Coding Freedom — Gabriella Coleman

Coding Freedom — Gabriella Coleman

codingfreedomIn the spirit of the movement it describes, I am “open sourcing” my reading notes on Gabriella Coleman’s excellent book Coding Freedom, an anthropological study of the Debian community and the wider software ecosystem in which it operates.  I’ll also leave the Google Docs version open for anyone in case anyone might find it useful.

You can read the book itself here, in PDF format.  Coleman generously released it under Creative Commons licence BY-NC-ND, but those who can afford to should consider thanking her by buying it!



Chapter One — The Life of a Free Software Hacker

Hacker Conf as a Condensed, Weeklong Performance of Lifeworld

Chapter Two — A Tale of Two Legal Regimes

Chapter Three — The Craft & Craftiness of Hacking

Hack Cleverness

Populism vs Elitism

Authorship, but not ownership

Chapter Four — Two Ethical Moments in Debian

NMP: New Maintainer Process

Chapter Five — Code is Speech

Conclusion — The Cultural Critique of Intellectual Property Law

The Disavowal of Politics

Other notes for presentation…

Internal Tensions

External Tensions

Discussion Points 


Two complementary visions of freedom

  • esoteric (of code)
  • broader vision of liberalism

Hackers’ collective commitment to “productive freedom” exposes a faultline between liberal jurisprudence (which protects the fruits of labour) and free speech (which protects the sharing of ideas).  Hackers reinvent liberal ideas, and critique neoliberal trends.  Is code speech?

Humour saturates the social world of hacking.

Hacker Identity = Hack everything!  Value creativity, individuality, and the ability to repurpose

Postwar two political traditions expanded…

1 – Free Speech
Loosers rules, and increased space, for free sppech
Esp. activities like political pamphleteering

2 – Intellectual Property Protection
Copyright expanded (from 14 yrs w/ 1 renewal to author’s life + 70 years)
Registration requirement eliminated

When the two came into conflict, US courts tended to say the benefits of copyright outweighed the consequences of censorship, by providing a stimulus for the “marketplace of ideas”

Hacker selfhood: committed to…

  • rational thought
  • critical reflection
  • skills & capacity

all are presupposed in free speech doctrine

Pragmatic & utilitarian, but not focused on utility alone…deep engagement (“flow”) born of both frustration and pleasure (in extreme form = jouissance, “Deep Hack Mode”, even transcendental bliss)

Software as art: code written as poetry, poetry written in code

FLOSS hacker morality is syncretic

  • liberal politics of free speech
  • non-liberal politics of cultural pleasure
  • Marxist vision of avoiding estrangement that usually comes with capitalist production

Hackers vs Crackers: Community claims that “hacker” identity was appropriated by media & redefined, much to chagrin of original hackers.  But is this a whitewash?  There is a fine line between craft & craftiness, both require same skills.

Hacker Identity marked by growing self-awareness

early 1980s, Levy: “hack ethic…silently agreed upon.  No manifestos were issued.”
one year later, Stallman: “The GNU Manifesto”

No single “hacker ethic”
Hacker principles have a common core, maybe a general ethos, but ethnographic enquiry reveals variance, ambiguity, contention

eg FLOSS hackers uphold structures of transparency vs hacker underground is more opaque

Riseup, Mayfirst names reveal revolutionary crusade vs conservative InfoSec collectives

Regional differences:
Southern European hackers are more leftists/anarchist than Northern Europeans
Chinese more nationalistic, N&S American & European tend to be anti-authoritarian

Hacker actions & artefacts are usually in legally dubious waters or at the cusp of new legal meaning

Chapter One — The Life of a Free Software Hacker

Hacker identity usually starts with an affinity that grows into familiarity
Can never master it all, an asymptotic relationship with tech

Childhood learning via…

  • immediate gratification
  • social utility, economic power
  • mimesis/competitiveness

BBS era: usually local community, trade gossip/news/software
End of BBS celebrated by Defcon (intended as one off)

BBS era now over!

Linux usually discovered through informal channels, liberating because it was…

  • free
  • ran on personal computers
  • source code was visible!

