Trained as an anthropologist, Gabriella Coleman approaches her investigation of the open source and hacker communities as if she were deep in the bush, discovering a hidden tribe. She's been on the frontlines of trying to change perceptions and public understanding of activists. As a result, she brings back a clearer understanding of this underground culture to dispel myths, misinformation and perceptions portrayed in a mainstream media that often offers itself up as mouthpieces for the status quo.
As a professor at McGill University in Montreal, she also has undertaken the role of an investigative reporter by burrowing deep into IRC channels to cultivate acceptance among the hackers who correspond there and who recognize in her a kindred spirit. Her studies of the community document not only the actions these groups and individuals initiate, but help explain their motivations as well. And those, essentially, are the liberal principles most embody: freedom, privacy and access.
Coleman's work explores the achievements, or at least the impulses, behind hacktivist tactics, which, while often skirting legal issues, speak to the ability for citizens to protest and shame corporations and government activity that seek to abuse individual and human rights. She explores the ethical issues around the most modern form of dissent against authority.
Occupation: professor at McGill University
College: B.A. in religious studies, Columbia University; Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology, University of Chicago
Accomplishments: Pre-eminent source
“When I started doing research on hackers, I was so struck at how they were carrying the torch of the liberal tradition, but also making it clear that some of these core elements have significant controversies or contradictions within,” she says. But whether it was the fact that they were quoting Thomas Jefferson or the Constitution, or knew many of the core free speech cases in the United States, it was striking to her that they were a group of technologists who were also so central to the continuing relevance of liberal values in the contemporary age.
“It's a different world than a lot of people who aren't technologists know about or can relate to,” she says. And it's a world that is continually redefining boundaries. Hackers are very sectarian, she says. They have strong beliefs about appropriate technology and what's appropriate when it comes to dissent. “So, while Anonymous, in particular, has landed so many headlines, they've also been heavily criticized by other people in the hacker community for taking away people's free speech rights [in their use of DDoS tactics],” she says.
Coleman has recently received ample attention for her study of the most notorious hacktivist collective – she's been interviewed by more than 125 journalists in the last 18 months about Anonymous and appears prominently in a documentary, We are Legion, about the group. And, perhaps more than any other person, she has dispelled the hyperbole to get at the truth. And, the truth, she indicates, is relative to the observer.
“She's incredible,” says Brian Knappenberger, the writer, director and producer of We are Legion. “You can hardly say enough about her and the depth with which she has investigated this culture. She has done the research and is remarkably articulate about what she has found, taking complex topics and making them accessible.”