The End of Research Road

Walking into c-base is like entering a space station. That’s because it is a space station.

Established in 1995, c-base is one of the original hackerspaces in the world, a mothership for the entire maker movement. Fitting then that Madison and I should wrap up our month of research at this Berlin classic. We spoke to e-punc, who looked exactly like an e-punc. He said that c-base established itself early with the Berlin hacker community by being one of the first coworking spaces to have good Internet in the 90s. Their membership is composed of sci-fi fans, designers, artists, and a growing population of nerds.

The enigmatic e-punc.

The enigmatic e-punc.

The space itself is exotic. You walk into a faintly mirrored tunnel lit with with alternating colors, underwater blue to razor pink. A Stammtisch of sorts was going on when we entered; a Minecraft battle turned into blacklight ping pong. Madison and I retrieved beers and spoke to a couple members before we tracked e-punc down.

Watch yourself.

Watch yourself.

He took us on the grand tour, down hallways lined with spaceship console controls, winding stairs that illuminated your next step, the smoky bridge with the feel of the gritty reality of the Matrix. c-base feels like The Enterprise and District 9 rolled into one, the purity of brave space exploration blended with torn apart history and not a little conspiracy.

e-punc led us into the holy interior.

e-punc leads us into the holy interior.

e-punc takes MadRim on a tour of c-base in Berlin.

e-punc takes MadRim on a tour of the c-base space station in Berlin.

Their membership numbers are around 550, and the hackerspace sees about a tenth of them on any given day. They’re active members in the Berlin hacker community, participating in various hackathons, many of which they win. Recently a speaking Yoda robot brought home the big prize. They also attend Chaos Communication Camp, nicknamed “digital Woodstock”, which takes place every four summers. People from all over the world gather in a field just outside of Berlin to erect tents and spend the weekend playing with technology, making art, and collaborating on projects. It’s family friendly, a truly organic Maker Faire with an emphasis on hacking.

E-punc talked to us about transhumanism, a new concept to me, the imminent actuality of cyborg humans. It already exists, in fact. Anyone with a bionic limb or implants like a hearing aid sensor could be considered transhuman. What about when we start planting magnetic chips in our fingertips? This is the technology that makes telepathy a possibility. Ethics, man.

There’s an anarchistic joyousness to c-base. People come here to build body armor for their LARPing expeditions. They experiment with virtual reality. They have a sort of code language, c-lang. They celebrate Towel Day in honor of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They even have their own sci-fi theater group, which wrote and performed an original play about time travel.

A call to action: Linux penguin says, "Be an Open Sourcerer!"

A punny call to action: Linux penguin says, “Be an Open Sourcerer!”

Most of c-base seemed to be involved in the nerd party upstairs, which we learned was the monthly net politics meeting. Still, several members were hard at work in the bowels of the space station. Because c-base is so big, three meetings can often be going on at once. We passed a group of serious tinkerers working in a purple-lit cave, electronics strewn across the table. e-punc led us into an empty woodworking shop, showed us their custom-built Tiefziehpress (drawing press), which is used for making molds by creating a vacuum. In order to build the Tiefziehpress, members first had to construct a table saw. “So we have a table saw,” e-punc said with a grin.

Room after room, each more fantastical than the last. We stumbled on two members eating dinner in a relatively un-futuristic workroom, though there were R2D2s spray painted on multiple surfaces. Grmpf and Xen (“Surnames are for gravestones”) interrupted their dinner to speak to us about their experiences at the hackerspace. “c-base is more of a living room for us, money isn’t a target,” Xen said. “Nerds are often outsiders in the world outside, but insiders in the world inside,” Grmpf said.

Xen's mini 3D printer.

Xen’s mini 3D printer.

We asked about the difference between a hackerspace and a makerspace. (Everyone’s got a different definition.) The hackers here viewed a makerspace as a workshop more geared toward making a profit, where as a hackerspace is more about “the misuse of resources,” Xen laughed. “Here we can do pretty much whatever we want.” The role of a workshop for digital fabrication in the community seems to hinge very much on profit. I’ve generally experienced the most camaraderie at spaces that emphasize “sharing knowledge over selling knowledge,” as Grmpf phrased it. “This is a club,” e-punc had explained to us at the beginning of our tour. “It’s is great for developing ideas and making a prototype, but for serious work go to a Fab Lab.” Most c-base members are also active participants at other coworking spaces in Berlin, such as Fab Lab Berlin and Betahaus.

But c-base is undeniably special. They’re slightly militaristic in their wackiness. “I’d be insulted if the government didn’t survey us,” e-punc said. They’ve had a couple episodes in the past. “But this is not the place for illegality.” You can still push the limits of socially acceptable without getting in trouble. “Our goal is to be future compatible. Some regulations make sense.”

e-punc shows us their log-on mechanism in the entryway. Everyone uses a nickname, and if you're a member you can see who else is present.

e-punc shows us their login mechanism in the entryway, accessed by a palm scan. Everyone uses a nickname, and if you’re a member you can see who else is present.

c-base is an institution. There’s some proof that an entire space station lies beneath Berlin, with the TV Tower serving as the fulcrum, arms stretching out from it like an underground galaxy. The place is a science fiction novel. Except it’s not fiction. It takes very little imagination to picture the mantles of consoles and fortresses of computers controlling distant drones. In every corner lurks a space monster, some are familiar robots and bounty hunters, some are an anachronistic amalgamation, like the ninja caught in a Jason mask. c-base sparks the imagination, you’re on board the Millennium Falcon, you’re in a cave on Dune, you’re hitching a ride with a fellow space bandit. It’s a playground for adults. It’s a hub of creativity, forever a “work in progress, just like Berlin,” e-punc said.

e-punc basks in the glowing lights of the space station.

e-punc basks in the glowing lights of the space station.

Madison and I would like to thank all the Fab Labs, makerspaces, hackerspaces, and coworking venues that participated in Research Road, from Fab Lab Olbia, a brand new Fab Lab on the Italian island of Sardinia, to c-base, an established and thoroughly unique hackerspace in Berlin. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or far you’ve come, or where you’ve been–you have to keep learning. Research Road may have come to an end, but we’re poised at the start of the next stage on our adventure, the grand bike tour we’ve been working so hard to make a reality. We’re a work in progress, and so is our world. Work with us!

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