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This review is from: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Paperback)
Gabriella Coleman is mainstream media's first port of call when seeking insight about the hacker world - and this book shows why. Coleman is not a geek (let alone a hacker) but, as a graduate student anthropologist in the late 1990s, she took the time to conduct detailed fieldwork, embedding herself for several years within a particular hacker community. As a result she truly understands her subject. Her descriptions and analysis will enlighten interested readers who don't know much about this world and will provoke smiles and winces of recognition in those who have had some exposure.
Hackers come in many flavours and it is important to establish that Coleman's focus is really on one sub-species: "hackerus F/OSSus". These are hackers committed to developing free / open-source software ("F/OSS") and who have the technical skill necessary to work on the world's largest Free Software collaborative project - the Debian Linux distribution. This book barely touches on hackers who lack either this commitment or this level of technical skill, crackers who 'hack for devious, malicious, or illegal ends', hactivists who use hacking primarily to advance political ends, or even the "Anonymous" phenomenon - which gets precisely one sentence in the epilogue. Some readers may find this frustrating, but the focus does provide great depth of understanding and interpretive insight.
While her subject group is very focused, the topics covered range quite widely. In the introduction, Coleman ties the work together as an analysis of the ethics and aesthetics of hacking, but the main chapters themselves include a potted history of the field, a portrait of a typical free software hacker, a glimpse of the hacker's craft, a deep dive into the Debian community (including an analysis of how it structures itself and resolves disputes), and a dissection of the Great Conflict that has shaped and been shaped by the hacker community, namely the clash between authority-driven attempts to expand and enforce restrictive concepts of intellectual property and the countervailing expansion of concepts of intellectual creativity as a form of protected free speech.
This wide range inevitably leads to a less cohesive text, and this reflects the book's origins in her PhD thesis and assorted academic articles since. This also gives the book a slightly historical feel - the bulk of the work pre-dates 2006 - which is noticeable in an environment that is changing so rapidly. Nevertheless, I cannot recommend this work strongly enough to someone who wants to gain a proper understanding of the hacker's worldview.