Tag Archives: book club

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part II: Codes of Value

In Part II of Coding Freedom, Biella begins the vital work of problematizing the meritocratic ideal.

“Hackers will publicly acknowledge… acts of “genius” and are thus fiercely meritocratic – in ideology and practice. Yet given that so much of hacker production is collective, a fact increasingly acknowledged and even celebrated in the ethical philosophy of F/OSS, a commitment to individualism, meritocracy, and independence is potentially subverted by the reality of as well as the desire to recognize their fundamental interdependence. The belief in the value of individuality coupled with the constant need for the help of other hackers points to a subtle paradox that textures their social world.”

Who among us picked up any technical skills whatsoever without the help of someone more skilled who helped us out just because, in the spirit of paying it forward? Patient friends, lucid documentation, gentle answers on mailing lists: these are the familiar stepping stones from n00b to basic competence. Depending on your point of view, they exist in dynamic tension with, or in stark contrast to, the Romantic hero, powered only by genius and Mountain Dew. You know, this guy:

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

There is for sure a seductive aspect to the idea of meritocracy, an aspect that’s maybe especially potent for adolescent people – or nations – who are trying to separate their identities from their progenitors in order to individuate and develop their potential. It’s understandable, but it shouldn’t survive contact with the real world, which is nothing if not More Complicated Than That.

“The United States is often thought of as a living embodiment of meritocracy: a nation where people are judged on their individual abilities alone. The system supposedly works so well because, as the media myth goes, the United States provides everyone with equal opportunity, usually through public education, to achieve their goals. As such, the hierarchies of difference that arise from one’s ability (usually to achieve wealth) are sanctioned by this moral order as legitimate.”

You’ve got to love the strategic deployment of qualifiers in the above passage, especially if, like me, you have come late in life to the conviction that meritocracy is bullshit. Yeah. I said it. The single biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is the proposition that there are people who are without merit. This is, to put it mildly, not the case.

The second biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is that it’s just a recursive modern gloss on the Divine Right of Kings. Leaders in the (ostensibly-meritocratic) open source community are entitled to exercise power because of their merit. The proof of their merit? Is their exercise of power. The word “meritocracy” is an ungainsayable defense of the status quo. It’s conservatism in a nutshell. As Alexander Pope once, infuriatingly, put it: “Whatever is, is right.”

This week, in which Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp advanced the revolutionary notion that programming could be carried on without ad hominem attacks, has added special piquancy to this passage from Biella’s book:

“When Torvalds and Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian, respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency. Participation was encouraged, and recognition was given where it was due. Accepting more contributions was also, of course, seen as a way to improve and encourage technical efficiency.”

Biella acknowledges that Linux and Debian grew up to be very different projects, and goes on to discuss Debian’s Social Contract, Free Software Guidelines and Constitution. She has some sharp observations on the fear within the Debian community that the “meritocracy” will be “corrupted.”

I’d like to propose that the notion of meritocracy is itself corrupt. Ideas may have, or lack, merit. People have worth, and every person is worth more than we can possibly imagine. Inclusive communities are likely to write the best software because in them, ideas can compete on their (yes!) merits; and because software written by the other communities has exclusion coded into its very DNA.

But, y’know, I’m not a kernel coder, so who the hell cares what I think? ;) More to the point, dear readers: what do you think?

Origin Stories

Here, at yatima’s request, is Geek Feminism Wiki’s own Bess Sadler‘s response to our current Book Club read, Coding Freedom. Normal Book Club posts will resume shortly!

The stories we tell ourselves about where we come from are the mechanism by which we continuously re-create our current understanding of reality. This is what makes origin stories so powerful: the shaping of the first part of the story determines the possibilities of the next chapter. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in her book “Writing a Woman’s Life,” argues eloquently and convincingly that the narratives of biographies and autobiographies, especially the stories we tell about women’s lives, have suppressed the truth in order to make the “written life” conform to society’s expectations of what life should be. “Writing a Woman’s Life” has been deeply influential on me in understanding my own life’s path, on a par with Virginia Woolf’s famous exploration of an imaginary sister for William Shakespeare in “A Room of One’s Own.” Judith Shakespeare’s reality is far removed from her brother’s, for ‘while William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending.’

I am currently reading “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.” It is a much needed ethnography of the F/OSS movement, and I’ve already ordered a stack of copies to give as gifts, but the lack of discussion about women in F/OSS is already bothering me. The first chapter of the book is devoted to “The Life of a Free Software Hacker,” and it attempts (although the author is careful to add a disclaimer about the inherent impossibility of writing about a “typical” life) to describe the sequence of life events that lead many people to the F/OSS movement. The author does recognize the gender skew in her sample population; Eschewing more gender-inclusive pronouns, Coleman instead qualifies her interviews with the statement “I use ‘he’ because most hackers are male.” I haven’t finished the book yet, but skimming ahead and checking the index, this seems to be the end of any discussion of women within the free software community. In the spirit of Carolyn Heilbrun and Virginia Woolf, then, here is my auto-ethnography of how I became involved in F/OSS. I think it offers some interesting contrasts to the narrative offered in “Coding Freedom.”

