Coding Freedom: Getting Your Culture Handed to You

coding-freedom-coverFish do not write academic analyses of water (at least, fish who haven’t gone to graduate school don’t), and I won’t attempt an academic analysis of Prof. Gabriella Coleman’s insightful book Coding Freedom.

While I enjoyed reading Coding Freedom, and reading some previews of the material leading up to it, it was also an odd experience for me.  By the time Prof. Coleman published the book, I’d been living in that freedom-supporting hackers’ world for nearly two decades already — a world whose existence and boundaries are surprisingly (albeit perhaps illusorily) clear to its inhabitants, even though there is still no canonical word or phrase to name that world.  To be honest, I didn’t expect to learn much from an anthropologist’s writings about it.  What could she tell me, a native, that I didn’t already know about the world I lived in, the air I breathed every day?

One of the first conclusions many historically-minded hackers come to is that while there is such a thing as politics, there are also material circumstances that offer an escape from politics, and that hacking might be one of those circumstances.  This is less ridiculous a thought than it might at first seem.  “Politics,” whispers the hacker’s reductive mind “is about the allocation of scarce resources.  But in free software, we don’t have that problem; thus, we can’t really have politics, not the way other endeavors do.”  All the artifacts are digital, after all, and anyone is free to copy them and work on those copies themselves, without asking permission first.  People can collaborate or work separately, depending on how closely their goals align, but such decisions are all strictly voluntary.  It’s freedom of association, but hypertrophied to a scale probably inconceivable to those who first theorized that freedom of association might be an important principle.  So what could there be to argue about, asks the hacker mindset, aside from debating strictly technical questions in attempt to get at technical truth via a combination of Socratic and experimental methods?

This is not to say that anyone denies the existence of the usual small-p politics, of course: someone insults someone else, someone sleeps with someone else’s lover, social relations are frayed and have to be repaired.  But these aren’t, you know, Politics.  Politics is about grander stakes: will this land be used for wheat or for a factory?  What will our tax structure be and how do we justify it?  Who controls the missiles?  That sort of thing.

The hacker’s reductive mind is, of course, wrong in this case, but that’s not always easy for one to see from the inside.  It takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes an anthropologist to point out to the village that they’re doing it.  As I read Coding Freedom, what struck me the most was that she had realized that not only did we have politics, but that in some ways we were all about politics — that our technical activities and social behavior were inextricably intertwined, that group attention was itself a scarce resource and that group decisions were being made about its allocation all the time (sometimes through formal methods, more often through informal ones), and that the narrow definition of “politics” I at least had been accustomed to wasn’t the right one anyway.  Among other things, it didn’t include the rituals of tribal identity signification, including rituals of exclusion, that Coleman carefully documented and that I had to admit, when confronted with the evidence, we all practiced.  It also didn’t include the sometimes overt, other times unspoken performative agenda that at least partly motivates so many in our community: the desire to show the world that freedom works, that it is a practice anyone can take up, and that once you’re doing it in one area you’ll want to try it elsewhere too.  (Her connection of the modern free software ethic to its antecedents in the free speech legal tradition are some of the most valuable parts of the book.)  Perhaps, I began to understand, free software is just politics by other means.

Is Coding Freedom itself part of the hacker project?  Whether Coleman herself intended it to be, I think it is.  Free software hackers are probably not her primary intended audience.  To teach them that they have both culture and politics is a valuable thing, but I think it’s much more important that the book argues for the strong connection between a certain category of modern technical practice and an older tradition of political and social freedom, and explains that connection in ways that can be understood by those outside the community.  This is harder to do than it looks: to write about the meaning of a technical culture, one must first understand the technologies themselves enough to avoid drawing incorrect conclusions, and then one must relate that world to more familiar ones.  Prof. Coleman did this by immersing herself in her fieldwork both socially and technically (I witnessed some of this process), in a way that is perhaps considered normal for anthropologists but that would be daunting by any normal standard [1].  One result is that it’s the book I point to first when I need to explain to someone on the “outside” — those rituals of exclusion again! — exactly what this thing is that we’re doing, this movement or project or community of practice or whatever one should call it.

Increasingly, I find people are asking about it, and more interestingly, they’re much quicker now to see the connection between open source software (free software) and other kinds of freedom.  Ed Felten rightly observes that the practice of radical transparency that has long been the ideal in the free software world is suddenly intensely relevant to the wider world as well, as we struggle to figure out which software we can conditionally trust not to betray us and which we can’t — and that the data we have so far about the effects of that transparency in free software teaches us something about the kind of politics that are now playing out in on a larger stage.  But even as that particular concern abates, as it inevitably will, the phenomena documented by Prof. Coleman are likely to take on increasing relevance in many areas.  The free software world has been an incubator for a set of practices that will increasingly come to be seen as expected components of engaged citizenship: participating constructively in a semi-real-time online discussion forum, reporting bugs, commenting on others’ bug reports, treating the scalability of communications mechanisms and the inclusiveness of process as first-order problems that must be solved collectively — these are increasingly becoming part of everyday life, and the politics of the future will be partly defined by groups like the ones Prof. Coleman describes.  To quote Danielle Citron in her own post in this symposium, “The inert, as [Justice] Brandeis would say, are not welcome.”

My thanks to Prof. Danielle Citron and Concurring Opinions for arranging this symposium, and to all the other participants.  It’s a pleasure to  write about why this book is so stimulating and valuable from a subject’s perspective, and to see how it’s been so for others.

[1] For example, we’ve recently learned that journalists for whom such knowledge would be very useful for interacting securely with sources were nevertheless slow to acquire it.

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