Hacker Romanticism

I’d like to pick up on a theme that has emerged in some of the other symposium posts, which is that of the romantic hacker: someone who not only enacts liberal commitments within a particular context but also comes, through that process, to personify liberal individualism in its purest form. Which leads, in due course, to speculation on the movement as a template for reinvigorating liberal citizenship, legal education, and so on.

Here some realism about romanticism seems in order. One could also say that clever tax shelters represent successful hacks of the tax code, and arcane financial derivatives represent successful hacks of the global financial regulatory system, and so on. There are, of course, important differences in the ways that we would assess the results, and that tends to suggest that what is most valuable about the F/OSS movement is not hacking in the abstract, but rather hacking deployed in the service of particular goals and subjected (albeit internally) to the normative and ethical constraints that arise from the situated practices of particular communities. What differentiates the F/OSS movement from the corporate tax bar or the world of high-end financial trading, in other words, are factors that are much more specific than a commitment to “coding freedom.” And, as Nicklas suggests, the comparison to other accounts of freedom is a complicated one.

This is not, for the most part, a criticism that I would level at Biella’s extraordinary book, which takes a refreshingly clear-eyed view of the F/OSS community’s beliefs, behaviors, and quirks. (The title is perhaps a bit misleading on that score.) Instead, it’s more a reminder to the rest of us to be careful as we read it. At minimum, before concluding that the F/OSS model can be ported straightforwardly to other contexts, we might ask the question Biella herself poses in her epilogue: what support structures does the liberal society require?

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