Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

By E. Gabriella Coleman | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 2
A Tale of Two Legal Regimes

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of
wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; […] it was the season of
Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it
was the winter of despair.

—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In 1981, journalist Tracy Kidder published The Soul of a New Machine, which earned a Pulitzer Prize for its incisive commentary on the heightened commercial turn in computing during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book ends pessimistically with a programmer lamenting how managers at large computer firms robbed the “soul” of computing away from their makers: “It was a different game now. Clearly, the machine no longer belonged to its makers” (Kidder 1981, 291).

In 1984, a few years after the Soul of a New Machine hit bookstores, Stallman also spoke of the soulless state of computing when he lamented the tragic end to hacking in starkly cultural terms: “I am the last survivor of a dead culture. And I don’t really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel like I ought to be dead,” Stallman said (quoted in Levy 1984, 427). Just when a handful of scholars and journalists first began to document the cultural mores of this subculture (Kidder 1981; Levy 1984; Turkle 1984; Weizenbaum 1976), Stallman declared its death, blaming it on the cloistering of source code.

While Stallman and others may have accurately described some of the economic and legal conditions transforming programming and hacking in the 1980s, hacking never actually died. Contrary to Stallman’s predictions, but in part because of his actions, hacking did not simply survive; it flourished, experiencing what we might even portray as a cultural renaissance whose defining feature is the control over the hackers’ means of production: software and source code. Between Stallman’s dramatic declaration of the

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