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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 U 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. -- "Choice"


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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 U 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. -- "Choice"

30 review for Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

  1. 4 out of 5

    Erhardt Graeff

    A carefully argued book written by a savvy anthropologist. The main thrust of the book is the assertion that free software hackers or programmers practice a unique form of liberal politics through their "free" labor in creating a common or public good in the form of free software (she focuses on the Debian operating system), and in stewarding the legal freedom that users and contributors enjoy by using such software. Biella argues that several aspects of this technical and philosophical or ethic A carefully argued book written by a savvy anthropologist. The main thrust of the book is the assertion that free software hackers or programmers practice a unique form of liberal politics through their "free" labor in creating a common or public good in the form of free software (she focuses on the Debian operating system), and in stewarding the legal freedom that users and contributors enjoy by using such software. Biella argues that several aspects of this technical and philosophical or ethical work lead to its success and have changed the way people think of intellectual property and public goods in other fields. Biella does a great job of taking the reader through a history of free software and into the lives of free software programmers/hackers through their IRC chats, code snippets, jokes, and personal histories. As far as ethnography goes, this is a very accessible read. There is still a lot of jargon, both social scientific jargon and technical jargon, but the writing is clear. Her choice to use in-line parenthetical citations also helps to flag jargon that is meant to speak to a specific academic audience, letting the lay reader off the hook a bit. It's definitely a must-read for students of intellectual property law, software history, digital culture, and media activism

  2. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    Makes me proud to call myself a hacker, and a part of Debian.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Chebe

    A USA-based anthropological look at the software hacker subculture of 10-15 years ago. Focussing on F/OSS projects, identifying and documenting social interactions, and challenges like licencing. Talks about the narrow politics (and protests) of such groups, and briefly looks at the effect they have had in the greater culture. The in-depth look at the Debian project was my favourite section.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Danae

    me encanta ella

  5. 4 out of 5

    Zara Rahman

    "Coding Freedom" is written in a more academic style than I was expecting, but maintains a strong and engaging "storytelling" vibe throughout. The book covered more issues and topics than I had imagined it would; from an anthropological analysis of the typical hacker (which felt oddly like reading a biography of friends of mine!) - to a thorough analysis of Debian, and the F/OSS movement. A particular highlight for me was a section towards the end of the book, which looked at the effects the ope "Coding Freedom" is written in a more academic style than I was expecting, but maintains a strong and engaging "storytelling" vibe throughout. The book covered more issues and topics than I had imagined it would; from an anthropological analysis of the typical hacker (which felt oddly like reading a biography of friends of mine!) - to a thorough analysis of Debian, and the F/OSS movement. A particular highlight for me was a section towards the end of the book, which looked at the effects the open source movement has had, and is having, on today's politics and society, and the increasingly important role hackers are having in maintaining and fighting for free and democratic societies. Overall: highly, highly recommended, both for those who are already involved in F/OSS, or in and around the hacker movement, and wanting to know more, but also to those who are working in, or interested in, current politics more generally speaking. Having an understanding of this world will be nothing but beneficial to those working in politics, and this book is the perfect one to provide that. (Aside: I'd love to read a similar anthropological analysis of hackers who are coming out of countries with different cultural/political contexts to the ones mentioned here, and I wonder how much crossover there would be...)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Parker

    An excellent deep dive into the world of free software in general and Debian developers particular. No question about it, this book is an anthropological look, and not a "pop science" approach, but if you can hang with the academic approach it pays off. Whether you're deeply immersed in the world of hackers, on the periphery but looking for a good explanation of what's going on (as I was), or completely outside of the scene, this book is a readable and well-cited resource to learn more.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kara Babcock

