An anthropologist explains how hackers are changing the definition of freedom

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Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by E. Gabriella Coleman, dives into the ocean of software hacking: its culture, personalities, and craft. But it's also a legal history of hacking (modifying code) and cracking (illegally modifying code). Working an anthropologist, she haunted cons, chat rooms, and dug into the Linux kernel to unearth nuggets of insight. Though occasionally she uses academic jargon, her book is an intriguing read and connects the dots. What emerges is a picture of the "craft and craftiness" of hackers, how the free/open source movement came into being, and the battles being fought over digital rights in courtrooms, on street cams, and in government offices every day.

As much as death and taxes, computer code matters to each and every one of us. Whether you believe that "information wants to be free" or "code is speech," this structured language is the lifeblood of the automatons that are deeply embedded in our lives. Your car, smart phone, search engine, digital camera, and pacemaker are all running code. Code matters, and just like technique in surgery or standards for electrical transmission, the laws, institutions, systems, and individuals involved are critical as well.


Coleman argues that two cultures have been colliding in the United States for years — the culture of hacking and the culture of intellectual property favored by the entertainment industry. Yet this clash has taken place in the shadow realm of code, intellectual rights, and things that glow in the night. The combatants and their weaponry sport strange monikers: Warez, Debian GNU, SOPA. They are fighting for nothing less than what Lawrence Lessig calls the "future of ideas," what it means to be a free individual, and the nature of that elusive beast, software, which is pushing the wave of the future.

An open society requires the free exchange of ideas and information, but the meanings of freedom and openness are shifting as media conglomerates try to protect their evanescent products, as publishers, authors, and universities struggle with ownership, and as the epic battle of patent law drains the lifeblood of software companies large and small.


Over the past three decades, starting with the occasional manifesto, hacking has grown and evolved to accommodate complex licensing, creative commons, and open source operating systems. As a result of this growth and complexity, hacked code is now used by millions, and the culture is deep, meaningful, and practical. Coleman's book is both a scholarly history and a sympathetic plea for understanding hackers - what they do, how they think and feel, the jokes they crack, their underground, overground, and online meetings. The next time you pick up a book, read an article online, post a comment on social media, watch a downloaded movie, or set a parameter, think about the battle for rights and access going on in the cloud and the courtrooms. Freedom is a complex and gargantuan entity, and there are many who would tie it down, like Gulliver, because they can't understand or handle it. Reading this book will help you to understand the conflict, as well as hacker culture.