“He taught himself how to program [at a young age] in BASIC, and the parental unit expressed joyous approval with aplomb (‘look, look our little Fred is sooo smart’)”

She was exposed to BASIC and LOGO via experimental programs at her elementary school. She loved it and did well at the exercises in class. However, she did not have a computer to play with at home, nor anyone outside the classroom with whom to discuss what she had learned. Some of the boys in the class were constantly pushing the envelope (having skipped ahead by practicing at home) and her teachers tended to spend more time with them. She concluded, based on the evidence available to her, that she just wasn’t as good at this as they were.

“Thanks to the holy trinity of a computer, modem, and phone line, he began to dabble in a wider networked world”

Not having a computer until she was almost in college, she was excluded from the BBS culture she heard the boys in class discussing. Although the boys in her honors classes were in some ways her friends and allies, in other ways being a socially awkward female made her feel like the only person who was more stigmatized than the socially awkward males surrounding her. She read science fiction avidly, and had a few male friends who shared this passion, but she was not permitted to attend their after school activities. Reasons for this included parental (“good girls don’t go over to boy’s houses”) and peer (“adding girls would ruin our D&D group”). She did not have much in common with other girls her age and was not interested in their activities. She spent most of her time in libraries and bookstores.

“Many hackers did not awaken to a consciousness of their ‘hacker nature’ in a moment of joyful epiphany but instead acquired it imperceptibly. In some cases, certain books, texts, movies and place of interaction sparked this association.”

Every day after school she would join her younger sister in watching a worn out VCR cassette of “Sneakers.” She loved the power the characters in the movie wielded, and how idealistic they were. She loved that there was a woman in the movie who was as smart as all the men and sometimes had to explain math to them. She would reflect on their shared obsession with this movie many years later when her sister became a well respected security expert for the telecommunications industry.

When exposed to the free software movement, it “seemed to describe his personal experiences with technology in a sophisticated yet accessible language”

When exposed to the free software movement as a teenager, via conversations at a radical bookstore about how we might imagine a more just society, it was couched in language like “liberating the means of production.” F/OSS as a system of production seemed to challenge in an immediate and concrete way the assumption that we must be alienated from our own labor. “The external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.” (Marx and Engels as quoted in “Coding Freedom”, p. 15)

“As he grew older and more financially independent (thanks to lucrative information technology jobs as a programmer or system administrator that gave him the financial freedom, the ‘free time’, to code for volunteer projects) [...] he consistently interacted with other geeks at work”

In high school and college, financial independence was on her mind. She had been raised around culturally conservative and religious women who were financially dependent on men. She knew that the cruel things she heard about women like her, her weight, her lack of grace, her inability to engage with the sphere of traditional womanhood, were said out of love and concern, because snaring and keeping a husband was the only way many people around her could imagine that a woman could live comfortably. She had never been interested in the trappings of femininity, nor particularly eager to join a traditional marriage. She had seen many women forced to choose between staying with an abusive man or living in poverty, and she was determined never to have to make such a choice. She really liked her part-time job in the bookstore, and thought that if she learned how to run the computer inventory system the bookstore might give her a full-time job and she’d be able to support herself, so she sat down and taught herself database administration from a book during her night shifts.

“The conference is culturally significant because it allows hackers to collectively enact, make visible, and subsequently celebrate many elements of their quotidian technological lifeworld” (p. 28) and “most everyone arrives on an equal footing, ready to contribute their part” (p. 48)

During college she entered the phase during which a larval hacker typically “drink[s] himself silly with information” (p. 26), absorbing as much knowledge and skills as she could. Aided in this by women-run technology groups like “Grrls with Modems,” she embraced geek culture whole-heartedly. She loved the spirit of F/OSS conferences, and if the language was sometimes exclusionary, or if some of the men there seemed to be threatened by her presence, she tried not to let it distract her from what was great there. She encountered a new problem, though: She was no longer sexually invisible. She grew very tired of being the only woman at many of the events she attended, and she grew VERY tired of being seen more as a sexual prospect than as a peer. A few times men got angry and even threatening with her for rejecting their advances, and she did not react to this well. It seemed to actually make her sick, although she could not understand why or how. She had not yet heard the phrase “post traumatic stress disorder.” She knew she had been raped at age 12 by a camp counsellor and at age 17 by one of her high school teachers, but she did not yet have the ability to call this rape, except in her innermost secret thoughts, and she was sure it had not really affected her. She created a public persona guaranteed to avoid the issue, adopting masculine clothing, refusing to shave her legs, and adorning herself with the regalia of the gay rights movement. Now when she faced harassment it was more often couched in the language of homophobia, which at least gave her a community to call on for support.

“Developers who were self-employed or working in a small tech company that had few or no managers powered everything on free software, crediting the success of the company to solid technology as well as the money saved on software”

She has had a relatively successful upward career trajectory managing technology for bookstores, libraries, and human rights agencies, none of whom had much money but all of whom embraced the “the moral message of software freedom” (p. 38).  She became a DBA, then a unix sys admin, then a software developer. She contributed to, and later helped to start, open source software projects that focused on the problems confronting cultural institutions. She also decided that if F/OSS was going to be truly revolutionary it was going to need to be more inclusive, and she started trying to find ways to make it a more welcoming place for women and gender minorities.

Reflections on Gabriella Coleman’s _Coding Freedom_, part 1

Am I a hacker?

