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An anthropologist in the midst of a geek insurgency

Gabiella Coleman. (The Chronicle Review/Roger Lemoyne, Redux)

Gabiella Coleman. (The Chronicle Review/Roger Lemoyne, Redux)

What motivates the spread of online activism? That’s one of the questions that motivated my new profile of anthropologist Gabriella Coleman in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Thanks to over a decade of fieldwork among open-source programmers and Anonymous pranksters, Coleman has a few helpful answers.

Some hackers, it’s true, happen to be anticorporate activists. And the open-source pioneer Eric S. Raymond—”the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990,” as he puts it—takes Coleman to task for not saying more about the libertarian rationale often held among those of his ilk, which would object to copyright law as an affront to the free market. In the end, though, hackers’ varying justifications matter less than what they actually do together. They became a force in mainstream politics through the back door because there was no choice; to the extent that file sharing, copying, and remixing aren’t allowed, free software cannot operate.

This is the insight that Coleman wants to bring to her fellow anthropologists in Coding Freedom: While liberal values like transparency, autonomy, and free inquiry may be cherished by many people in the abstract, the geeks who have fought for those values most assiduously on our behalf learned to care so much about them through practice, by what those values enabled them to produce. And when hackers are able solve technical problems by setting information free, they start to imagine what other kinds of problems they might be able to fix.

Read the full article at The Chronicle. And download Coding Freedom for free at her website. Also, don’t miss my conversation with Devin Balkind and Leah Feder on free software in Occupy Sandy that appeared here at Waging Nonviolence, based on an interview conducted for this article.