On the Cultural Significance of “The Cultural Significance of Free Software” : Part one: my review of the book.

In a manner remarkably similar to how my homologue John Compton Sundman was approached by the obscure editors from the Society for Analytical Engines to edit the entries of the inaugural Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative (as chronicled in Cheap Complex Devices), I was approached, some five months ago, by the book review editor of the journal “Science as Culture” to write a review of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelty. I agreed to write the review for free. (Why? Because I’m a monkey/amateur –just ask Harlan Ellison).

I think the book, despite its various shortcomings, is good; important, even. It raises significant issues that bear upon (yes, I know how hyperbolic this sounds) whether democracy and the ideals of pan-human equality have any future.

My draft review appears below. At some point, presumably, a version of this review, perhaps considerably revised, will appear in Science as Culture

Funny issues arose regarding copyrights and copylefts of the review itself. I’ll write more about them in a second post.

Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software

Christopher M. Kelty

400 pages (June 2008)
10 illustrations, 1 table
Duke University Press
ISBN13 978-0-8223-4264-9

In February 2008, at the Law School of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Federal Communications Commission of the USA held a public hearing to discuss “broadband management practices”. The hearing took place in a large auditorium that was filled with passionate geeks and indifferent non-geeks who had been paid by the cable company Comcast to take up seats.

Although the nominal topic of the day was “broadband management practices”, the real topic was “net neutrality” — the idea that the Internet should continue to operate as it does now, with consensus adherence to the spirit of the TCP/IP protocols which guarantee that all applications are treated the same by Internet Service Providers, and that the contents of packets transmitted over the Internet remain private. “Net Neutrality” is believed necessary, by its proponents, to ensure that the Internet does not fracture into competing, incompatible substrates, and that everybody who publishes on the internet, whether they be an impoverished student blogger or a giant corporation, has the same ability to get their message out to the world.

At issue was whether the FCC had the statutory authority to decree Net Neutrality as the law of the land. The hearing had been precipitated by the discovery that Comcast had been inspecting packets sent on its network and discriminating against the “bittorrent” application in a manner that was seen by the architects of the TCP/IP protocols, who were at the hearing as expert witnesses, to be in violation of the spirit of the Internet and a threat to its integrity. Comcast, after having at first denied doing any such thing, eventually admitted that it did “traffic shaping”, claiming that it was necessary to do so in order to properly serve its customers. Apart from those who worked for Comcast, few people in the room that day had any sympathy for this point of view; in fact it was received with scorn and anger.

In his testimony, Daniel Weitzner, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Decentralized Information Group, started off by saying that some kind of network management was essential; the question was how to do it. Then he said, We’re all peer to peer now. He said that people use the Web in a peer-to-peer (P2P), synchronous way. P2P is more than just bittorrent. It’s the web itself. He then said that over 25 years the Web/Internet has evolved into a complex and finely tuned thing based on accepted conventions and a lot of goodwill.

He illustrated his point by showing an image of his personal web page, which had a Flickr box, an Amazon wish list and a few other widgets. Blog-style applications, Web-2.0 applications, he said, depend on a user pays model. As a blog publisher, I don’t want to have to negotiate with Amazon, Flickr, and so forth. Then he said,

“What’s at stake is everyone’s ability to communicate with everyone else.”

He concluded by repeating that the web was a complex and delicately balanced set of agreements based on historic principles that have been in place for twenty-five years and which have allowed the Internet to become the force it is today. By implication, Comcast was violating those principles, and the FCC was implored by Weitzner and many other witnesses to involve itself by formalizing net neutrality principles as a matter of law.

Everything that transpired at that hearing would make perfect sense to Christopher M. Kelty. And furthermore, anyone who reads his book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software will have a nice theoretical model to help make sense of the Net Neutrality drama that was being played out in that auditorium in February 2008 and which continues today in Congress, at the FCC, in the blogosphere, and beyond.