Since it was the Geek Feminism book club pick recently, I read Gabriella Coleman’s book Coding Freedom, which is available online for free.

It’s a dense, challenging book with lots of food for thought, so I had too much to say about for just a comment on Yatima’s post. I’m going to write one post per chapter. This post is about the introduction to the book and chapter 1.

The beginning of the book left me with a slightly disoriented feeling. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t sure whether I was reading the book as an outsider to the subculture she’s writing about, or as an insider in it. Coleman makes the choice, which I agree with, to use the term “hacker” to refer to people doing open-source software. Am I a hacker? To decide, I figured I had to look no further than the Jargon File definition, which lists eight senses of the word:

1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users’ Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.

I’m already not sure how to answer. At one point, I would have absolutely said that I delighted in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system. But with time, “delight” has come to seem like too strong a word. (If you’ve read my previous posts on Geek Feminism, that won’t come as a surprise to you.)

2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.

“Enthusiastically” seems like a strong word to me now, too. But I certainly like programming more than I like theorizing about it.

3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.

Sure, I think I can appreciate it.

4. A person who is good at programming quickly.

Again, I’m not sure. I’m good at it, I think, but sometimes my anxiety gets in the way and slows me down to what seems like a snail’s place, and — aware of what’s happening — I get anxious about that too and get into a feedback loop. Plus, using a compiler with a long edit-compile-debug cycle, like I’ve been doing for the past two years, makes it hard for anyone to program quickly!

5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in ‘a Unix hacker’. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)

I’m an expert at a few particular programs, yes. (I’m not so sure I agree with ESR that these five definitions are correlated.)

6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.

This broad definition seems to include me, sure.

7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

Yes.

8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

No. Though I’m no longer very sure that the correct term is “cracker” or that there’s really such an absence of correlation between definition 8 and the other definitions. ESR’s “[deprecated]” seems rather prescriptivist.

So I’m still not sure whether or not I’m a hacker. I’m still not sure whether my take on what Coleman wrote about hackers is the take of an insider — someone who can meet her neutral, anthropological gaze with the complementary perspective of inside experience. Or was my reading of the book the reading of someone who, just like Coleman, has never truly been an insider in hacker circles?

I don’t know. Sure, for the past two years my entire salary has come from writing open source software. But the words that stand out to me from the Jargon File definition, words that also feature in Coleman’s analysis of what makes hackers tick — “enthusiasm”, “delight” — don’t seem to be words that characterize my work days now. Though enthusiasm and delight are what got me onto the path that led me to where I am, they are also the things that make me feel distant from a lot of my colleagues, ones whose senses of enthusiasm and delight in their work seem less unscathed than mine.

Practicing Freedom

Part of what I hoped for from Coding Freedom was a better understanding of what might separate me from them. I had high hopes for the book when I read the first epigraph:

“We must be free not because we claim freedom,
but because we practice it.” — William Faulkner

In this context, the quotation evoked what I’ve been trying to say in most of my Geek Feminism posts. That is: I’ve been trying to express my observation that when open-source people say they support freedom, they actually mean that they only support freedom for people who are like themselves and for people they see as their peers. Peers must be white, male, heterosexual, cis, and upper-middle-class — or, if they’re not all of the above, willing to use their freedom to say only things that white, male, heterosexual, cis, upper-middle-class people might say.

I finished reading the book feeling like either it didn’t get there, or it addressed this point in a way that was too subtle for me. Close to the beginning, Coleman mentioned that she wasn’t going to talk about gender politics. It’s understandable that she chose not to. Any woman writing about open source would run the risk of having her thoughts on gender dismissed because many male hackers believe women to be inherently biased about gender (and believe themselves to be, as men, not gendered and therefore not biased). The people she was writing about might well have extended that dismissiveness to her entire body of work. Of course, I don’t know if that’s why she chose not to address gender, but there are certainly many imaginable reasons not to.

And yet, without addressing the issue of who doesn’t get invited to the party of enthusiasm and delight that Coleman paints such an appealing picture of, there’s something missing. That said, I think gets it right in writing about the subjective experience of programming in a way that few writers that I know of ever have, which is remarkable for someone who hasn’t spent her life immersed in it — the only comparable writings about it that come to mind are Ellen Ullman’s books The Bug and Close to the Machine, and Ullman is both a programmer and a writer. Coding Freedom has bits that made me write “Yes!” in the margins all over the place, like on page 11:

…their deep engagement, sometimes born of frustration, and at other times born of pleasure, and sometimes, these two converge.

and

hacking is characterized by a confluence of constant occupational disappointments and personal/collective joys.

(ibid)

and

In encountering obstacles, adept craftspeople, such as hackers, must also build an abundant “tolerance for frustration”… a mode of coping that at various points will break down, leading, at best, to feelings of frustration, and at worst, to anguish and even despair and burnout

And yet, she goes on to say, the frustration isn’t all; hackers keep hacking because they’re pursuing (in Martha Nussbaum’s words) the unimpeded performance of the activities that constitute happiness. This rings true for me. When my work is going well, hacking is “the unimpeded performance of the activities that constitute happiness”, in a way that literally nothing else I’ve ever experienced is. And when it’s not going well, I keep going because I hope that that unimpeded performance will come again.

