Clifford Geertz (1973) opened his seminal “The Interpretation of Cultures” with a helpful concept borrowed from British philosopher of language Gilbert Ryle: “thick description.” Ryle (2009) posits one of the thought experiments philosophers of language are so fond of, asking us to imagine two men winking, one due to an involuntary twitch, the other to signal a co-conspirator.
A thin description, in which an observer notes that both men winked, is incomplete at best, and misleading at worst. A thick description, which considers not just the two acts but an examination of the context, significance, motivation and meaning of the acts is much more difficult to construct, but brings us closer to the “actor’s eye view” of a situation, though Geertz hastens to remind us that “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to.” Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Hackers are a danger to this society.
I remember, early in my academic career, encountering Herbert Schiller in a mail room. Perhaps it was because I was just surprised, but for the only time in my entire life I was dumbstruck. I had been so taken by his work on the role of communication in American empire, and so utterly convinced that he was wrong about the potential for the internet in that process, that I wasn’t quite sure what to say to him then. Consider what follows, then, as an extreme case of l’esprit d’escalier, a reflection encouraged by Coleman’s Coding Freedom. Continue reading
Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton Univ. Press 2013).
Earlier this year, the death of internet activist Aaron Swartz drew attention to a world often hidden from public view: the world of computer programmers and activists fighting to keep the internet free, uncensored, and safe to use. As more and more of our everyday activities occur online—from socializing to banking to political organizing—questions about who owns and controls online spaces are becoming increasingly central issues. Still, few of us actively think about these concerns when we open our browsers and update our facebook statuses. In Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, we are introduced to the world of activists who are working on behalf of the rest of us, internet activists and hackers who actively question the rules of the online game. For our July essay dialogue, contributors were asked to respond to Coleman’s book and the fascinating questions it raises: Are hackers a danger to society, as they are often framed, or are they indeed activists—even freedom fighters—in an increasingly internet-focused world? What does it mean to be an “activist” when one rarely sees or interacts with fellow activists in person? In an age when information has become a major form of currency, is hacking the next line of defense in fighting for freedom and rights of access for marginalized groups? Many thanks to contributing editor, Jen Schradie, for her guidance in planning this dialogue and to our distinguished contributors.
Round 1 Contributors:
Jo Bates, University of Sheffield (essay)
Denisa Kera, National University of Singapore (essay)
Brett Lunceford, Independent Researcher (essay)
Jorge Luis Zapico, KTH The Royal Institute of Technology (essay)
Round 2 Contributors (posted 7/19):
Alexander Halavais, Arizona State University, (essay)
Stéphane Leman-Langlois, Laval University (essay)
Ethan Zuckerman, MIT (essay)
Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Dan Myers
As I write this response to Gabriella Coleman’s fascinating work on the hacker communities that develop Free and Open Source Software, and engage with the question of the political role of such collectives, Edward Snowdon has become the latest protagonist in a protracted and deep struggle for “information freedom” to surface into the public consciousness.
Whilst the cases differ, the underlying sensibilities—and logics—of these various social actors overlap. As Coleman begins to explore, strong ethical commitments to a liberalism based upon freedom of speech and citizens’ right to privacy underpin a core element of these various collectives of “information activists” who are responding to a range of corporate and state violations of such values during an era of unprecedented, and expanding, rates of production and distribution of data and information. Continue reading
I work with programming, I like making things, I believe that information should be free, I use open source software, I put working code above a fancy slideshow, I think computers can help to make the world a better place and that people ought to have the chance to use them. So I consider myself (in some way) a hacker. The problem is that if I say that, most people would get the wrong idea and think I am involved in some shady activity. An example to illustrate this is when the university wrote about the Green Hackathon events which I co-organize and where developers and researchers meet to create prototypes and solutions for sustainability problems. The article wrote about how we were “white hat hackers” and made clear that we were “not out to break into your bank account or steal government secrets.” So how did that disparity of meaning happen between what I mean as hacker and how media uses the term? Continue reading
When I received Coleman’s book, the first thing that I did was check the bibliography to find out exactly what kind of hackers we were talking about. Turning to the back, I was surprised to see some seemingly missing entries. Paul Taylor’s amazing ethnography of hackers, Hackers: Crime and the Digital Sublime, was oddly missing. Tim Jordan’s Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism gets a nod, but none of his other books that talk about political activism and hacking are mentioned. What this told me was that we were dealing with socially acceptable (for the most part) hackers rather than the shadowy hackers that concern the rest of the world. A cursory glance at the table of contents suggests that this book focuses heavily on the free / open source software (F/OSS) movement (which it does), but this also illustrates the differences among groups of hackers. This distinction will serve as the focal point for my remark as I consider the question “Hackers: Freedom Fighters or Danger to Society?” Continue reading