Review: Biella Coleman's "Coding Freedom"

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 23, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Studies of hacker culture are rare. Serious studies untainted by hype are rarer still. For both these reasons, E. Gabriella Coleman's Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking is a welcome contribution to the subject. The result of over a decade of participant observation, Coding Freedom may not always be a precise survey of the free and open source software (FOSS) communities, but at least the resulting map bears some resemblance to the territory it is supposed to represent. 

For that reason alone, it has met a friendly reception since its publication early in 2013 (appropriately, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license).

Coding Freedom is a study of FOSS culture in general, as seen through the particular example of the Debian distribution in the first half-decade of the millennium. Coleman presents an  account of the origins of hacking and of free software, explaining the values and activities of the culture, and demonstrating how they played out and were reaffirmed in what she calls two "ethical moments:" the creation of Debian's New Maintainer Process, and the reaction to the so-called Vancouver proposal of 2005, in which FTP masters, the release team, and the security team urged dropping support for some of the less popular hardware architectures. She then describes the rise of legal awareness of licensing and related issues such as copyright and software patents. Throughout, she attempts to make connections to political trends and sociological theory, as standard academic discourse requires.

No one familiar with FOSS or Debian is likely to find much new in Coding Freedom. Still, seeing events you have lived through put into a historical and social context always helps to order your thinking.

It helps, too, that FOSS culture is obviously not just a research topic for Coleman, but also something that she is fascinated by and perhaps even loves. Although her voice is an academic's, those in the know should have little trouble picking out her own preferences, including free software rather than open source, and Lawrence Lessig rather than Richard Stallman. But, even if you disagree with her, when reading Coleman's explanations of hacker humor or why a Perl snippet is considered elegant, you can hardly help but think that someone, at last, is explaining the culture to outsiders -- and about time, too, you might add.

Nitpicking and limitations
That is not to say that Coleman gets everything right. Some minor details, such as her suggestion that the expression "RTFM" is a form of humor, rather than abuse, seem simply inaccurate.

Similarly, when Coleman insists on the importance of conferences, I question whether her emphasis is accurate or a result of the limitations of participant observation when dealing with a culture whose interactions take place mostly online.

Yes, attending a conference can be tremendously important to FOSS participants -- I know many whose year is blocked out according the conferences they are attending. But I would suggest that submitting a patch or reporting a bug is even more central to FOSS, if only because these activities happen far more frequently. Yet Coleman does not offer any detailed account of these routine activities, perhaps because they would be more difficult to observe than a conference unless she was directly involved with them.

Another problem is that, in trying to place the culture politically, Coleman talks in terms of liberal and neoliberal thought and economics, and suggests that the culture does not fit easily into the traditional left/right spectrum of political thought. This effort at context has some value, but Coleman barely mentions either right-wing libertarianism and left-wing anarcho-syndicalism, the two positions that those hackers who define themselves politically most often favor. Since both libertarianism and anarchism are concerned with the mixture of the personal and the political, both might provide greater insight into hacker culture than liberalism or neo-liberalism.

But the greatest limitation of Coleman's study is that it is an account of what hackers say is supposed to happen. By contrast, it has far too little analysis of whether what actually happens is consistent with what is supposed to.

For example, Coleman mentions the importance of meritocracy as a cultural value, yet never comments on how friendship and politics might undermine meritocracy in practice, let alone any other potential problems. 

Similarly, while Coleman accurately reports that equality is seen as a cultural value, she only mentions in the end notes that a systemic bias against women is operating as well. The presence or absence of minorities gets even less mention. And while she talks about how power can be exercised successfully in Debian, Coleman says nothing about status might be obtained except through election, or about elites of any sort. Even the subject of acceptance is treated only by discussion of the formal New Maintainer Process. 

In general, Coding Freedom is about the formal mechanisms in Debian, and -- except for a quick discussion about jokes concerning "the cabal" -- rarely about the informal social mechanisms that always exist alongside the formal ones. The emphasis is on reporting hackers' views of their own culture, even when more analysis might mean more accuracy as well.

A Starting Point
These shortcomings do not mean that Coding Freedom is of limited value. Rather, they suggest that the study is not meant to be definitive so much as an introduction to the topic. 

Coleman seems to be making the study of hacker culture her life work. If so, then perhaps she will deal with some of the more complex issues about her subject in later studies.

Meanwhile, while Coding Freedom may not be definitive, it is at least a start. I have no idea how it will be received outside of FOSS, but, inside it may come to have at least some of the popularity that Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and The Bazaar or Richard Stallman's Free As in Freedom had in their time as one of the few efforts to explain hackers to themselves.

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