10 June 2008

Recursive Publics: Hardly a Two-Bit Idea

For some years I have contemplated – and even planned out in some detail - a kind of follow-up to Rebel Code, which would look at the ways the ideas underlying free software have radiated out ever wider, to open content, open access, open courseware, open science – well, if you're reading this blog, you can fill in the rest. Happily, I couldn't find a publisher willing to take this on, so I was spared all the effort (non-authors have no idea what an outrageous amount of work books entail).

Now someone else has gone ahead, done all that work, and written pretty much that book, albeit with a more scholarly, anthropological twist than I could aspire to. Moreover, in true open source fashion, its author, Christopher Kelty, has made it freely available, not only to read, but to hack. The following paragraph expresses the core idea of this (and my) book:

The significance of Free Software extends far beyond the arcane and detailed technical practices of software programmers and “geeks” (as I refer to them herein). Since about 1998, the practices and ideas of Free Software have extended into new realms of life and creativity: from software to music and film to science, engineering, and education; from national politics of intellectual property to global debates about civil society; from UNIX to Mac OS X and Windows; from medical records and databases to international disease monitoring and synthetic biology; from Open Source to open access. Free Software is no longer only about software—it exemplifies a more general reorientation of power and knowledge.

I've only speed-read it – it's a dense and rich book – but from what I've seen, I can heartily recommend it to anyone who finds some of the ideas on this blog vaguely amusing: it's the work of a kindred spirit. The only thing I wasn't so keen on was its title: “Two Bits” Now, call me parochial, but the only connotation of “two bits” for me is inferiority, as in a two-bit solution. A far better title, IMHO, would have been one of the cleverest concepts in the book: that of “recursive publics”:

Recursive publics are publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place and which, in turn, constitutes their everyday practical commitments and the identities of the participants as creative and autonomous individuals. In the cases explored herein, that specific infrastructure includes the creation of the Internet itself, as well as its associated tools and structures, such as Usenet, e-mail,the World Wide Web (www), UNIX and UNIX-derived operating systems, protocols, standards, and standards processes. For the last thirty years, the Internet has been the subject of a contest in which Free Software has been both a central combatant and an important architect.

By calling Free Software a recursive public, I am doing two things: first, I am drawing attention to the democratic and political significance of Free Software and the Internet; and second, I am suggesting that our current understanding (both academic and colloquial) of what counts as a self-governing public, or even as “the public,” is radically inadequate to understanding the contemporary reori entation of knowledge and power.

The arch-recursionist himself, RMS, would love that.

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