January 28, 2013

Anthropology of the hacker community

Filed under: Books, History, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:17

ESR reviews a new book about hackers:

My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.

Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.

Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.

[. . .]

Far too much of the book exhibits this kind of theory-induced blindness. I am inclined to blame not Coleman for it but rather the people who trained and indoctrinated her in how to think and write like a ‘real’ anthropologist. If Coding Freedom is really the sort of book anthropology wants its bright young things to emit, the field is in desperately bad shape — far too inward-looking, over-abstract, mired in self-reference and tail-chasing, obsessed with politicized modes of non-explanation. I would actually prefer the theory that Coleman is a dimwit who has emitted a sort of unintentional parody of real anthropology if I could make myself believe it, but I can’t — her best moments seem too lucid for that.

She is very perceptive, for example, about the central role of hacker humor in promoting social bonding and affirming the culture’s values (I’ve explored this theme myself). Her ground-level reporting about the emotional atmosphere of hacker conferences and demonstrations is acute. Her discussion of how hackers as a culture have bootstrapped themselves to a state of legal literacy in order to fight their corner of the intellectual-property wars gives one of the gifts that ethnography should — to help us see how remarkable and interesting are practices we might otherwise take for granted.

There is even one significant thing I learned from this book, or at least learned to see in a new way. I hadn’t noticed before how ritualized the practice of writing damning comments about bad code is. Coleman is right that they display a level of pointed and deliberate rudeness that their authors would not employ face-to-face, and she is right about how and why the culture gives permission for this behavior.

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