    I’ve been “online” for almost eleven years now. I started learning to write HTML, which was my first foray into anything resembling programming, almost immediately after I became interested in using the Internet. My introduction to free/open-source software (F/OSS) was gradual, so it’s hard to pinpoint a particular project or ethos that inculcated me into that hacker culture. For the longest time I rolled my own code religiously, either oblivious to or uninterested in the existence of blog softw I’ve been “online” for almost eleven years now. I started learning to write HTML, which was my first foray into anything resembling programming, almost immediately after I became interested in using the Internet. My introduction to free/open-source software (F/OSS) was gradual, so it’s hard to pinpoint a particular project or ethos that inculcated me into that hacker culture. For the longest time I rolled my own code religiously, either oblivious to or uninterested in the existence of blog software that others had made, like WordPress. Eventually I made the code I had written available under the GPL (not that anyone would actually want to use it). A lot has changed in those eleven years, but I still use F/OSS as much as possible (I am writing this on a computer running Ubuntu), and I contribute when I can. I probably wouldn’t identify as a hacker. Beyond web programming and some Python, I’m not an adept at programming (but I’m not exactly a n00b, either). Nevertheless, I certainly empathize with the hacker community and many of the goals and values that hackers share. The Internet and the increasing role that software plays in our lives makes for a disruptive combination of technology, which means hackers and hacking are only going to become more significant in the future. Hence my interest in reading Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which is actually Gabriella Coleman’s PhD. thesis. It’s also available under a Creative Commons license, which is cool. Coleman, unsurprisingly for an anthropologist, looks at hackers as a group and uses a combination of narrative and history, grounded in anthropological theory, to examine why hackers have the mindset they do, and to what level the group is homogeneous or heterogeneous in its political and social activities. As a consequence of being a thesis, Coding Freedom is very dry. It has a lot of citations, and its structure is overt and repetitive to the point of being cumbersome—a lot of, “In this chapter, I will …” followed by laying out of sections, only to summarize the arguments again a few pages later, etc. This is not a pop science book about hacker culture. It remains eminently accessible—Coleman employs a broad range of anthropological terminology, but it seldom dips into jargon, and she is good about defining even the most common terms to make it clear whose work she is reference or what theory she is using in her analysis. If anything, Coding Freedom is a nice glimpse into how anthropologists are now beginning to study Western culture. The first section broadly traces two histories: one is a generalized personal history of a hacker’s life; the other is the history of the F/OSS movement. Neither is a detailed treatment with the guts and glory one might want, but that’s not what Coleman is aiming for here. She wants to establish what draws hackers to this idea that is F/OSS. To do this, she looks at the motivations behind hacking and the way hackers interact with one another. She provides examples of hacker humour, noting that many hackers include jokes in their code as one form of demonstrating their skill or savviness. She begins laying the groundwork for one of her thesis’ major points, which is that “code is speech” is an ethos that echoes throughout the F/OSS movement and hacker culture. The main takeaway for the average (i.e., non-anthropology student) reader here should be the amount of thought and depth of consideration that hackers exercise when it comes to the legal and ethical issues around coding. This is something I can understand, as someone who has personally wrestled with the implications of licensing code under the GNU GPL or the MIT license or any other various copyleft and free software licenses. Sorting out which ones are compatible, what each one lets me do or lets me let others do … it can be a headache. But it’s also important, because, as Coleman demonstrates, hackers have hacked the law like they hack computers—our legal framework being very similar to code in some ways. Stallman, Lessig, et al co-opted our intellectual property framework, using the language of copyright to grant permissions instead of taking them away. It was a bizarre and revolutionary notion that remains difficult for some people to fathom today. Yet above all else, Coleman makes it clear that hackers are not their stereotype: anyone involved in the free software movement to any extent has a keen awareness of how legal issues affect software, and the overlap between lawyers and coders is an interesting one. The second section presents Debian as a microcosm of hacker culture and F/OSS ethics. Coleman embedded herself in the Debian movement (this was about ten years ago, mind, so things have changed since then). She followed several ethical debates within the community about how the project should be organized and run. This is where Coding Freedom provides a perspective lacking from a lot of books about F/OSS culture: Coleman isn’t interested in the implementation details of Linux; she has no stake in the KDE vs GNOME debate. Instead, she looks at the organizational aspects of the Debian community: how do leaders emerge, how are conflicts resolved, where does discussion take place? Debian is a great choice for this analysis. I didn’t know this, but it is apparently the largest open source project, with over a thousand members and an intricate process for inducting new members. The projects to which I’ve contributed have so far all been fairly small in terms of member base, certainly small enough that they fall into the benevolent dictatorship or consensus-building models that Coleman describes, without a lot of the formal procedures and decision-making that Debian has introduced over the years to compensate for its growing and diverse member base. The final section is a more general meditation on the evolving attitude of the law towards software development. Is software something we should patent, like an invention, or something we should copyright, like speech? Coleman effectively illustrates the way in which neoliberalism must contort itself to balance the liberterian ideas of property rights with its commitment to free speech. (This tension is even more relevant reading Coding Freedom in 2015, when governments of so-called free, democratic, Western countries are proposing and passing laws that curtail free speech and private speech (i.e., through encryption) in the name of protecting our freedoms.) Obviously Coleman is focused on exploring this issue from within hacker culture itself—and she demonstrates that hackers take this issue seriously, going as far as to protest what they view as unfair arrests of hackers for coding in the name of free speech. Yet this raises a question of why these issues do not receive larger attention, considering the important role of software in our lives. (Arguably now, ten years on, the spotlight on software has sharpened a little more—but not nearly as much as it should.) Despite linking hackers to activism, however, Coleman is careful to clarify that hackers align with all types of political movements. Coding Freedom was a good read. I’m even more interested, however, in what will happen if anyone builds on this work. Coleman mentions how hackers tend to perceive F/OSS as a meritocratic movement. She critiques this perception a little in her Debian chapters by talking about how the concentration of power does not always work along meritocratic lines. Similarly, she mentions her discomfort over being the only or one of the only women at hacker meet-ups, for hacking is a male-dominated space. These ideas resonate with some of the discussions that have dominated 2014 and will likely remain important in 2015, such as Linus Torvalds’ comments dismissing diversity in favour of supposedly blind meritocracy. I would like to see more on this from an anthropological perspective. I know that wasn’t part of Coleman’s thesis, so I’m not criticizing her for going light on these things—but I’d love to see people build on her study in ways that include these issues. I can’t recommend this to everyone, because it is academic in tone and repetitive, and it’s not going to suddenly open your eyes and change your mind about these issues. But if, like me, this is already something of interest to you, I recommend you check it out. Coleman is doing great work, first with F/OSS and now with a focus on Anonymous, and she’s one of the people to watch out for as we continue to break down the dichotomy between “online” and “offline.”

