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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman


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Review: Coding Freedom: The

Ethics and Aesthetics of
Hacking by Gabriella Coleman
Anne Elizabeth Yaniga

May 27, 2014

Uncategorized (link above)


Book Review

Anat Schwartz

Gabriella Coleman

Anirban Gupta-

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. 268 pp.


ISBN 978-0-691-14460-3 (hbk. : alk. Paper)

Anne Elizabeth

What is the terrain of information capitalism in terms of

Ante Nikola

internet connectivity, access to information, and creative


abstract production? What do relatively unfettered flows

of commodified and non-commodified information mean


Colin William

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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman

for political constructions such as democracy and

liberalism? How can we better understand neoliberal
capitalisms tension between enclosure and openness?
Gabriella Coleman attempts to address these questions
through an ethnographic exploration of the open-source
software movement and the hackers who strove to
maintain it through the late 90s and early 2000s. Her
inquiry is a well-articulated exploration of the
implications of hacker culture and work, as she identifies
the tension between liberalism and romantic
individualism inherent in the hacker ethic and identity.
Most importantly, Coleman points out a glaring
contradiction inherent to information capitalism. She

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Emily Brooks
Emily Traeger
Gregory Kohler
Leah Brooke
Megan Danielle

identifies that speech, notably the exchange of ideas

upon which information capitalism depends for its
vitality, must remain free. However, intellectual property,

image courtesy

or the commodification of these ideas, is one of the

of In Stitches.

fundamental tenets of the neoliberal system. For

The network

Coleman, the portrait of the Open Source hacker is an

illustration of this tension and the potential for its
The book is organized into three main themes: 1) the

among crochet
groups working
on the Sydney
Reef, part of

history of hackers, hacking, and the open-source

the Crochet

movement, 2) a close ethnography of an Open Source

Coral Reef

hacker collective, and 3) an exploration of the politics and

law of the open-source movement, which probes most
deeply the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism in the
information age. While her thesis is a direct interrogation
of this tension, Coleman advances several tangential

designed to
of hyperbolic

arguments and questions through her engagement with


ethnographic data. She sheds light on the role of affect in

online community formation, notably humor in hacker

culture and history. She explores the immersive potential
of the abstract labor of hacking and its evocation of

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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman

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romantic idealism, and the implications of these on the

identity and self-concept of the individual within a
neoliberal individualizing labor structure. She questions
the poetry and language of code writing itself, and its
relationship to speech, freedom, and expressivity. These
topics, while seemingly distinct, are all connected to
Colemans foundational context: information capitalism
depends on ideologies founded in the liberalist tradition,
such individualism, rationality, competitiveness, and
private property. And yet the work of information
capitalism demands a degree of freedom from
privatization (enclosure) in order to facilitate the
exchange of ideas. Open Source Software is an excellent
example through which to articulate this contradiction.
Whats more, the hacker aesthetic defies the simplifying
ideologies of the liberal tradition, in that hackers find
themselves collaborating AND competing, distinct
individual laborers AND immersed romantic subjects lost
in their labor, rational AND emotional beings. They are
laborers who are fighting the structure that demands
their labor, for the right to keep laboring, and yet not be
alienated from this labor.
Colemans first chapter gives us a snapshot of who a
hacker is: their history, aesthetics, affect, values, and
ethics. She does this through a synthesis of the stories of
her informants, and is careful to acknowledge the
limitations of this method in capturing the rich diversity
of the personalities surveyed. She contextualizes her
portrait of the hacker in the canon of lifeworld
ethnography, in the tradition of anthropologist Michael
Jackson (1996), emphasizing the intersubjective dynamic
nature of actors within the networks they inhabit.[1]
Colemans second chapter takes us into the history of the
Open Source movement and its engagement with

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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman

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corporations and intellectual property law. The extension

of intellectual property law and copyright law through the
1990s is sometimes referred to as the second enclosure
movement, signifying a move within information
capitalism to commodify (enclose) the most abstract
products, such as ideas, writing, art, and source code.
Open Source Software and the hackers that produce it
are extremely invested in the idea that in order for good
code to continually be produced, it must be shared and
built upon as a communal and open process. According
to this ethic, this is how the best code gets written.
Coleman further explores this productive process in her
third and fourth chapters, as she investigates the hackers
of the developer collective Debian.
It is in her third chapter where Coleman takes the most
liberty from her driving questions, as she finds herself
exploring hacker aesthetics and affect. In her words, she
connects the dots by explaining that examining humor
and cleverness will allow me to more richly demonstrate
how tensions (say between individualism and
collectivism) arise through the course of intellectual
practice, and how hackers partially resolve them. (95) In
her view, discussing the excess to the rational logic of
capitalist production, in this case humor and art, belies
some of the contradictions inherent in the person of the
hacker, who is simultaneously espousing liberal ideals
such as meritocracy and individualism. Individualism is of
particular interest to Coleman, as she finds that hackers
oftentimes combine romanticist ideals such as personal
creative fulfillment with liberal ideals such as
individualism in a somewhat Mills-inspired version of
liberal democratic idealism. For me, this was an
interesting illustration of yet another tension within
information capitalism at our present moment, and

