Book review: “Coding Freedom” by Gabriella Coleman

I’ve just finished reading Gabriella Coleman‘s new book “Coding Freedom: The ethics and aesthetics of hacking” (2013, Princeton University Press) which culminates over a decade of field research, in-depth interviews, observation, and participation in the hacker scene globally. In this case, “hacker” refers to the free/open-source software (FOSS) hacker, and in particular the Debian project.

Hacking is where craft and craftiness converge.

The introduction to the book gives an excellent idea of the scale of the work that backs the writing. Gabriella Coleman has studied hacker communities extensively — and it shows.

“Coding Freedom” is a work of academic social anthropology, but remains accessible. The writing is lucid and precise, veering into formality only occasionally. Coleman assumes some familiarity with certain concepts from philosophy, politics, and anthropology, but hacker culture is described in deep detail, and with a knack for making the unfamiliar familiar.

A central tenant of anthropology is that the appropriate observer is a dispassionate outsider. This conception of anthropology has ties to heterophenomenology (the study of another not oneself) — while someone may have an idea what’s going on in their head, only a third-person scientific observer has any chance of knowing for sure. Likewise, hackers may have an innate sense of their ethics and aesthetics, but an observer can see their connections, interactions, and tensions.

It’s strange and illuminating to have you and your in-group described back to you with such accuracy & depth of understanding. Coleman understands hackers better than they understand themselves. I hadn’t realized the connections to liberalism, for example, yet these ties and tensions are illustrated and explained plainly. Coleman’s descriptions and analyses of the intersection of hacking and politics is illuminating, and may be the most important contribution this book makes.

Summary

Chapter one provides a life history of the hacker, compiled from many interviews, blog posts, and the like.

[The young hacker] soon discovered… that he actually exists in an asymptotic relationship to technology.

The latter section of chapter one is an extended discussion of the hacker convention, and its importance to hackers. On some level, I knew the purposes the hacker con serves, but Coleman paints a clear and beautiful picture of the social and pragmatic utility of these “festive gatherings.” If you ever need to explain why you want to attend a convention or conference, your reasoning is assuredly explained here.

Chapter two gives an overview of the history of the FOSS movement’s development, growth and maturity; and the development of the copyright system to which it offers an alternative. The politics of the existence of FOSS are first explored here.

Chapter three describes some of hacker culture, in particular several tensions within hacker culture, for example the individualism/co-operation dichotomy. Coleman also uses hacker humour as an important and illustrative example.

Chapter four delves deep into Debian’s history, culture, and governance. Coleman introduces the concept of political disavowal, which permits FOSS projects to construe their politics narrowly. This was voiced best in reference to Wikipedia around the time of the SOPA blackout: “Wikipedia itself is politically neutral; Wikipedia’s existence is not.” Likewise with Debian.

Chapter five further describes the amateur legal education FOSS invariably provides hackers. By virtue of using copyright against itself, hackers must understand it.

The conclusion illustrates how hacking provides a critique of intellectual property law by offering a viable alternative. In this way, hacking is apolitical, yet its existence is itself inevitably political. FOSS hackers use copyleft regimes to secure their work for the public good, advocate that “code is speech,” and more. This is a powerful critique by counterexample which is inherently political — though narrowly construed. “Coding Freedom” evinces an understanding of this political aspect inherent in the production of FOSS. This is important because hackers operate on a frontier.

Hacker actions or their artifacts are usually either in legally dubious waters or at the cusp of new legal meaning.

Hacking is, contrary to popular media, a crucial component of today’s technological world, not to mention the exercise of each hacker’s individual liberty. An public understanding of this is therefore important to secure both the technologies hackers produce as well as the liberties due to hackers.

Analysis

“Coding Freedom” is an important exposition of FOSS hacking, and serves to investigate and explicate its political aspects and their significance. Coleman’s illumination of hackers and refusal to generalize is an important contribution to discourse. I hope this nuanced view of hackers has utility and impact outside academia (and hacker culture itself).

The text is well-written, and the anecdotes and examples are interesting. If you are interested in hacking, technology generally, social activism, or IP law, you should read this book. If you are not particularly interested in these topics, I can still heartily recommend reading the introduction, and chapters 1 and 3 at a minimum. They’ll give you an guided tour of a fascinating culture.

Gabriella Coleman’s “Coding Freedom: The ethics and aesthetics of hacking” is available from Princeton University Press, or under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0) from the book’s website.