Coding Freedom cover image

E. Gabriella Coleman’s new book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2012, Princeton University Press) is an ethnography of Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) hackers working on the Debian Linux Operating System. It is a thorough and accessible text, suitable for  someone unfamiliar with open source software or coding. It would make an excellent addition to an IT and Society 101 course syllabus, or a reading group on alternative work organization. Coleman’s greatest achievement in this text, however, is not the accuracy of her depiction, but the way in which she dissects the political and economic successes of the open source community. By claiming absolute political neutrality, but organizing work in radical ways, contributors to F/OSS “sit simultaneously at the center and margins of the liberal tradition.” (p. 3) Coleman argues that while F/OSS, “is foremost a technical movement based on the principles of free speech, its historical role in transforming other arenas of life is not primarily rooted in the power of language or the discursieve articulation of a broad political vision. Instead, it effectively works as a politics of critique by providing a living conterexample…” (p. 185)

Throughout Coding Freedom Coleman provides incredibly concise, easily understandable definitions or explanations of key concepts. In just one or perhaps two sentences, the reader is equipped with an easily transportable set of vocabulary words that might bring richness and depth to what would normally be a shallow treatment of a complex idea. These small definitions keep her analysis coherent, and her audience engaged. I am making extended note of it upfront, because it is such an important skill and is woefully absent from most writing. What could have been a dense and daunting tome, is an inviting 254 page paperback. Her treatment of neoliberalism is an excellent example of her skill: “Neoliberalism champions the rights of individuals, deems monopolies regressive, and relishes establishing a world free of national boundaries with little or no friction (Ong 2006). In practice, however, the actual instantiation of neoliberal free trade requires active state intervention, regulation, and monopolies (Harvey 2005; Klein 2008).” p. 73 Coding Freedom makes excellent and quick use of a wide variety of concepts including but not limited to, Marcusian pure tolerance, Heideggerian things and objects, Goffman’s “face work”, and Latour and Woolgar’s inscription device. Coleman also draws from Graeber, Benjamin, Lakoff, Kelty, Rabinow, Arendt, and Galloway to make her argument.

Coleman opens with a composite life story of the “typical” hacker, composed from 70 interviews both in person and over email and IRC.  It describes a person (usually a man, and Coleman notes this by using the male pronoun throughout the chapter) who, at an early age, was intrigued by the inner-workings of engineered objects. Home appliances were dis-assembled and phone lines were held up for hours as the budding hacker sought out like-minded people on BBSs. Once the burgeoning hacker has enough money of how own, he goes to his first con. Debian conferences (Debconfs) are an eclectic mix of people and activity. Competitions, presentations, and raucous parties are typical. (Personally, It was surprising to hear how much Theorizing the Web and Debconfs have in common. Apparently TtW isn’t the only conference with augmented audiences: “At the con, these networked and virtual technologies [mostly IRCs] exist in much the same way they ordinarily do. Rarely used in isolation or replace the ‘meat world’ they augment interactivity.” [p.51])

Hackers, despite their monolithic media portrayal as vaguely anarchist loners, are a politically and socially diverse community. In fact, the only shared commitment Coleman was able to identify was a commitment to what she calls productive freedom. “This term designates the institutions, legal devices, and moral codes that hackers have built in order to autonomously improve on their peers’ work, refine their technical skills, and extend craftlike engineering traditions.” (p.3) Hackers have a wide range of political beliefs, life histories, and motivations for creating free software. Some see F/)SS as a cutting-edge business strategy, others see it as an orienting and all-encompassing political philosophy, all (by definition as well as institutional enforcement) agree that users have a right to do whatever they like to the software, so long as they do not impede on others’ rights to do the same. While primarily interested in coding for computers, hackers invariably and unavoidably develop a passable knowledge of intellectual property (IP) law. More prolific and successful hackers typically find themselves dealing with law as much as code. Many begin to recognize the two as intimately intertwined.

The importance of understanding, or even altering, IP law is a prerequisite for cutting edge F/OSS development. Code alone was not, and continues to be necessary but not a sufficient condition for maintaining F/OSS. Chapter two charts the rise of free software, but the story is more legal than technical. F/OSS represents, according to Coleman, an innovation in law, as well as computing. Richard Stallman GNU Project was a triumph of law as much as computer code. F/OSS could not exist without alternative IP law and the underlying jurisprudence was crucial to understanding the technical workings of F/OSS . Coleman notes, “The majority of the hackers I interviewed … came to free software at first merely for the sake of affordable, better-built technology and had little knowledge about the existence, much less the workings, of intellectual property law.” (p. 71) We learn later on, in Chapter 4, that such blissful ignorance is quickly dashed once a hacker applies to be a Debian developer. All developers go through a rigorous New Maintainers Process (NMP). The NMP is a “procedure of mentorship and testing through which perspective developers apply for and gain membership in Debian. Fulfilling the mandates of the NMP is not a matter of a few days of filling out forms. It can take months of hard work.” (p.124) NMP not only tests for practical coding skills, but also asks candidate developers to, in their own words, explain the importance of and justification for F/OSS. These long-form answers, which are reviewed and critiqued in an almost talmudic fashion, ensures that regular contributors to Debian have a working knowledge of the Debian Social Contract. While the Social Contract deals explicitly with issues of governance and orienting philosophy, it also includes the Debian Free Software Guidelines which act as a set of bare-minimum requirements for Debian software packages. Both documents are constantly referenced and interpreted, especially in instances of crisis or ethical ambiguity. Coleman, shows how Debian developers “commit themselves to an ethical vision through, rather than prior to, their participation in a F/OSS project.” (p.123)

As mentioned earlier, Coleman’s greatest achievement is her contribution to political theory. She argues that F/OSS hackers, by effectively arguing that code is speech, were able to marshal the rhetorical (and legal) power of classical liberal ideals. This seemingly esoteric debate was actually a powerful critique of the fundamental precepts of liberal democracy: the rights of private property and free speech were in direct contradiction and must be reconciled.  In defending the “hacker lifeworld” hackers and their legal compatriots (i.e. Stallman and Lessig) showed how free speech/software could exist alongside a new kind of property ownership regime. Hackers were engaging in what Coleman describes as “a material politics of cultural action.” (p. 185) The very act of producing free software is “an embedded critique of the assumptions that dominate the moral geography of intellectual property law.” (p.186) Essential to hackers’ success was the quality of their final product. By performing and living their politics, hackers demonstrated that their critique of liberal politics was the correct one. The result was a massive transformation of intellectual property law that, while not complete, has made remarkably large and quick changes. Coding Freedom concludes with a measured and very precise description of the limits of these tactics and the questions it raises about radical and reformist politics.

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