Anthropologist focused on hacker culture

December 3, 2012

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.

Gabriella Coleman 

Occupation: professor at McGill University

Age: 39

College: B.A. in religious studies, Columbia University; Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology, University of Chicago

Accomplishments: Pre-eminent source
on Anonymous hacktivist group; published her first book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton University Press); received an endowed chair in scientific and technological literacy at McGill University.

“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.”

Coleman is an anthropologist whose work goes way beyond the scientific or technical, says Knappenberger, who runs the production company Luminant Media. “Since we all live online now, she isn't just researching digital culture, she's researching our day-to-day culture,” he says. “As such, I think future anthropologists will see her as a kind of early explorer.” She also takes an often-demonized group, like Anonymous, and humanizes them, unlocking their motivations – which is critically important, even if one disagrees with them, he says.

Coleman is actively working on a second book, focused on Anonymous, and intends to finish it once her teaching chores are finished this semester. Meanwhile, she's been speaking about the group in a number of contexts, not simply academia. This year, she has spoken at TED and web-oriented events such as WebStalk in New Zealand, where she gave a prominent keynote. She's also delivered academic talks, as well as presentations to security officials and one-on-ones at corporations and global risk network consortiums. She says she finds it interesting coming out of academia and speaking with nonprofits and those interested in open source. She reaches very different types of audiences.

And she will continue to study Anonymous as they evolve. A year ago, the collective was often portrayed as mere hoodlums without a sort of logic, she says. “While they certainly have a set of particular characteristics, they tend to be reactive and preventative and not proactive,” she says. “They're reacting to actual world events. What makes them distinct is the fact that they are unpredictable. That keeps people on their toes.”

It's not always easy to do the research with an entity that can be so unpredictable and controversial, Coleman says, and the reaction to some of their actions can sometimes be exaggerated and ripe with misinformation. It's important to intervene, especially as it's happening and not years later, she says. 

The kinds of groups Coleman investigates are too abrasive, technical, marginalized or just plain weird for most people, but as it turns out they are also the future, says Knappenberger. “We need explorers like Gabriella to venture into this terrain and come back with insight that broadens our world.”
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