  8. 5 out of 5

    Alexander

    I expected this to be something of a history book, and I was very wrong. As a matter of fact, the historic overview here is quite weak; the author uses a very limited set of examples and doesn't dive too deep into stories. If you are looking for trivia and tidbits, go elsewhere. The book describes hacker culture and briefly mentions its relation to ethics and morality, but mostly focuses on its conflict with intellectual property law. Portraying F/OSS as a living, thriving counter-example to comm I expected this to be something of a history book, and I was very wrong. As a matter of fact, the historic overview here is quite weak; the author uses a very limited set of examples and doesn't dive too deep into stories. If you are looking for trivia and tidbits, go elsewhere. The book describes hacker culture and briefly mentions its relation to ethics and morality, but mostly focuses on its conflict with intellectual property law. Portraying F/OSS as a living, thriving counter-example to common beliefs about necessity of copyright and patents, this book made me realize and feel what I already kind of knew intellectually: F/OSS movement isn't just about technology, it's about developing better human culture too. Creating a better world, if you will. Perhaps due to its roots as a dissertation, the book has a linear structure, which lends itself to the topic beautifully. It starts with a story of a single hacker, then gradually progresses to groups of hackers, which naturally leads to examination of hacker culture. It then picks out the difference between hacker and IP law views on terms under which creative works are published, and runs with it to a logical conclusion. Maybe I'm just reading wrong non-fiction, but this one seemed to stand head and shoulders above the crowd. One more thing I want to note is anthropological/philosophical detours. I don't know a thing about either of those sciences, but it feels like I might've gotten even more of an outside perspective on hacker culture if I was clued in a bit more. Detours can be safely skipped, but readers with some philosophy background will probably find this book more insightful than I did.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Shanni

    Coleman, an anthropologist, essentially explores the world and politics of free and open source software (F/OSS), with a focus on Debian. It's fascinating to read her analysis as an outsider, though my one issue, which is definitely a personal pet-peeve, is that she refers to F/OSS contributers as "hackers". While they are, Coleman makes it seem that all hackers are involved in F/OSS, and that that's all they do. That aside, this is a wonderful work on the history and ideology of the F/OSS movem Coleman, an anthropologist, essentially explores the world and politics of free and open source software (F/OSS), with a focus on Debian. It's fascinating to read her analysis as an outsider, though my one issue, which is definitely a personal pet-peeve, is that she refers to F/OSS contributers as "hackers". While they are, Coleman makes it seem that all hackers are involved in F/OSS, and that that's all they do. That aside, this is a wonderful work on the history and ideology of the F/OSS movement, as well as the landmark legal battles which challenged intellectual property law and copyright.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Chris Davison

    While the discussion and history of free software and the debian process is inspirational, the writing is a bit tedious and exhausting to get through. It is written like a social sciences academic paper, with social science rather than technical jargon detracting from the overall message.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    Changed the way I think about software and coding

  12. 5 out of 5

    Liz

    This book was not what I was expecting, which was entirely my own fault because I assumed that everyone interested in the same thing as me is interested in it in the same way that I am. So I was expecting more theory and less story. But, as it turns out, Coleman's ethnography of hackers was so interesting in its own right that, despite not quite getting what I expected out of it, I enjoyed what I got. There were particular elements that spoke to me, though, especially her focus on the relationsh This book was not what I was expecting, which was entirely my own fault because I assumed that everyone interested in the same thing as me is interested in it in the same way that I am. So I was expecting more theory and less story. But, as it turns out, Coleman's ethnography of hackers was so interesting in its own right that, despite not quite getting what I expected out of it, I enjoyed what I got. There were particular elements that spoke to me, though, especially her focus on the relationship between hacker ideology and 21st century problems of privacy, individuality and the communal. As an introduction to the free/ open source software movement, this book is wonderful and as an exploration of the questions that can be asked in the realm of free (as in speech) software and labor and the politics thereof, I though Coleman did an excellent job. On an unrelated note, I applaud this new trend of critical thinkers working on issues of freedom and copyleft releasing their ebooks under the Creative Commons license. Not only because it makes it easier for those of us looking to build on their work to afford to, but also because it sets a standard for valuing the work done by the humanities under the same umbrella as open source.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sara Watson

