Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

By E. Gabriella Coleman | Go to book overview
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PART III
THE POLITICS OF AVOWAL
AND DISAVOWAL

We do not act because we know.
We know because we are called upon to act.

—Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Vocation of Man

The final two chapters engage directly with the politics of free software. Chapter 5 examines the politics of avowal and popular protest, and the conclusion looks at the disavowal of broadly conceived politics among many free software hackers.

Chapter 5 explores two different conditions under which free software developers learn about the law. It contrasts everyday legal pedagogy as it unfolds in Debian with a lively series of political protests, which I describe as a moment of political avowal because of the way hackers and programmers took to the streets between 1999 and 2003 to insist on their free speech rights to create as well as circulate software unencumbered by current legal restrictions. During this period, F/OSS hackers enunciated more reflexively than ever before their free speech rights to produce and distribute software, thereby working to stabilize a relatively new cultural claim in which source code came to be imagined as a species of free speech.

In contrast to this period of lively political protest, the conclusion examines what I consistently witnessed during my fieldwork: a reluctance to signify free software beyond a narrow politics of software freedom. I start by discussing how and why this is articulated, but quickly move on to look at the consequence of this political disavowal. A central feature of F/OSS has been its political agnosticism, which has facilitated, I argue, its spread and adoption, allowing it to attain a position where it can circulate widely and perform a political message. Through its visibility and its use by multiple publics, F/OSS thus makes apparent the assumptions that dominate the moral landscape of intellectual property law and mainstream economic theory. An important element here is the transposability of F/OSS, or its

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