Coding collective conformity or RTFM

(Comments here are given in a personal capacity and as merely personal opinions and do not reflect the views of employers, associated institutions, friends or, in fact, anyone else. Like, really, no-one.)

First, a thanks to Danielle Citron for the invitation and opportunity to participate in this discussion with this community, and for the opportunity to read and reflect on Coding Freedom. Gabriella Coleman has written a deeply interesting book about the hacker culture in general and free software in particular, and there are plenty of themes in it that are worthwhile discussing, but before I dig into them I would like to explore a contrary perspective.

The title of the book, Coding Freedom, seems to imply that the hacker culture is positively correlated with the increase of freedom in our societies, but in fact it seems as a critical reader could argue the opposite is true. Are we more or less free today than we were at the beginning of the hacker revolution? It  does really seem possible to argue that the rise of hacker culture coincides with the rise of state surveillance, filtering and the proliferation of control across the networks. Let us leave aside, for the moment, if that is statistically accurate or not and see if there are any explanations in Coleman’s analysis that would help explain such an seemingly contradictory correlation.

I think there are such explanations. Coleman’s analysis of hacker meritocracy is fascinating and illuminating. In analyzing the prevalent meritocracy that she finds she writes “Still the predominant sentiment is that once knowledge has been released to the collective of hackers, individuals must, on their own two feet, prove their worth by creating new forms of value that can be fed back recursively to the community. If one seeks too much help, this violates the hacker implementation of the proper meritocratic order, and one might be subjected to a stylized rebuff such as the common RTFM.” (p 122)

Coding freedom, but with a threshold of the RTFM, creates a peculiar kind of freedom. It is a freedom earned through participation and contribution, and lost by not being able to follow the steps of those that have gone before. Returning to our question, then, we could argue that it is actually not surprising that overall freedom has been curtailed, because the freedom of the subset of citizens who have joined the hacker community has in fact increased. The tools available to that community still allow you to protect yourself, circumvent filters and escape controls on the network. But that is a different vision than the vision of code as law, or code as the foundational element of freedom that seems to permeate some of the rhetoric in the free software movement. The “free” as in “free speech” is not speech that is free to those who have learned the tools of speech and built them, it is another kind of freedom – given unconditionally to all.

In this version of the information society, code is indeed law, but only for those that do not write it. For the coders, the merited, it becomes a nuisance at worst, a way of preserving guild privilege at best.

Coleman acknowledges this, and goes on to try to show that there actually are checks and balances for this in the Debian community, for example, but these are only checks and balances within the existing meritocracy – they do not apply to the outside, the non-coders. The social contract in Debian is, our critical reader could argue, not authored from a Rawlsian original position where you may or may not be a coder – it is authored from the perspective of the already anointed coders who know that they will be part of the meritocracy to start with – and at the core of the project at that.

So, let us sum up our critical contrarian reader’s perspective.

If code is law, code is speech and we are coding freedom – where then is that freedom when more states than ever engage in filtering, surveillance and oppression? What are the actual effects that allow us to believe that there is any relationship between freedom coded and freedom proper in our societies?

There are a number of possible answers here. One is to simply state that our critical reader misunderstands – wilfully – the use of the word freedom. The freedom coded here is a freedom to tinker, build, explore and use software. It never aspired to anything beyond that, and associating it with social freedom is simply nonsense. Or we could say the effects of coded freedom are there, but in projects like MIT Open CourseWare that inherit their shape and form from the free software movement – arguing that the legal instruments of freedom created within the movement have proliferated and allowed for new forms of sharing.

There is something to both of those answers, and I find the second very intriguing, but still – is this really freedom that we are talking about? In the sense of classical liberal liberty? Look at how John Stuart Mill defines liberty:

“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…”

Ensuring liberty, then, is ensuring individual independence. It seems as if what we see in the F/OSS study that Coleman outlines something that is almost the opposite of this: a series of strong directives and pledges that enforce the existing rules of a segmented meritocracy  for every new prospective entrant. This is not liberalism, and here it is hard to see that the hacker morality “enunciates a liberal politics of free speech and liberty” (p 15) as Coleman argues. In a sense, what Coleman describes in her book, is rather – a critical reader might argue – the coding of collective conformity.

Now, I don’t necessarily subscribe to that interpretation, because I think there is evidence that F/OSS really does have corona effects in society at large, but I find it an intriguing perspective to read Coleman’s excellent book against, as a kind of friction. The strongest argument against our critical reader is found in the hacker equation of code and speech, and I hope to get to that next — as I find it a rich and complex source of insights.

