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Q&A: Hacker Culture, Coding, and Free Speech

Gabriella Coleman

"One vibrant node of hacking [has] . . . equated source code with free speech, but it's not monolithic in the hacker community," says anthropologist and author Gabriella Coleman.

Credit: Fast Company

E. Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton University Press, 2012), is fascinated by hacker culture, along with its notion that software should be free and treated as free speech. An anthropologist, she is an assistant professor in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill University.

Q: Having so closely observed and documented the hacker community, what fascinates you most about it?

A: There are two different facets, one of which is what got me to hackers in the first place. I had gone to graduate school to do a traditional medical anthropology project and had followed patents in medicine. A good friend who was a programmer pulled me aside and said, 'If you're interested in alternatives to patents and copyright, you should learn about copyleft, which is a category for different types of licenses that software developers use to mandate access, as opposed to control.

I checked it out and was floored that it was in existence and being applied to software like Linux and sunmail that was powering the Internet. I found it remarkable that this license was independent of changing legislation. This was not a policy/lobby initiative. It was dreamed up by a hacker, percolated out, and became part of the fabric of this computer world. Eventually others were inspired by it and made similar licensing schemes. It surprised me that a very technical world re-invented the law.

During two years of fieldwork as I got acquainted with this world online, I was also surprised by the abundance of humor in the hacker world. It came out face-to-face during conferences, over dinners, and clearly was also embedded in the technology itself. Hackers are often tagged as highly individualistic, arrogant, and elite, and these elements are true to some degree, but they are also conjoined by being hyper-social, an abundance of humor that ties them together, and a strong drive towards collectivism. That side really surprised me and became the focus of my book.

Q: How pervasive is the belief among hackers that content should be open and free?

A: It isn't monolithic at all to the degree that there are hackers who work in security, and hackers keen on asserting intellectual property for various reason. What's interesting about FOSS [Free and Open Source Software] is that it's one vibrant node or genre of hacking that has created a social practice around the idea that there should be access. They've equated source code with free speech, but it's not monolithic in the hacker community. There are those who do believe in access, but are not thinking about source code in terms of free speech and the First Amendment. There are forums and from websites to conferences where hackers come to debate these differences.

Q: Please explain the evolution in the hacker community of the notion of code being free speech.

A: I was at a protest in San Francisco after Dmitry Skylarov, a Russian programmer, had been arrested at Defcon. Hackers were holding a sign that said "Code is speech." I had been hearing this, but it struck me that even when I first started looking at open source in 1997, 1998 it wasn't as common as it had become in 2001 and 2002. Even Richard Stallman, who from the start had very strong ideas of sharing, a well-articulated vision of freedom, was not conceptualizing source code or software as free speech. This association only started to develop in the 1990s and started to cement around 2000.

One of the interesting ironies is that copyright actually helps one make the association between speech and code. Copyright is expressive. It's about creation, creativity. One uses it on creative acts. With copyright there's a rationalization and incentive logic in place to protect it to help induce creation and people can control it because copyright designates the object as creative or expressive. That helped cement in people's minds that source code is a form of creative expression.

It was only later, when free software was already in place, that the more particular idea that source code should be free speech started to come into being.

There was one particular case, Bernstein v. the Department of Justice, over encryption, which also became a crucial vehicle for getting that idea out there. Under munition laws one wasn't allowed to export certain forms of encryption outside the U.S. Daniel Bernstein argued that source code is a form of speech and so the First Amendment should trump those munition laws. What's interesting about that case is that it wasn't about open source. He asserted copyright in his software.

Q: Does the value or ethic that software is free and free speech vary by culture or nationality, or is it international?

A: On the one hand Open Source is vibrant in many parts of the world, from Vietnam to Brazil to Japan. Debian [the largest free software project in the world] has developers from many different parts of world. Most developers I talked to who are part of FOSS from different parts of the world definitely see source code and software as free speech. There were nuances and differences, depending on individual experiences and national ones. That said, there are large groups of hackers in China, Pakistan, and Russia who don't necessarily participate in the world of open source and are not wedded to the idea that software should be accessible.

Q: On to craftiness and humor: Are these traits common to programmers? Good programmers? Hackers?

A: Absolutely. Recently I met with the chair of McGill's CS Department, who doesn't identify with the hacker community. Within 5 to10 minutes, he was telling me a very geeky Python joke that he sent to the mailing list and that no one got. That's such a hacker thing to do.
There is something about the craft of programming and system administration, where on the one hand there is tradition and best practices, and on the other hand, you're always thinking outside of the box because you have to, because of time pressures, because you're melding or interfacing different technologies. That tinkering and fussing is common to programming in general.

Hackers take sensibility and inclination and pour gasoline on it. Programmers tend not to embed Easter egg jokes in their software. And that's something a hacker will do in part because others do it and it's a social practice. You take that crafty sensibility and cement it as a social practice.

Q: Are there unexpected commonalities to programmers' views of, or interest in, politics, entertainment, sociological issues?

A: A lot of programmers and hackers are not into politics. Even hackers who differentiate themselves sociologically from programmers — not all are engaged in politics.

In the U.S., there is a tendency for programmers and hackers to lie on the liberal to left and on the libertarian spectrum, which can converge with Republicans. There is still diversity within that, but there tend not to be socially conservative hackers in the U.S.

Hackers can be very dismissive of popular culture, and embrace sci fi and love esoteric, geeky currents whether in cinema and music. There has been a rich domain of geek culture — Star Wars, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings — that geeks, hackers, programmers participate in and gravitate towards.

Q: You describe FOSS and the push for "freedom to tinker and write code." What about the right of other programmers to control access to and profit from their invention? Do hackers recognize the other perspective?

A: There is a cohort that is adamant that all software should be free. Another cohort says you should have the right to decide whether it should be free or not. More important is the right to choose. Some developers would say that, unlike a painting, where you're drawing inspiration from someone else, software is so fundamentally collaborative that we should have more openness than less. Even if you want to control your creation, in the end your software will be used by others, impact others, and draw on others' work. For those practical and ethical reasons, it should be mandated as open. In this domain, you don't have to have ideological purity. It allows you to have different positions.

Another common position: infrastructure plumbing core technology should be open, but specialized. Software is ripe for proprietary licensing both for economic incentive reasons, as well as that this is a way to make a living. They're very, very different positions and reactions.

Q: What message would you like the computing community to get from your book?

A: Three things: Culture and ethics matter so deeply in these communities and it's really interesting to see how they're configured differently depending on project and time period. It's a rich domain of ethics. People think, 'Oh yeah, programming matters to ethics because there is programming in pacemakers and that can be hacked.'

Another element: Cultural and ethical dynamics change quickly because of the pace by which technology changes. A lot of what I wrote still applies today, but what I covered was a moment in time that has passed.

It is also interesting to me that programmers and system administrators are so important for our economy. They build stuff we need and that won't go away. Some hacker domains have created legal and institution spaces to create sites of partial autonomy, which is really helpful. That doesn't necessarily mean that those involved are trying to undermine the economy, but partial autonomy gives a critical voice and edge, which can have positive effects. How are these legal and institutional sites for autonomy created, sustained, whether they're threats? That story will continue to unfold.


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