Product is Process: Review of Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb

Product is Process: Review of Coding Democracy: How Hackers Are Disrupting Power, Surveillance, and Authoritarianism by Maureen Webb

C. A. Hines

Maureen Webb’s Coding Democracy: How Hackers are Disrupting Power, Surveillance, and Authoritarianism casts a wide net, dredging up provocative media stories about hacking and security from the past few decades. Webb pulls back into public consciousness organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Chaos Computer Club, social movements like Anonymous and Occupy, and individuals like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning. While U.S.-centric, the narrative also includes sketches of international movements and characters perhaps less familiar to the American reader.

The goal is to understand the implications of vast technological trends—tending toward dystopian or utopian futures, with centralized, authoritarian control on the one hand and distributed, collaborative movements on the other. The twelve chapters of Coding Democracy approach the immense power of networked technologies from different angles, many relating the stories of those that have learned to leverage it with different (often surprising) methods and to various effects, such as John Perry Barlow, lyricist for the Grateful Dead and muse of cyberspace, or Simona Levi, the playwright and founding member of the Xnet collective in Barcelona. Other chapters focus more on innovations or abuses of technologies themselves, such as The GNU/Linux kernel, blockchain technology, and Onion routers. 

Webb is a human rights lawyer, and rightly focuses on how (as Lawrence Lessig says) “code is law,” in the sense that technological as much as legal systems will determine how humans act, what they can say, and the rights and privacies they are afforded. The “message” Webb attributes to Eben Moglen can also serve as the main theses of the book: “that users of technology have rights, that technology must serve and not subject humankind, that it is citizens who must ultimately control code, [and] that we can and must code for democracy.” While corporations and technocrats increasingly use networks to constrain, predict, and profit from collaborative human behavior, activists and visionaries want to liberate and expand the scope of social and political agency by designing systems in which bottom-up, unrestricted emergence can occur.

“My intent on this journey is not to valorize the hacker, Silicon Valley visionary, counterculture guys’ club, Harvard professor, or MIT hotshot,” Webb assures the reader, although much of her book does just that. “My intent is to celebrate the hacking ethos, the collective intelligence of people, and the spirit in all of us to resist domination and unfairness.” This intent comes through most clearly in the interviews, where a variety of well- and lesser-known thinkers and activists explain the implications of their projects and the dangers they are up against.

In the section “Pros, Cons, and Disobedience Awards”, Webb displays her own delightful episode of disobedience when she points out that MIT and Harvard “are mainstreaming hacking by raising elite and popular awareness of it and by leveraging new resources and respectability for hacker experiments,” and on the following page notes that “over the last few decades universities have for the most part become, and resiliently remain, corporate-style enterprises.”

Listening to Parag Khanna declaim the virtues of a technocratic state of “global utilitarianism,” Webb confides that “to me, the maps of global networks Khanna is showing us look like the apogee of neoliberal complexity, with measurements of success abstracted from people’s actual well-being—a global engine of extractive capitalism and an intensifier of concentrations of power.”

The corporate capture of hacker ideology, and the ambivalence of the messaging that results, is evident in the brief section on Aaron Swartz, the activist and programmer largely responsible for RSS feeds and the defeat of the SOPA act. In the first chapter, Webb traces the “genealogy of the hacker ethos” back to MIT in the 50s, and the model train enthusiasts who “managed to sneak into the basement room at night and play with the keypunch machines.” The presentation of this disobedience, seen as the constructive rule-breaking of the free thinker (the authoritarian’s anti-authoritarianism), stands in sharp contrast to the view MIT took of the activities of Swartz, who snuck into a janitors’ closet at night and downloaded millions of copyrighted academic articles. Publicly funded institutions, he thought, should not privatize and profit from the work that such public funding produced. MIT involved the police, and Swartz was eventually charged with fraud. Facing thirty-five years in prison and a million dollars in fines, he committed suicide. His story, as much as anecdotes about precocious rule-breaking programmers of model trains, illustrates the complicated institutional attitudes towards the hacker ethos in real life, where idealized rhetoric about disobedience and open knowledge come into conflict with entrenched economic incentives.

Coding Democracy describes the persistent attempts to surveil and subvert popular movements and restrict the flow of information, as well as the diverse attempts at developing resistance and resilience by hard-coding democratic and collaborative values into the tools and systems emerging outside of authoritarian control. The chapters point to significant trends that Webb hints at but doesn’t directly address or theorize about. The inclusion of Swartz into this narrative is, for a book published by MIT, a tragic irony, and maybe a conscious one: Webb doesn’t shy away from pointing to places where the accepted narratives about technological progress are obviously threadbare. A reader is left to speculate what might have been said, however, had the book been written in a more free and open society. As Webb says wondering  “how much in the thick” of things one of the hackers she met at the Chaos Computer Club congress is, “it might be bad form to ask.”

C. A. Hines is interested in ecology, technology, and fiction. With a PhD in 19th Century U.S. literature from the University of Iowa, he has taught English in Romania, China, Peru, and Mexico, and works as a technical writer and academic proofreader. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and WordPress.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by editor Casella Brookins from a hard pitch in April 2021. The author and editor had no previous relationship. A review copy was arranged by ARB from MIT Press.

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