Transcript for Gabriella Coleman on "Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking"

Jim Fleming: Computer hackers have taken on a kind of mythic aura, but how much do we really know about them? Gabriella Coleman can help us with this. She’s the Wolfe chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal. Coleman’s also an anthropologist, and the author of a book called "Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking."

Gabriella Coleman: A hacker. When you say the name, invariably I think a couple images of kind of, criminal breaking into a computer immediately comes to mind. But, when you look at hackers historically, sociologically, anthropologically, you see basically computer aficionados, really, really dedicated to the craft of computing. And that’s what a hacker is in a kind of very general sense.

Fleming: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because it changes the way you think about them. I think you’re right, people say “hacker” and they think it’s somebody who’s trying to break in and make a mess of things.

Coleman: Yeah, cause some sort of malicious damage. And it’s generally the case that there is that type of hacking, and there’s even kind of transgressive tradition in hacking, which is I would say illegal but not necessarily criminal, as well. Fleming: Now you’re an anthropologist, which means you’re interested in the culture of hackers. Is that a fair statement?

Coleman: Definitely. And especially their ethics and politics, that’s what really drew me in more than anything else.

Fleming: How’d you get interested, how did it start?

Coleman: It started by learning about a license called the copyleft. It’s really a class of licenses which really work in a very distinct way from copyright. Basically, they grant access to users to access, modify, and distribute software. And when I had learned that the copyleft had been invented by these free software hackers, and was not only in use, but was what was being used on most of the internet, I was interested, I was surprised. I was like, OK, here are a bunch of technically minded computer folks who had basically reinvented the lock. And that’s when I delved in.

Fleming: Now you have actually gotten to know this first hand, you spent what, three years living with hackers in San Francisco?

Coleman: Yep, three years. And I had done some research before and after as well online.

Fleming: This was just kind of when you were getting started with this. You had actually done some work on hackers for your academic studies. But this, this is kind of a different flavor, isn’t it?

Coleman: It is for anthropologists, who have tended, especially if it’s your first project, to leave your home country, go somewhere far away to do your initial research project. And I decided to as I say, stay home. But I did find a very unfamiliar world to the one that I was used to.

Fleming: I was going to say, you left your home country in the sense that these people, they’re not completely different from everybody else you know, in fact many of them may be people you know. But the culture is different from everyday society isn’t it?

Coleman: No, that’s precisely right. And it’s interesting, it was a friend of mine who had kind of clued me in to the copyleft, and I and known him for quite a long time. And he had sort of kept that, not hidden as a secret, but he just didn’t think I was necessarily interested in it. And it’s definitely the case that what they do is not necessarily available or necessarily transparent to the rest of the world. Although, this was one of the interesting parts about my research, is they’re definitely committed to certain ideals, like free speech, which do have broader currency.

Fleming: In fact, in your book, "Coding Freedom," you say at one point that the hacker world was the place where “the cultures of civil liberties was on fire”. That’s a pretty strong statement.

Coleman: It is, and I stand by it still. I still see it well and alive and kicking. And I think it really hit me at a certain point when about the 10th, 11th, 12th hacker was quoting Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, and then expanding on that to talk about the loss of civil liberties today. And that’s really when I was like, OK, these folks are not simply building technology, but are really quite committed to certain strains of civil liberties in a very active way.

Fleming: What’s fascinating I think is to the outside world, people who know source code, who live inside computers, don’t seem to be the kind of people who would care about the things that you’ve discovered the hacker community really does care about. This whole business of copyright and copyleft, of consciousness of the legal implication of what they’re doing. In fact, you suggest that they may be more acutely conscious of the legal implications of free and open-source software than anybody else.