But then — in my opinion — she goes a little bit far: “In the aftermath of a particularly pleasurable moment of hacking, there is no autonomous liberal self to be found.” (p. 13) To which I say: if only! I know that I got into programming because it was a way to lose myself, to forget I had a self, to forget there was any such thing as “I”. It was something that, as a closeted trans teenager, I desperately needed — and that I got into programming (a route to middle-class financial success) instead of, say, crystal meth, was pure luck. But just like the pleasures of addictive chemicals (so I hear), the pleasure of programming diminishes with time, or at least it has for me. When it starts to be what you have to do — and surely most hackers aren’t trust fund kids, and have to earn a living somehow — it gets to be less fun. At least for me. Perhaps that’s a character flaw of mine; when people who have been hacking for decades say they still feel like the luckiest person ever to get to do it for a living, I’d like to believe they’re engaging in wishful thinking, but part of it worries that it’s true, while in the meantime, I’m incapable of ever feeling that way again.

Personal and Political

The personal pleasures of programming, though, aren’t divorced from politics, and Coleman acknowledges the connection vigorously. For example, on page 14:

Free software hackers undoubtedly affirm an expressive self rooted not in consumption but rather in production in a double sense: they produce software, and through this technical production, they also sustain informal social relations and even have built institutions.

I found this statement a bit unsatisfying. How can I produce without someone else consuming? (This is, by the way, why “maker” culture makes me uncomfortable. How much physical stuff does anyone need, regardless of whether they made it on a fancy machine or bought it at the Dollar Tree? Though at least with software production, the results don’t have to end up in a landfill if they aren’t needed…)

I like the idea of “unalienated, autonomous labor”, but I’m not sure how unalienated or autonomous most hackers really are — again, assuming that most of them have to work for wages and choose to do so by writing software (a plausible assumption since, it seems, software is rapidly becoming one of the few highly rewarding, low-risk career paths left in North America). I don’t feel unalienated or autonomous; I take orders, and I guess if I keep at this, someday I’ll give orders. I feel alienated because in order to earn a living as a programmer (which is the path of least resistance for me to earn a living), no matter where I work, ultimately my income is very likely to originate from one of a few sources: the military (killing bodies); advertising (killing minds, by creating desires for things that aren’t needed); or the finance industry (some of both). The pleasant emotional states I’m sometimes able to achieve while writing code don’t change that fundamental reality.

Around this point in the book, I started wondering how much of Coleman’s analysis is predicated on the assumption that hackers work for free. My experience is that most don’t. The vision of a programmer coming home from work and immediately retreating to the basement to work on an open-source project for the pure joy of it, unrelated to work (no doubt while his wife cooks dinner and scrubs the bathtub) is a romantic one, but I’m not sure how common it actually is. Lots of open-source work gets done on the clock, simply because corporations recognize that sometimes, sharing the code results in more profit. (Coleman does acknowledge the latter fact later on, but the story she tells is of the original, free, pure, Stallmanesque vision getting corrupted… and I’m not sure there was ever anything to corrupt in the first place.)

When Coleman says hackers support “a liberal politics of free speech” (p. 15), I was hoping for more analysis of just whose free speech hackers support, but I didn’t find one. In fact, in my experience, the kind of free speech hackers support is quite narrow. Racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist speech must be protected; any criticism of such speech must be suppressed in order to protect the free speech of those who would make remarks that marginalize and exclude (I guess you have to kill free speech in order to save it). Later on the same page, she writes “From an ethnographic vantage point, it is important to recognize many hackers are citizens of liberal democracies, and have drawn on the types of accessible liberal tropes–notably free speech–as a means to conceptualize their technical practice and secure novel political claims” — which I thought was closer to the truth. Consistently with the selective nature of the application of the “free speech” trope, hackers don’t believe in free speech for its own sake; they use it because it’s a powerful tool for getting support. At least in the kinds of liberal democracies Coleman is talking about, no one wants to say they’re against free speech.

When outside is inside

By the way, so far I’ve just been talking about the introduction to the book. Chapter 1 begins by describing what the early life of a hacker might be like. When I read it, I was hit by a wave of jealously, to be honest. My early life was very little like the prototypical genesis of a hacker that Coleman describes. ‘A hacker may say he (and I use “he,” because most hackers are male)…’ — well, I am male, but nobody recognized me as such until I was in my late twenties. I didn’t take apart electrical appliances, because I would have been afraid of the consequences my abusive mother would have imposed if I’d experimented in such a way. I didn’t teach myself to program when I was six or seven, because we couldn’t afford a computer and I’m not sure my mother would have thought to buy me one even if the money had been there. I was just barely too young to get in on the BBS era, even though I finally did acquire a computer and modem in my mid-teens. When I did get access to a computer, I wasn’t too interested in UFOs, conspiracy theories, or warez — actually, what I was interested in was connecting with other people who were like me. That, oddly enough, was what led me to hacker culture and then to programming. (And there was some porn mixed in there, I’ll admit.) The only part that does sound familiar is “The parents, confusing locked doors and nocturnal living with preteen angst and isolation, wondered whether they should send their son to a psychologist.”

So maybe I’m not a hacker. Maybe I’m just a professional programmer who lacks that extra je ne sais quoi that would make me not just a workaday programmer, but a hacker. (If you read the Jargon File, you’ll notice this boundary being drawn repeatedly — between hackers, who program for fun, and do so even when not getting paid; and staid, dull, programmers, who might wear ties and write Cobol. That sounds like a class stratification and one that hackers might well be using to their advantage.)

