Funnily enough, I finally get around to reading Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom, and she pops up on the next episode of the Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast! I do love a good coincidence, especially when it tells me there’s a new book out: Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.
Coding Freedom is an odd book in many ways. It’s an anthropology of hackers, and Debian and free software hackers in particular. They’re a group I’ve always been fascinated by, and thought I knew. Now that I’ve read Coding Freedom, however, I realise I only knew about the half of it.
I have an archaeology degree (what’s often called ‘anthropology’ in the US), and so I’ve read my fill of anthropological studies of non-western, non-industrialised societies. For that reason it was a new thing to read a study of what, in the end, is a group largely made of up of people very similar to me – white, 18-35 year old males from a developed Western nation.
There were times in the book that alarm bells started ringing, as the academic anthropological language kicked in, such as an extended examination of hacker humour. But what soon became clear – and I think this is true for all anthropological studies – is that this was essential to understanding things which it is too easy to take at face value, or to take for granted. So through something with the appearance of complexity comes a stripping back to simplicity. In the end, the reader *really* knows about hacker culture, and how it differs from the public image, because the study explains even the basics of hacker culture. This is particularly brought out through examination of crises which have shaken the Debian community, as well as those golden moments which brought it together.
The other odd thing about this book, but which again makes perfect sense, is that it’s been released under a Creative Commons license, specifically a by-nc-nd (essentially, you’re free to redistribute it, but you mustn’t use it for commercial gain, nor distribute altered versions). What this means in practice is that you can download a PDF of the book for free. Bonus!
Read this book if you want to know the ins and outs of a group of hackers, a co-operative band of coders who give away their work for free, with the knowledge that they’ll get back much more than they put in. Read it too if you want to know why Linux, and particularly Debian, is the way it is, and how this springs from the attitudes of the individuals and the group. Free and Open Source Software is a major movement in the way programs are created, and is something we should all take at least a passing interest in.
I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Hacker, Hoaker, Whistleblower, Spy, though I’ll be having to pay for that one…
Links and References
Coding Freedom: the ethics and aesthetics of hacking: download the Creative Commons-licensed PDF (or buy it from Amazon)
Guardian Tech Weekly podcast episode in which Professor Coleman is interviewed.