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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman

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somehow it was still tangential to the question of

enclosure and openness. What does come up in the third
chapter that I think is most relevant to this question is the
fact that hackers are living proof that profit is certainly
not the only motivator of the labor of production,
contrary to arguments advanced in intellectual property
cases. This excess to capitalist rationality is beautifully
illustrated by Coleman as she shares the artistic
cleverness of her subjects. For the hacker, the most
valorized form of production is that which is both
functional and beautiful, and of course, is recirculated.
In chapter 4 Coleman continues her close reading of the
developer collective in an effort to fill in a gap in the
literature on Open Source Software, a gap that she
believes ignores the plasticity of human motivations and
ethical perceptions. (123) This chapter is an attempt to
establish how hackers organize themselves via the
process of labor, thereby illustrating hacker ethics in
more detail. For me, it was the least useful chapter in
terms of understanding the main thrust of the text, and
provided little stimulation in terms of new ideas.
Chapters 5 and 6 were an improvement in this regard, as
they explore the legal and political facets of hacker ethics.
It is in chapter 5 that code becomes speech, and the
question of what is speech arises but is left to future
scholars. Coleman here shows us the competition
between legal regimes of free speech and intellectual
property, as it plays out in the court system and the
streets. She emphasizes that many developers have been
careful to frame the open source movement as nonpolitical, representing neither the left nor the right, but to
frame it in terms of the ideology of freedom. Software
developers have now deployed and also contest the law
to reconfigure central tenets of the liberal tradition-and

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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman

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specifically the meaning of free speech-to defend their

productive autonomy. (183) In her final chapter
Coleman suggests that this use of the liberal tradition,
which is at the center of American identity and in many
ways is popularly unquestioned, allowed the movement
to frame itself in terms that left it unscathed in debates
between the left and the right typical in the
contemporary neoliberal context (accusations of
communism did not stick, for example). It is here that she
returns to her originating question regarding the tension
between enclosure and openness in information
capitalism, and the case study of the Open Source
Software hacker as illustrative of how it is most recently
mitigated via the employment of the liberalist rhetoric of
freedom (namely free speech) and autonomy within a
neoliberal structure of productive relations.
Colemans success lies in several areas. She has a fluid
and easy writing style, with a panache for storytelling that
makes her theoretical arguments both robust and
accessible. The organization of the text makes sense as a
progressive introduction to the world of hacking-its
history, context, personification, and contemporary
implications. Her use of ethnographic data is wellexecuted and rhythmic, as she moves between in-depth
analyses of the data and theoretical extrapolations. Her
contributions to the field are novel and relevant, and she
does the work of situating herself within the context of
past and present work on internet communities and
information capitalism, within Critical Theory,
Anthropology, and STS. Where the book falls short is in
Colemans attempt to support the main argument of her
book throughout the text. The reader may find
themselves lost in the middle chapters, without a trail
leading back to the main argument. While Coleman

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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman

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weaves an intricately captivating web around the subjects

of affect, expressive romanticism, poetry, the human,
hacking as repurposing, and free speech, she sometimes
neglects to return to her subject of inquiry.
Coleman leaves us with the sense that this tension
between enclosure and openness is far from resolved,
and indeed may one day move beyond a battle between
intellectual property law and free speech law. Indeed,
considering source code as free speech, artistic
expression, and creative license may be a temporary
condition within the legal regime. We are left to consider
a number of questions that Coleman has evoked
throughout her book. What is speech, really? What is the
meaning of the word free? How will the internet
continue to facilitate productive relations? What will
come of this tension between enclosure and openness in
and information capitalism, when it so relies on both
processes for the accrual of capital? And finally, what is
the future of internet communities and the Commons?
Coleman has extended her own questions in her most
recent work on the hacktivist Collective Anonymous[2],
but it is up to contemporary scholars to set to work right
away in resolving the others before this window of
freedom closes.

Jackson, Michael, ed. Things as they are: New directions
in phenomenological anthropology. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1996.
Latour, Bruno. Science in action: How to follow scientists

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Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriella Coleman

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and engineers through society. Harvard university press,

Coleman, Gabriella. 2014.

[1] Latour 1987


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Written by Anne Elizabeth Yaniga

2014 Techno_ethno

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