What Are the Limits to What Hackers Produce?

I’m writing this from an airplane somewhere over the US-Canadian border. I forgot my copy of Coding Freedom at home, and was cursing my ineptitude. But then it occurred to me that, given the subject, I could probably find a copy online. Sure enough, I downloaded a pdf via the airport wifi. (For free! – those Canadians…).

This, in the most mundane of ways, is a simple reenactment of what Gabriella Coleman writes of so compellingly in her new book. Gabriella, inspired no doubt in part by her years of exposure to hacking culture, struck a deal with her publishers. The resulting CC license gives all of us who might want to read the book more freedom to do what we want with it – read it on any device, search it, and even pull it up in an airport so we can file a nearly-too-late contribution to a terrific online discussion. Gabriella didn’t know I’d forget my book at home when she decided to negotiate the license. But she did have the sense – I assume – that she needed something more than copyright law to help her achieve what she wanted from her book. Which was in part to give to the rest of us more freedom than standard copyright law would allow.

But how far does that freedom go? This is surely one of the most important and interesting questions about this new form of making software, and the new legal forms that attend it. So that’s what I want to focus on here. One of the book’s great strengths is the spectacularly detailed and clear-eyed account that it provides of hacker culture, or at least a certain hacker culture. As it points out, this is a culture that is built upon a deep commitment to the pleasures of technology (like Ed Felten, I loved the bit on hacker humor), a ferocious conception of self-help and meritocratic ordering, and also to an overt aversion to things “political.”

As a few others have in the course of this discussion, I wonder too about the limits of a form of practical revolution that starts here. How far can this new mode of production take us, if it is characterized by technoelitism, an aversion to politics, and by a subject position that is decidedly fairly privileged and high-skilled? After all, you can’t be part of this crowd and lack access to a computer and internet connection, or be bereft of free time.


And this, in turn, makes me wonder: How should we understand the politics of not who gets what access to FOSS, but what gets made via F/OSS? In the parallel world of access to medicines work, which is where I mostly come from, there has been a concerted move to think not only about who has access to drugs, but whether we get the drugs we want and need in the first place. Market-based production doesn’t give us what we want in the drug domain, if “we” care about global health, because it only produces drugs for people with a lot of money.

Part of what is so interesting about the F/OSS movement and other commons-based or social modes of production is that they don’t have this orientation, and so don’t necessarily fail the test posed by even an anemic conception of distributive justice. But as the portrait in Coding Freedom clearly reveals, the hackers involved are real people – complex, and with undoubtedly many motivations, which are not all necessarily shared with the rest of us. Not that they necessarily aren’t shared with the rest of us – we all want good software, after all. But if we don’t share certain passions that drive this crowd – for example, if we don’t valorize self-help, or eternal and infinite connection to the Net, then can the F/OSS crowd produce what we want? Will we get, for example, software that’s too hard for the rest of us to use, or that makes everything connected to everything else when ALL WE WANT IS A LITTLE PEACE AND QUIET? (Ahem.) And will the hackers Gabriella writes about produce as many important goods for people far away as we would want (or as those people would want) – will they produce the IT version of a good malaria vaccine?

I’m not versed enough in the software world to have great purchase on how what hackers’ produce when they follow their interests might be different from what the rest of us are interested in having produced. But this seems to me an important question that parallels one about rules of access, and in some sense goes still deeper.


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