Coding Freedom Symposium: The Hacker Citizen

Does hacker culture tell us anything about good citizenship (even as it is meritocratic)? As Biella Coleman commented in Nicklas’s post, hacker platforms are”laboratories” where “participants learn and refine a range of technical, legal, political, and legal skills.” As she notes, the time is ripe to revisit debates about democratic participation from the 1920s with Walter Lippmann championing the expert as the necessary bridge between the public and government and with John Dewey calling for citizen to participate directly in public life. That struck me as one of the most salient insights of Coding Freedom. Lippman’s expert is one and the same as the public citizen participant, or at least that person, the hacker, could be.

The hacker process of production creates a culture of an engaged citizenry. Debian developers have moral commitments to personal development, mutual aid, transparency, and collaboration. Reading Coding Freedom, one senses that hackers see themselves as Justice Brandeis saw citizens–duty-bound to speak/develop code for “mutual benefit of each other and society.” (p. 120). The inert, as Brandeis would say, are not welcome. Hackers expect quite a lot of themselves and of others. Hence, the “read the f***ing manual” response to those who don’t try to solve simple questions first on their own. At the same time, hacker developers do what they can to mentor newbies needing guidance. The fruits of their labors are transparent. As the Debian “Social Contract” pledges, “We will keep our entire bug-report database open for public view at all times.” (p. 131). Hackers often make decisions through rough consensus, though not always.  To join Debian projects, hackers go through a process whereby they have to make clear that they share the community’s values. As Coleman aptly writes in her Epilogue, in the world of free software, developers “balance individualism and social cooperation, populism and elitism, and especially individualism and social cooperation.” Collaborators “make technology at the same time that they experiment in the making of a social commonwealth; it is there where the hard work of freedom is practiced.” (p. 210).

Hackers, if interested, could be the perfect marriage of the technical expert and the engaged public participant. State and federal governments have tried to interest hackers in their work, opening up data for hack-a-thons designed to identify solutions to tough problems. E-voting technology is crying out for the hacker’s tinkering. E-voting systems, built by private vendors, are notoriously inaccurate and insecure. Because the software is proprietary, hacker citizens cannot inspect the source code to ensure that it works or is safe. In too many cases, buggy software (or perhaps worse) has disenfranchised voters. Why not open up the source code to hackers who can help identify bugs and insecurities? Hackers could provide feedback on the privacy and security risks posed by e-voting systems. This feedback would exert pressure on vendors to fix problems that they might be inclined to ignore (and could ignore given the black box nature of proprietary software). Non-U.S. countries require the use of open source software in government offices. Australia’s open code e-voting project demonstrated this potential. A private company designed Australia’s e-voting system and posted all the drafts of its source code online for review and criticism. Interested tinkerers and independent auditors studied the source code and provided feedback. Serious problems were detected, and the vendor fixed the source code, shoring up the system’s security. Coding Freedom suggests the great potential of opening up the source code of government systems for hackers to perform as citizen tinkerers.


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2 Responses

  1. Luis says:

    The hacker process of production creates a culture of an engaged citizenry.
    You have to wonder how this could be done in other areas, and/or why it appears to work here where in so many other places in the modern world it fails. (And I say this as a long-time participant in open source, and a lawyer; I don’t have a good grip on what the magic sauce is, though Biella’s book was illuminating in many ways.)

  2. Gabriella Coleman says:

    Hi Luis,

    One way to the answer is to ask why hackers, as opposed to say doctors, are (more) motivated to use their skills and channel them toward activist or public works projects and part of the answer (which I did not address in my book) concerns the plethora of “free spaces” maintained by hackers. These spaces include Internet Relay Chat, RFCs, BBSes, hackers spaces, and the autonomous developer conferences and festivals. I came late to the term (wish I had not) but it is used by sociologists of social movement to capture spaces –and they need not be physical-that allow people to come together and develop a set of alternative ethics that under certain conditions are activated and channeled toward political causes. It strikes me that one reason hackers are so present has to do with the existence of free spaces. A good article that covers the theory behind free spaces is

    “Free spaces” in collective action

    Francesca Polletta
    Columbia University
    Theory and Society (impact factor: 1.06). 01/1999; 28(1):1-38. DOI:10.1023/A:1006941408302