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Kelty (2008) Two Bits, Chapter 1

July 23, 2009

Kelty, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Chapter 1. Geeks and Recursive Publics

27 What binds geeks together is that they are a recursive public [for definition, see previous blog entry]

28 … via the Internet, this is what’s distinctive about the public formed by geeks.

29 Geeks argue about technology and through technology

30 the mathematical concept of recursion, from OED and James Boyle; not same as ‘simple iteration or repetition’ [but see Giddens 1984 on “the essential recursiveness of social life” - how specific to programming or Free Software is recursivity? Or better perhaps, what specific forms does social recursivity take within the world of Free Software?]

31-3 Hanging out with geeks in Boston, May 2003 [uncanny; that's exactly when I started hanging out with internet activists in Subang Jaya]. 33 Undying faith in new technologies; Internet ‘part of the solution to the problems that ailed 1990s healthcare [in the US]‘.

34 Geeks of ethnographic episode, like all geeks, rely for their technopreneurial goals on regarding the Internet as a flexible ‘standardized infrastructure’.

35 ‘Geek’ refers to ‘mode of thinking and working, not an identity'; but no longer can we speak of early 1990s homogeneous group of geeks, a subcultural elite.

36-38 Hanging out with geeks in Berlin, Nov 1999. ‘I am now a geek’ – can see like the Boston and Berlin geeks the Internet as infrastructure, although here the stress was on political activism not business. 38 The Berliner geeks mix up ‘operating systems and social systems in ways that are more than metaphorical’.

39 Charles Taylor builds on Habermas and Michael Warner to propose ‘social imaginary’ as a public whose ontology fluctuates between concrete (external) and imagined (internal), e.g. civil society, a self-governing people, the economy.

39 Kelty understands recursive public as a manner of social imaginary so as to avoid ideas vs. practices dichotomy.

Because the creation of software, networks, and legal documents are precisely the kinds of activities that trouble this distinction— they are at once ideas and things that have material effects in the world, both expressive and performative—it is extremely difficult to identify the properly material materiality (source code? computer chips? semiconductor manufacturing plants?). This is the first of the reasons why a recursive public is to be distinguished from the classic formulae of the public sphere, that is, that it requires a kind of imagination that includes the writing and publishing and speaking and arguing we are familiar with, as well as the making of new kinds of software infrastructures for the circulation, archiving, movement, and modifiability of our enunciations. [pp. 39-40] 

40 With notion of social imaginary you can also avoid pitfall of ideology vs. material practice dichotomy. Plus ideology is always a tricky notion to use – it’s always other people who have it, not the analyst (Geertz).

41 Ricoeur does take ideology closer to social imaginary.

41-2 Back to Charles Taylor and his notion of social imaginary: “the ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations’.

42 Social imaginary not just the norms that guide our actions; it’s also a ‘moral order’ – ‘a sense of what makes norms achievable’ (still Taylor).

43 Do geeks in Berlin or Boston share a social imaginary? What’s distinctive about it? Well, their ideas of order are both moral and technical, they mix up “operating systems and social systems”. [Nice and clear point, thanks Chris].

43-46 Kelty with geeks in Bangalore, March 2000. Mostly male and into heavy metal. All sorts of ethno-religious backgrounds but secularised. Indian geek and key informant was influenced in 1990s by Rheingold and Barlow, gave him ideas on how to run an online community.

47 Silk-list (mailing list for Indian geeks) is metatopical space (Taylor) from geographical viewpoint but topical space from machine’s viewpoint: list of names all kept together in a database. It is not ‘the’ public as there are countless such lists.

48 A public, e.g. a reading public, must be autotelic if it is to remain outside power of state or market or any other social totality. Faith in this autotelic dimension is essential if public is to exist, it allows individuals ‘to make sense of their actions according to a modern idea of social order’.

49 Is Silk-list a sovereign public?

50 Geeks committed to sustaining idea of recursive social order, a moral and technical order grounded in the Internet.

51 Reiterates idea: there’s only one Internet, and geeks are engaged in a contest to keep it that way, they share an imaginary that entwines operating systems and social systems.

52 Napster shutdown in 2000 angered both music fans and geeks, didn’t help music industry either; many geeks saw Napster as mini-internet.

52 Kelty illustrates geek mailing list discourse via Napster case, post sent to list by someone previously unknown called Jeff Bone. 54 His message not ‘published’ in conventional sense, just clicked send. Exemplifies recursivity in two ways: in being public statement about how internet should remain open, and it instantiates precisely that openness and the new publicness it fosters.

55 pre-1993 internet (ie pre-Web) full of people like Rheingold, Barlow, Dyson who adhered to a ‘vibrant libertarian dogma’ that said no territorial sovereign power could govern the internet. 56 folk net idea that cos no central command, censorship not possible. But Lessig and others have criticised this view: internet not static, it could go in different directions with more or less freedom. It’s a perpetual contest over maintaining  ‘the legitimate infrastructure’ that allows geeks to forge bonds.

57-  story of how Internet became standardised: Internet Engineering Task Force and its Request for Comments system. 58 widely shared bit of geek folklore: “We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code”. … “everything that isn’t code is just talk” – a problematic idea, says Kelty, as someone has to write it first.

59 Internet is layered, ‘each enabling the next and each requiring an openness that both prevents central control and leads to maximum creativity’.

60 You always need an ‘operating-system kernel or a piece of user software’ and a lot of people who will all use it. Infrastructure and discourse shape one another recursively: geeks use mailing lists to discuss and transform the very technology that allows those discussions in the first place. Process is open-ended.

61-   Conclusion: Recursive Public

61 Geeks in Bangalore, Berlin and Boston united by a ‘shared moral and technical understanding of order’ – they’re an autonomous public who maintains and transforms itself. 62 Have the agency to ‘recurse’ via infrastructural layers in an unending process. This infrastructure is part of the imaginary – apart from being ‘a pulsating tangle of computers, wires, waves, and electrons’.

62 Their affinity as geeks – i.e. membership in the recursive public – rests on their adoption of its moral-technical imaginations.

Preface and Introduction

Chapter 2

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