Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part I: Histories

(Sorry this is so late! Life kept happening, and then the blog went down :)

Since this is a book that deserves and rewards attention, and since we all seem to be reading it slowly as a result, let’s just discuss it one section at a time. From the introduction:

Free software hackers culturally concretize a number of liberal themes and sensibilities— for example, through their competitive mutual aid, avid free speech principles, and implementation of meritocracy along with their frequent challenge to intellectual property provisions.

(I’ll get to that “meritocracy” bit in good time.) One of the great points Biella makes early on is that hacking, while recognizably part of the liberal tradition, uses liberal techniques to critique liberalism itself. This restless contrarianism showed up earliest around IP, of course:

The expansion of intellectual property law, as noted by some authors, is part and parcel of a broader neoliberal trend to privatize what was once public or under the state’s aegis, such as health provision, water delivery,
and military services. “Neoliberalism is in the “first instance,” writes David Harvey (2005, 2), “a theory of political economic practices that proposes human well- being can be best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade.” As such, free software hackers not only reveal a long- standing tension within liberal legal rights but also offer a targeted critique of the neoliberal drive to make property out of almost anything, including software.

Oh, the 1990s. On the one hand you had a set of corporatist states seeking to exercise ever-more-restrictive controls around, for example, the precious, precious image of Mickey Mouse and music of Metallica; on the other hand you had a ragtag crew of approximately-libertarian hackers still simmering over the injustices handed down in the Unix wars. In between you had every other imaginable nuance of position. Shenanigans, naturally, ensued, and both Biella and I were on hand for the fun. I met her at various Bay Area Linux User Group and EFF events while she was conducting fieldwork in San Francisco around the turn of the millennium.

Those were glory days. The brilliance of Richard Stallman’s GPL was just beginning to make itself apparent. The GPL has radically transformed both the culture and the economics of software in ways that will continue to play out for the foreseeable future. Biella justly celebrates the terrific humor of hackers and hacking – I don’t think I really understood software, or my life partner, until I first looked into the Jargon file – and the GPL is one of hacking culture’s best and subtlest and most effective jokes.

Stallman approached the law much like a hacker treats technology: as a system that by virtue of being systemic and logical, is hackable. In other words, he relied on the hacker technical tactic of clever reuse to imaginatively hack the law by creating the GNU GPL, a near inversion of copyright law… By grafting his license on top of an already- existing system, Stallman dramatically increased the chances that the GPL would be legally binding. It is an instance of an ironic response to a system of powerful constraint, and one directed with unmistakable (and creative) intention— and whose irony is emphasized by its common descriptor, copyleft, signaling its relationship to the very artifact, copyright, that it seeks to displace.

What the GPL and the Jargon file share with the code itself is the ways in which they resemble literature – celebrating and codifying a culture – and the ways in which they resemble law – functioning as the constitutions of public spaces of the mind. (I think of the Unixes as a kind of Colossal Caves, only somehow more real.) And this, ultimately, is why we talk about coding freedom, and why the freedom part matters. Software systems are at once frontiers, meeting places and societies.

In the words of one programmer who helped me (a novice user) fix a problem on my Linux machine, “Unix is not a thing, it is an adventure.”

That’s the way I see Debian: alive.

This book is reminding me how much I love it here, but it’s also refreshingly blunt about hacker culture’s failings:

Along with the awkwardness I experienced during the first few weeks of fieldwork, I was usually one of the only females present during hacker gatherings, and as a result felt even more out of place.

That said, the answer is right there staring us in the face. Just as hacker culture uses liberal techniques to reform liberal techniques, geek feminists can and do hack hacker culture.

During cons, participants make crucial decisions that may alter the character and future course of the developer project. For example, at Debconf4, the few women attending, spearheaded by the efforts of Erinn Clark, used the time and energy afforded by an in- person meeting to initiate and organize Debian Women Project, a Web site portal and IRC mailing list to encourage female participation by visibly demonstrating the presence of women in the largely male project. Following the conference, one of the female Debian developers, Amaya Rodrigo, posted a bug report calling for a Debian Women’s mailing list, explaining the rationale in the following way:

From: Amaya Rodrigo Sastre
To: Debian Bug Tracking System
Subject: Please create debian- women mailing list
Date: Tue, 01 Jun 2004 22:12:30 +0200
Severity: normal

Out of a Debconf4 workshop the need has arisen for a mailing list oriented to debating and coordinating the different ways to get a larger female userbase. Thanks for your time :- ).

Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow, right? I’m trying to feel my way towards an evidence-based geek feminism, in which my ideas and practices are continually tested and assessed for usefulness or otherwise. Maybe the trick is to be woman enough to cull my ideas when they are bad?

7 thoughts on “Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part I: Histories

  1. Doctor Jay

    I’m not really a big fan of “me too” comments. But I really, really like this post. I like the metaphor of a bug report – you don’t want to tear down the system, you just want something to be different. There’s a different attitude, or at least it seems to me, sometimes, that doesn’t leave that impression. I don’t know what the metaphor for that would be, though.

    1. Yatima

      Oh, I have days where I’d like to fork Western Civ with fire and start again on an island, believe me. But as a student of history I recognize that reform, while slower, tends to be longer-lasting than revolution, and not incidentally, to have a lower body count. So I try to rein in my id.

  2. Shauna

    Just wanted to thank you for the write up and let you know I’m reading. All of my notes for this book are on later sections, so I have nothing substantial to offer just yet. :)

    1. Yatima

      Yay! I hope to have Part 2 up this week, courtesy of a trans-Pacific flight.

  3. Audrey

    I stopped reading the book during this section, because I found it so frustrating (I would have thrown the book across the room, if I had a paper copy) that Coleman was noting the lack of gender diversity in the groups she studied, but taking it as given and not asking why (and also glossing over socioeconomic privilege). Who can participate? seems like a crucial question for understanding a group or social movement, especially when you’re trying to dig into the origins of their values.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      This occurred to me too, but I wondered whether Coleman felt that, as a woman, her work would be dismissed if she talked about gender issues much.

      I agree that the book (which I finished) suffers for its lack of analysis of class, race, and gender dynamics in the groups Coleman studied, though. I have more to say that I’ll try to write up on my blog or maybe here.

    2. Dorothea

      Noticed that too, and like you had a want-to-fire-book-across-room moment.

      Another reason for it may be that sociology generally has blinders when it comes to the open-source movement. I wish I knew why this is, because it’s been irking me for years. (Chris Kelty is another paradigmatic example. He recounts a dinner with Eric Raymond where Raymond was incessantly hitting on a woman at table and Kelty apparently thought this was perfectly cool.)

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