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.