Better late than never, here’s a presentation and excerpts of the important book by Christopher Kelty which is a history and discussion of the cultural significance of free software.
(Christopher Kelty. Two Bits. Duke University Press, 2008)
Kelty offers a new concept to name the new type of social movement and function that the free software movement represents.
But first, the general presentation, what is the book about?
“Two Bits has three parts. Part I of this book introduces the reader to the concept of recursive publics by exploring the lives, works, and discussions of an international community of geeks brought together by their shared interest in the Internet. Chapter 1 asks, in an ethnographic voice, “Why do geeks associate with one another?” The answer—told via the story of Napster in 2000 and the standards process at the heart of the Internet—is that they are making a recursive public. Chapter 2 explores the words and attitudes of geeks more closely, focusing on the strange stories they tell (about the Protestant Reformation, about their practical everyday polymathy, about progress and enlightenment), stories that make sense of contemporary political economy in sometimes surprising ways. Central to part I is an explication of the ways in which geeks argue about technology but also argue with and through it, by building, modifying, and maintaining the very software, networks, and legal tools within which and by which they associate with one another. It is meant to give the reader a kind of visceral sense of why certain arrangements of technology, organization, and law—specifically that of the Internet and Free Software—are so vitally important to these geeks.
Part II takes a step back from ethnographic engagement to ask, “What is Free Software and why has it emerged at this point in history?” Part II is a historically detailed portrait of the emergence of Free Software beginning in 1998–99 and stretching back in time as far as the late 1950s; it recapitulates part I by examining Free Software as an exemplar of a recursive public. The five chapters in part II tell a coherent historical story, but each is focused on a separate component of Free Software. The stories in these chapters help distinguish the figure of Free Software from the ground of the Internet. The diversity of technical practices, economic concerns, information technologies, and legal and organizational practices is huge, and these five chapters distinguish and describe the specific practices in their historical contexts and settings: practices of [PAGE 6] proselytizing and arguing, of sharing, porting, and forking source code, of conceptualizing openness and open systems, of creating Free Software copyright, and of coordinating people and source code.
Part III returns to ethnographic engagement, analyzing two related projects inspired by Free Software which modulate one or more of the five components discussed in part II, that is, which take the practices as developed in Free Software and experiment with making something new and different. The two projects are Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that creates copyright licenses, and Connexions, a project to develop an online scholarly textbook commons. By tracing the modulations of practices in detail, I ask, “Are these projects still Free Software?” and “Are these projects still recursive publics?” The answer to the first questions reveals how Free Software’s flexible practices are influencing specific forms of practice far from software programming, while the answer to the second question helps explain how Free Software, Creative Commons, Connexions, and projects like them are all related, strategic responses to the reorientation of power and knowledge. The conclusion raises a series of questions intended to help scholars looking at related phenomena.”
The concept of the recursive public is that we now have social movements which cannot only protest and refuse, but can actually create and modify the infrastructures that they inhabit.
Free Software as a Recursive Public:
“A recursive public is 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. Free Software is one instance of this concept, both as it has emerged in the recent past and as it undergoes transformation and differentiation in the near future. There are other instances, including those that emerge from the practices of Free Software, such as Creative Commons, the Connexions project, and the Open Access movement in science. These latter instances may or may not be Free Software, or even “software” projects per se, but they are connected through the same practices, and what makes them significant is that they may also be “recursive publics” in the sense I explore in this book. Recursive publics, and publics generally, differ from interest groups, corporations, unions, professions, churches, and other forms of organization because of their focus on the radical technological modifiability of their own terms of existence. In any public there inevitably arises a moment when the question of how things are said, who controls the means of communication, or whether each and everyone is being properly heard becomes an issue. A legitimate public sphere is one that gives outsiders a way in: they may or may not be heard, but they do not have to appeal to any authority (inside or outside the organization) in order to have a voice. Such publics are not inherently modifiable, but are made so—and maintained—through the practices of participants. It is possible for Free Software as we know it to cease to be public, or to become just one more settled form of power, but my focus is on the recent past and near future of something that is (for the time being) public in a radical and novel way.
The concept of a recursive public is not meant to apply to any and every instance of a public — it is not a replacement for the concept of a “public sphere” — but is intended rather to give readers a specific and detailed sense of the non-obvious, but persistent threads that form the warp and weft of Free Software and to analyze similar and related projects that continue to emerge from it as novel and unprecedented forms of publicity and political action.
