posted by Biella Coleman
I first want to thank Danielle Citron and the contributors for engaging so thoughtfully with Coding Freedom. Since the entries spurred so many thoughts I thought instead of only replying via comments as I have done with some of them, I would write one post and especially address the one concern nearly everyone voiced: the limits to and the problem of elitism and exclusion in hacker based politics.
It is a bit ironic that I went from one domain of hacker and geek politics—free and open source software—whose politics are configured narrowly around questions of productive freedom to Anonymous, which is so fundamentally about political change and transformation through direct action and protest politics. So while free software developers embrace the politics of their actions only reluctantly, if at all, Anonymous has become a banner used by activists to organize diverse forms of collective action, ranging from street protests to web site defacements. Juxtaposing Anonymous with free software is a reminder that while hackers are in the first instance technologists, they are diverse in thought and action, which mean they are not bound to any single type of politics.
I often describe hacker politics as Weapons of the Geek, in contrast to Weapons of the Weak—the term anthropologist James Scott uses to capture the unique, clandestine nature of peasant politics. While Weapons of the Weak is a modality of politics among disenfranchised, economically marginalized populations who engage in small-scale illicit acts —such as foot dragging and minor acts of sabotage—that don’t appear on their surface to be political, Weapons of the Geek is a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged actors who often lie at the center of economic life. Among geeks and hackers, political activities are rooted in concrete experiences of their craft—administering a server or editing videos—and portion of these hackers channel these skills toward political life. To put another way hackers don’t necessarily have class-consciousness, though some certainly do, but they all tend to have craft consciousness. But they have already shown they are willing to engage in prolific and distinct types of political acts from policy making to party politics, from writing free software to engaging in some of the most pronounced and personally risky acts of civil disobedience of the last decade as we saw with Snowden. Just because they are hackers does not mean they are only acting out their politics through technology even if their technological experiences usually inform their politics.
It concerns and bothers me that most technologists are male and white but I am not concerned, in fact I am quite thrilled, these experts are taking political charge. I tend to agree with Michael Shudson’s reading of Walter Lippman that when it comes to democracy we need more experts not less: “The intellectual challenge is not to invent democracy without experts, but to seek a way to harness experts to a legitimately democratic function.”
Imagine if as many doctors and professors mobilized their moral authority and expertise as hackers have done, to rise up and intervene in the problems plaguing their vocational domains. Professors would be visibly denouncing the dismal and outrageous labor conditions of adjuncts whose pay is a pittance. Doctors would be involved in the fight for more affordable health care in the United States. Mobilizing expertise does not mean other stakeholders can’t and should not have a voice but there are many practical and moral reasons why we should embrace a politics of expertise, especially if configured to allow more generally contributions.
More than any other group of experts, hackers have shown how productive an expert based politics can be. And many domains of hacker and geek politics such as the Pirate Parties and Anonymous are interesting precisely for how they marry an open participatory element along with a more technical, expert-based one. Expertise can co-exist with participation if configured as such.
My sense is that hacker (re: technically informed) based politics will grow more important in years to come. Just last week I went to visit one hacker-activist, Jeremy Hammond who is in jail for his politically motivated acts of direct action. I asked him what he thought of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s blanket surveillance of American citizens. Along with saying he was encouraged for someone dared to expose this wrongdoing (as many of us are), he captured the enormous power held by hackers and technologists when he followed with this statement: “there are all these nerds who don’t agree with what is politically happening and they have power.”
Hammond and others are exercising their technical power and I generally think this is a net gain for democracy. But it is why we must diligently work toward establishing more widespread digital and technical literacy. The low numbers of female technologists and other minorities in and out of hacker-dom are appalling and disturbing (and why I am involved with initiatives like those of NCWIT to rectify this problem). There are certainly barriers internal to the hacker world but the problems are so entrenched and so systematic unless those are solved, the numbers of women in voluntary and political domains will continue to be low.
So it is not that expertise is the problem. It is the barriers that prevent a large class of individuals from ever becoming experts that concerns me the most.