of and the biggest city in Poland with nearly 1.75 million residents. It's also a high-technology center, with most of specialized and international companies based there.
The first event of the trip took place on the 20th of September, at the "Transhumanism in Warsaw" meetup organized by Polish Transhumanist Society. Willing to hear about approaches to technology different from the widespread startup hype, the transhumanists invited Mitch asking him to share his experiences with Silicon Valley tech companies and hackerspaces.
The inventor shared his disillusionment towards the way innovation is created in the startup ecosystem, where people start their companies not to create a solution for a real and pressing problems, but to get rich with venture capital. He spoke about how CIA and DARPA funds shape the market, aligning the technology for the military's needs, and told the story of his major disagreement with this practice, resulting in him quitting the consultancy business. He painted hackerspaces as communities where people can work on their own projects, addressing real needs and creating worthwhile companies - much more satisfying than any corporate or freelancing job.
Asked about his approach towards the transhumanist movement itself, Mitch shared his story of a lifelong fight with depression - and arriving to a realization that quality of life is more important than its sheer length. Many transhumanists in the US employ technosolutionist and simplistic strategies of life extension, forgetting about its content.
Warsaw Hackerspace workshop
The next stop in Mitch's trip was Warsaw Hackerspace, which on 21st of September organized a soldering workshop with the inventor as the main mentor. Over the course of 4 hours, about forty people had an opportunity to learn the essentials of electronics and how to handle a soldering iron.
The workshop's main goal was to create a fully functioning electronic device based on a PCB kit. These were offered by the Warsaw Hackerspace and Mitch Altman himself, including TV-B-Gone, LED Name Tags, Drawduinos, music synthetizers and other Adafruit kits.
The majority of the participants succeeded in creating their own devices. For some, this might just have been an interesting adventure, but others may have gained inspiration to pursue electronics as a fascinating skill.
Just the day after the workshop, on the 22nd of September, Mitch was invited to Fab Lab Lodz in Łódź, a large formerly industrial city located about 130 kilometers from Warsaw. Today, the city houses a huge artist community and one of the biggest and most active Fab Labs in Poland.
The whole weekend of the 22nd to 24th was dedicated to Robo Inspector Hackathon, where 9 teams of students, makers and hackers from all around the country competed in building a multi-purpose Arduino-based Inspection Robot.
The hackathon was opened on Friday with a series of talks on Arduino, IoT and Open Source, featuring Mitch Altman's story of TV-B-Gone and encouragement for the teams to use open hardware in their projects. Mitch's slides can be found here.
For the next two days, the teams consisting of 3-5 people each worked on their prototypes using different technologies and robotics concepts. Mitch was available to them as a mentor, discussing proposed solutions and sharing his experiences in overcoming technical hurdles.
On Sunday, all robots competed by solving a series of time-sensitive tasks in a tunnel, with only a front-mounted camera showing their position to their operators. While only several of the robots accomplished all the tasks, all of them managed to tackle at least half. Tasks included traversing steep terrain, disarming a bomb, pulling the right lever and escaping a mobile threat. The hackathon was deemed a huge success and was covered by a local TV outlet. All the participants were allowed to take their designs home to work on them further in local student's clubs or hackerspaces.
All photos from the event can be found on FabLabLodz's Facebook.
University of Warsaw - Sinology
The next invitation came from University of Warsaw's Sinological Students' Club, which Mitch visited on the 26th of September. With experience from his yearly Hacker Trip To China, the inventor was able to show the sinologists a different face of China not usually presented in the mainstream media.
Years ago just after creating TV-B-Gone, Mitch traveled to Shenzen in China to personally pick a factory which doesn't exploit its workers and offers them acceptable wages. He became really interested in the local tech ecosystem and the totally different approach to copyright and open hardware. After meeting with several educational institutions and encouraging people to focus on project-based learning, Mitch was invited to several Chinese universities to give talks on hackerspaces and education.
His influence helped create several hackers-in-residence programs, and soon the hackerspace movement started taking hold in China. With the approval of prime minister Li Keqiang, officials all around the country started supporting 'spaces in their regions. You can follow that story on Makery.
The talk was followed by a discussion and a lot of questions from students interested in China. Many of them couldn't believe that the government could give people so much freedom to experiment with technology. Mitch shared several stories about US and Chinese governments actually influencing local maker movements. While the latter was controlling the amount of free speech in such spaces, it was much less likely to exploit military uses of the technologies created, which seems to be DARPA's domain in the US.
All the slides can be found here.
