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Dissertation chapter (fwd)

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- ---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 18:15:01 -0500
From: Biella Coleman <biella@evil-wire.org>
To: debian-devel-announce@lists.debian.org
Cc: debian-project@lists.debian.org
Subject: Dissertation chapter
Resent-Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 18:15:16 -0500 (CDT)
Resent-From: debian-project@lists.debian.org


As many of you know, I have been spending the last number of years
working on a dissertation for the Anthropology department at the
University of Chicago, a dissertation whose focus is the ethics and
politics of the F/OSS movement. Just recently I have successfully
defended the dissertation and would like to share some of the results
with the Debian project, since much of my material derives from this
project. Although Debian is not the main topic (see the abstract below
for the overview), as part of my research I interviewed many Debian
developers, have attended various conferences, have been a regular on
various IRC channels, and have also given one presentation at
Debconf. I am now sending the link to the Debian chapter as this is
the one that will probably be of most interest. Soon I will make the
whole document available.

I am going to write a longer document, provisionally entitled "An
Honest Declaration about Dissertations (HDD)," to explain some of the
idiosyncrasies of a social science dissertation. For now I just want
to mention a few things to keep in mind when reading this chapter. As
far as writing genres go, dissertations have to be one of the oddest
known to human kind. They tend to be incredibly arcane and, at times,
many of us try to stuff as much information as possible in them in the
hopes we can mine them in future times for articles. One of the
strange things about a dissertation is the audience.  We tend to write
the document with only a few people in mind: the dissertation
committee. They are, after all, the one's with the power to pass
you. You thought it took forever to get Sarge released, I've been
trying to get this dissertation stable for 8 years, after all that
time you just really want to pass and move on to work on other

One is also forced to juggle the desires and recommendations of
various committee members, which, in most cases, is truly an
incredible hack because there are often 3 or more highly opinionated,
and fiercely independent members.  They all want to see a piece of
themselves in your work and without any revision control system at our
disposal, there are inevitably some conflicts that arise during the
course of our implementation of their advice. We students try to fix
the document as best as we can and hope that we hack a good enough
solution but there are often some strange consequences of this
acrobatic endeavor. Thankfully most of my 5 committee members have
provided stellar advice that did nothing but improve the overall
quality of my dissertation.

Even while I was primarily writing for my committee, I wrote this
particular chapter with the Debian community in mind. At times, my
prose may strike as heavy handed, filled with excessive jargon, but I
purposively tried to write this chapter in a way that was accessible
for a general population yet satisfied the expectations of my
committee members. The first half of the chapter also covers the type
of ground (history, social contract, etc) that you all know well but
was otherwise an enigma to my committee. The second half is the more
analytical part, with a focused examination of the lived experience of
ethics as it unfolds on Debian.

I would also like to mention that this chapter, and even the whole
dissertation, is not meant to provide "The Explanation" as to why
F/OSS as technical movement exists, its effects, or why developers
choose to participate. Instead, I have a set of questions largely
related to ethics and politics, and I hope I illuminate on these
particular questions in my work. In other words, my dissertation is
only a slice of a larger pie of social reality of Debian or F/OSS, and
not meant to provide a total explanation of the pie. Later in my
declaration, I will have much more to say about this topic.

Dissertations, even if approved, are really in beta. Even if
it took what seemed like an endless number of years to complete, I can
attest that a book length document is no piece of cake to write,
especially since they rarely give us students a recipe on how to
start, proceed, or finish.  Instead, our mentors expect us to figure
it out the good old fashion way: on our own and through trial and
error. We experiment, and hope it comes out half-decent. Then we spend
the next few years working on it, yet again, and transform it into
more substantial articles and, hopefully, a book.

Indeed, next year I have the opportunity to work on articles and a
book version at Rutgers University where I have a postdoctoral
position. Since this is still a work-in-progress, I would really
appreciate any feedback on this chapter and for those who dare read
the other 400 pages, on the whole dissertation. The only caveat is I
am moving in less than 2 weeks so if you respond to me during that
time period, I probably won't have the time to get back to you until
after the unholy trinity of packing, moving, and unpacking.

Finally, here I have linked to the acknowledgments, table of contents,
and prologue. Unfortunately my official acknowledgments are quite
scanty in the sense that I have not named most of the Debian
developers who have spent hours with me during interviews or
informally talking to me on irc or in person. If I had named one
person, I would have had to named like 100 others and this was just
not possible. But I want to say yet again, how much I have appreciated
*everyones* help and participation. I have really enjoyed the
interviews, the parties, the dinners, the cons, etc., and have learned
a tremendous amount from everyone. I can't thank everyone enough.

Thanks and enjoy!
Gabriella (Biella) Coleman

Table of Contents, Prologue etc.:


Chapter 6:

Short Abstract:

The Social Construction of Freedom in Free and Open Source Software:
Hackers, Ethics, and the Liberal Tradition

This dissertation, based on fieldwork conducted on the Debian free
software project and among hackers living in the Bay area between
January 2001 and May 2003, is an ethnography of the ethics and
politics of free and open source hackers. What was once a fringe and
esoteric hobbyist technical practice - the production of free and open
source software - has veritably exploded since 1998. This domain of
practice is still populated by hobbyists, many of whom refer to
themselves with pride as hackers - computer aficionados driven by an
inquisitive passion for tinkering and committed to an ethic of
information freedom. My aim in this dissertation is to evaluate the
rise of expressive rights among hackers as a historically and
culturally specific practice of liberal freedom that can only be made
sensible through the lens of a hacker technical way of life - in which
their pragmatics and poetics are given serious consideration. Moving
and integrating various levels of analysis: the phenomenology of
technical praxis, the sociological creation of an ethical practice
that unfolds in the hacker public sphere and the FOSS project, and the
historical rise of reflective signification through overt political
dissent, I offer a comprehensive account of how hackers have come to
value and enact freedom, what they mean by it, and suggest some ideas
about the broader political effects of their practices.  I argue that
hacker values for expressive freedom are a particular instantiation of
a wider liberal tradition. Instead of an emphasis of
self-determination and individuality based on the acquisition of
property, hackers have placed emphasis on individuality as a form of
critical self-determination that requires unrestricted access to
knowledge in order to constantly develop technical skills and to
progress the state of their technical art. Important for the purposes
of this dissertation is that hackers challenge one sacred realm of
liberal jurisprudence -intellectual property -by drawing on and
reformulating ideals from another one - free speech. Thus, in its
political dimension, even if left unstated by developers, FOSS
represents a liberal critique from within the liberal tradition. More
specifically, FOSS captures the growing fault line between two of
America's most cherished sets of rights, both of which have grown in
importance and legal scope in the last hundred years: free speech and
intellectual property rights.  In my conclusion, I argue that while
FOSS is a technical movement based on the principles of free speech,
its ability to usher political transformation is not primarily rooted
in the power of language or in the discursive articulation of a broad
political vision.  Instead, it effectively works as a politics of
critique by performing a political message through acts of labor, one
that states economic incentives are unnecessary to secure creative
output-a message that a wide range of groups are also willing to
entertain because this dominion lacks any overt political affiliation
Through its publicly visible embodiment, the production of this
technology has become one of the most striking indictments against
long-standing rational choice or free-market justifications for
intellectual property principles and has concurrently inspired the
establishment of a range of progressive "open source" endeavors in
law, journalism, education, and science that emphasize the importance
of productive autonomy, volunteer labor, collaboration, and open
access to knowledge.


A Roaming Sato


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