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Highlights of Lovink’s interview with Kelty on Free Software

August 2, 2009

In August 2008 the Dutch media theorist and activist Geert Lovink interviewed Chris Kelty about his book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Duke University Press, 2008. These are some of the bits I would highlight: 

  • Culture is a problematic notion, esp. for anthropologists. It would’ve been easy to fall into the trap of researching and essentialising ‘geek culture’; Two Bits is not about geeks or their ‘culture’ but about the history of the five basic Free Software practices and their recent spread to other domains of practice.
  • Anthropology today not so much about cultures as about how new ‘objects’ emerge through cultural practices, incl. new practices distributed around the globe
  • Anthropologists study ‘vibrant actors in a field of practices, technologies and politics’ whether these be Australian Aborigenes or software programmers.
  • There is a new generation of software scholars coming up, challenging existing theories across disciplines, eg about public goods or technology and culture; hopefully will invest time studying the longue duree of historical processes and be ‘critical of the claims of each new generation of toys’.
  • On ‘pure forms’ of Free Software that exist today such as Ubuntu or Debian:

The concept of a recursive public was my way of articulating the significance of these pure forms, not just the conditions of their existence. And that significance is 1) that they treat technical infrastructure and decisions about its design as political through and through, as far down the “recursive” stack of technical layers as possible and 2) they do so in order to maintain the possibility not only of an authentic public sphere that they inhabit, but the possibility of the emergence of publics oppositional to themselves, and to those that emerge, and so on.

  • What’s interesting about FS is not the shouting and heated debates but that they take place “in the service of” the other four key practices that make up FS; debates rarely about the practices themselves but about the meaning of FS.
  • Problems with ‘modulations’ of FS templates in other fields: (a) CC modulated copyleft license notion but got into conceptual muddles, (b) Connexions project modulated ‘source code’ to encompass textbooks but found that textbooks are very different from code.

the bigger question, I suggest, is whether in modulating these components, the people and practices involved maintain any hope of expanding or strengthening a public sphere that provides an autonomous space for material and discursive experimentation, even if such practices are not on their surface explicitly Political (with a capital P).

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