Book review: Two bits, the Cultural Significance of Free Software

On: September 15, 2008
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About Stephan Barmentloo
My name is Stephan Barmentloo. I hold bachelor degree in Business Information Systems and a BA degree in Media and Culture. I'm a student of the New Media MA at the University of Amsterdam.

Kelty, Christopher. Two Bits, the cultural significance of Free Software (2008)
Kelty, Christopher. Two Bits, the cultural significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

As the title of this book might suggest, it is mainly about the history of the Free Software phenomenon from a anthropological viewpoint, but as the author, Christopher Kelty, makes clear this history can also be seen as the foundation of a variety of other copyleft projects, for example the Creative Commons.

The implication of Free Software isn’t only about software that is free of charge. Through the introduction of the concept of recursive publics in part one of the book, Kelty argues that there are several practices that make up this phenomenon of Free Software, and these practices are all equally important from a cultural viewpoint. There are two goals that recursive publics are pursuing. First, they are concerned with the setting up and maintaining an infrastructure through which they can operate. Second, through this infrastructure they can realise their ideals and creativity, such as creating software that enables certain practices and reinforces their identity.

In part two Kelty points out five practices, a movement, sharing source code, conceptualizing openness, applying copyright licenses and coordination and collaboration that in total makes up the collective technical experimental system of Free Software. All these practices are investigated and interpretated on a scale ranging from conventional to experimental practices. The effect of this collective technical experimental systems is a reorientation of power and knowledge.

In the last part of the book, Kelty argues that this collective technical experimental system is not only taking place in the Free Software or Open Source domain. The practices also provide the foundation for the Creative Commons and Connexions projects, to name a few. This modulation is explored in detail in this last part of the book. The analysis of these projects points out two significant issues that need to be resolved. First there is the issue of the meaning of reuse. And second, there is the issue of the existence or non-existence of norms within the practices of recursive publics. These issues strip bare the short comings of copyright law. For instance the question of how many change constitutes a new work, and thus demands a new copyright license.

Through the website Kelty wants to give readers the opportunity to comment on the book to improve it even further. And in a true fashion he urges readers to modulate his work to explore the subject further and generate more knowledge on the cultural significance of these practices.

One Response to “Book review: Two bits, the Cultural Significance of Free Software”
  • July 21, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I appreciate the book’s interests interest in the cultural/ sociological aspect of free software. The book “two bits” is interesting. However, I do not find it’s argument convincing.

    The author observes, “geeks are bound together by recursive public” is an oversimplified understatement. One has to be serious about “geeks” their “bound together” and “recursive public”. Anything that binds is problematic. Calling an imagined assemblage of persons ‘geeks’ is to reduce them into cyborgs under some common spell. There exists no single ‘recursive public’.

    A statement has to be understood by what it stands for, what it stands against and what it oversees, what it covers and what it does not see. This statement appears to be stands for a gentle-evolutionary-cosmopolitan- geekory. I am not doing a thorough critical analysis here. These are some initial responses to the statements in the book:

    The author says, “Free Software is all about the practices, not about the ideologies and goals that swirl on its surface.” Here, free-software is freed from the discourse of freedom it brought forth. It is presented merely as a ‘practice’ with no underlying urge for freedom. Free software is and should remain concerned about the philosophy of freedom. It has goals. The goal is important. Goal of free software is ‘freedom’ in software production. Its practices when not rooted in this philosophy then it is just a geekory that can be either free or unfree. Goals do not swirl on surface. The goals are from deep seated passion against unfreedom.

    The book observes, “free software and its creators and users are …. not pro-anything, anti-anything”. Clubbing “free software- its creators- and its users” together makes no sociological or anthropological sense. All these three-grouped are pro-something and anti-something in complex ways. What they are for or against is not a trivial matter. Ironically that is what can create any ‘recursive republic/s’. Otherwise they are just geekory machines.

    Further, the book states, “free software is not a movement…, however a public; it is about making things public.” It is a ongoing movement toward freedom. Free software is a chapter in that movement. It is like anti-slavery movement. It is not just ‘public’ like everything else is public. It is not just a common property. All that is public is not ‘making things public’. There exists no one single public there are publics and publics. Public is not a entity but it is a multiple with potencies for rupture and breakaways.

    It is said in the book, “Free Software is public 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 freedom there is no ‘self’ to be determined. It is breaking away from all notions believed to be ‘self’. It is not always collective. It is sometimes collective; sometimes isolated and sometimes partially collective. It is not always politically independent. It could be dependent, glued together with something else or interdependent. It is not just limited to creating very complex technical objects. It is not just making certain objects freely available for public consumption. It is fundamentally freedom endeavour. All freedom endeavours are anti-unfreedoms. Of course, the author admits, “Free Software is no longer only about software—it exemplifies a more general reorientation of power and knowledge”.

    Not just one sociology or one history or one anthropology is in operation. There are all sorts of sociologies, anthropologies and histories are in operation. A few we recognize. The other histories are at work unobserved. They would be noticed once they erupt into event with a bang. Sometimes the events erupt silently. Free software has different has many histories- mutually contradicting, complementing and mutually indifferent histories, sociologies and anthropology. It is not the affair of “the recursive public/s”.

    Like “god” is first created and then described, the book creates a ‘recursive public’ in Habermasian line and then identifies its features. Then it says free software is not about freedom but it is recursive public and recursive public alone! Such are the theoretical endeavour anthropologists or any other social scientists should resist. This is how theoreticians theorize. Theory for the sake of theory. There is also a discursive construction of the entity ‘geeks’ with descriptions of what they do and what they don’t do! As if geeks were some sort of sub-species of homo sapiens! For instance, “Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly.”… “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….”

    Free software is seen as having “two key aspects that are part of the concept of recursive publics: availability and modifiability (or adaptability).” That is all! It is just ensuring availability and modifiability! Freedom simplified. Freedom is not just freedom to use, access, consume. It is about overcoming discursively and legally created unfreedoms. It is an act of untying and hence ‘re-volu-tionary’! It is not about evolution of ‘recursive public’ it is a rupture from such an evolved ‘recursive public’. Modifiability is an aspect of freedom and not merely, “an oft-claimed advantage of Free Software.” Freedom is not something could be revealed from what two are more ‘geeks’ talk about it. It is more than what they do in their professional life. Freedom is a bigger human project. Freedom is freeing us from the web of constrains hierarchies of socialites historically made. Freedom is not just ideological. It has truth aspects beyond all sorts of historical constructions, historical ontologies and facticities. Geek oriented approach has desensitised the author from considering the difference between open and free software as non-existing. The author writes, “for all the ideological distinctions at the level of discourse, they are doing exactly the same thing at the level of practice.” Consequently, the author sums up what she means by free software, It is just “a kind of collective technical experimental system.”

    We talk of freedom when there is a felt unfreedom. It is unfreedom that is often recursively constructed. Then, freedom is a constant movement against unfreedoms recursively constructed.

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