Gabriella Coleman: Helping Hackers Infiltrate Academia

As a grad student in anthropology, Gabriella Coleman was warned that studying the culture of computer hackers would make it hard to get a job teaching in a university. She went ahead anyway, becoming one of the first academics to explore the meaning and implications of the open source movement in software. Coleman now holds an endowed chair in scientific and technological literacy at McGill University in Montreal, and is currently researching the digital activism of the hacker collective Anonymous for a new book. Here, she discusses why software wants to be free, why hacker culture matters for the rest of us, and whether traditional academic disciplines are still relevant.

FAST COMPANY: You have degrees in religion and anthropology–how did you get gravitate to hacking and digital activism?

GABRIELLA COLEMAN: I was in the anthropology program at University of Chicago. I meant to major in anthropology as an undergrad as well, but at the time, the anthropology department at Columbia was in disarray, so I had decided to do religion. In college, I’ll never forget when this programmer who lived on my floor got a software CD of the Linux operating system in the mail. He was so excited, and I was dumbfounded. The thing is, when Linux was first being developed, in the early 1990s, you had to download it from the Internet, probably with a dial-up connection. It took days to download and burn to floppies. Ordering a CD and plopping it into your system was huge time savings.

And then the programmer told me about copyleft, which refers to a class of free software licenses, such as the GNU General Public License. It’s built on copyright, but with an additional provision that basically disables the copyright so that software has a way of replicating itself. At the time, I was interested in patents in medicine and was following activists protesting patents on AIDS drugs. When I learned about copyleft, I was hooked. While there are some traditions that have managed to confound intellectual property law–like folk music and rap–what fascinated me about the open source movement, which at the time was only called free software, was that these people had created an alternate, parallel legal system.

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