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Julie Cohen says:

    Our critical contrarian reader seems to be a closeted liberal. There’s no grand tension between the “liberal politics of free speech and liberty” and the collective conformity to the F/OSS ethos. What Coleman documents (in my view compellingly) is not the emergence of liberal utopia, but rather liberalism as (sub)culture. Members of F/OSS communities enact their commitments to freedom in the domain of the technical, in ways that are simultaneously enabled and constrained by liberalism’s emphasis on individual agency.

  2. Gabriella Coleman says:

    Thanks for your comments. I just do want to clarify that while my title may imply a more general sense of freedom, as the word seems to always do, in the book, specifically chapter 2, I tried to narrow the optic significantly to argue that free software hackers have *not* had a fundamental, writ large impact on society (good or bad) but have more narrowly engendered positive changes in IP law. And in fact they themselves tend to shy away from discourses that make grand claims about the politics of their actions.

    All too often others impute much larger claims about freedom and democracy, which simply do not hold water and why I refrain from using terms like the “hacker revolution.” I use the term freedom as they embrace to argue for their productive autonomy and yes, it has had substantial and I think positive effect but largely in the realm of access and law, which is nothing to downplay either.

    As per surveillance, I am skeptical hacking can be correlated with its rise, especially since the state instituted protocols for secrecy and surveillance before they existed and in part due to the nuclear bomb and the cold war. It is interesting that so far some of the most notable critics of surveillance (Assange, Snowden, etc.) have been hackers, risking quite a lot to inform the public about state abuse. So I am intrigued by your term collective conformity and would like to hear more by what you mean.

    Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about the interface between participation and expertise in digital domains and have started to pen some thoughts about their dual life in places like free software and Wikipedia. A cadre of experts-programmers, designers, system administrators or technically-minded journalists and policy makers-have become prominent actors in fields of endeavor, such as open source software, often heralded as open, in quite simplistic ways. It is not that openness is merely or always ideological or without substance either, thought it can be. Openness often comes to stand in for older meritocratic ideals in which no artificial or excessive barriers to access are erected but there are all sorts of barriers, formal and informal. Skill is often a pre-requisite for participation and yet these spaces also double as pedagogical laboratories. They are platforms where participants learn and refine a range of technical, legal, political, and artistic skills. It seems ripe to turn to these sites to revisit classic debates in communication over the public’s role in democratic life such as those posed in the 1920s in radically distinct fashion by Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Whereas Lippmann championed the expert as a necessary interface between the public and government, Dewey famously valued the role of citizen in directly participating in democratic life. They provide a useful touchstone by which to interrogate the making of new experts, the various social interfaces and mechanisms that may (or may not) connect experts to publics, and how expertise might be changing under digital conditions.

  3. Nicklas Lundblad says:

    @Cohen, you know the reason I wanted to explore this was that while reading I became increasingly unsure that freedom was the most interesting way to analyze what was going on here. The emphasis on individual agency is not unique to theories of freedom, and as opposed to some kind of determinism not the analytical category that perhaps extract the most meaning from the material. The sneaking suspicion I got was that maybe it is easy to associate free software with freedom just because of its self-representation, and that additional layers of understanding could be unearthed if we assume other analytical categories. I do think Coleman does that in her analysis of meritocracy and frustration — together these two make up interesting poles for any reading, and it is not one that needs to be forced into Millian liberalism discourses. The combination of frustration – with code, with people, with democracy – as expressed in the RTFM and the meritocracy expressed in that same rebuff for me is more interesting to explore than the connection with liberalism writ large, or, small.

    @Coleman, I agree, there is that delimitation, but I think my intention, accomplished partly or not at all, was to show that the analytical category of freedom may well – even when it comes to IP – be less interesting than the construction of an alternative set of property discourses. I am not even sure that it is a question of productive freedom, but rather that we see the rise of a new productive mechanism that can be analyzed as collective or collaborative, and with a high need for coordination and conformity. That does not make it bad, although all of these words come with biases, of course (freedom is good, conformity bad et cetera). To me the real question raised by the possible critical reading is if what you document is analyzed at its richest if we perhaps avoid the notion of freedom altogether, and instead explore it from other perspectives. I think that what you write about openness applies to freedom to, it is used in a legitimacy language game that forces our reading into the categories of liberalism where they live uncomfortably, but more than so, less generatively, than in other categories. On the question of meritocracy, I think there is an even more fundamental challenge here that I wonder if it has been examined and that is the power laws of participation – the fact that participation always seems to organize social networks into hub participators with rich interactions and node participators that form the periphery of any network, and what that means for the resulting social form of organization. For at least a few brands of liberalism, I would argue, the very point was to dissolve those power law distributions of power into smaller segments, or atoms of individuality, an individuality — to Julie Cohen’s point — that is subsumed under the meritocratic structures of the F/OSS social compliance mechanisms.

    In the final analysis I think the observation of the dual workings of frustration and meritocracy really lend themselves to a different interpretation, that is equally interesting as the connection with even a delimited freedom concept.