There is a future where hackers have become irrelevant. In that future, abundant “free” or nearly free software (“apps”) flows on magical devices such as intelligent phones, tablets, eyeglasses, watches, televisions and refrigerators. Few people use actual, general purpose computers, and those who do rely exclusively on (free) cloud-based services.
Of course those intelligent devices are anything but. They are in fact dumb as bricks and are mostly meant to monetize user habits and personal information through the offering of “4G” and “5G” connections to videos of toilet-flushing cats and Technovikings on Youtube. Equally evident is that the word “free” in this scenario has a very specific meaning, as in “free of direct monetary cost” (or nearly so). It is definitely not free as in “open,” nor as in “no strings attached.” This is proprietary, closed software offered in proprietary environments, delivered through proprietary networks on tethered devices, and it runs on consumer behavior modification.
In that future there is almost nothing to hack, and little interest for what remains. Nevertheless, IT/contents conglomerates and their governmental backers still perceive the very possibility of non-industrial software or contents as a threat to quarterly revenues and pre-electoral economies. Combined with fears of paedophiles, terrorists, leakers and spies, this threat will justify the imposition of grossly disproportionate punishments and the filtering of all internet traffic through multiple levels of DPI appliances operated or imposed by governments and corporations. Criminologists might call this an “industrial moral panic”—as opposed to a classic moral panic such as the Salem witch hunts of the seventeenth Century—where spiraling and mutually supporting apprehensions lead to extreme responses.
Coleman’s book is most definitely not about that future. In fact the title can be read to mean that coding leads to freedom (at least in the limited sense of the freedom to code), which seems overly optimistic. Can hacking protect us from the future described above?
The book does not set out to answer that question but offers some clues. Much of the text retells the recent heroic past of the more “respectable” hackers who work on free (and later rebranded as the more capitalist-friendly “open”) software, and more specifically the Debian Linux distribution. Though the antisec and warez crowds are mentioned in passing, along with the famous DeCSS and the Sklyarov/Adobe cases, controversies are mostly kept at the margins of the story, which is more concerned with the victories of the free software hacker ethic over the proprietarization of computing (e.g., the GPL licensing scheme).
Those victories, however, reside in a political fog. Even within her specific hacker subset, Coleman finds few commonalities—and none has to do with politics. Hackers may or may not be “freedom fighters,” “dangers to society,” both, or neither. Most of what they think about is code and the recognition they get from their peers for their performance. This is observable with the warez hackers as well, who strive to be first to crack the best-protected industrial software. For the most part, the hacker ethic is the framework by which performance is measured and rewarded. In fact, the Debian hackers explicitly avoid politics and systematically represent their (rare) clashes with industry and governments in terms of an apolitical, natural right to “free speech” (p. 189). To Coleman’s hackers, free software is free of politics as well.
Yet, as Coleman rightly notes, whether they like it or not, hackers don’t simply hack code: they hack (at) the system. They enact, they “do” politics with each new line of code, not because they want to, though they of course may, but because their actions have been politicized by empowered elites. Their persistence is a form of resistance to a powerful discourse that labels them as deviants in order to impose a specific form of production and consumption structure. Few hackers wittingly set out to beat this system, for two reasons that Coleman brings out cogently. First, as already mentioned, hackers are not a political lot: they love coding. Second, it was the other way around: the software/contents copyright empire (and in particular the infamous US DMCA) was invented to carve out an industry, and in order to do this it had to beat the freeware and shareware coders. It was its relentless attacks that politicized some hackers.
Whether it is explicitly political or not, non-industrial or anti-industrial hacking—just like the work of remixers, mashers, etc.—also constitutes a continuous demonstration that the copyright logic has no basis in fact or in ethics. It is simply not true that this protection is necessary in order to maintain the quality or the quantity of the protected material, or that the only way to have software, books, music, movies at all is industrial production and locked distribution. If this system were ethically defensible, the problem would be less serious. But it is not. It protects corporations, not creators; and it protects them by transforming citizens into force-fed, disempowered consumers through the imposition of draconian punishment.
There are powerful, yet hidden or complex, variables that make predicting the future of communications technologies highly imprudent—for instance, the fact that most new netizens come from developing countries (Kenya, Columbia), failed states (Somalia; see Ronald Deibert’s Black Code), or info-totalitarian states (e.g., China, India). So even though the dystopian future described above is already almost here—some may even say it is old news—a few months could change everything.
In that context it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what role hackers might, wittingly or not, play. To the extent that the definition of “hacking” is to tinker with pre-existing, pre-structured code (as in Lessig’s language), and whether it merely adapts the existing object or subverts it entirely, it engenders a dilemma. On one hand, such hacking is an absolutely necessary wrench in the works of the totalitarian machine that the info society could become. In fact if we are to challenge the disproportionate, and increasing, order and control that are being imposed on those aspects of our lives that are IT-mediated (i.e., nearly all), perhaps we should all, each according to his or her skills, hack (at) something. On the other hand, this is precisely the type of activity that is invariably used to legitimate new broader and stricter laws. It remains to be seen if that conundrum can only be resolved by an “internet Spring.”