Rachel and I are the facilitators for this week’s reading. Since I will be focusing my facilitation on the introduction and Part I of the book, my analysis and discussion questions engage primarily with these sections. I plan on actually using these discussion questions in class, so feel free to comment on or revise them.

In Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2013) E. Gabriella Coleman presents an ethnography of hacking as a community activity and material practice. Based on field work conducted in San Francisco in the early 2000s, Coleman investigates the “material, affective, and aesthetic dimensions of hacking,” particularly how these dimensions relate to issues of intellectual property. Based on her anthropological analysis, she shows how hackers have cultivated a legal consciousness and participated in the negotiation of intellectual property rights. Ultimately she argues that,
Because hackers challenge one strain of legal jurisprudence, intellectual property, by drawing on and reformulating ideals from another one, free speech, the arena of F/OSS [free/open source software] makes palpable the tensions between two of the most cherished liberal precepts—both of which have undergone a significant deepening and widening in recent decades… 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. (p. 3-4)
Coleman reveals and celebrates F/OSS hacking practices, which in her conclusion she suggests “challenge economic incentive theory” and “work as a form of cultural critique” (p. 200). It seems that her sympathies lie with the commons movement and academics like Lawrence Lessig, who advocate for the easing of intellectual property restrictions to protect the public domain. After reading the more nuanced examinations of IP issues in Boyle and Coombe (who both steered away from making broad claims about whether the IP regulation should be either strengthened or loosened), I find that I am suspicious of Coleman’s assumption that increasing the public domain is automatically and always desireable.

The first section of Coding Freedom seeks to situate the material practice of hacking historically. The first chapter paints a general sociological portrait of the free software hackers Coleman studies firsthand, focusing on the community interaction online and at face-to-face gatherings like the Debian developer conference. The second chapter offers a history of hacking that is drawn from important documents, legal rulings, and the actions of a few key players like Richard Stallman.

While I felt that the second chapter on historical context was an important foundation for Coleman’s later arguments, the first chapter struck me as problematic in its representation of the “typical” hacker. I know that many of you are much more familiar with anthropology than I am, but it seemed to me that despite Coleman’s disclaimers, the first chapter was nothing more than a compendium of popular stereotypes about hackers (see p. 25-27). Hackers are male. Hackers come from wealthy families. Hackers start hacking early in life. Hackers eventually come to believe that “access facilitates production.” While acknowledging that this representation of hackers is a “narrative,” Coleman fails provide a critical reading of or critical distance to that narrative. For instance, her explanation of why she makes the typical hacker in this narrative male consists of a mere few words in parentheses: “and I use ‘he’ because most hackers are male” (p. 26). Her failure to provide an analysis of this narrative leads her representation to perpetuate what Lyotard has called a grand narrative.

 Discussion questions:

1.    Since we are at the point in the semester when we need to start planning our projects and thinking about potential research questions and methodologies, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to “revise” parts of Coleman’s book. So far, it seems to me that this book in its structure and methodology is more similar to what Dr. Christen is looking for in our seminar papers (on a much smaller scale of course). So the question is this: how might you revise Coleman’s ethnographic account of hacking? For instance, how might you represent a sociological portrait of hacking through a series of little narratives rather than a single and uncritical grand narrative?

2.   Coleman, Bolye, and Coombe end up setting together for lunch at a conference and having a conversation about the politics of intellectual property. What would they say to one another? Where would they establish common ground? Where would their views come into conflict?   

Kim Christen
1/28/2013 03:08:53 am

You don't actually mention her argument about liberalism which is the foundation of the book and which she details in the introduction. It seems to me if we are to engage with Coleman, we need to discuss the ways in which hackers--vis a via her ethnography--complicate the tennants of liberalism on which notions of the public domain and freedom of speech are grounded. Coleman sets up the tension and explores this as her main argument in the book. I also don't read her as a Lessig zealot, but even still Boyle is certainly for loosening the IP legal framework generally and copyright specifically, he certainly wants, and argues for, the expansion of public domain, no question about that.


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