Inventor hacks student mindsets on campus

At 20 years old, Mitch Altman couldn’t remember life without television. But finally something clicked, and he was fed up. He gathered all of his TVs — even those that he had found on the street, lugged home and meticulously coaxed back into working condition — and got rid of them. Forever.

Since he started school at five years old, he would come home every day to his family’s apartment, turn on the TV and sit for hours. He spent time with his friends Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart and Oliver Wendell Douglas — stand-ins for the friends he couldn’t seem to make at school. Bullies and bruises didn’t exist in the world that Altman escaped to — where every problem could be solved in 30 minutes with breaks for commercials.

But as time went on, the problems weren’t always solved at the end of the show. The cops caught some bad guys, but there were always more. The reporters on news programs never failed to have some terrible event to report on.

“The more I watched TV the more the world seemed like a worse place, and of course it’s a place I get beat up by bullies because that’s the way the world is,” Altman said.

“Why do I watch this?” five-year-old Altman would ask himself, but he could never seem to come up with an answer, so he continued to tune in day after day, week after week, month after month for 15 years. When he turned 20, the question still lingered in his mind. This time he had an answer: he didn’t have to.

He quit cold turkey that day and hasn’t watched TV since.

“Time does go away, never to come back ever again,” Altman said. “For everything, though, that I am missing on TV that would be good to see, I am doing something in my life that is better for me.”

Altman decided to invent TV-B-Gone, a gadget that turns off TVs in public places where he believes they only add negativity to the atmosphere by distracting people from each other.

He said he hopes his invention will inspire people to think about why they watch TV and decide to turn it off to spend the time doing something fulfilling.

“Why not make conscious choices and choose what we think is the coolest?” Altman said. “Then our lives get better.”

Now, he said he only watches TV “for the amount of time it takes the TV-B-Gone to turn it off.”

Altman can’t believe he makes a living selling TV-B-Gones, adding that he has sold 500,000 in 10 years.

Similarly, he wants students to know how important it is to make money in a way that makes them happy.

“It is worth choosing well what you do with your time because it’s really one of the few things we have control over in our life,” he said.

Now, he loves his job and the opportunities it gives him, and he is glad that he followed his passion. For him, there never really was another option.

For Allen Hall’s guest-in-residence, hacking people’s mindset is a lifelong goal and something he hopes to accomplish during his stay at the University.

Altman, a University alumnus, has returned to campus to share his experiences as a hacker and inventor. His two-week stay at Allen Hall has encompassed many subjects, from making blinking name tags to discussions of depression and suicide.

To Altman, “hacking” is taking anything and using it for something other than its original purpose and sharing it with other people. He said the media has gotten carried away with the term and now it holds a negative connotation; however, he said he hacks to make the world a better place.

His halo of white hair curls down to his shoulders with red and blue streaks on the left side. He smiled as he talked about the impact his TV-B-Gones have had as, in his eyes, deactivated TVs make the world a better place. He said when the TVs go off, “people can make new choices — hopefully better choices.”

Eric Myers, sophomore in ACES and Allen Hall resident, said he comes to as many guest-in-residence workshops as he can and Altman has been one of his favorites. He said he went to a few of Altman’s events and really enjoyed all of the projects he made and the information he learned.

“It is new experiences because (the residents are) people we normally wouldn’t communicate with and (they present) also just new ideas and projects to think about,” Myers said.

He said he loves to do hands-on activities and make usable projects, so he is very glad they invited Altman.

“I don’t really do a whole lot of work with computers or with circuit boards or anything so this is all kind of new to me,” Myers said.

Myers said he is excited to use his TV-B-Gone to irritate his friends and to see if they will notice their TVs turning off.

Altman travels the country and the world, educating people on how to enhance products for their own personal use. At one of his workshops, Altman told participants that now that they have made their own TV-B-Gone, participants can use it for their own purposes. He encouraged them to take the software, hack it and make it their own.

During his time at the University, Altman has visited grade schools, University classes and hacker spaces, spreading his ideas and hoping to create communities for “geeks” like himself.

Altman said he has been teaching people his whole life, even teaching children in his mother’s classroom about technology when he was a child himself.

Laura Haber, Unit One programs director, said that Altman was a guest-in-residence two years ago, and students really enjoyed his program. After a survey last spring, she decided to ask him to return and stay for longer.

“Students seem to be really enthusiastic. All of the ones that I’ve talked to are really enjoying the workshops and many students have been to more than one — some students have been to all of them,” Haber said.

Haber said Altman includes all types of students from different backgrounds in his workshops and makes it so everyone can learn and be part of the community he creates.

Altman hopes he can make people’s lives better through his work. He said he knows firsthand what it’s like to live life pegged as a “geek” and he wants others who live the same way to find communities where they are accepted.

This is his motivation to travel the world, creating hacker spaces, maker spaces and even temporary communities, even if just for a little while. He said he wants to give hope and encouragement to kids who are in situations similar to his.

Now, at 58 years old, watching TV is far removed from his memory. As he spoke, the TV in the room flickered with motion until the crowd was ready to see a demonstration of his invention.

Click.

“It’s much better that way.”

Claire can be reached at hettngr2@dailyillini.com.