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Kelty (2008) Two Bits, Preface and Introduction

July 23, 2009

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I’ve just finished reading Chris Kelty’s book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008). As I’ve done with Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life I shall be posting my notes on this book in separate blog entries – all this in aid of a review essay I’m preparing for the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI) centred on these two studies and two others. (Yes, scholarship is hard work, in case there was any doubt, but blogging makes the long-distance running a little less lonesome; please feel free to comment, ask for clarifications, etc., as this is written in note form).


x-xi Free Software (FS) all about practices, not surface ideologies or goals – it’s public, ‘about making things public’

xi… in a particular way: ‘it is a self-determining, collective, politically independent mode of creating very complex technical objects that are made publicly and freely available to everyone – a “commons,” in common parlance”

xi Cultural significance of FS marked by its ‘proselytizing urge’ and the ease with which its practices diffuse


1 FS shock value when it appeared: making privately owned software of high quality public

2 FS is ‘a set of practices for the distributed collaborative creation of software source code that is then made openly and freely available through a clever, unconventional use of copyright law’

2 Book is about ‘the cultural significance of Free Software’. Culture here means ‘an ongoing experimental system, a space of modification and modulation, of figuring out and testing; culture is an experiment that is hard to keep an eye on, one that changes quickly and sometimes starkly’. [How different or similar to Boellstorff’s 2008 notion of culture as applied to a very different internet study: Second Life?, see previous blog posts].

2 FS not just about software; example of ‘more general reorientation of power and knowledge’.

3 To explore cultural significance of FS, Kelty introduces notion of ‘recursive public’:

a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

3 (Recursive) publics distinct from unions, corporations, interest groups, mosques, and ‘other forms of organisation’ in their ‘focus on the radical technological modifiability of their own terms of existence’.

4 Book revisits time and again three entwined phenomena:
i) the Internet, a singular but heterogeneous ‘infrastructure of technologies and uses’
ii) FS, a highly specific set of ‘technical, legal and social practices that now require the Internet’
iii) recursive publics; a notion that will clarify how the other two are related

5 By studying FS and its modulations we can understand better wider processes related to Wikipedia, stock quotes, pornography, etc. [A Big Claim – will the book deliver?]

5 Outline of book:
Part I introduces ethnographically the recursive public notion via ‘international community of geeks’. Part II looks historically at how FS emerged in 1998-99 but tracing genealogies back to late 1950s. Separate chapters devoted to history of main practices that make up FS: namely proselytizing & arguing, porting & forking source code, conceptualising open systems and openness, creating FS copyright, and coordinating people and software. Part III goes back to ethnography, case studies of two projects inspired by FS to make something different in broader domains of knowledge production, incl. academic textbooks.

6 At stake is ‘reorientation of power and knowledge’; 7 a reorientation unlike the grand claims of Informatin or Knowledge Society/economies.

7 FS is particular kind of public: a recursive public. Trouble is our present popular and scholarly understanding of a self-governing public is rudimentary. FS far more than ideological positioning; 8 in fact, it’s really all about practices, that’s what unites geeks, the practices of ‘creating Free Software and its derivatives’.

8 Advantage of this term – recursive public – is that it draws attention not just to discourse (as in common uses of public sphere notion) but also to ‘the layers of technical and legal infrastructure’ without which FS couldn’t exist. [cf. work on internet and public sphere, e.g. e-Minnesota, which does indeed focus on discourse and neglect infrastructure].

9 FS geeks crucial in maintaining the Internet unitary against interests of many state and non-state agents who’d wish to fragment it. Recursive public and FS practices have checked these centrifugal tendencies. [Another Big Claim – evidence provided in the book?]

10 Geeks have ‘ethic of justice’ combined with legal and technical acumen

10 C21 public sphere to be found not in pamphlets, cafes or salons but in mailing lists, copyright licenses and source code: shift from Tischgesellschaften to Schreibtischgesellschaften.

10 Reorientation of power and knowledge two main components as part of notion of recursive public:

a) availability: transparency, open access, etc

b) modifiability (or adaptability): 11 ability not only to access but to transform; core practice of FS ‘is the practice of reuse and modification of software source code’. Motto of Creative Commons is “Culture always builds on the past” … with tacit rider: ‘through legal appropriation and modification’. This raises key issue of finality:

When is something (software, a film, music, culture) finished? How long does it remain finished? Who decides? Or more generally, what does its temporality look like, and how does that temporality restructure political relationships?

11 Modification has become far more routine, fast and sophisticated now that we have distributed software. [Historical change/increase]

12 Modifiability not just a technical solution, creates new possibilities and challenges for established practices such as publication

13 Started project studying geeks but constant debates about what exactly was FS led author to turn to key research question of book: ‘what is the cultural significance of Free Software?’.

13 In late 90s FS becoming more conscious of being a movement, not just an amalgam of practices, tools, projects, 14 this discussed in chapter 3.

14-15 Five main components of FS:
1) movement (chap 3)
2) sharing source code (chap 4)
3) conceptualising openness (chap 5)
4) applying copyright/copyleft licenses (chap 6)
5) coordinating and collaborating (chap 7) [on this last practice in filmmaking domain, see Toni Roig 2008, this blog]

15 Components = practices [but you don’t define ‘practices’ here or elsewhere]

16 Modulation = someone trying out a FS practice in another domain

18-23 Three contributions of Two Bits, often mixed up:

1) empirical: geeks caught in the act of ‘figuring out’ things; superalterns can speak for themselves, no crisis of representation here! ‘geeks are vocal, loud, persistent, and loquacious’. But although people essential to ethnography, ‘they are not the objects of its analysis’; 20 the object is in fact FS and the Internet, or more precisely “recursive publics”.

2) methodological: example of how may study ‘distributed phenomena ethnographically’ [and historically as well??]. No single geographical location to study FS or the internet. Went to places like Bangalore, Boston, Berlin, Houston. 21 One interesting oddity is that ‘nearly everything is archived’. ‘What geeks may lack in social adroitness, they make up for in archival hubris’ [Nice one, Chris; thus demanding of researcher the ability to discard huge amounts of materials readily available? how does this relate to focus on actual practices? to what extent can one reconstruct actual embodied skilled practice from mailing lists and other such digital archives?]. So for a lot of questions you don’t need ‘being there’ – stratified ethnographic research [mmm, but can you still call it ethnographic?].

3) theoretical: start by working out ‘which information technologies and which specific practices make a difference’. For concept of recursive public useful readings include Habermas, Taylor, Warner, Dewey, Arendt esp. idea of ‘modern social imaginaries’ [see Leong 2008 PhD thesis on internet in Malaysia].

23 Upbeat end to Intro: contra Habermas’ pessimism about bankrupt public sphere in C20, are we seeing in early C21 emergence of strong recursive publics that give us hope?

Chapter 1

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