Coding Freedom

by E. Gabriella Coleman

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Publisher: Princeton University Press
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 0-691-14461-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 223

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Subtitled The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, Coding Freedom is a rare beast in my personal reading: an academic anthropological study of a fairly new virtual community. It's possible that many books of this type are being written, but they're not within my normal reading focus. It's also a bit of an awkward review, since the community discussed here is (one of) mine. I'm going to have an insider's nitpicks and "well, but" reactions to the anthropology, which is a valid reaction but not necessarily the intended audience.

I'm also coming to this book about four years after everyone finished talking about it, and even longer after Coleman's field work in support of the book. I think Coding Freedom suffers from that lack of currency. If this book were written today, I suspect its focus would change, at least in part. More on that in a moment.

Coding Freedom's title is more subtle and layered than it may first appear. It is about the freedom to write code, and about free software as a movement, but not only that. It's also about how concepts of freedom are encoded in the culture and language of hacking communities, and about the concept of code as speech (specifically free speech in the liberal tradition). And the title also captures the idea of code switching, where a speaker switches between languages even in the middle of sentences. The free software community does something akin to code switching between the domains of technical software problems, legal problems, and political beliefs and ideologies. Coleman covers all of that ground in this book.

Apart from an introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into five chapters in three parts. The opening part talks about the typical life story and community involvement of a free software hacker and briefly sketches the legal history of free software licenses. The second part talks about the experience of hacking, with a particular focus on playful expression and the tension between collaboration, competitiveness, and proving one's membership in the group. The final part dives into software as speech, legal and political struggles against the DMCA and other attempts to restrict code through copyright law, and the free software challenge to the liberal regime of capitalism and private property, grounded in the also-liberal value of free speech.

There's a lot here to discuss, but it's also worth noting what's not here, and what I think would have been here if the same field work were done today. There's nothing about gender or inclusion, which have surpassed DMCA issues to become the political flash point de jour. (Coleman notes early in the book that she intentionally omitted that topic as one that deserves its own separate treatment.) The presentation of social norms and behaviors also felt strongly centered in an early 2000s attitude towards social testing, with low tolerance of people who haven't proven their competence. Coleman uses the term meritocracy with very few caveats and complications. I don't think one would do that in work starting today; the flaws, unwritten borders, and gatekeeping for who can participate in that supposed meritocracy are now more frequently discussed.

Those omissions left me somewhat uncomfortable throughout. Coleman follows the community self-image from a decade or more ago (which makes sense, given that's when most of her field research and the majority of examples she draws on in the book are from): valuing technical acumen and skilled play, devoted to free speech, and welcoming and valuing anyone with similar technical abilities. While this self-image is not entirely wrong, it hides a world of unspoken rules and vicious gatekeeping to control who gets to have free speech within the community, what types of people are valued, and who is allowed to not do emotional labor. And who isn't.

These are rather glaring gaps, and for me they limit the usefulness of Coding Freedom as an accurate analysis of the community.

That said, I do want to acknowledge that this wasn't Coleman's project. Her focus, instead, is on the way free software communities noticed and pushed into the open some hidden conflicts in the tradition of liberalism. Free political speech and democratic politics have gone hand-in-hand with capitalism and an overwhelming emphasis on private property, extended into purely virtual objects such as computer software. Free software questions that alliance, pokes at it, and at times even rips it apart.

The free software movement is deeply embedded in liberalism. Although it has members from anarchist, communist, and other political traditions, the general community is not very radical in its understanding of speech, labor, or politics. It has a long tradition of trying to avoid disruptive politics, apart from issues that touch directly on free software, to maximize its political alliances and avoid alienating any members. Free software is largely not a critique of liberalism from the outside; it's a movement that expresses a conflict inside the liberal tradition. It asks whether self-expression is consistent with, and more important than, private property, a question that liberalism otherwise attempts to ignore.

This is the part of the book I found fascinating: looking at my community from the outside, putting emergent political positions in that community into a broader context, and showing the complex and skillful ways that the community discusses, analyzes, and reaches consensus on those positions while retaining a broad base of support and growing membership. Coleman provides a sense of being part of something larger in the best and most complicated way: not a revolution, not an ideology, but a community with complex boundaries, rituals that are both scoffed at and followed, and gatekeeping behavior that exist in part because any human community will create and enforce boundaries.

When one is deeply inside a culture, it's easy to get lost in the ethical debates over whether a particular community behavior is good or bad. It takes an anthropologist to recast all those behaviors, good and bad, as humans being human, and to ask curious questions about what social functions those behaviors serve. Coding Freedom gave me a renewed appreciation of the insight that can come from the disinterested observer. If nothing else, it might help me choose my battles more strategically, and have more understanding and empathy.

This is a very academic work, at least compared to what I normally read. I never lost the thread of Coleman's argument, but I found it hard going and heavy on jargon in a few places. If, like me, you're not familiar with current work in anthropology, you'll probably feel like part of the discussion is going over your head, and that some terms you're reading with their normal English meaning are actually terms of art with more narrow and specific definitions. This is a book rather than an academic paper, and it does try to be approachable, but it's more research than popularization.

I wish Coding Freedom were more engaged with the problems of free software today, instead of the problems of free software in 2002, the era of United States v. Elcom Ltd. and Free Dmitry. I wish that Coleman had been far more critical of the concept of a meritocracy, and had dug deeper into the gatekeeping and boundaries around who is allowed to participate and who is discouraged or excluded. And while I'm not going to complain about academic rigor, I wish the prose were a bit lighter and a bit more approachable, and that it hadn't taken me months to read this book.

But, that said, I'm not sorry to have finally read it. The perspective from the anthropological view of one's own community is quite valuable. The distance provides an opportunity for less judgmental analysis, and a reminder that human social structures are robust and complex attempts to balance contradictory goals.

Coleman made me feel more connected, not to an overarching ideology or political goal, but to a tangled, flawed, dynamic, and responsive community, whose primary shared purpose is to support that human complexity. Sometimes it's easy to miss that forest for the day-to-day trees.

If you want to get more of a feel for Coleman's work, her keynote on Anonymous at DebConf14 in Portland in 2014 is very interesting and consistent in tone and approach with this book (albeit on a somewhat more controversial topic).

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-02-28

Last modified and spun 2018-03-01