    Coleman provides a nuanced take on the ideology and tensions embedded in the F/OSS movement. Her ethnography is compelling, particularly as a means of capturing a specific time and place as social structures, software, and embedded politics uncovered themselves, often not explicitly as political acts (see her discussion of explicit disavowal of politics). Coleman's details made real concepts of how code is speech, or code is law, in ways that I had not fully appreciated before, namely by capturi Coleman provides a nuanced take on the ideology and tensions embedded in the F/OSS movement. Her ethnography is compelling, particularly as a means of capturing a specific time and place as social structures, software, and embedded politics uncovered themselves, often not explicitly as political acts (see her discussion of explicit disavowal of politics). Coleman's details made real concepts of how code is speech, or code is law, in ways that I had not fully appreciated before, namely by capturing the way participants think about their involvement and about coding itself. Though accessible, I still found in some places she relied on citations for jargon where a clarifying sentence could have benefited readers not familiar with disciplinary terms like "defamiliarization." In this sense it still reads as an academic work. I wanted more ethnographic color in personal details of her participants, but her pastiche approach to examples served its purpose in concisely providing an overview of a feeling and an experience among a distributed set of participants.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Chad Kohalyk

    Although this book is a PhD dissertation and contains some anthropology technical jargon, Coleman's tone is casual, making it surprisingly accessible. I learned a lot about the F/OSS movement and being surrounded by developers all day (and pretending to be one myself) I think she perfectly captured the culture. Through this book I also learned more about my own political stance, coming to open source from a political background rather than from pure development. The particular dichotomies she desc Although this book is a PhD dissertation and contains some anthropology technical jargon, Coleman's tone is casual, making it surprisingly accessible. I learned a lot about the F/OSS movement and being surrounded by developers all day (and pretending to be one myself) I think she perfectly captured the culture. Through this book I also learned more about my own political stance, coming to open source from a political background rather than from pure development. The particular dichotomies she describes (between meritocratism and communal action; and between free speech and intellectual property law) are thought-provoking and spurred me to find out more. Although I had used Ubuntu, I had no experience or knowledge of Debian and began to investigate. To put it another way, this book has influenced how I do my personal computing (eg. being aware of and making more ethical choices, where possible). I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the ethics of computing (which should be everyone IMHO) or developers who are not already inside the F/OSS community.

  15. 5 out of 5

    jess b

    Awesome read. Not only a good overview of the F/OSS movement at large, but also does a great job of couching it in the larger conversation about free speech, intellectual property, individualism, etc. Also good for igniting the warm fuzzies about working on F/OSS, in case that's been missing from your life lately.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Provided a good narrative on the F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) movements, the varying players/perspectives, and its relevance to our society. I gained a lot from reading this book (I bought it after listening to an interview on Law and Disorder Radio)! For more on Gabriella Coleman. Provided a good narrative on the F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) movements, the varying players/perspectives, and its relevance to our society. I gained a lot from reading this book (I bought it after listening to an interview on Law and Disorder Radio)! For more on Gabriella Coleman.

  17. 4 out of 5

    hoffnarr

    Nice look at Debian hacker community and the free code movement in general from an anthropologist who studied them "in the field." Also interesting look at conflicts within the movement and differing interpretations of freedom.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Bue

    Very accessible and very engagingly written, particularly for a scholarly book, with clearly communicated insights. Highly recommended for anyone interested in getting an enlightened socio-cultural perspective on FOSS, particularly with regards to its political and moral dimensions.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    Fun, accessible, interesting. Can't say enough. Plus it helped to explain some of the culture in my local makerspace... A run-down of the issues at stake when it comes to open-source computing. Also, look for the "Anoynmous" documentary where Colman has interesting things to say in interviews.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lesley

    A really interesting look at free/open source software and the projects surrounding it (specifically Debian).

  21. 4 out of 5

    Akiva

    Oops, finished this a while ago. Sort of interesting, but also kinda dry. I don't remember. Too much unexamined libertarian BS, but that's personal bias.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Miguel

    Excellent and free book about FOSS story and movements, characters and stories behind the stories. Well researched, it'll become a classic.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gurvan

    Probably more a book for ethnologist than one meant for casual readers. Thus it need quite a steep investment to really get the best of it...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    174.90051 C6922 2013

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kingsborough Library

  26. 5 out of 5

    B.

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Did not read the whole thing, just first couple of chapters. Didn't really hold me interest.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Karen

  28. 4 out of 5

    signevide

  29. 5 out of 5

    Isaac Dontje Lindell

  30. 5 out of 5

    Randy Weidman

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