CopyCamp, the key event of Mitch's stay took place on the 28th and 29th of September. It gathered a lot of other fine guests, like La Quadrature De Net's founder - Jeremie Zimmermann, Pirate Party's Europarliment Member - Julia Reda and the CEO of Creative Commons - Ryan Merkley.
For the next two days various experts discussed the upcoming European Copyright Reform, showcased their initiatives from around the world, proposed new frameworks for academic IP and non-exclusive ways of patenting medical research. All of the talks can be found on the conference organizer's page - Modern Poland Foundation on YouTube.
During his talk, Mitch discussed an inventor's approach to Open Hardware and it's consequences.
Meanwhile, in the other room Jeremie Zimmermann shared his story of Hacking With Care and all the ways to avoid burnout when you're an activist.
The conference was a huge success, allowing a lot of people to meet, share their ideas, find the most pressing points and find the best course of action for the following year in the fight for a better copyright.
Just a day after the conference, on the 30th of September, Mitch visited Cracow Hackerspace located in historical city of Kraków, 300 km from the country's capital. With regular events, amateur radio courses and certification, it's one of the most active hackerspaces in Poland.
Mitch also gave a talk about his journey from a depressed kid, to a consultant, and then a self-realized inventor doing what he loves. He encouraged people to quit the jobs they hate doing and start working on projects which are valuable to them and the communities around them. The audience was especially interested in how he managed to set up his own open hardware company - and be financially self-sufficient while traveling the world and teaching.
All slides can be found here.
From Krakow Mitch traveled to Tricity at the coast of Poland, about 550km north, joined by Jeremie Zimmermann, still in Poland after the CopyCamp. On the 2nd of October they visited HS3City, known for its variety of meetups and events. As the community around it is still growing and looking for a right organizational form, it warmly welcomed the Hackerspace movement heroes and asked them for advice.
Specially for them, Jeremie shared his story of Hacking With Care with far more details than on the just-wrapped-up conference, describing his involvement in La Quadrature Du Net and multiple hackerspaces in France.
Mitch's presentation had a similar tone, showcasing different Hackerspace Design Patterns from Noisebridge and different 'spaces around the world visited or co-founded by the inventor.
Finally, I had ten minutes to show different possible paths to take for Tricity's Hackers - from filling the gaps in local Universities' ecosystems, working with civic tech organizations like Code For Poland and Code For Europe, coordinating events and sharing knowledge with other 'spaces from Europe and beyond - within Global Innovation Gathering. I shared stories of the activists from Warsaw Hackerspace, their involvement within the government, and the world of NGOs.
The discussions went on for a long time, well into the night, and hopefully helped local hackers find a vision of organization that they'd like to be part of.
Koduj Dla Polski / TechSoup
Just minutes after coming back to Warsaw, Mitch and Jeremie were invited to a Code for Poland / TechSoup meetup - a gathering of civic tech activists, working with local governments to help communities all around Poland live in friendlier and more ecological cities.
This time, the inventor and the activist decided to give very contrasting talks. Mitch held to his usual optimism and belief in a better tomorrow for communities, encouraging people to quit depressing and unhealthy habits and jobs, working for causes that really matter to them.
On the other hand, Jeremie focused on showcasing how bad the world is in need of radical activists - not only people who help local governments. He showed how CIA and NSA exploited world's tech and took control away from the people, and the only way to take it back - is with crypto and decentralization.
After hearing both of the talks, many activists were shocked and reinvigorated by a more global view, allowing them to get a better perspective on their local problems.
Warsaw Hackerspace workshop #2
With just a day before his takeoff, Mitch agreed to conduct one more Workshop in Warsaw Hackerspace on the 4th of October, gathering about 20 people from multiple cities in Poland.
Hacker Trip to China
On the 5th of October Mitch left Poland for Hong-Kong to start yet another Hacker Trip to China. Together with 19 other hackers they are going to visit several cities around China, talking to manufacturers, inventors, hackers and educators to bring the East and the West a little closer.
I'm really happy that I could organize Mitch's hacker trip to Poland. I saw people being inspired and motivated to work towards a future that they will be really satisfied with. I witnessed a lot of students, young hackers - and even elders - unsure of their skill quickly learning soldering and understanding that electronics may be within their grasp.
Mitch managed to bring something which is really hard to come by at Polish universities: hope in a better community and purposeful life. This helped a lot of people to break away from their daily gloom and look for others like them.
I'd like to thank a lot of awesome organizers, including Krzysztof Stasiak, Krzysztof Siewicz, Olgierd Uziemblo, Grzegorz Belica, Wojtek Kokorzycki, Wojtek Sanko, Karo Wysocka and Wiktor Przybylski. Without you this trip couldn't happen!