By calling Free Software a recursive public, I am doing two things: first, I am drawing attention to the democratic and political significance of Free Software and the Internet; and second, I am suggesting that our current understanding (both academic and colloquial) of what counts as a self-governing public, or even as “the public,” is radically inadequate to understanding the contemporary reorientation of knowledge and power. The first case is easy to make: it is obvious that there is something political about Free Software, but most casual observers assume, erroneously, that it is simply an ideological stance and that it is anti–intellectual property or technolibertarian. I hope to show how geeks do not start with ideologies, but instead come to them through their involvement in the practices of creating Free Software and its derivatives. To be sure, there are ideologues aplenty, but there are far more people who start out thinking of themselves as libertarians or liberators, but who become something quite different through their participation in Free Software.
The second case is more complex: why another contribution to the debate about the public and public spheres? There are two reasons I have found it necessary to invent, and to attempt to make precise, the concept of a recursive public: the first is to signal the need to include within the spectrum of political activity the creation, modification, and maintenance of software, networks, and legal documents. Coding, hacking, patching, sharing, compiling, and modifying of software are forms of political action that now routinely accompany familiar political forms of expression like free speech, assembly, petition, and a free press. Such activities are expressive in ways that conventional political theory and social science do not recognize: they can both express and “implement” ideas about the social and moral order of society. Software and networks can express ideas in the conventional written sense as well as create (express) infrastructures that allow ideas to circulate in novel and unexpected ways. At an analytic level, the concept of a recursive public is a way of insisting on the importance to public debate of the unruly technical materiality of a political order, not just the embodied discourse (however material) about that order. Throughout this book, I raise the question of how Free Software and the Internet are themselves a public, as well as what that public actually makes, builds, and maintains.
The second reason I use the concept of a recursive public is that conventional publics have been described as “self-grounding,” as constituted only through discourse in the conventional sense of speech, writing, and assembly.6 Recursive publics are “recursive” not only because of the “self-grounding” of commitments and identities but also because they are concerned with the depth or strata of this self-grounding: the layers of technical and legal infrastructure which are necessary for, say, the Internet to exist as the infrastructure of a public. Every act of self-grounding that constitutes a public relies in turn on the existence of a medium or ground through which communication is possible—whether face-to-face speech, epistolary communication, or net-based assembly—and recursive publics relentlessly question the status of these media, suggesting [PAGE 9] that they, too, must be independent for a public to be authentic. At each of these layers, technical and legal and organizational decisions can affect whether or not the infrastructure will allow, or even ensure, the continued existence of the recursive publics that are concerned with it. Recursive publics’ independence from power is not absolute; it is provisional and structured in response to the historically constituted layering of power and control within the infrastructures of computing and communication.
For instance, a very important aspect of the contemporary Internet, and one that has been fiercely disputed (recently under the banner of “net neutrality”), is its singularity: there is only one Internet. This was not an inevitable or a technically determined outcome, but the result of a contest in which a series of decisions were made about layers ranging from the very basic physical configuration of the Internet (packet-switched networks and routing systems indifferent to data types), to the standards and protocols that make it work (e.g., TCP/IP or DNS), to the applications that run on it (e-mail, www, ssh). The outcome of these decisions has been to privilege the singularity of the Internet and to champion its standardization, rather than to promote its fragmentation into multiple incompatible networks. These same kinds of decisions are routinely discussed, weighed, and programmed in the activity of various Free Software projects, as well as its derivatives. They are, I claim, decisions embedded in imaginations of order that are simultaneously moral and technical.
By contrast, governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other institutions have plenty of reasons—profit, security, control—to seek to fragment the Internet. But it is the check on this power provided by recursive publics and especially the practices that now make up Free Software that has kept the Internet whole to date. It is a check on power that is by no means absolute, but is nonetheless rigorously and technically concerned with its legitimacy and independence not only from state-based forms of power and control, but from corporate, commercial, and nongovernmental power as well. To the extent that the Internet is public and extensible (including the capability of creating private subnetworks), it is because of the practices discussed herein and their culmination in a recursive public.
Recursive publics respond to governance by directly engaging in, maintaining, and often modifying the infrastructure they seek, as a public, to inhabit and extend—and not only by offering opinions or protesting decisions, as conventional publics do (in most theories of the public sphere). Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.
The fact that recursive publics respond in this way—through direct engagement and modification—is a key aspect of the reorientation of power and knowledge that Free Software exemplifies. They are reconstituting the relationship between liberty and knowledge in a technically and historically specific context. Geeks create and modify and argue about licenses and source code and protocols and standards and revision control and ideologies of freedom and pragmatism not simply because these things are inherently or universally important, but because they concern the relationship of governance to the freedom of expression and nature of consent. Source code and copyright licenses, revision control and mailing lists are the pamphlets, coffeehouses, and salons of the twenty-first century: Tischgesellschaften become Schreibtischgesellschaften.”