Coding Freedom: An Aesthetics of Decontrol

Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom is a beautifully written book, offering deep insight into communities of hackers. By immersing herself in the culture of free and open source software devotees, she helps us understand the motivations, goals, frustrations, and aesthetics of a frequently misunderstood movement. The stakes are high, both for those inside and outside the hacker community. Some want the term hacker to primarily denote playful creativity; others emphasize subversion of oppressive power centers; still others embrace an identity of unreasoned disruption.

Outsiders stray into such debates at their peril, and Coleman took significant risks to write the book. As an academic, she defied conventional anthropological career paths by launching an investigation of a digitally connected enclave within an advanced society.* As an observer, she risked that sub-subcultures would try to exact revenge on her for saying something they disagreed with. (It’s not just the obvious targets who get hacked.) But the gambles have paid off, both within the academic community and in the broader ambit of Internet intellectuals.

Hackers are frequently misunderstood, both when praised and when damned. In the popular imagination, the computer hacker can pop up as a digital Bonnie or Clyde, fighting “the system” of opaque automation. On the other hand, former NSA Chief Michael Hayden wrote off hacker fans of Edward Snowden as “nihilists, anarchists, activists, Lulzsec, Anonymous, twentysomethings who haven’t talked to the opposite sex in five or six years.” The hero/villain narratives are easy to sell to Wired or Fox. Coleman gives us a much richer story.

She starts by investigating recurring features of the (self-)education of the hacker, the formation of an identity around technological expertise. Like many a lawyer, the hackers she interviews take pride in “doing things” with words and code. They are producers of games or orders, rather than passive players or subjects. Coleman empathizes with many of the coders’ outsider status, something she must painstakingly reconstruct in our era of geek chic Zuckerworship. Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, she explores the expressive dimensions of hacker selfhood. One of the key questions posed by the book is whether this aesthetics of outsiderdom promotes ethical restraint when hackers are tempted by the money and power of tech giants or government. Does their technical expertise help create an online environment of empowerment or modulated control?

Image used with permission of Antoine Doré.

The Uses of Disorder

For example, we recently witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of General Keith Alexander appealing to hackers at a security conference. Coleman identifies “privacy” as one of the core values of hackers, so it would seem odd for the world’s premier spy agencies to appeal to them. But hackers also love to work around systems of control—just like NSA agents! As recent reporting has shown, by subverting various standards processes (or outright purchase of vulnerabilities), the NSA has made computers generally more vulnerable to being hacked:

In some cases, it sounds as though the NSA has arranged for backdoors to be placed in equipment used by specific adversaries, such as foreign goverments, which may well be a reasonable tactic. But here we are talking about something much worse: the deliberate introduction of vulnerabilities in widely used commercial products and, even more far reaching, into the abstract technical standards followed by the designers of security software. . . . It makes everyone on the Internet more vulnerable, increasing the chances that dissidents will be uncovered by despotic regimes and that corporations will fall victim to cybercriminals.

According to Coleman, hackers value “freedom, privacy, and access.” When in privacy mode, many find the NSA’s work repulsive. But “access” may well require a more porous digital environment—a coincidence of interest of hackers, data brokers, and spies. For critics of cyberlibertarianism, the simultaneous commitment to “privacy and access” is a canard. It merely minimizes the cognitive dissonance of those who insist on encryption of their own communications while cracking that of others.

For some ethically compromised coders, such hypocrisy may reign. But Coleman amasses evidence of “ethical claims—–freedom, free speech, privacy, the individual, and meritocracy”—in hacker discourse. Moreover, she shows how communities of coders debate difficult ethical questions both sincerely and humorously, with more than cursory reference to values and ideals. After reading her book, we can imagine a positive hacker response to Bruce Schneier’s call for a “reinvention” of the internet to protect public values, however ineffective it may end up being.

The Persistence of Politics

But left unanswered in Coleman’s anthropological study is whether these sorts of civil society oriented, outsider groups can effectively deflect the twin corporate and governmental drives for a wholly administered, monitored, and monetized internet. I paused at her description of Lawrence Lessig‘s success as a bridge figure between the hacker and legal communities:

Lessig has helped utterly redefine the terms of engagement, such that law students now learning about computer law and intellectual property are compelled to cast their skepticism aside (at least for a short while) and confront the existence of intellectual property alternatives.

Part of his success can be attributed to the fact that he, like F/OSS geeks, is reluctant to portray his work as political; instead, he prefers to articulate his position either in terms of a constitutionality that sits above the fray of politics or in terms of the importance of cultural preservation. In an arena where politics has acquired negative connotations, Lessig’s avoidance of the term has allowed him to garner a diverse audience and build the many alliances that have extended his work around the globe.

Lessig may have made inroads with the tech community by appealing to scientific or constitutional sources of authority for his positions. But even he recognized that those arguments were irrelevant in a larger political environment dominated by the interests he was fighting. He’s now working to level the political playing field. I think the effort is doomed, but at least it is premised on a recognition of the primacy of politics. Similarly, Susan Crawford has sagely observed that you can’t “hack around” the crony capitalist dealmaking of telco oligopolies. That will take politics, what Weber called “the strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

The “politically agnostic” hackers that Coleman describes seem disinclined to engage in such politics. Hacking, by “represent[ing] a degree of freedom, an escape hatch from a system that threatens to become overbearing,”** may substitute for political action. Even when hacker communities inspire action, their efforts may be quickly subverted by what Jeff Connaughton calls “the blob.” I have a sneaking suspicion that the main political result of the Snowden scandal will be a surveillance “reform” bill that cripples the IRS and financial regulators, while erecting Potemkin protections for ordinary individuals vis a vis other government and corporate snoops. Politics has its own forms of expertise, in-jokes, and lifeworld. It is quick to assimilate the successful and shun the outsider.

Nevertheless, Coleman’s book documents an undeniable contribution of hackers to our political sensibility about IP and surveillance: an attitude of subversion, satire, and pragmatism aimed at the dominating, the self-serious, and the formalistic. Coleman encourages readers to pay attention to the aesthetics as much as the ethics of hackers. Just as Jon Stewart and The Onion may offer a better account of the news than CNN, hackers could give us a vision of social order leavened with just enough play in the joints to allow innovation and spontaneity to thrive. Although the creation and maintenance of F/OSS is no model for social organization on the scale of cities or states, it does enact a form of social cooperation that will only increase in importance as states ossify or become captured by elites. System D may grow to include an aesthetics and politics of “decontrol”—the last thing we can ask from a state that continually abdicates more positive interventions for its citizens.

*Other recent anthropological studies of networked experts have included Annelise Riles’s Collateral Knowledge and Karen Ho’s Liquidated. Martha Poon has criticized Ho for an excessively skeptical account of financiers’ self-concept and activities. Coleman is more hermeneutically charitable toward the subjects of her study.

**Helen Nissenbaum, quoted in Coleman, Coding Freedom, 203. Quotes with page numbers are from Coding Freedom.

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