Coding Freedom and the Cruel Contradiction of Creative Collaboration

About a month ago I finished reading the highly intelligent Coding Freedom by E. Gabriella Coleman.

Although much of historical content might be a review for readers who are already familiar with the free and open software movements, the book is full of refreshing insights, the variety that is best provided by subcultural outsiders. I always appreciate things that put programming into context with other creative and social pursuits.

Here is one of my favourite passages:

Over time, this [version control] record accumulates into a richly documented palimpsest. Though individual attribution is certainly accorded, these technological palimpsests reflect unmistakably that complicated pieces of software are held in place by a grand collaborative effort that far exceeds any one person’s contribution. In contrast to many accounts on authorship, I find that a short description about the aesthetics of jazz and its “cruel contradiction” is eerily evocative of the hacker creative predicament:

There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity, and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it. (Ellison 1964, 234; quoted in Gilroy 1993, 79) Among hackers this cruelty, this difficulty in establishing discrete originality, is in reality not so cruel. It is treated like any interesting problem: an enticing hurdle that invites rigorous intellectual intervention and a well-crafted solution within given constraints. Hackers clearly define the meaning of the free individual through this very persistent inclination to find solutions; they revel in directing their faculty for critical thought toward creating better technology or more sublime, beautiful code. The logic among hackers goes that if one can create beauty, originality, or solve a problem within the shackles of constraints, this must prove a superior form of creativity, intelligence, and individuality than the mere expression of some wholly original work. Not every piece of technology made by hackers qualifies as a hack. The hack is particularly the “individual assertion within and against the group” (Ellison 1964, 234), which may be easily attached to an individual even though it is still indebted to a wider tradition and conversation. Hackers certainly engage in a creative, complex process partially separated from hierarchy, enfolding a mechanics of dissection, manipulation, and reassembly, in which various forms of collaboration are held in high esteem. Much of their labor is oriented toward finding a good enough solution so they can carry forth with their work. But their form of production is one that also generates a practice of cordial (and sometimes not-so-cordial) one-upping, which simultaneously acknowledges the hacker’s technical roots and yet at times strives to go beyond inherited forms in order to implement a better solution. If this solution is achieved, it will favorably reveal one’s capacity for original, critical thought – the core meaning of individuality among hackers.