Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by E. Gabriella Coleman is an ethnographic study of hackers and the ways they challenges neoliberalism, specifically the privatization of intellectual property law. Coleman argues that free software hackers practice a liberal form of “freedom”, but in doing so provide a critique of neoliberalism and meritocracy. She says,
…F/OSS represents a liberal critique from within liberalism. Hackers sit simultaneously at the center and margins of the liberal tradition. The expansion of intellectual property law, as noted by some authors is part and parcel of a broader neoliberal trend to privatize what was once public or under the state’s aegis, such as health provisions, water delivery, and military services…As such, free software hackers not only reveal a long-standing tension within liberal legal rights but also offer a targeted critique of the neoliberal drive to make property out of almost anything, including software. (pgs. 3-4)
In order for me to understand the complex relationship between liberalism, neoliberalism, meritocracy within Coleman’s particular framework, I had to conceptualize free software hackers as a subculture that although challenges ideology is never participating outside of it. For that reason, hackers are very much influenced by the cultural and social context of their time, but that does not mean that they cannot influence social, political and legal change. Take for example F/OSS license, the GPL or also known as copyleft, the counterpart of copyright license. Coleman describes, “using copyright as its vehicle, the copyleft turns copyright on its head and in the process demystifies copyright’s “absolute” theory of economic incentive” (201). This is an excellent example of counter-hegemonic resistance, which is what Coombe also speaks to, because copyleft uses the language of hegemony to subvert and transform the law. Reminding us that the law itself is not static, rather a production of its cultural, social, and political time. Copyleft therefore represents a desire for a political freedom not just for the hackers, but also for the ones consuming this free software.
Which brings me back to my earlier point, hackers are able to critique and often re-code neoliberal discourses of intellectual property law through counter-hegemonic resistance, but in doing so they practice their own liberalism and meritocracy. We see that with the exclusivity of the hacker subculture (you must prove yourself type of thing) and their politics of humor, which is also coded.
1. Copyleft was strategically using language to subvert the privatization of intellectual property. However, can copyleft become vulnerable to monopolization by corporations who wish to commodify it? If so, is counter-hegemonic resistance not only challenging hegemony, but also fighting to not become hegemonic?
2. Why do hackers hold on to meritocracy even if they are suspicious of it? Is it only a result of culture? Or is there something else influencing that relationship?