Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

E. Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist who did her field work studying hackers – in the “free software geeks” sense of the word.  And that’s “field work” in the sense of “serious social science investigation of a culture by immersion” sense of the word.  She applied the same techniques and rigor to studying Debian maintainers as others have applied to Maori tribes.  If I’m not a member of that hacker tribe, I’ve certainly lived around them for many years, and it’s both enlightening and disconcerting to see that analysis progress.

I’m not an anthropologist, but I find the analysis insightful and largely accurate. It’s strange to see the values, mores, and rituals of my community described with the clinical compassion of the anthropologist.  In addition to describing these features, her dissection of how they relate to and are motivated by larger societal issues is compelling.  I think someone reading this could explain hacker culture more effectively both to non-hackers and to hackers themselves.

In addition, I learned some specific things about the Debian project.  I understand their positions and why I didn’t know more about them now.

Coding Freedom is a scholarly treatise and an anthropological one at that, so it is thick both with anthropological jargon and with references and citations.  That can make for dense reading, but for me, it remained compelling.


Comments are closed.