Early 1990s:
Free software was an unconceptualized “thing”
Later it was actualized, naturalized, solidified as social “object”

Linux installation = “a weeklong gruelling ritual of esoteric initiation”

Unix = “our Gilgamesh epic” — a complex beast with own lore

  • Multics cut down (to “eunuchs”)
  • no one person can learn it all
  • shared history & reference point

When Stallman published GNU Manifesto & GNU GPL, most developers were…

  • not swayed either way
  • unaware of legal & moral issues
  • drawn to the “free beer”

Gradually, many saw in it a superior technical methodology (likened to scientific method)

  • People released their own software (as the “right thing to do”)
  • Enjoyed transparency of bugs
  • Smuggled it into the workplace
  • Found a community

Hacker community grew increasingly sophisticated with knowledge of law & commerce
Developed a rich set of ideas about creativity, individuality & cooperation, solidarity

Open software allowed public discourse via newsgroups, websites, mailing lists, blogs, books, articles etc

Networked hacking & Physical Interaction
Silently but powerfully reinforce one another
Celebrate translocality in person (the conf)

Hacker Conf as a Condensed, Weeklong Performance of Lifeworld

[p47-48, cf postPEAK]
Reconfigure relationship between time, space, person
Reinforce group solidarity
=> ritual-like affairs, with confirmation, liberation, celebration, and esp. re-enchantment

Conf plans tend to be fluid, self-organized, boozy

Saturated by technology at every level (logistic challenge, discussion, goal)

IRC etc augments interactivity

hexis [Bourdieu]…”durable manner of standing” p51

Important conduit for experience past (storytelling), present, future (planning)

“A semiotic play of profound sameness & difference”

Computers, common language of code, geeky attire
Political & cultural differences, accents etc

By end, this play is collapsed, and the bodies exists corpselike

Recovery period marked by reflexivity
Cement group solidarity, even usher in personal transformation

Chapter Two — A Tale of Two Legal Regimes

Mid 80s fear of “death” of hacking, or that computing had lost its soul, was actually followed by a renaissance defined by hackers’ assertion of control over means of production (software).  But as free software matured into a “global technology movement”, IP provisions were globalized.

1970s — copyright applied to software (Reagan, neoliberalism, fear of Japan)
1980s — patents applied to algorithms (+ genes, business methods)
1984 — appearance of IP trade associations, IP incorporated into US intl trade treaty
1990s — software redefined as akin to physical machines

Stallman’s GPL was a “hack” of copyright, but RMS limited politics of TPL to the technocultural values & passion of his lifeworld — computer hacking

Users were attracted by cheap, robust software, not politics (some turned off by it)

Pro-IP trade groups…

  • worked with law enforcement against “pirates”
  • civil cases against copyright infringement
  • moral education campaigns against piracy
  • lobbying for multilateral trade treaty (TRIPS)

1992 — some copyright infringement redefined as a felony
1994 — TRIPS incorporated within GATT (later WTO)

“Stallman’s approach was so different as to be almost invisible” — Thomas Streeter p73

FLOSS movement formed a legal counterpower to “the second enclosure movement”

Linus vs RMS
pragmatist vs ideologue

Linus adopted GNU applications and thus had to use GPL

In the beginning we live in a temporal state with elasticity and underdetermination that allows for an experimental engagement with the world — Arendt p76

The 1998 Meeting

Process of “linguistic reframing”
Free →open source
Ethical → efficiency
Beer → speech

MS reaction: the “Halloween Documents”
leaked internal memos acknowledging open source as a threat
no reference to FUD, but FUD continued
Ballmer: “Linux is a cancer”

Community feared a corporate takeover, or a sidelining of RMS, FSF, and their message

Actually, FLOSS projects became household names, and their message travelled with them.

  • Ideals of FSF enshrined in Debian project (largest FLOSS community)
  • Spread it to other areas, Lessig in 2002: Creative Commons
  • Wikis & blogs fuelled non-corporate content

Meanwhile…IP industry pushed back against filesharing in economic, moral, and cultural terms, (warning that “the culture will atrophy” if filesharing continues)

DMCA: granted technological control over digitised material (passed by Bill Clinton)

  • outlaws dual-use technology
  • led to arrest of coders who wrote circumvention tools

Hacker response: code = free speech

Chapter Three — The Craft & Craftiness of Hacking

Hacking values shot through with tensions

individualism vs collectivism

elitism vs humility

frustration vs deep pleasure

Various codes used to negotiate these tensions

Shared knowledge is built on collective production
Differentiation through “genius”…with elegance, humour, poetry

One of the many “holy wars”…Python vs Perl

Python: clarity, formal structure, designed as a teaching language
Perl: flexible, often irrational, sometimes “poetic” (ie unreadable),

