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.

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