Fifty Shades of Code
I recently read a trilogy of books addressing the politics of “coding.” Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, by historian of technology Janet Abbate, describes the gender transformation from the prominent presence of women programmers in early computer history to the more contemporary cultural stereotype of men as computer geeks. Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, by University of Toronto Professor Ron Deibert of the Citizen Lab, examines types of coding by hackers, governments, and corporations alike designed to restrict freedom and enact surveillance, whether as part of new business models, political suppression, or national security tactics. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by McGill Professor and digital activism anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, explores the culture of certain types of hacking as a form of engaged citizenship promoting both the freedom to communicate and the freedom to innovate.
How are we to resolve the cognitive dissonance of such disparate representations of the politics of coding: as reflecting broader gender struggles; as mechanisms of control and repression; and as culturally and ethically promoting freedom? These accounts actually share a conceptual framework suggesting that software code, like other arrangements of technology, are also arrangements of power. Coding is historically specific and culturally contextual, reflecting broader social tensions and embedding decisions that have implications for individual civil liberties, social arrangements, and global economic conditions.
Long before Google, Facebook, Anonymous, or even the World Wide Web, Langdon Winner wrote “At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority.” (From “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”) In this sense, technical design in the modern digital media context is a form of political engagement, but a form enacted primarily by the private sector, private citizens, or new global institutional forms. The salient question then becomes – what are the characteristics of technical design and production that imbue these practices with the legitimacy to enact such public interest effects and ultimately promote democratic conditions of communicative and economic freedom. Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom makes a significant intellectual contribution in answering this question, backed up by meticulous research and a sophisticated understanding of political thought across history, cultures, and academic disciplines.
The term “hacking” is obviously malleable. As a scholar of Internet governance, the first issues that jump to my mind include practices such as regular attacks on the Internet’s Domain Name System; the Stuxnet worm sabotaging the control systems of Iranian nuclear centrifuges; infiltration and theft of corporate property; worms that exploit protocol vulnerabilities to disable systems; and the increasing governmental use of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to suppress human rights activists. For those who have not yet read Professor Coleman’s book, this is not the type of hacking that Coding Freedom addresses. It more specifically examines the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement and explains how this movement privileges values of freedom, access to knowledge, and privacy. As Coleman writes:
“F/OSS is an ideal vehicle for examining how and when technological objects, such as source code, are invested with new liberal meanings, and with what consequences. By showing how developers incorporate legal ideals like free speech into the practices of everyday technical production, I trace the path by which older liberal ideals persist, albeit transformed, into the present.” (p. 183)
Private corporations operating within free markets have created some of the most open and productive infrastructural components of the Internet, and human creativity and values of free expression can flourish in these environments. Furthermore, there are powerful corporations whose business models are predicated on free and open source software frameworks. But, in many areas of information policy, there are inherent and intractable conflicts between values of property and values of free expression. Coleman tells a convincing and empirically grounded story about how the F/OSS community sought to challenge the prevailing political economy of intellectual property law, create alternative modes of economic production, and produce software with productive potential for both economic and expressive liberty. Anyone examining citizen engagement in other areas of digital policy (e.g. online protests over the Stop Online Privacy Act) would be wise to emulate Coleman’s methodological rigor and interdisciplinary insights into citizen engagement in shaping freedom in the digital public sphere.
**A special thanks to Professor Danielle Citron and Concurring Opinions for the invitation to participate in this symposium**