Next to the line (on page 26) “Nonetheless, he grew to adore the never- ending, never-finished nature of technological production, and eventually fell, almost entirely by accident, into a technical movement.”, I wrote the note, “what about the part where you start hating computers?” And I’m reminded of a tweet that my friend Caylee Hogg wrote:

“I’m not in cs because I like computers. It’s that I don’t trust them and want to keep an eye on those fuckers.”

And I really think this is a key distinction. The hackers that Coleman talks about seem to be genuinely working with computers because they like them… but for Caylee, and me, and not a few others, it’s about not trusting them — and for me, at least, not trusting the people who like them. I work on statically typed programming languages with type systems designed for soundness because I don’t trust the intentions of hackers, cowboy coders, or anybody else who’s immersed in enthusiasm for programming — because enthusiasm for programming doesn’t tend to go along with rigorous attention to quality, to handling corner cases well, or to designing user interfaces that non-programmers can use without frustration (just to name a few things); it doesn’t go along with empathy for people who aren’t programmers.

I’m getting off the topic, but I guess it’s to do with more of why I’m not a hacker, why my reading of Coleman’s book is as an outsider, albeit one who has spent time among hackers, just as she has.

Of love and snark

In about this part of the book, I began to wonder whether hackers really, uniformly, love everything about computers and software. Am I not a hacker because I don’t? Or is the love less black-and-white than the picture Coleman paints? (The use of “sensuality”, on p. 27, might be a stretch.)

The life she’s describing in this chapter seems to be the life of a quite privileged child, one with genial parents who (at the least) provide a computer and a room of one’s own. Or perhaps it’s the privilege, as well, of having grown up in a particular era: “time, most programmers who learned about
free software anywhere between 1985 and 1996 greeted it as if they had stumbled onto a hidden treasure trove of jewels, with the gems being Unix-based
software and its precious underlying source code.” I was born just a bit too late, I guess, because by the time I installed Linux for the first time (1999), I just sort of took it for granted that there was a free Unix.

Likewise, the excerpt from the Jargon File about “larval stage”…

“the ordeal seems
to be necessary to produce really wizardly (as opposed to merely competent)
programmers.”

…makes me think I’m not a really wizardly programmer. Maybe all of this is the lament of the non-wizard, and I don’t have a clue about what it’s like to live the experiences Coleman documents because I’m not a wizard.

Reading the Neal Stephenson quotation on p. 37, though, I recalled that not all hackers are united in love for Unix — for example, how about the Unix-Haters’ Handbook? I think it does hackers a disservice to suggest they’re so united about any ideological or technical question. Coleman talks a lot about hacker humor, but I think she still doesn’t give the full picture… the one she gives is more of the hero-worshipful side of hacker culture, the one that turns me off, and less of the snarky, iconoclastic side that’s expressed in the Unix-Haters’ Handbook. It’s the difference between the “worse is better” philosophy and the “worse is still bad” philosophy. The latter one is the one that hopes to do better — and, I’d hope, it’s related to the one that hopes to do better at including everybody.

Meritocracy

Coleman brings up an interesting point on p. 38: that initially, hackers saw free software as equivalent to ‘free beer.'” This is especially
ironic, since some programmers now adamantly insist that the free in free
software is precisely about “speech, not beer”. Ah, backjustification. When I was nine, I wanted to become a vegetarian because I didn’t like meat. Not too long after, I read that some people were vegetarians because they didn’t like killing animals. I decided that I, too, was one of these “ethical vegetarians”. But to be honest, I never liked eating meat in the first place. Perhaps the slogan “free as in freedom, not as in beer” is a little bit like that. And anyway, how different are these concepts, really? Beer is one thing, but if finding food is what you spend most of your time on, you’re not going to have a lot of time to exercise your freedom to hack, even if it’s technically there. The same logical fallacy seems to underlie the popular Silicon Valley slogan of “I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

Page 41 is Coleman’s first use of “meritocratic” that I noted, but it probably shows up before. One thing that continues to bother me about the book is that she uses this word seemingly uncritically. As we’ve covered before, the word “meritocracy” is inevitably a smokescreen for covering up the unfair advantages that abled white heterosexual cis men receive. Perhaps Coleman was silently putting air quotes around the word, but I don’t see them.

There are actually at least two ways to think of meritocracy: one is the sense Coleman uses, where the insiders form a set of standards that the outsiders must meet in order to become insiders (possibly higher standards than the insiders themselves ever had to meet). But another sense of meritocracy is one where it isn’t the insiders, with their superior power, who get to define the standards for inclusion. Another way to think about meritocracy is to treat it as a priority to bring as many people into the community, so they can contribute, as possible. That’s a formulation that has a lot more to do with acccessibility, as I’ll talk about in a bit.

