Coding Freedom

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 264
Stable URL:
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Coding Freedom
    Book Description:

    Who are computer hackers? What is free software? And what does the emergence of a community dedicated to the production of free and open source software--and to hacking as a technical, aesthetic, and moral project--reveal about the values of contemporary liberalism? Exploring the rise and political significance of the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement in the United States and Europe, Coding Freedom details the ethics behind hackers' devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. In telling the story of the F/OSS movement, the book unfolds a broader narrative involving computing, the politics of access, and intellectual property.

    E. Gabriella Coleman tracks the ways in which hackers collaborate and examines passionate manifestos, hacker humor, free software project governance, and festive hacker conferences. Looking at the ways that hackers sustain their productive freedom, Coleman shows that these activists, driven by a commitment to their work, reformulate key ideals including free speech, transparency, and meritocracy, and refuse restrictive intellectual protections. Coleman demonstrates how hacking, so often marginalized or misunderstood, sheds light on the continuing relevance of liberalism in online collaboration.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4529-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, Technology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION A Tale of Two Worlds (pp. 1-22)

    Free and open-source software (F/OSS) refers to nonproprietary but licensed software, much of which is produced by technologists located around the globe who coordinate development through Internet-based projects. The developers, hackers, and system administrators who make free software routinely include the following artifact in the software they write:

    This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

    While seemingly insignificant, this warning is quite meaningful for it reveals something important about...

    • [PART I Introduction] (pp. 23-24)

      The next two chapters are general in their scope, meant to introduce readers to the world of free software, and do so from two related although distinct vantage points, both historically informed. Chapter 1, as mentioned above, describes a typical life history compiled from over fifty in-person interviews along with twenty email and/or Internet Relay Chat (IRC) interviews. It portrays everyday life and historical transformation as many experience it: in a mundane register, and without the awareness that we are making or are part of history. What it seeks to show is how hackers become hackers slowly over time and...

    • CHAPTER 1 The Life of a Free Software Hacker (pp. 25-60)

      A life history, by definition, belongs uniquely to one person, textured by innumerable details, instances, events, idiosyncrasies, and happenings.¹ As such, the writing of a “typical” life history is an impossible, quixotic task, seeking to standardize and represent what evades such a neat distillation. Nonetheless, to the best of my ability, here I provide some fairly typical experiences derived primarily from seventy interviews and other sources, such as blogs, conversations, and autobiographical tales.

      Although the exact details vary, many hackers reminisced about their technological lives using a relatively standard script that traces how their inborn affinity for technology transformed, over...

    • CHAPTER 2 A Tale of Two Legal Regimes (pp. 61-90)

      In 1981, journalist Tracy Kidder publishedThe Soul of a New Machine, which earned a Pulitzer Prize for its incisive commentary on the heightened commercial turn in computing during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book ends pessimistically with a programmer lamenting how managers at large computer firms robbed the “soul” of computing away from their makers: “It was a different game now. Clearly, the machine no longer belonged to its makers” (Kidder 1981, 291).

      In 1984, a few years after theSoul of a New Machinehit bookstores, Stallman also spoke of the soulless state of computing when...

    • [PART II Introduction] (pp. 91-92)

      Anthropologists often focus on cultural value—those ethical, aesthetic, and political attributes of social life that a group has come to deem important, and that ultimately help define it as distinct from other groups. The next two chapters tackle the question of cultural value as a starting point to address a host of questions about hacker technical and cultural production along with the tensions that mark hackers’ social dynamics, collaborative practices, and organizational forms.

      Although we might be able to identify some indisputable commitments among hackers, such as meritocracy and the form of individualism it entails, the foundation of value...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Craft and Craftiness of Hacking (pp. 93-122)

      Hackers value cleverness, ingenuity, and wit. These attributes arise not only when joking among friends or when hackers give talks but also during the process of making technology and writing smart pieces of code. Take, for example, this short snippet of what many hackers would consider exceptionally clever code written in the computer language Perl:

      #count the number of stars in the sky

      $cnt = $sky =~ tr/*/*/;

      This line of Perl is a hacker homage to cleverness; it is a double entendre of semantic ingenuity and technical wittiness. To fully appreciate the semantic playfulness presented here, we must look...

    • CHAPTER 4 Two Ethical Moments in Debian (pp. 123-158)

      F/OSS projects largely take place on the Internet. Varying in size from a couple of developers to a network of over one thousand, they are sites where programmers coordinate and produce high-quality software. A growing body of literature has addressed questions of developer motivation (Raymond 1999), project structures, and changing implications for software development along with factors that lead to success and failures in projects (Crowston and Howison 2005; O’Mahony and Ferraro 2007; Schweik and English 2012), open-source legality (McGowan 2001; Vetter 2004, 2007), utilitarian and rational choice incentive structures (Gallaway and Kinnear 2004; Lancashire 2001; von Hippel and von...

    • [PART III Introduction] (pp. 159-160)

      The final two chapters engage directly with the politics of free software. Chapter 5 examines the politics of avowal and popular protest, and the conclusion looks at the disavowal of broadly conceived politics among many free software hackers.

      Chapter 5 explores two different conditions under which free software developers learn about the law. It contrasts everyday legal pedagogy as it unfolds in Debian with a lively series of political protests, which I describe as a moment of political avowal because of the way hackers and programmers took to the streets between 1999 and 2003 to insist on their free speech...

    • CHAPTER 5 Code Is Speech (pp. 161-184)

      Like many computer aficionados today, Seth Schoen writes all of his software as free software to ensure that the source code—the underlying directions of computer programs—will remain accessible for other developers to use, modify, and redistribute. In so doing, Schoen not only makes technology but also participates in an effort that redefines the meaning of liberal freedom, property, and software by asserting in new ways that code is speech. A tiny portion of a 456-stanza haiku written by Schoen (2001), for example, makes just this claim:

      Programmers’ art as

      that of natural scientists

      is to be precise,


    • CONCLUSION The Cultural Critique of Intellectual Property Law (pp. 185-206)

      This book concludes by examining one of the most significant, although unintended, political consequences of F/OSS technical production: the way it worked to fundamentally refigure the politics of intellectual property law. Using this material, I will revisit various themes raised throughout previous chapters and draw some preliminary conclusions about the importance of what I designate here as a material politics of cultural action.

      A paradox is at work here: How can a movement narrowly configured around a technical craft to ensure software freedom help catalyze broader political and economic transformations? Although F/OSS is foremost a technical movement based on the...

    • EPILOGUE How to Proliferate Distinctions, Not Destroy Them (pp. 207-210)

      In 2006,Timemagazine crowned social media and “you” as the person of the year. Typical of many mainstream media representations,Timenot only latched on to the moniker Web 2.0 but celebrated it with breathless hyperbole too:

      It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the...

  8. NOTES (pp. 211-224)
  9. REFERENCES (pp. 225-248)
  10. INDEX (pp. 249-254)

You are not currently logged in.

Login through your institution for access.


Log in to your personal account or through your institution.