Hello World

In my recent review of Coding Freedom by E. Gabriella Coleman, published on io9, I describe the tension between the open-source movement in software and the tightening of copyright law. Coleman examines in anthropological detail the conflict between the open-source culture on the one side, with its allegiance to free availability, sharing of code, and the freedom to work with software, and copyright law on the other, with its increasingly punitive and corporate approach.

The Net and software are raising serious questions about whether access to information is a right or a privilege, a commercial commodity or a basic human right. All people should have access to education, clean water, and privacy. Should they also have access to code, scientific research, or books without limitations? Hacking has changed the lines of discussion, because programming is both writing and building; it is at the same time intellectual and practical, ideal and real, symbols on the screen that drive tractors and perform surgery.

Over the past several months I’ve been wrestling with software, sometimes winning, sometimes being pinned by the hundred-armed beast. Although most of the time this has been a solitary activity, I’ve been helped by thousands of programmers around the world. Some hail from Sweden, others from the UK. All of these “hackers” devote their time and energy to making software work, and then make the results of their labors available for others free of charge.

Hacking into code is an intricate dance that provides a joy similar to learning how to nail two boards together, lay mosaic tile, or sew a hem. “The trouble with computers,” Richard Feynman said, “is that you play with them.” Changing things, modifying the world, has a satisfaction all its own. A well-built sand castle or stone wall is worth a day’s labor, no matter if it is washed away in the next storm.

Making stuff for pure joy has come back into fashion, witnessed by the legions of aficionados who flock to Maker Faire, steampunk fests, and similar gatherings. Useful, fanciful, or a blend, craft has returned to American culture, and not a moment too soon. The Net through sites such as Etsy provides a venue for artists to find raw materials, learn techniques through short videos, and meet up with other artists to sell their wares. This is a golden age for artists.

The intellectual arts are also experiencing a renaissance. Writers and thinkers in every medium have new tools to work with every year. Publishing can be done in a dozen ways, and there are a hundred ways to collaborate with others. Anybody who has access to a public library can put up an essay or a novel for the world to read.

Public libraries are one of the best institutions in this country, but they’ve been sadly neglected in recent decades, partly due to the rise of electronics. Librarians are caught between codex and code. We dream of the totality of knowledge where every book and scrap is instantly accessible, and that may indeed come some day. But the dreamer will have to wrestle with those who want to charge or limit access for every borrowing, view, and idea.

For ten thousand years we humans have been a restless species, reshaping the world. The joy of making and shaping will continue long into the future, along with a thousand new techniques and tools, guilds and collaborations. And just as surely, legal and cultural struggles over authorship, rights, property, and ownership are going to expand. A new culture has emerged in the last few decades, whose artisans speak a strange jargon, work with intricate tools, and effect changes far and wide. Coding Freedom is an excellent introduction to its dens and denizens.

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