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Summary of Kelty (2008) Two Bits

July 29, 2009

Kelty, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Preface & Introduction

Free Software (FS) all about practices, not goals or ideologies. This book is on cultural significance of FS. By studying FS and its modulations (appropriations in other fields) we can understand better wider issues like porn, stock quotes, Wikipedia. Kelty introduces term ‘recursive public’ = specific kind of C21 public sphere or commons where geeks modify and maintain the very technological conditions (infrastructure) of their own terms of discourse and existence. FS not just about software, part of ongoing global reorientation of power/knowledge. Three main contributions of this book are empirical (geeks caught ‘figuring out’ things), methodological (ethnographic + archival) and theoretical (recursive public vs. Habermas, Taylor, etc.).


This part introduces ethnographically the recursive public notion via global geek community

Chapter 1. Geeks and Recursive Publics

Geeks argue both about and through technology, bound together by being a recursive public via the Net. They mix in their politics operating systems and social systems and regard the Net as a flexible ‘standardized infrastructure’; never static, perennial struggle over maintaining the ‘legitimate infrastucture’ that sustains geekdom. To avoid ideas vs. practices dichotomy Kelty sees recursive public as a social imaginary (Taylor) of sorts, a moral order making norms attainable. Geeks share a moral-technical understanding of social order that is partly imagined, partly concrete (computers, wires, waves, electrons).

Chapter 2. Protestant Reformers, Polymaths, Transhumanists

This chapter is about modern myths or ‘usable pasts’ of geeks. You can’t map US bipartisan politics onto geeks, no techno- convervatives vs. liberals. Geeks range along continuum from polymaths (technology as intervention in complex, historically specific field of practice) to transhumanists (technology as unstoppable progress). Geeks love allegories of Protestant revolt – more into reform(ation) and conversion than ‘revolution or overthrow’, so in field author engaged in ‘participant allegorization’ (narrative moralising). Studying FS we gain insight not only into geeks but also into a recursive public that could transform all our lives.


This part looks historically at how FS crystallised in 1998-9 but tracing genealogies back to 1950s. Separate chapters devoted to history of five main practices that make up the ‘collective technical experimental system’ known as FS: the movement (chapter 3), sharing source code (chapter 4), conceptualising openness (chapter 5), applying copyright/copyleft licenses (chapter 6), coordinating and collaborating (chapter 7).

Chapter 3. The Movement

The movement is the geek practice of arguing and discussing about the other four FS practices. Geeks may disagree, but all concur they’re doing the same thing. FS forked in 1998 when Open Source came onto scene, but ignored copyright issues and linked to dotcoms dreams of profit-making and disintermediation. Suddenly geeks had to take sides. In contrast, FS a lot to do with resisting  intellectual property expansionism. In common, both FS and Open Source are NOT collectives, informal organisations, crowds or *social* movements. Both are ‘figuring out’ things thru reflection and discussion crucial to FS public and its recursivity. Although ideologically opposed, they are materially and practically identical. Real struggles at level of emergent practices, not ideology.

Chapter 4. Sharing Source Code

There would be no FS without shared source code. This chapter is story of UNIX operating system, a manner of ‘primal recursive public’  paradigmatic of computers in general, a geek philosophy of life for the modern era. Problem of portability acute in early 1960s, i.e. how to move software across machines. UNIX was commercial-academic hybrid that achieved just this with conceptual integrity loved by geeks but actual diversity. “It worked”, and was ported to machines as well as young geek minds everywhere.  Yet achieved more pedagogical than legal stability. More than technical feat: pivotal to making of set of norms for sharing code. In turn, this sharing (not individual genius) produced its own kind of order.

