Anthropological Introductions

I would like to thank Danielle Citron for the invitation to pen some thoughts here on Concurring Opinions, and letting an anthropologist enter this legal arena. For my first post, I thought I would ease in slowly and give a taste of my work on hackers, geeks, and digital activism along with some of the themes and issues I will likely explore over the month.

Being there are not a whole lot of anthropologists of my ilk ( as I like to joke, I am an “arm chair anthropologist” who sits in front of her computer to study the high tech digerati of the west), I often get asked how or why I came to the study hackers, many people assuming that I had some hacker relative in my life or was myself a budding young hacker, both of which were not the case. Fitting to this blog, I got to hackers via the law. In 1997, when my friend—an avid free software developer—found out I had a keen but personal interest in patents and access to medicine, he sat me down to tell be about this legal concept called the “copyleft.” It was one of those moments that I still remember so vividly as I was nothing but floored, astonished, excited, and puzzled, especially when I learned of the full depth and extent of  this legal alternative that had been dreamed up, not by lawyers, but by geeks and hackers.

Over the ensuing year, which was my first year at graduate school, I delved so often and deeply into the world of free software, it was clear that I had to change topics or else I ran the risk of never finishing my degree. Alhough I routinely encountered skepticism—and still do—I felt like I struck anthropological gold: there was too much to explore, prod, and examine so at the time, I took a one hundred and eighty degree u-turn and have never returned.

My work on free software spans various topics, from the prevalence of humor among hackers to the multi-year legal battles over the right to write and release source code in the face of new regulations such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Most broadly, I use free software to examine the cultural life of liberalism. By liberalism, I do not mean what may first come to mind: a political party that in Europe is usually associated with politicians who champion free market solutions, or in the United States, a near synonym for the Democratic party; nor is it just an identity that follows from being a proud, card-carrying member of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) or the Electronic Frontier Foundation, although these certainly can be markers.  I take liberalism to embrace historical and present day moral and political commitments and sensibilities that should be familiar to most readers of this blog: protecting property and civil liberties, promoting individual autonomy and tolerance, securing a free press, ruling through limited government and universal law, and preserving a commitment to equal opportunity and meritocracy. These principles, which vary over time and place, are realized institutionally and culturally in various locations at different times, perhaps the most famous of these being the institutions of higher education, market policies set by transnational institutions, and the press, but are also at play on the Internet and with computer hackers, such as with those who develop free software, who have an accentuated commitment to free speech and make free speech claims to question what many see as not only the use but abuse of copyrights and patents. In one post I hope to examine and explore what it might mean to study liberalism from the vantage point of culture and hackers.

As I moved forward with my work on hackers it become increasingly clear that there was not only so much about this world that lay untouched and untapped (I think we know more about Papua New Guinea than hackers) but there are also many misperceptions and miconceptions shrouding our understanding of hackers due to existing literature and fantastical media representations. Part of the problem is that differences are often whitewashed away in favor of coming up with some simple and sanitized story about some unitary group of hackers. It is true that hackers can be grasped by their similarities: they tend to value a set of liberal principles: freedom, privacy, and access; they tend to adore computers—the glue that binds them together; they are trained in specialized and esoteric technical arts, primarily programming, system administration, security research, and hardware hacking; some gain unauthorized access to technologies, though the degree of illegality greatly varies; foremost, hacking, in its different forms and dimensions, embody an aesthetic where craft and craftiness tightly converge and thus tend to value playfulness, pranking,  and cleverness and will often perform their wit through source code or humor or even both: funny code.

Hackers, however, evince considerable diversity and are notoriously sectarian, constantly debating the meaning of the words hack, hacker, and hacking. I myself have been caught in the line of fire when hackers launch these accusations (“No, Biella, hackers are ‘breakers,’ not those who make ‘cool LED throwies in a hackerspace;” ‘No Biella, please get there is a distinction between ‘hackers and crackers’..”), so I will also be writing a post on this topic.

Most of my work on free software is completed, tucked and hidden away in academic journal articles read by perhaps a dozen or less people every few years, if even that many, and forthcoming in full-bodied form in a Creative Commons licensed book with Princeton University Press in the fall of 2012. But I am have become much more known for that which I once thought of as my niche, boutique side project: Anonymous. And it was so because for a a long period of time it existed as an esoteric, marginal sort of phenomenon: quite interesting, especially the activist manifestations (as Anonymous can be used for pure trolling) but over the last year exploded proliferated, and mushroomed in ways that make it very hard to pin down. In contrast to researching free software, which was relatively easy, working on Anonymous has tested my resolve so many times; they are truly difficult to study, for all sorts of reasons, some of which I will explore in a couple of posts I plan on dedicating to them as well.




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5 Responses

  1. PrometheeFeu says:

    A a libertarian, hacker, economist, software engineer, law geek, married to an anthropologist, I look forward to reading what my wife’s people have to say about my people. 😉

  2. Orin Kerr says:

    I’m looking forward to the posts, but I’m curious: Is your work focused on the internal narratives and ideologies that people use to describe/justify what they do, or is it focused externally on the actual conduct of what people do?

  3. No pressure there PrometheeFeu 🙂 Let’s see what I can pull off.

    Orin: a bit of both, at least in the forthcoming book on free software and the Debian project, which is the largest free software project in the world. So I will analyze things like their manifestos, Social Contract, but also analyze these in terms of what they do, don’t do, and especially what they fight about, like Cabals! I spend a lot of time in one chapter dealing with accusations of cabals (and a resolution over it) as a way to understand their commitments to meritocracy. What they do is I would say more important that what is said but these two come hand in hand (at least usually) in my work.

  4. Orin Kerr says:


    Got it, thanks.

    I suppose I ask because ideologies can serve as convenient myths more than descriptions of reality. But I suppose it depends on who the “they” are that you are studying, so I will look forward to your posts.

  5. Mark Craig says:


    Nicely put and, yes, it’s easy enough to get caught in the line of fire here.

    We do more about Papua New Guinea – this is more like a highly developed rain forest tribe that circulates unseen within our midst. We see the trees and every now and then catch glimpses of fleeting shadows that become the basis of our opinions. Had to laugh the other day when I heard that CNN was going to “take you inside Anonymous.” As if.