Perl culture alludes to “Perl Monks”, alchemy, magik etc

Piece of software is a minimachine, with almost limitless possibility
but, forces of constraint…
hardware specs & failure
bad code
patent law
misguided managers & customers

Hackers play with these constraints, often turning the system on itself

Sherry Turkle said computer is hacker’s “second self”
but: rarely a steady posthuman state of being
both sides misbehave and break down
Computer is sometimes beloved “object”, other times recalcitrant “thing” [Heidegger]
“Work with computers” and “work on computers”…

Hack Cleverness

Practice rooted in playful, analytic, reflective stance
Reverence & Irreverence
Formulated as part of various “holy wars” (Perl vs Python, vi vs Emacs, BSD vs Linux)

Jokes come with ease because of shared…

  • habituated dispositions [Bourdieu]
  • tacit knowledge [Polanyi]

via lifelong practice of logic-oriented problem solving

“To put it bluntly, because hackers have spent years, possibly decades, working to outsmart various technical constraints, they are also good at joking” — p100

Hackers idealize cleverness for its own sake.  Wit is integrated into naming conventions, documentation, conferences etc

Humour can be…

  • Tethered to utterance (spontaneous originality, externalizes intelligence to gain recognition)
  • Stored (Easter Eggs etc, breaks monotony, reminds hackers of shared experience)

Like all joking, it is culturally coded (here: technically inflected)

Populism vs Elitism

“Humility is as mandatory as arrogance” — Ullman p106

Heavy sharing culture punctuated by RTFM
(Unlike academics) hackers freely share findings, insights, solutions

Code as art = an individual act
Code as project = a community act

RTFM itself is contentious, the faultline between corporate populism and those that value self-determination

Hackers ready to pounce on perceived idiocy, but also dole out recognition — an essential part of the meritocratic order.

Authorship, but not ownership

FLOSS legal philosophy & moral sensibilities similar to Mill’s p119
Romantically informed vision of personhood & liberty (freedom to determine capacities & interests autonomously through self-expression, debate, and reasoned deliberation)

Pursuit of knowledge = an almost sacred activity

Meritocracy: “Hackers should be judged by their hacking”…not “bogus criteria” like degrees, race, age, position

Chapter Four — Two Ethical Moments in Debian

Shared norms based on ethical commitments and lived experience

Coleman draws on Cover’s notion of nomos, or normative universe
a world of right/wrong, lawful/unlawful that we constantly create & maintain


  1. ethical enculturation
  2. punctuated crisis

Debian grew from charismatic leadership with informal structures to an institution with membership criteria, defined rules, a complicated voting protocol.

Three modes of governance:

  • democratic majoritarian
  • guildlike meritocracy
  • rough consensus, ad hoc

Also: open-ended argumentation (liberal value on speech & debate)

The canon…

1 — Social Contract (+ its legal corollary, DFSG)
…consisted of 4 freedoms (access, use, modification, distribution)

2 — Debian Constitution
formed after failed election, to prevent authoritarian leadership that some identified with Perens
Voting system is version of Condorcet method
leader vote every year
any developer can propose a General Resolution for a projectwide vote [but it is discouraged for technical decisions]
Project Leader role is not a technical decision making position
public face
assigns/legitimates nonelected roles

guardianships: strong pressure to let incumbents stay if they are doing the work and want to remain.

Power follows closely on the heels of:

  • initiative (& creativity?)
  • quality production
  • personal dedication

Developers prefer meritocracy (to democracy) but the system is still shrouded in distrust at its corruptibility, with jokes of the “the cabal”, sometimes playful, sometimes accusational.

Senior developers respond with humour, linked with the non-F2F nature of discussion

NMP: New Maintainer Process

A trust building mechanism

  • study detailed texts on the ethics of free software
  • also produce their own texts on the subject!
  • a testing/learning/mentoring scheme

The result of rapid expansion and crisis of trust 1998-99

Identity is confirmed by a cryptographic web of trust
F2F encounter essential, both in practical terms and for the sake of building trust.

NMP transforms codified norms into meaningful ones, a process which continue with membership

Establishment of nomos via subjective commitment to norms, and objective projection of norms

Divergence & debate is generative process.  Usually relate to…

  • transparency
  • major technical decisions
  • meaning of “freedom”
  • relationship between ordinary devs and those with vested power

Case Study: Debate over restricting architecture support
Anger over…

  • tone of email, perceived finality (concern with hierarchy)
  • timing (concern with transparency)
  • decision itself (seen as breach of ethos)

Dis-ease sparked a passionate outpouring of commitment, allowed values to be enacted

Mikhail Bakhtin & ethical situationism p157 [reread]

Chapter Five — Code is Speech

FLOSS spread helped by its political agnosticism.
Seth Schoen poem: transcoded software which could be used to circumvent access controls on DVDs.

