Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software
Author: Christopher M. Kelty
Publisher: Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008
Review Published: December 2009
Christopher Kelty's Two Bits is excellent -- it brings detailed ethnographic material combined with complex conceptual innovations all in relation to a phenomenon of major and increasing significance in the world that has so far been little studied in academia. Kelty deals with the rise and significance of Free Software, an area that requires enough technical knowledge to understand to render it opaque to many cultural and social theorists but which is now of such significance and is affecting culture so widely that it has arguably become unavoidable in understanding contemporary cultural configurations. Free Software, often also called Open Source, is not only generating software crucial to the Internet, it has produced a new moral and legal framework in relation to copyright that is affecting our cultural landscape widely and has produced models for ways of openly collaborating that are beginning to affect the production of digitised objects; Free Software has become both a complex legal and technical object and of wide and deep social significance. Kelty's book joins a small group of works that render this area understandable to social scientists, that avoids the promotion often coming from within the free software movement, and makes interesting theoretical contributions, particularly in Kelty's case in relation to theories of the public.
Though Two Bits is sophisticated in its inter-twining of theory and empirical work, I would like to separate these in this review because, while recognising this is a somewhat crude tactic, it is difficult to otherwise make clear Kelty's contributions. A first and major contribution is the rich empirical material that is entirely accessible. This is done in two ways.
First, Kelty untangles some of the histories of socio-technical systems that make up Free Software, providing clear views of how particular systems have played key roles in generating socio-technical ethics. For example, his exposition of the history of Unix, a key software agglomeration, is excellent, retaining its highly complex history while clearly establishing the importance of Unix. As someone writing in similar areas at the same time Kelty was producing this book, his account of Unix made me jealous of the clarity he brought while retaining complexity and made me wish I had been able to draw on his work in my own. With similar quality, Kelty explores a number of other key areas of Free Software history, for example in his account of the early licenses leading up to the first Gnu Public License.
Second, Kelty has done interesting and detailed participant observation which he recounts both clearly and engagingly. At times these accounts will seem slight diversions to cultural and social theorists trying to come to grips with the importance of Free Software generally, but it is in the stories Kelty tells that much can be learned about the innovations of Free Software. Kelty's ethnographies of Free Software will repay detailed reading.
The primary theoretical contribution of Two Bits is the creation of the concept of the recursive public. Kelty draws on existing public sphere theories and extends them to argue for a new type of public sphere. He is not arguing that this new sphere supersedes other public spheres but that it exists alongside them in particular contexts, most particularly in relation to Free Software. 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.Kelty argues that the ability of the public created in Free Software to recursively and constantly generate, modify, and reproduce its own infrastructure, its own conditions of existence, creates a new type of public. This concept of a public draws on the Habermasian tradition of the public sphere, but argues for a public sphere that has the ability to interrogate and change its preconditions. This is an interesting innovation in public and public sphere theories, though it also unfortunately imports some of the existing criticisms of this theoretical tradition into Kelty's new concept; anyone who rejects the notion of the public sphere is unlikely to have their mind changed by Kelty's arguments about recursive publics.
Kelty is here theorising something that is a key change brought about by Free Software, in the ability of communities that are virtual to far more often and more easily alter the infrastructures that such communities rely on. This is something that the generation of communities and public spheres in virtual spaces creates that is a new phenomenon, the ways people can reach in and through software's malleability create changed infrastructures far more quickly and easily than previously. With this comes Free Software as a movement that constantly focuses on changing and rechanging, often recursively, its own infrastructure.
Here emerges a reservation about Two Bits in that I felt it needed more focus on that infrastructure and the particular properties of software: for me, the object of the Free Software movement is not explored in complex enough detail. It is possible that it is only because software is open to constant revision and change while remaining the same piece of software that the radical recursions of Free Software are possible. Kelty comes close to this when he does an excellent job reflecting on the notion of authorship when discussing the extension of Free Software principles beyond software but his too short theoretical reflection on how the nature of software underpins recursion means he spends more time discussing other media-objects such as writing, film, and so on. For example, he does not pick up a key point in this discussion in that the Creative Commons project allows a license that is firmly outside of the structures of Free Software in a licence that refuses the right to change the media-object. This would be impossible in Free Software which must allow access to changes to the software-object to be Free Software. Kelty does not explore enough the differences between software and other created media and this allows a too easy argument that the recursive public of Free Software can be extended beyond its own objects.
This point is really about an extension that I feel would usefully be made from Kelty's arguments and so also indicates their success. I do feel an extension in this direction might require a more nuanced approach to the growth of recursive publics that have Free Software as their model beyond publics concerned with growing software. Yet even so, Kelty's work provides a major leap forward in understanding and analysing the potential wider cultural effects of Free Software.
My reservation here should not undermine the praise I hope I have given to Two Bits but it does make me feel Kelty needs to more critically explore the conditions that ensure a recursive public can function. I was not sure how widely applicable the concept of recursive publics can be because I find it hard to conceive of many public spheres in which members can constantly change their own conditions of existence. In addition, nearly all publics and public spheres include some kind of reflection on their infrastructures and so the innovation of a recursive public cannot be simply that recursion, it must be a more radical or deep form such as that which Free Software offers. This does not mean Kelty is wrong to create this concept and apply it to Free Software, but it does mean I am uncertain whether recursive publics is a concept which extends significantly public sphere theory or is a concept specific to the phenomenon of Free Software.
Even with my concerns about how significant the concept of the recursive public is, Two Bits is a key intervention into and contribution to analysis of the socially and culturally important field of Free Software and more generally to Internet Studies and social theory.
Tim Jordan is a Reader in Sociology at the Open University. He is the author of Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism, Activism!: Direct Action, Hacktivism and the Future of Society (2002), and, with Paul Taylor, Hacktivism and Cyberwars (2004). He is currently working (and playing) in online persistent worlds, exploring the nature of online and offline life. He has published work on social movements, hackers, Pokemon, the culture and politics of the Internet, and social theory. He is a co-founder and until recently an editor of Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest. <T.R.Jordan@open.ac.uk>
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