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Notes on Kelty's (2008) Two Bits

Notes on Kelty's (2008) Two Bits

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Published by John Postill
John Postill's notes on Chris Kelty's book Two Bits (2008), on the subject of Free Software
John Postill's notes on Chris Kelty's book Two Bits (2008), on the subject of Free Software

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Published by: John Postill on Jul 28, 2009
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05/11/2014

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Chris Kelty’s book 
(DukeUniversity Press, 2008).See also John Postill’s blog, media/anthropology
Preface
x-xi Free Software (FS) all about practices, not surface ideologies or goals – it’s public, ‘about making things public’xi… in a particular way: ‘it is a self-determining, collective, politically independentmode of creating very complex technical objects that are made publicly and freelyavailable to everyone – a “commons,” in common parlance”xi Cultural significance of FS marked by its ‘proselytizing urge’ and the ease withwhich its practices diffuse
Introduction
1 FS shock value when it appeared: making privately owned software of high quality
 public
2 FS is ‘a set of practices for the distributed collaborative creation of software sourcecode that is then made openly and freely available through a clever, unconventionaluse of copyright law’2 Book is about ‘the cultural significance of Free Software’. Culture here means ‘anongoing experimental system, a space of modification and modulation, of figuring outand testing; culture is an experiment that is hard to keep an eye on, one that changesquickly and sometimes starkly’. [How different or similar to Boellstorff's 2008 notionof culture as applied to a very different internet study: Second Life?, see previous blog posts].2 FS not just about software; example of ‘more general reorientation of power andknowledge’.3 To explore cultural significance of FS, Kelty introduces notion of ‘recursive public’:a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance andmodification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its ownexistence 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 productionof actually existing alternatives.3 (Recursive) publics distinct from unions, corporations, interest groups, mosques,and ‘other forms of organisation’ in their ‘focus on the radical technologicalmodifiability of their own terms of existence’.4 Book revisits time and again three entwined phenomena:i) the Internet, a singular but heterogeneous ‘infrastructure of technologies and uses’1
 
ii) FS, a highly specific set of ‘technical, legal and social practices that now requirethe Internet’iii) recursive publics; a notion that will clarify how the other two are related5 By studying FS and its modulations we can understand better wider processesrelated to Wikipedia, stock quotes, pornography, etc. [A Big Claim - will the book deliver?]5 Outline of book:Part I introduces ethnographically the recursive public notion via ‘internationalcommunity of geeks’. Part II looks historically at how FS emerged in 1998-99 buttracing genealogies back to late 1950s. Separate chapters devoted to history of main practices that make up FS: namely proselytizing & arguing, porting & forking sourcecode, conceptualising open systems and openness, creating FS copyright, andcoordinating people and software. Part III goes back to ethnography, case studies of two projects inspired by FS to make something different in broader domains of knowledge production, incl. academic textbooks.6 At stake is ‘reorientation of power and knowledge’; 7 a reorientation unlike thegrand claims of Informatin or Knowledge Society/economies.7 FS is particular kind of public: a recursive public. Trouble is our present popular and scholarly understanding of a self-governing public is rudimentary. FS far morethan ideological positioning; 8 in fact, it’s really all about practices, that’s what unitesgeeks, the practices of ‘creating Free Software and its derivatives’.8 Advantage of this term – recursive public – is that it draws attention not just todiscourse (as in common uses of public sphere notion) but also to ‘the layers of technical and legal infrastructure’ without which FS couldn’t exist. [cf. work oninternet and public sphere, e.g. e-Minnesota, which does indeed focus on discourseand neglect infrastructure].9 FS geeks crucial in maintaining the Internet unitary against interests of many stateand non-state agents who’d wish to fragment it. Recursive public and FS practiceshave checked these centrifugal tendencies. [Another Big Claim - evidence provided inthe book?]10 Geeks have ‘ethic of justice’ combined with legal and technical acumen10 C21 public sphere to be found not in pamphlets, cafes or salons but in mailing lists,copyright licenses and source code: shift from Tischgesellschaften toSchreibtischgesellschaften.10 Reorientation of power and knowledge two main components as part of notion of recursive public:a)
availability
: transparency, open access, etc b)
modifiability
(or adaptability): 11 ability not only to access but to transform; core practice of FS ‘is the practice of reuse and modification of software source code’.2
 
Motto of Creative Commons is “Culture always builds on the past” … with tacit rider:‘through legal appropriation and modification’. This raises key issue of 
 finality
:When is something (software, a film, music, culture) finished? How long does itremain finished? Who decides? Or more generally, what does its temporality look like, and how does that temporality restructure political relationships?11 Modification has become far more routine, fast and sophisticated now that we havedistributed software. [Historical change/increase]12 Modifiability not just a technical solution, creates new possibilities and challengesfor established practices such as publication13 Started project studying geeks but constant debates about what exactly was FS ledauthor to turn to
key research question of book 
: ‘what is the cultural significance of Free Software?’.13 In late 90s FS becoming more conscious of being a movement, not just anamalgam of practices, tools, projects, 14 this discussed in chapter 3.14-15 Five main components of FS:1) movement (chap 3)2) sharing source code (chap 4)3) conceptualising openness (chap 5)4) applying copyright/copyleft licenses (chap 6)5) coordinating and collaborating (chap 7) [on this last practice in filmmakingdomain, see Toni Roig 2008, this blog]15 Components = practices [but you don't define 'practices' here or elsewhere]16 Modulation = someone trying out a FS practice in another domain18-23 Three contributions of Two Bits, often mixed up:1) empirical: geeks caught in the act of ‘figuring out’ things; superalterns can speak for themselves, no crisis of representation here! ‘geeks are vocal, loud, persistent, andloquacious’. But although people essential to ethnography, ‘they are not the objects of its analysis’; 20 the object is in fact FS and the Internet, or more precisely “recursive publics”.2) methodological: example of how may study
‘distributed phenomena
ethnographically’ [and historically as well??]. No single geographical location tostudy FS or the internet. Went to places like Bangalore, Boston, Berlin, Houston. 21One interesting oddity is that
‘nearly everything is archived’ 
. ‘What geeks may lack in social adroitness, they make up for in archival hubris’ [Nice one, Chris; thusdemanding of researcher the ability to discard huge amounts of materials readilyavailable? how does this relate to focus on actual practices? to what extent can onereconstruct actual embodied skilled practice from mailing lists and other such digitalarchives?]. So for a lot of questions you don’t need ‘being there’ – stratifiedethnographic research [mmm, but can you still call it ethnographic?].3

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