Can There Be a Republic of Coders? The Aesthetics, Ethics, and Metaphysics of Coding Freedom

By Denisa Kera

Coleman’s comprehensive and engaging reflection of the hacker culture invites us to rethink the relation between the utopian potential to “code freedom,” change society through disruptive, legal, and technical tools, the utilitarian calls for “freedom to code,” and the metaphysical ideas behind “open” and “free” code.  Do these acts of coding express the liberal traditions of free speech, the communitarian longing for community based on shared forms of life, or some romantic delusion of self-creation and radical autonomy? Should we simply classify them as pragmatic responses to certain legal and political restrictions influencing one industry and passion or should we look deeper into the metaphysical and ontological implications behind “code” and software?

Coleman’s generous and thought provoking gesture towards the hacker community has some of the qualities of the groundbreaking works of the 17th and 18th century political philosophy when thinkers dared to ask whether an utopian state based on natural philosophy, science, and later even atheism could exist. What type of community and state can we build based on our involvement with code and the changing legal understanding of technology? Can there be a republic of coders?

While 17th and 18th century authors dared to imagine a state based on something other than religion, body politics, or other visions of perfect and natural unity (Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Tomas Campanella on natural philosophy, and later more radical materialist positions in Pierre Bayle, Denis Diderot or Baron d’Holbach), Gabriella Coleman invites us to rethink code from this perspective. Her Coding Freedom critically engages with the origins, but also the implications of a community formed and based around code and hacking, which in recent years evolved into various maker, opens source hardware, and hackerspace experiments.

Her careful and empirical look into the concrete “material, affective, and aesthetic dimensions of hacking” helps us to understand the strange mixture of pragmatic and utopian responses to law and governance in various geek communities over the last two decades. The hacker communities come out of this not as one ideology, but as a set of productive and creative negotiations of the paradoxes involved in individualism and collectivism (“liberal individualism” and “corporate sociality”), elitism and humility. Their “elastic” and adaptable use of rules and technologies serves “divergent political and economic practices and imaginaries,” For example the “Debian’s governance” is a unique blend of the “democratic majoritarian rule, a guildlike meritocracy, and ad hoc deliberations.” Coleman provokes us to wonder if this is just another neoliberal excess or a genuine expression of some technological agency, such as the original robustness principles of the TCP/IP protocol, which enabled internet and which reads like a political declaration (even if it is an attempt to set a principle for the developers and the technologies to cooperate): “Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others” [(RFC 793) Transmission Control Protocol Philosophy, 2.10.  Robustness Principle, January 1980].

The book on “Coding Freedom” embodies such robustness principles in the creative way it engages various disciplines from political theory to anthropology and philosophy, enabling productive discussions and exchanges. While the debate between ethics and aesthetics, between rethinking the values and pleasures, even the awareness and self-reflection of the hacker community is well described, the question which remains is what happened to the metaphysics? The relation of politics to technology, code to law, and the hacker communities to the larger society, opens an old debate on the relation between science and society with deeply embedded in metaphysical issues of agency.

Coleman’s discussions of liberalism and political engagements around code in the Debian and F/OSS communities could serve as a possible answer to Polanyi’s (2009 reprint) reflection on the ideal of connecting society and research—his “community of explorers,” but also Woolgar’s (2005) more recent notion of “ontological disobedience.”  They are all responses to the question of how discovery and knowledge, science and technology, relate to community building and how to define agency, will, and limits in relation to scientific laws or technological protocols and norms. Disobedience, a commitment “to be constantly unsettling, challenging, destabilizing but with no specific end in mind” (2005, p.314), is a property that Woolgar attributes only to humans, it is an expression of human freedom, self-creation and autonomy, which are the bases of all technological and other innovations. Polanyi on the other side perceives this as an ontological quality of nature and things themselves, which challenge humans by being “disobedient.” In Coleman this becomes a quality to code, and in this sense she bridges the divide between nature and society by defining hacking as a form of ontological and political disobedience.

While in Polanyi nature is disobedient and constantly provoking us to comprehend by building a “community of explorers” that have a special way of negotiating these changes and new facts that appear, he is very skeptical of any forms of “moral” disobedience, which he attributes to existentialism and nihilistic philosophies trying to apply such scientific rigor to matters of human nature and society. The disobedience is not just a form of self-reflection—realization of the freedom of our intellect or collective action— nor is it just a normative notion related to human freedom, but it is also a descriptive statement of the facts of nature which challenge us. In Coleman, disobedience becomes the essence of how hackers define their relation not only to society but also to technology and coding through their humorous and pleasurable explorations of the limits of code.

While Woolgar’s notion of “ontological disobedience” is not “ontological” enough, Polanyi’s notion of “community of explorers” is too socially conservative and restrictive. Woolgar seems to ascribe agency, decision, and normativity only to humans (but not experts or people of certain class). But for Polanyi freedom exist only in our ability to question and experiment in the realms of science; socially we should remain obedient to tradition or pragmatic models of how to run society and live our individual lives. In Woolgar’s view, ontological disobedience enables more dynamic and open ended social actions, a perpetual rebellion against social and other conventions in the name of probing their conditions, limits, and possibilities, which is exactly what Polanyi is afraid of. Do we want to keep ontological disobedience as a synonym for individual freedom and social innovation in an age where we need to take into account the technological conditions of every process, action, and event? How dependent are these “dynamic or technographic models of social action” (Woolgar) on their material and ontological conditions? Is this whole concept trying to define and describe some meta-norms or norms and standards for breaking standards?

What Coleman’s book enables us to do in this discussion is to offer and “ontological” reading of Woolgar’s notion of disobedience that pushes the performative and theatrical connotations that Woolgar is evoking. Hacking as a form of disobedience emphasizes the importance of doing stuff, creating, making, breaking, and being involved with the ontology outside of our human agency. Hacking, coding, designing, and prototyping are becoming forms of such ontological disobedience, where we employ codes, tools, laws, traditions, and norms and test different configurations to reach consensus.

References:

Polanyi, Michael. 2009 (reprint). The Tacit Dimension. London: University of Chicago Press.

Woolgar, Steve. 2005. “Ontological Disobedience—Definitely! (Maybe).” Pp. 309-24 in A Disobedient Generation, edited by Stephen P. Turner and Alan Sica. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Hackers: Freedom Fighters or Danger to Society

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