FLOSS devs are very active producers of legal knowledge.

“Geeks are in fact nimble legal thinkers”
Programming and law-hacking….both require mental disposition for analysing a formal, rule-based system.

Coleman regularly saw cynicism aimed at the law, but never cynicism at having to learn the law.

“Free as in speech” → freedom found in expression, learning, modification

Legal sophistication of Debian, demonstrated by legal mailing list and legal newsletter (also read outside Debian circles)

Mid 1990s: “Encryption wars” over right to publish crypto software, especially Bernstein case

DeCSS case: conception of software as speech became cultural reality

Johansen: DeCSS was translated into other languages and formats (incl poetry, music, film…)
Unrelated software called DeCSS was released online to confound law enforcement (lol)

Dmitriy Sklyarov was arrested at end of DefCon for an e-book cracker

FLOSS caused technological objects to be imbued with a new liberal  meaning.  Source code as a literary creation lends itself towards copyright, but new free speech sensibilities confronted that assumption.

Success of FLOSS reconfiguration was partly due to community’s ease of using (and hacking) the law.

Conclusion — The Cultural Critique of Intellectual Property Law

FLOSS production contributed to the reconfiguration of IP law, and went on to be a catalyst for broader political and economic transformation.  Its power was not in its language or political vision, but in its existence as a living counterexample.  Using Latour’s words, FLOSS production served as a “theater of proof” that economic incentives were not necessary to secure creative output.

This transformation has since extended to art, academia, media, and wider economic production.  FLOSS has [arguably] avoided Left-Right polarization, and remains politically agnostic.

The Disavowal of Politics

FLOSS writers “renounce the ability to control the behavior of the recipient” as a condition of access [p187]
Thus they even renounce the ability to promote their own politics.

There is an implicit nod to old-school liberalism: the belief that free expression will lead to robust debate and eventually the emergence of self-evident truths.

FLOSS is endowed with semiotic surplus.  An icon, a transposable set of practices, that can be tacitly adopted by others to justify divergent political/economic practices and imaginaries.  Eg…

  • IBM — especially with its crass “Peace, Love, Linux” campaign, which touted consumerist notions of personal empowerment.
  • Indymedia (IMC) — leftist media movement intended to support under-represented people.  (In a similar vein, some activists call for “open source society”)
  • Open Knowledge movements and theories, including Creative Commons (Lessig) and Public Knowledge (Bollier).  Also advancing push for “peer to peer production” Benkler 2006.

FLOSS forces a politics of defamiliarization, its presence and success have induced a cultural shock.

Other notes for presentation…

Map out the software stack/stream

  • useful to know
  • distinguish between forks and complementary projects
  • impossible to gain expertise in it all, interdependence is structural
  • a rich ecosystem (not a community), no one single “hacker ethic”, rival approaches, community politics, funding models, and leadership styles (compare GNU vs Linux as example)…hence “holy wars” (Perl vs Python etc)

Internal Tensions

Within communities fault lines exist

  • ideology vs pragmatism
  • populism (the cabal) vs meritocracy (RTFM)
  • meaning of freedom
  • transparency

Dialectic: Resulting compromises are rich solutions

External Tensions

FLOSS vs Expanding IP law
success because of…

  • hackers dispositions made them good at law
  • living counterexample

Discussion Points

Political Economy of Free Code

Can FLOSS really make a claim of political agnosticism?
disavowal yes, but still political

(Free) Code as an artefact

started as an unconceptualized “thing”, later it was actualized, naturalized, solidified as social “object”
Code as a number, code as speech, code as literature, code as commodity?

“Stallman’s approach was so different as to be almost invisible”

Debian vs Anonymous


  • Both “hackers”! [unhelpful cross-use of term?]
  • Heavy use of humour as a shared experience (both stored & tethered)
  • Playing with potential, constraints
  • Importance of corporeal experience — Debian conf, Anonymous protests
  • Interplay of different modes of governance (democracy, guild, consensus)

Deb = Authorship, but not ownership
Anons = No authorship, no ownership

[Exeunt all]

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