Three Ethical Moments in Debian

77 Pages Posted: 28 Sep 2005

See all articles by E. Gabriella Coleman

E. Gabriella Coleman

NYU - Department of Media, Culture, and Communication

Date Written: September 15, 2005


This article is a detailed examination of ethical cultivation as it occurs in the Debian project, whose volunteers produce a non-commercial distribution of the GNU/Linux OS. Thus far, much of the literature on free and open source software (F/OSS) production has been heavily focused on the question of motivation or incentive mechanisms and has tended to ignore how hacker valuations, motivations, and commitments are transformed by the lived experiences that unfold in F/OSS projects and institutions that are mediated through project charters and organizational procedures. In this anthropological piece, I draw heavily on the work of the legal theorist Robert Cover (1992), who examines the ways in which "jurigenisis," the production and stabilization of inhabited normative and legal meanings, requires an ongoing and sometimes conflicting narrative interpretation of codified textual norms. I specify his model in examining how three different ethical moments are the grounds for the adoption, transformation, and re-evaluation of a set of values related to accountability, freedom, transparency, openness, and mutual aid: conflict-free enculturation, legal pedagogy and production, and lastly crisis.

Keywords: free software, ethics, Debian, hackers, liberalism, trust in virtuality

Suggested Citation

Coleman, E. Gabriella, Three Ethical Moments in Debian (September 15, 2005). Available at SSRN: or

E. Gabriella Coleman (Contact Author)

NYU - Department of Media, Culture, and Communication ( email )

New York, NY 10011
United States

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