E. Gabriella Coleman's book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2013) is an ethnography of Free and Open Source Software hackers working on the Debian Linux Operating System. Coleman through her ethnography explores the rise and political significance of the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement in the United States and Europe. She tracks the ways in which hackers collaborate and examine passionate manifestos, hacker humor, free software project governance, and festive hacker conferences. Coding Freedom details the ethics behind hackers' devotion to F/OSS, the social
codes that guide its production and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. Through the narrative of the F/OSS movement, the book unfolds a broader discursive mechanism involving computing, the politics of access, and intellectual property. Coleman begins with the statement that concurrently claiming absolute political neutrality and organizing work in radical ways the F/OSS "Hackers sit simultaneously at the center and margins of the liberal tradition"
(p. 3). Coleman opens with a composite life story of the "typical" hacker, composed from 70 interviews both in person and over email and IRC. Hackers, despite their monolithic media portrayal as vaguely anarchist loners, are a politically and socially diverse community. In fact, Coleman identifies that their only shared
commitment was a commitment to what she calls productive freedom. She explains,
"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).
Coleman states that while primarily interested in coding for computers, hackers invariably and unavoidably develop a passable knowledge of intellectual property 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. Further, she states that the importance of understanding, or even altering, IP law is a prerequisite for innovative F/OSS development. 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. She points out that this seemingly cryptic debate was actually a powerful critique of the fundamental principle of liberal democracy; particularly that the rights of private property and free speech were in opposition 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. Coleman states that hackers engage in "a material politics of cultural action" (p. 185). Further, she 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 discursive articulation of a broad political vision. Instead, it effectively works as a politics of critique by providing a living counterexample…" (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). 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.
My primary concern about this book was Coleman's gendered writing. Even though she begins with disclaimers that she would use the male pronoun (throughout the chapter) who, at an early age, was intrigued by the inner-workings of engineered objects, I found it disturbing. Though her arguments about liberalism were insightful, I am skeptic to her dominant male perspective of the issue. However, saying this, I feel throughout the book, Coleman did a very good job of providing incredibly concise, easily understandable definitions or explanations of key concepts. For example her explanation of neoliberalism instantiation of free trade, which she explains as,
"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). And the global regulation of intellectual property law is perhaps one of the clearest instances of the contradictory underpinnings of neoliberal practice- a monopoly mandated by trade associations as a globa; precondition for so- called free
trade" (p. 73). 
These small definitions keep her analysis coherent, and her audience engaged. I am making an extended note of it because it is such an important skill, which is woefully absent from most writing (for example, in
last week's readings as I had mentioned earlier, it would have been better if Coombe had explained what she intended to imply by the term ethics of contingency). Last but not the least, Coleman makes excellent and quick use of a wide variety of concepts including but not limited to, Latour and Woolgar's inscription device (p. 57), Heidegger's things and objects (p. 99), and Marcuse's pure tolerance (p. 195).

1. Coleman's Coding Freedom describes the emergence of a community dedicated to the production of free and open source software--and to hacking as a technical, aesthetic, and moral project--What does it reveal about the values of contemporary liberalism? Can this be perceived as an alternate way to think outside legal frameworks in our attempt to engage with the cultural and social spaces of IP are the
associated rights?

 2. Coding Freedom reminded me of the online activist group Anonymous. Coleman also talks about them in her epilogue (p. 210). I not sure how many of you remember the WSU hacking case in November 2011 (check out the Youtube video). What do you all think of the WSU hacker? It became national news as it fundamentally challenged the economic and social structures of an academic institute, but do you think that such an attempt would create a social commonwealth, where the hard work of freedom can be practiced. 
Coleman, E. G. (2013). Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton University Press.
1/29/2013 12:19:58 am

This is the first I've heard of the WSU hacker, and upon watching the video I am.....nonplussed. A) He mentions how easy it was to get into the school system to broadcast his "message." B) I'm not sure whether the squirrel was supposed to be metaphorical or whether I'm just trying too hard, and C) I'm thinking that some of Coleman's hackers might label this person a "cracker" rather than a hacker, since it doesn't seem as if the intent was to share any actual knowledge or insight.

1/29/2013 02:10:38 am

Coleman has written and spoken about the politcal work of Anonymous, here is one interview if you have time to listen: http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2012/03/full-interview-gabriella-coleman-on-anonymous/

1/29/2013 03:08:33 am

Just heard a part of the interview, she praises their work to some extent, I was wondering can Anonymous be perceived as one of the ways to fight for our freedom of speech?


Leave a Reply.