Again, when on Page 47 in a lengthy discussion of hacker conferences, she says, “These types of intense, pleasurable emotional experiences and expressions are abundant”, I want to emphasize that such experiences are largely limited to hetero, cis, white, abled men. The more intersecting identities someone has, the more restricted their access to these experiences and expressions is. It’s unfair not to mention that. It’s hard to let go and have a blissful experience geeking out with peers at a conference if they don’t see you as their peer and they express that by trying to grab your crotch at the first opportunity. Likewise, it needs to be specified who is welcome at the “rituals of confirmation, liberation, celebration, and especially reenchantment” (p. 48)

Speaking of “enchantment”, this part of the book reminded me of the hacker trope that involves using words like “wizard” and “priest” to refer to people who know a lot about computers. Since these words are usually coded as male (calling someone a “witch” to mean she was a good coder would come across very differently), they serve to reinforce the belief that only men can be good at hacking. A belief in the value of logic and rationality goes along with hacker culture, yet there’s nothing very logical or rational about attributing magical powers to people who are simply very good at a skill they’ve practiced a lot.

Open Source Values

In Chapter 1, Coleman talks a lot about the ways in which hackers value freedom and meritocracy. These are not the only possible values that could be the driving forces behind hackers’ communities of practice. Even though many hackers identify as outsiders and as idealists, their values look a lot like the standard narrative behind Western neoliberalism. Why is that? Coleman touches on it somewhat in later chapters, but one thing I felt was missing was a discussion of other value systems that could drive open-source development, though right now they don’t.

One of them is accessibility (in these thoughts, I’m influenced by Choose Your Own Logic). In computing circles, where it’s referred to as a11y, “accessibility” often refers to making computer software and hardware easier for people with disabilities (often disabilities related to vision) to use. That’s important in itself, but I think accessibility could be construed a lot more broadly. The hacker approach that Coleman talks about is about making it possible for anyone to use software… so long, that is, as they have the cognitive and emotional resources to put up with lots of frustration and arbitrariness, to learn lots of seemingly arbitrary rules, and deal with broken systems (often by fixing them). Do you have to meet this high bar in order to be able to contribute to software? Or just to be able to get something out of it? If not, maybe accessibility as a value might be worth considering. Another thing that acccessibility that means to me involves documentation. As tangentline on Twitter pointed out, if software isn’t well-documented and you have to go on a potentially hostile IRC channel and negotiate a likely-male-dominated hacker space in order to get information, that’s putting up a barrier both to its use and to people who might otherwise be able to contribute to it. So to me, another part of what accessibility means is to prioritize good documentation so that it’s easy for somebody to get involved without immediately having to navigate an unsafe social situation. And I suspect that hackers’ famed antipathy to documentation writing is not an accident — if people have to navigate informal social rules rather than having formal documentation to consult in order to get involved, it shuts out people who aren’t a good “culture fit”.

Another value is quality. While I want to be clear that I’m only speaking anecdotally here, as someone who’s worked both in academic research groups that were about applying formal methods to prove stuff rigorously about software, and in software companies, there seems to be a lot of tension in both directions. In hacker circles, programming quickly seems to be more valued than programming correctly. If you read through the Jargon File and other hacker writings, there’s a lot in there about the joy of a good hack and the importance of releasing code early, and not as much about the pleasure of stating formally, in a machine-checkable language, what your code is actually supposed to do (not surprising, since that’s really just another form of documentation). Quality matters not for some obscure, pointy-headed, theoretical ivory-tower sense of purity — but rather, because when software has bugs, real people waste their time (and potentially, money and lives). Valuing writing software quickly, but not valuing writing software that’s correct and reliable, reflects a sense that other people ought to be doing the work that’s not so interesting.

I think accessibility and quality are related. I think that having the patience to learn how to cope with and use bad user interfaces reflects a lot of privilege. It’s not as if there’s no one in the hacker community who’s urging more attention to user interface design and pointing out that even experts need software that works: for example, git, despite being a widely popular version control system at this writing, has many critics, particularly with respect to its user interface. The hacker classic The Unix-Haters’ Handbook (I’m thrilled to discover that the full text of it is online now as a PDF) spends a lot of time criticizing the elitist attitudes that the authors perceive behind Unix advocacy — specifically, the assumption that if you as a user find a system difficult, it’s your fault for not being smart enough, rather than the designer’s fault for not making it accessible. It’s somewhat notorious that when somebody submits a bug report to an open-source project, they’re likely to be told that the software works fine and it’s their fault for using it wrong; there’s a story I can’t find just now about a Ubuntu utility that deleted your entire filesystem when used incorrectly, and in a bug report, its creator staunchly defended this functionality, saying the tool was for experts and it wasn’t his fault if a non-expert happened to try it. I think such an attitude is totally compatible with valuing freedom above all, but I don’t think it’s compatible with balancing freedom and accessibility.

All I really want to say here is that when we talk about how the open source community values freedom, it’s easy to get lost in lofty rhetoric; easy to forget that freedom is just one value, that must be balanced with others. One area where I think Coding Freedom falls short with its extensive discussions about how open-source people talk about free speech and critique intellectual property law is examiningwhat they’re not talking about and not critiquing.

Being outside looking in at outsiders

Lest you think I’m being too negative, I wish I could go to a con like the ones she’s describing: “Reflexivity and reflection are put on momentary hold, in favor of visceral experience.” But such experiences may not be available to me, even though I’m fairly privileged. Though I’m usually assumed to be a hetero, cis, white, abled man (though I’m not hetero or cis), somehow I still feel shut out of the cool kids’ club among the kids who got there because they weren’t welcome in the cool kids’ club. Maybe it’s because I have a defiant consciousness, because I remember how different it was to move in hackish circles when people saw me as a woman. Or because I listen to my friends now who are women hackers. Maybe the loss of innocence that came with all of these things just makes it impossible for me to have that “visceral experience” without the critical part of me engaging and noticing who’s excluded.

