Freeside Atlanta makes space for local hackers

The hacker facility doesn't look that different from a punk warehouse, but instead of political zines, their common library is filled with volumes on circuit analysis

At a regular Tuesday night meeting of Freeside Atlanta, there's talk of building a RepRap machine. A RepRap, treasurer Raiford Storey explains, is a prototyping device that can make its own parts. Once one's built, it can be used to create another and another and so on. Thousands of machines could be made, replicating one another like a hive of robotic insects gestating inside Freeside's Metropolitan Warehouses space. A 2006 Guardian article suggested the RepRap might "bring down global capitalism, start a second industrial revolution and save the environment." But no one here is talking about post-capitalist apocalyptic visions. The collective members of Atlanta's recently opened hackerspace are simply brainstorming another project, something new to make.

The term hacker calls to mind a time when the Internet still trafficked through dial-up modems – or a mid-'90s Hollywood movie starring Matthew Lillard and Angelina Jolie. In a way, the folks at Freeside Atlanta are the direct descendents of that time and culture. Almost everyone in the hacker collective has some sort of technological background, whether as a Georgia Tech alumnus, Linux administrator, or an information security researcher. But the focus here isn't only on programming or circuitry. "You don't just have to hack computers," says interim President James Sheheane. "You can hack metal, you can hack wood."

Fostered by Make magazine and Boingboing.net, members of the current generation of hackers are as likely to call themselves "makers" and cite a background in woodworking or welding as tantamount to their skills with computers. The common principle of making, rather than buying, things guides this technologically bent, do-it-yourself culture, which has blown up in the form of community spaces across the U.S. and Europe over the past two years. Noisebridge in San Francisco, Pumping Station: One in Chicago, and c-base in Berlin are among the leading hacker groups that inspired the founding of Freeside Atlanta.

Three friends from Columbus, Sheheane, Storey and Ken Wehr, initiated the project earlier this year after moving to Atlanta. Instead of securing a space and then seeking out members, the trio first tried to find people who wanted to collaborate. "We said, 'Let's get a bunch of people and let them pick the space,'" Storey says. "Once the word got out around Georgia Tech and places like that, it really exploded." Weekly meetings at Manuel's Tavern regularly attracted about 30 or 40 people. The group moved into its warehouse space in late June and currently counts 55 official members.

Freeside doesn't look that different from an artist commune or punk warehouse: Members lounge around on beat-up thrift store couches; the walls are covered in scattered, haphazard murals; a communal fridge is filled with soda and Colt 45. But instead of a collection of Cometbus 'zines or Emma Goldman books, the common library is packed with volumes on calculus and circuit analysis. The most obvious difference, though, is the towering shelves of electronics.

Old computers, circuit boards, wires, hard drives, monitors, batteries, and every other piece of imaginable gadgetry are organized on deep wooden shelves that loom along the walls. Almost everything used for group projects is recycled or repurposed, says Freeside member Scott "Duckie," Melnick, "But it's not something that's preached, it's just done."

Foremost, hackerspaces allow the sharing of tools – everything from soldering guns and welding torches to complex cutting machines – and an exchange of knowledge. Workshops ranging from circuit bending to python coding to welding take place weekly. One of the few female members, Madelynn Martiniere, will be offering a sewing certification class. "It's just a place to learn whatever you want to learn," she says. The workshops are open and free to the public, though the group expects regular visitors to pay monthly dues.

Two newcomers stand up during the meeting to introduce themselves and explain what skills they might be able to share with Freeside. Before they're allowed to become members, though, they'll go through a vetting process to ensure they won't steal from or disrupt the group. Because of the communal structure, Freeside and other hackerspaces are more vulnerable to grifters and folks who could upset the balance of sharing. "Basically, you find a sponsor," says Sheheane. "Get a couple people to vouch for you and over some period of time – a week or a month – you're in."

Freeside's tight organization sets it apart from most collective endeavors. There's no worry about making rent in the coming months – dues already cover that. Instead, the members are focused on how to democratically spend the leftover money on tools or supplies to benefit the group as a whole. They're devising an online voting system to make sure people have a say in how money is spent.

As the official meeting breaks up, a social energy takes over the space. Members eager to show off their hard work demonstrate finished projects. A homemade CNC machine – a precision, programmable cutting device that's been made using skateboard bearings and plywood – is fired up. A bicycle displaying bright red electronic images on its moving wheels is pedaled around the space. Martiniere talks about the electronic scarf she's developing – a combination of knit work and LED electronics that will respond to heat and light sensors.

Outside the back garage door, a small foundry heats up. The drizzle of light rain steams off the polished surface and into the night air. A combination of two metal buckets, some concrete, and the same propane gas tank used for standard home barbecue grills, the foundry is a simple tool offering limitless possibilities. Objects designed in 3-D modeling software will be forged from molten alloys here. Parts of a broken hard drive, as well as a few soda cans, finish melting down in the glowing crucible. The liquid metal is poured out into a muffin tin to cool. "Aluminum cupcakes!" someone announces from the gathered crowd.

"That speaks to what we're all about," Storey says. "Making cool stuff out of nothing."

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