THE ETHICS AND AESTHETICS
E. GABRIELLA COLEMAN
We must be free not because we claim freedom,
but because we practice it.
—William Faulkner, “On Fear: The South in Labor”
Without models, it’s hard to work; without a context,
difficult to evaluate; without peers, nearly
impossible to speak.
—Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Woman’s Writing
Biella Coleman is a geek anthropologist, in both senses of the epithet: an anthropologist who studies geeks, and a geek who is an anthropologist. Though she's best known today for her excellent and insightful work on the mechanism and structure underpinning Anonymous and /b/, Coleman is also an expert on the organization, structure, philosophy and struggles of the free software/open source movements. I met Biella while she was doing fieldwork as an intern at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She's also had deep experience with the Debian project and many other hacker/FLOSS subcultures.
Coleman's has published her dissertation, edited and streamlined, under the title of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which comes out today from Princeton University Press (Quinn Norton, also well known for her Wired reporting on Anonymous and Occupy, had a hand in the editing). Coding Freedom walks the fine line between popular accessibility and scholarly rigor, and does a very good job of expressing complex ideas without (too much) academic jargon.
Coding Freedom is insightful and fascinating, a superbly observed picture of the motives, divisions and history of the free software and software freedom world. As someone embedded in both those worlds, I found myself surprised by connections I'd never made on my own, but which seemed perfectly right and obvious in hindsight. Coleman's work pulls together a million IRC conversations and mailing list threads and wikiwars and gets to their foundations, the deep discussion evolving through the world of free/open source software.
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.