Coding collective conformity or RTFM
(Comments here are given in a personal capacity and as merely personal opinions and do not reflect the views of employers, associated institutions, friends or, in fact, anyone else. Like, really, no-one.)
First, a thanks to Danielle Citron for the invitation and opportunity to participate in this discussion with this community, and for the opportunity to read and reflect on Coding Freedom. Gabriella Coleman has written a deeply interesting book about the hacker culture in general and free software in particular, and there are plenty of themes in it that are worthwhile discussing, but before I dig into them I would like to explore a contrary perspective.
The title of the book, Coding Freedom, seems to imply that the hacker culture is positively correlated with the increase of freedom in our societies, but in fact it seems as a critical reader could argue the opposite is true. Are we more or less free today than we were at the beginning of the hacker revolution? It does really seem possible to argue that the rise of hacker culture coincides with the rise of state surveillance, filtering and the proliferation of control across the networks. Let us leave aside, for the moment, if that is statistically accurate or not and see if there are any explanations in Coleman’s analysis that would help explain such an seemingly contradictory correlation.
I think there are such explanations. Coleman’s analysis of hacker meritocracy is fascinating and illuminating. In analyzing the prevalent meritocracy that she finds she writes “Still the predominant sentiment is that once knowledge has been released to the collective of hackers, individuals must, on their own two feet, prove their worth by creating new forms of value that can be fed back recursively to the community. If one seeks too much help, this violates the hacker implementation of the proper meritocratic order, and one might be subjected to a stylized rebuff such as the common RTFM.” (p 122)
Coding freedom, but with a threshold of the RTFM, creates a peculiar kind of freedom. It is a freedom earned through participation and contribution, and lost by not being able to follow the steps of those that have gone before. Returning to our question, then, we could argue that it is actually not surprising that overall freedom has been curtailed, because the freedom of the subset of citizens who have joined the hacker community has in fact increased. The tools available to that community still allow you to protect yourself, circumvent filters and escape controls on the network. But that is a different vision than the vision of code as law, or code as the foundational element of freedom that seems to permeate some of the rhetoric in the free software movement. The “free” as in “free speech” is not speech that is free to those who have learned the tools of speech and built them, it is another kind of freedom – given unconditionally to all.
In this version of the information society, code is indeed law, but only for those that do not write it. For the coders, the merited, it becomes a nuisance at worst, a way of preserving guild privilege at best.
Coleman acknowledges this, and goes on to try to show that there actually are checks and balances for this in the Debian community, for example, but these are only checks and balances within the existing meritocracy – they do not apply to the outside, the non-coders. The social contract in Debian is, our critical reader could argue, not authored from a Rawlsian original position where you may or may not be a coder – it is authored from the perspective of the already anointed coders who know that they will be part of the meritocracy to start with – and at the core of the project at that.
So, let us sum up our critical contrarian reader’s perspective.
If code is law, code is speech and we are coding freedom – where then is that freedom when more states than ever engage in filtering, surveillance and oppression? What are the actual effects that allow us to believe that there is any relationship between freedom coded and freedom proper in our societies?
There are a number of possible answers here. One is to simply state that our critical reader misunderstands – wilfully – the use of the word freedom. The freedom coded here is a freedom to tinker, build, explore and use software. It never aspired to anything beyond that, and associating it with social freedom is simply nonsense. Or we could say the effects of coded freedom are there, but in projects like MIT Open CourseWare that inherit their shape and form from the free software movement – arguing that the legal instruments of freedom created within the movement have proliferated and allowed for new forms of sharing.
There is something to both of those answers, and I find the second very intriguing, but still – is this really freedom that we are talking about? In the sense of classical liberal liberty? Look at how John Stuart Mill defines liberty:
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…”
Ensuring liberty, then, is ensuring individual independence. It seems as if what we see in the F/OSS study that Coleman outlines something that is almost the opposite of this: a series of strong directives and pledges that enforce the existing rules of a segmented meritocracy for every new prospective entrant. This is not liberalism, and here it is hard to see that the hacker morality “enunciates a liberal politics of free speech and liberty” (p 15) as Coleman argues. In a sense, what Coleman describes in her book, is rather – a critical reader might argue – the coding of collective conformity.
Now, I don’t necessarily subscribe to that interpretation, because I think there is evidence that F/OSS really does have corona effects in society at large, but I find it an intriguing perspective to read Coleman’s excellent book against, as a kind of friction. The strongest argument against our critical reader is found in the hacker equation of code and speech, and I hope to get to that next — as I find it a rich and complex source of insights.