Chapter 5. Conceiving Open Systems

‘Open’ is most complicated part of FS; opposite is not ‘closed’ but ‘proprietary’. This chapter is on struggle over meaning of ‘open systems’ 1980-1993. Not just technical, also moral components contested. Open systems have blind spot: intellectual property, that is assumption that without intellectual property innovation would end. Irresolvable tension between manufacturers’ promise of interoperability and ‘seamless integration’ and a secrecy-ridden intellectual property regime, i.e. two incompatible moral-technical orders. In UNIX wars of 1980s, vendors ganged up to support favourite standards and sell them to customers. Result not single winner but ‘reassertion of proprietary computing’. Meanwhile TCP/IP protocols succeeded in creating single standard and entity, the Internet, with its killer app the Web, because of availability, modifiability and serendipity. This foreshadowed FS experimental moral-technical order to come.

Chapter 6. Writing Copyright Licenses

Most extraordinary and widely recognised FS practice is writing new, unconventional copyright licenses. In fact, FS owes its existence to US copyright law which it subverted, though this was not original plan. This chapter is about first FS license (GPL) and related controversy over EMACS (legendary software). GPL figured out via newish medium: mailing list. In 1983-5 EMACS commune morphed into GPL – a ‘legal commune’ – when leader Stallman added copyright messages to software. Stress on sovereignty of ‘self-fashioning individuals’ out of bureaucratic modernity not return to pastoral idyll of community. Yet legal uncertainties and threats undermined GPL. Lessons learned by geeks and today all would-be hackers must know a lot about intellectual property law (Coleman) and how to debate it and work around it. This not story of hacker genius but of ‘active modulation’ of practices among human and non-human agents.

Chapter 7. Coordinating Collaborations

Chapter looks at FS collaboration and coordination in 1990s; focus on Linux and Apache. What’s unique is that no goals, favouring adaptability over planning. From UNIX to Minix to Linux: aware of EMACS past woes, Torvald Linus didn’t want to reuse any code, no restrictions. Stressed fun and pragmatism in contrast to Stallman’s ideology. Linux = recursive public of entwined operating and social systems. Apache is story of coordinating ‘people and code, patches and votes’. Both Apache and Linux used Source Code Management systems (SCMs) – anyone can check out code, but only some people can ‘commit it’. Trusted committers elected on strength of their ineffable ‘good taste’. In sum, both were experiments with techs, legal tools, governance, coordination and ultimately moral-technical orders. Kelty dismisses ‘self-organising systems’ hype of people who don’t know how FS works.


This part goes back to ethnography. Case studies of two projects inspired by FS to innovate in other domains of cultural production, incl. academic textbooks.

Chapter 8. “If We Succeed, We Will Disappear”

Chapter deals with two FS-inspired projects: Connexions and Creative Commons (CC). Connexions project in which author deeply involved: FS-inspired texbook production. Kelty’s geeky ‘imagination of openness… and social order’ more valuable here than anthro or social science background. What is new about it? Is Connexions FS? Answer: it modulates all FS practices except movement: no Free Textbook movement as yet. By contrast, CC quickly became a movement. More than licenses, about struggle to use one’s culture freely (Lessig) against content industries encroachment. Connexions is massive experiment and community-based; people excited by possible creative links and modifications across textbook modules. More than just online textbooks, aim is to create new publishing infrastructure. Through this experience, Kelty also learned about Anglo-American common law re: software.

Chapter 9. Reuse, Modification and the Nonexistence of Norms

How Connexions and CC modulations of FS relate to problems of ‘reuse, modification, and the norms of scholarly production’. In trying to ‘figure out’ things, both projects stumbled on changing meaning of finality of a creative/scholarly work. How do such works attain identity, stability, completion? Projects wanted to redefine finality in open, public way – modifiability to be integral to how knowledge stabilised. But many scholars resist this idea. Geeks instinctively reach out for highly codified law but a lot of academic custom not codified. Johns more useful than Ong in understanding historical creation of publishing infrastructure around print technologies. Connexions looking at academic publishing through FS template: ‘template-work’. Project boils down to creating recursive public. Reorientation of power/knowledge demands not only legal and technical response, also public response.


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