I don’t want to come off as totally critical; in pages 59-60, Coleman does acknowledge, “The poor, the unemployed (or the overly employed who cannot get time off to attend these events), the young, the chronically ill, and those with disabilities often cannot attend.” But that’s just the beginning. I think her beautiful, deep analysis would be even more beautiful and deep if it centered the outsiders, the fringes of the hacker community rather than her chosen focus, the people in the center.

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part I: Histories

(Sorry this is so late! Life kept happening, and then the blog went down :)

Since this is a book that deserves and rewards attention, and since we all seem to be reading it slowly as a result, let’s just discuss it one section at a time. From the introduction:

Free software hackers culturally concretize a number of liberal themes and sensibilities— for example, through their competitive mutual aid, avid free speech principles, and implementation of meritocracy along with their frequent challenge to intellectual property provisions.

(I’ll get to that “meritocracy” bit in good time.) One of the great points Biella makes early on is that hacking, while recognizably part of the liberal tradition, uses liberal techniques to critique liberalism itself. This restless contrarianism showed up earliest around IP, of course:

The expansion of intellectual property law, as noted by some authors, is part and parcel of a broader neoliberal trend to privatize what was once public or under the state’s aegis, such as health provision, water delivery,
and military services. “Neoliberalism is in the “first instance,” writes David Harvey (2005, 2), “a theory of political economic practices that proposes human well- being can be best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade.” As such, free software hackers not only reveal a long- standing tension within liberal legal rights but also offer a targeted critique of the neoliberal drive to make property out of almost anything, including software.

Oh, the 1990s. On the one hand you had a set of corporatist states seeking to exercise ever-more-restrictive controls around, for example, the precious, precious image of Mickey Mouse and music of Metallica; on the other hand you had a ragtag crew of approximately-libertarian hackers still simmering over the injustices handed down in the Unix wars. In between you had every other imaginable nuance of position. Shenanigans, naturally, ensued, and both Biella and I were on hand for the fun. I met her at various Bay Area Linux User Group and EFF events while she was conducting fieldwork in San Francisco around the turn of the millennium.

Those were glory days. The brilliance of Richard Stallman’s GPL was just beginning to make itself apparent. The GPL has radically transformed both the culture and the economics of software in ways that will continue to play out for the foreseeable future. Biella justly celebrates the terrific humor of hackers and hacking – I don’t think I really understood software, or my life partner, until I first looked into the Jargon file – and the GPL is one of hacking culture’s best and subtlest and most effective jokes.

Stallman approached the law much like a hacker treats technology: as a system that by virtue of being systemic and logical, is hackable. In other words, he relied on the hacker technical tactic of clever reuse to imaginatively hack the law by creating the GNU GPL, a near inversion of copyright law… By grafting his license on top of an already- existing system, Stallman dramatically increased the chances that the GPL would be legally binding. It is an instance of an ironic response to a system of powerful constraint, and one directed with unmistakable (and creative) intention— and whose irony is emphasized by its common descriptor, copyleft, signaling its relationship to the very artifact, copyright, that it seeks to displace.

What the GPL and the Jargon file share with the code itself is the ways in which they resemble literature – celebrating and codifying a culture – and the ways in which they resemble law – functioning as the constitutions of public spaces of the mind. (I think of the Unixes as a kind of Colossal Caves, only somehow more real.) And this, ultimately, is why we talk about coding freedom, and why the freedom part matters. Software systems are at once frontiers, meeting places and societies.

In the words of one programmer who helped me (a novice user) fix a problem on my Linux machine, “Unix is not a thing, it is an adventure.”

That’s the way I see Debian: alive.

This book is reminding me how much I love it here, but it’s also refreshingly blunt about hacker culture’s failings:

Along with the awkwardness I experienced during the first few weeks of fieldwork, I was usually one of the only females present during hacker gatherings, and as a result felt even more out of place.

That said, the answer is right there staring us in the face. Just as hacker culture uses liberal techniques to reform liberal techniques, geek feminists can and do hack hacker culture.

During cons, participants make crucial decisions that may alter the character and future course of the developer project. For example, at Debconf4, the few women attending, spearheaded by the efforts of Erinn Clark, used the time and energy afforded by an in- person meeting to initiate and organize Debian Women Project, a Web site portal and IRC mailing list to encourage female participation by visibly demonstrating the presence of women in the largely male project. Following the conference, one of the female Debian developers, Amaya Rodrigo, posted a bug report calling for a Debian Women’s mailing list, explaining the rationale in the following way:

From: Amaya Rodrigo Sastre
To: Debian Bug Tracking System
Subject: Please create debian- women mailing list
Date: Tue, 01 Jun 2004 22:12:30 +0200
Package:lists.debian.org
Severity: normal

Out of a Debconf4 workshop the need has arisen for a mailing list oriented to debating and coordinating the different ways to get a larger female userbase. Thanks for your time :- ).

Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow, right? I’m trying to feel my way towards an evidence-based geek feminism, in which my ideas and practices are continually tested and assessed for usefulness or otherwise. Maybe the trick is to be woman enough to cull my ideas when they are bad?

Book Club: Coding Freedom

You came, you voted and we have a clear winner! I’m delighted to announce that the next Book Club pick will be Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by the awesome Gabriella Coleman. The book is available for free download.

Go! Read! Let’s meet back here on Thursday, May 9th! I’m pretty sure this one’s going to rock our socks off.

Book Club: What should we read next?

Attention constant readers! It is time to choose our next victim book!

Here are the three candidates left over from our original vote, plus one wild card:

bell hooks, Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice

208 pages

What are the conditions needed for our nation to bridge cultural and racial divides? By “writing beyond race,” noted cultural critic bell hooks models the constructive ways scholars, activists, and readers can challenge and change systems of domination.

Biella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

254 pages

Who are computer hackers? What is free software? And what does the emergence of a community dedicated to the production of free and open source software–and to hacking as a technical, aesthetic, and moral project–reveal about the values of contemporary liberalism? Exploring the rise and political significance of the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement in the United States and Europe, Coding Freedom details the ethics behind hackers’ devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. In telling the story of the F/OSS movement, the book unfolds a broader narrative involving computing, the politics of access, and intellectual property.

E. Gabriella Coleman tracks the ways in which hackers collaborate and examines passionate manifestos, hacker humor, free software project governance, and festive hacker conferences. Looking at the ways that hackers sustain their productive freedom, Coleman shows that these activists, driven by a commitment to their work, reformulate key ideals including free speech, transparency, and meritocracy, and refuse restrictive intellectual protections. Coleman demonstrates how hacking, so often marginalized or misunderstood, sheds light on the continuing relevance of liberalism in online collaboration.

Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination

179 pages

In this gripping memoir of the AIDS years (1981-1996), Sarah Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side and brings it to life, filling these pages with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation’s imagination and the consequences of that loss.

Something else altogether

You tell me!

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Book Club: A Geek Feminist bounces off Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection

I’ll be the first to admit that my taste in superheroism runs to the ultra-problematized, not to say outright subversive: I prefer Faith to Buffy, Grant Morrison’s Crazy Jane to Alan Moore’s Silk Spectre, Tony Stark to Bruce Wayne. As I see it, superpowers, like sex, are invariably more or less heavy-handed metaphors for something else. In Buffy and X-Men it’s puberty and burgeoning sexuality. In Doom Patrol, which meant the world to me in my twenties, it’s the marked body, simultaneously mortal and strong.

Superpowers repel me when they are used to single some folks out for special merit at the expense of everyone else. In The Incredibles Dash complains that if everyone is special, no one is. That’s exactly right, kiddo. My deepest political conviction is that everyone is extraordinary and superpowered and jewelled in their most secret inner recesses; everyone; no one is uniquely deserving of special treatment. Business Class is swankier, yes, but you must pay.

Hence my issues. In the Batman canon, superpowers are equated with effectively unlimited money and status. Bruce Wayne’s super secrets are his butler, his vast inheritance and his dungeon full of high-tech toys. As a person who has had to sit through a working lunch listening to a CEO brag about his collection of light aircraft, I find it hard to convey the extent to which this fills me with bored loathing. There’s nothing admirable about being a person like that. At least Tony Stark has shrapnel in his heart, and drinks.

At least it costs him. I’m very fond of that line of Tony’s from The Avengers: “This little circle of light. It’s part of me now, not just armor. It’s a… terrible privilege.” I like that he owns his privilege and its horrors. I like that it’s his way of reaching out to Bruce Banner, whose privileges are equally appalling. I have a lot of privilege that I want to use as a ploughshare, not a sword; the rocket that launched Curiosity to Mars, not an ICBM. Tony’s evolution from arms dealer to clean tech mogul is a useful myth in this way. Bruce Wayne’s Gothic manpain… isn’t.

All of which might explain, at least in part, why the Gail Simone Batgirl left me cold. Canonical Barbara Gordon is problematic in what for me are all the wrong ways. She’s the Police Commissioner’s daughter and the rich dude’s protege. She’s literally the tool of the patriarchy. She uses a wheelchair, yes, and then she’s miraculously healed. I appreciate that Simone lampshades this, most explicitly with her villain Mirror, who embodies the rage of the unlucky towards the lucky.

But Mirror is a villain, and Bruce Wayne, property developer, is a hero, whose acknowledgement of Barbara as Batgirl is the affirmation she needs. All her power is channeled into support for the police, and for capitalism. The arc of the narrative reverts towards the status quo. I am with Doctor Horrible in thinking that the status is not quo.

I’m sorry, but if Donald Trump praised me in any way, I would have to take a long hard look at my life and make some radical changes.

To be clear, I blame Simone for none of this. I think these are structural flaws in the Bat-canon, which tends Ayn Rand-wards and is therefore Not For Me.

I liked Barbara’s roommate, Alysia Yeoh. Alysia tapes Barbara’s cracked ribs and tells her:

If someone’s hurting you, I’m not going to sit by and watch it go on. I am not that person, are we clear?

…and then she makes laksa. I’d rather have read a whole book about her.

What am I missing? Help a Geek Feminist out.