Coleman: No, absolutely. And it’s interesting because I make the argument that for many of them, they come to law and politics to protect their productive autonomy. Their ability to exchange knowledge, share, build better technology. Over time they come to care about broader issues that sometimes exceed just their technical craft. But what’s so interesting as well, is that I think their technical skills transfer over to the legal realm. So they become quite adept at reading the law, understanding the law, and making the law. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’d be good lawyers, because there’s a lot of skills that are non technical that go into being a good lawyer, but nonetheless, those very technical skills help us explain why they so easily have been able to embrace the law. And make that part and parcel of their craft today.

Fleming: There is a kind of, I’m not sure exactly what to call it. There is a community that’s living and breathing that isn’t just numbers, maybe that’s what it is. But where it leads, is to things that are not just technical efforts, but moral efforts. I was thinking about the Debian project. Tell me about the Debian project.

Coleman: So, Debian is a flavor of the Linux operating system, because Linux can come in different flavors. And it’s currently a project of over a thousand individuals, located all over the world, who work together to make sure that this operating system works and works well. And what’s so fascinating about Debian is not simply that they are dispersed and can produce the high quality product, it’s just how complicated of an institution Debian is. They have a social contract, and their constitution, and guidelines, and very complicated voting procedures. And this was also astounding to discover.

Fleming: It’s almost like the building of a country isn’t it? It was just a few people at the beginning, and before they let it grow, they established a moral basis on which it was allowed to grow.

Coleman: Exactly. And there were moments that there were definitely growing pains. And people said “OK, this is not working, what are we going to do about it?” And it’s again really kind of ironic, because a lot of these technical people if you ask them, they’d say, “Oh, we’re not good at the social stuff. Building a kind of organization.” But in fact, those who decide to partake, because not everyone has to partake in the building of the organization, those that do have come up with very clever processes and procedures.

Fleming: You’ve spent a lot of time writing about Anonymous, another organization of hackers. Although, maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe it isn’t just hackers. You even started writing a book about that, isn’t that right?

Coleman: Yes, and I’m so glad you mentioned that. I mean, what’s so fascinating about Anonymous is precisely, on the one hand, hackers are essential to the building of what are different networks and different nodes and different groups, sometimes who sit in a lot of tension with each other. They set up communication, infrastructure. They’re the ones with the technical skills to engage in the hacking operations. Yet on the other hand, unlike a Debian, it truly is kind of open. Whoever wants to show up on the internet relay chat channels, to contribute, whoever want to call themselves Anonymous can call themselves Anonymous. It has this extremely fluid, open, participatory dimension to it that some other hacker projects do not have.

Fleming: On the one hand that would be great, of course. “Everybody join, come on, we’re all together on this.” On the other hand, it means you’re sitting there, and the name you use for yourself gets used by somebody with whom you may have serious disagreements.

Coleman: Absolutely. And it’s interesting because the different networks actually have distinct political cultures. So one of them, which protests the Church of Scientology, they no longer use something like a distributed denial of service campaign, which is sending too many requests to a webpage and it renders it inaccessible.

Fleming: Yeah, there have been a lot in the news lately about efforts to bust up, the daily operations at least, of specified organizations.

Coleman: Exactly, and other networks embrace this tactic as well. And then occasionally, occasionally there’s an action in the name of Anonymous that then all the different networks go, “We don’t agree with that.” OK, someone can call themselves Anonymous, but it’s pretty clear that it’s a kind of lone individual acting.

Fleming: In the book you say that you think of anonymous as both visible and invisible. Is that because some parts of it insist on staying hidden? And some don’t?

Coleman: That’s exactly it. I mean, it’s fascinating. Anonymous is something that has landed on magazine covers, the mask has been taken up by rabble-rousers and protests all over the world. It’s on CNN, Russian today. It just has this enormous visibility; keeps popping up in places you don’t expect it. Like a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio. You’re like, “What?” On the other hand, for example, the largest twitter account, Your Anonymous News, which is about to establish a kind of news site, has never granted one interview to the media. Who are these people? They’re hard to access. Once they get arrested they become unmasked. But otherwise it can be quite difficult to really understand who they are and who they are behind the mask.

Fleming: Gabriella Coleman is the author of "Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking."

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