My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.
Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.
Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.
This is doubly unfortunate because Coleman very obviously means well and feels a lot of respect and sympathy for the people and the culture she was studying – on the few occasions that she stops overplaying the game of academic erudition she has interesting things to say about them. It is clear that she is natively a shrewd observer whose instincts have been only numbed – not entirely destroyed – by the load of baggage she is carrying around.
I should give a representative example of the kind of theoretical smother I mean. A major theme in Coleman’s analysis is a contrast between two notions of individualism: one of which she labels “liberal” and associates with economic minimaxing and rational selfishness, and another which she describes as “Millsian” or “romantic” and associates with ideals of self-expressiveness and the Aristotelian idea of eudaemonia. She detects both these notions in hacker culture, and spills a lot of ink discussing what she supposes to be a tension between them.
What Coleman never notices is that this is not a tension the hackers she is observing actually experience – there isn’t any sort of unresolved personal or cultural problem here for her subjects, who cheerfully go on both pursuing their rational self-interests and expressing eudaemonia without feeling any strain between the two. The ‘problem’ is entirely an artifact of her theory; she thinks there must be tension or paradox because the words in her head insist that these are opposing ideals that are in conflict. Her maps have rendered her unable to see the territory.
There is another, larger failure in the same vein. The thesis that eventually becomes the center of the book is that hackers have revealed “a conflict between cherished liberal values” with respect to software, one value being property rights and the other being freedom of expression. Coleman then hares off into political science and history without noticing that, again, her map fails to match the territory – the critique of intellectual property uttered by many of her hacker subjects has nothing to do with this supposed opposition.
What she misses is the libertarian critique that so-called “intellectual property” rights are illegitimate because they grant state-enforced monopolies that would neither arise nor be defensible as natural property rights in a free market. I am not sure I buy this one myself, but my skepticism and the grounds for it aren’t relevant here; the relevant fact is that many other hackers do buy it, and that this critique attacks IP in a more fundamental way than a free-speech objection does.
On this account there is no contradiction, merely a failure of liberal values to successfully assert themselves against overweening statism (or, in versions flavored with left-wing language, corporate oligopoly). The “free speech” argument ceases being the principled ground of objection and becomes a tactical hack of the legal system, parallel to the way the GPL repurposes a copyright system that it in principle rejects.
Coleman is so busy churning up abstractions about “liberalism” and “neoliberalism” that she never notices any of this. My point here is not to argue that the libertarian critique is more correct than the free-speech one she is valorizing (I’m not sure I believe that, anyway) but to point out that not noticing or engaging it at all is a failure of ethnographic method, another place where she mistakes her own incomplete map for the territory and stops seeing what is actually there.
Far too much of the book exhibits this kind of theory-induced blindness. I am inclined to blame not Coleman for it but rather the people who trained and indoctrinated her in how to think and write like a ‘real’ anthropologist. If Coding Freedom is really the sort of book anthropology wants its bright young things to emit, the field is in desperately bad shape – far too inward-looking, over-abstract, mired in self-reference and tail-chasing, obsessed with politicized modes of non-explanation. I would actually prefer the theory that Coleman is a dimwit who has emitted a sort of unintentional parody of real anthropology if I could make myself believe it, but I can’t – her best moments seem too lucid for that.
She is very perceptive, for example, about the central role of hacker humor in promoting social bonding and affirming the culture’s values (I’ve explored this theme myself). Her ground-level reporting about the emotional atmosphere of hacker conferences and demonstrations is acute. Her discussion of how hackers as a culture have bootstrapped themselves to a state of legal literacy in order to fight their corner of the intellectual-property wars gives one of the gifts that ethnography should – to help us see how remarkable and interesting are practices we might otherwise take for granted.
There is even one significant thing I learned from this book, or at least learned to see in a new way. I hadn’t noticed before how ritualized the practice of writing damning comments about bad code is. Coleman is right that they display a level of pointed and deliberate rudeness that their authors would not employ face-to-face, and she is right about how and why the culture gives permission for this behavior.
What these good parts have in common is that they are far less theory-laden than the rest. When observation wins out over abstraction Coleman is well worth reading. But this happens too seldom.
I still want the book this should have been. It would have been better with all refererences to literary theorists and philosophers brutally ripped out of it and much more of the unaffected reportorial eye. But it may well be that a book less determinedly flogging empty signifiers of academic erudition would have been a functional failure for Ms. Coleman, as it wouldn’t have earned her a doctorate. If so…so much the worse for the academy.