Central to Kelty’s book is an explanation for what he calls

. . . the practical and political meaning of the ‘singularity’ of the Internet, that is, [ . . .] the fact that there is only one Internet. [. . .] The singularity of the Internet is both an ontological and epistomological fact; it is a feature of the Internet’s technical configurations and modes of ordering the actions of humans and machines by protocols and software. But it is also a feature of the technical and moral imaginations of the people who build, manage, inhabit and expand the Internet.“ (p. 309)

It is important to understand the singularity of the Internet, Kelty argues, because absent that singularity, free software as we know it today would never have come into existence.

It is Kelty’s goal, in Two Bits, to not only describe the ”technical and moral imaginations of the people who build, manage, inhabit and expand the Internet,“ but to devise a theoretical framework that encompasses those imaginations which will make it possible to understand just what Free Software is, as well as to anticipate the implications of free software as its principles diffuse into other parts of the culture.

This is an ambitious goal, and Kelty largely succeeds.

In the preface to Two Bits, Kelty explains that he is concerned with the mechanics of free software–the practical aspects of getting such software built and published, because ”I have repeatedly observed that understanding how Free Software works is a revelation [ . . .] because Free Software is all about the practices, not about the ideologies and goals that swirl about its surface.“

And why is it important to understand how Free Software works? Because, Kelty says, Free Software is becoming a predominant model for how knowledge is created and shared, and for how power is distributed in all aspects of society. ”Free Software is no longer only about softwareit exemplifies a more general reorientation of power and knowledge.“

The first thing to note about phenomenon of Free Software, then, is not its form but its intent:

”Free Software is, however, public; it is about making things public. This fact is key to comprehending its cultural significance, its appeal, and its proliferation. Free Software is public in a particular way: it is a self-determining, collective, politically independent mode of creating very complex technical objects that are made publicly and freely available to everyone–a commons, [. . .] It is a practice of working through the promises of equality, fairness, justice, reason, and argument in a domain of technically complex software and networks, and in a context of powerful, lopsided laws about intellectual property. (PAGE x, xi)

The major theoretical innovation that Kelty introduces into this discussion is what he calls a recursive public: “a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public.” After having established the meaning of “a public” in anthropological theory, Kelty further elaborates what he means by his new coinage:

“A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence 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 production of actually existing alternatives.”

Kelty divides his book into three sections.

Part One, The Internet, comprises two chapters. It introduces the concept of the recursive public and presents a bit of an ethnographic overview of geek culture. Understanding geek culture is not merely diverting, Kelty says. It’s important because that’s where the “technical and moral imaginations” that drive the Internet, and ultimately, all of Free Software, come from.

Part Two, Free Software, comprises five chapters. It contains:

  • a capsule history of the “Free Software Movement”;
  • an in-depth discussion of various rather technical aspects of software development methodology (and how they have changed over time);
  • detailed reconstructions of key historical events such as the evolution of Unix and Linux, the strife associated with the EMACS text editor, and the various “Open Systems” initiatives of the 1980’s and 90’s;
  • an analysis of the various flavors of Free Software licenses; and
  • a description of various methodologies for coordinating large, non hierarchical software development teams.

There is some impressive analysis here. The singular Internet, the GNU software license and the various other flavors of software license that came after it, the very idea of open source were not inevitable developments, Kelty says. They all arose as practical solutions to real problems, and they all reflect the moral and technical imaginations of geeks. Why did the various open systems initiatives fail, why are there so many flavors of UNIX (and even Linux) when there is only one flavor (so far!) or TCP/IP and Internet? Kelty addresses these questions with keen insight, and the answers he provides are subtle, and, I believe, correct.

Part Three, Modulations, comprises two chapters and a conclusion. In this section Kelty attempts to show how concepts of Free Software are spreading into other cultural domains, such as, for example, music, education, and law.

Part Two is the strongest part of the book. Although much of what Kelty covers (the “Unix Wars” the “EMACS wars”, etc) is well-plowed ground, he covers it well and fairly. I don’t know how many readers will be rivitted by a forty-page account of just who modified what lines of EMACS code when, and who sent to whom what emails about it, but I certainly was. Similarly for his account of the Unix Wars and the Open Systems initiatives. As somebody who worked from 1983 to 1995 for computer companies that made Unixes–as a former foot soldier, that is, of the Unix Wars–I can attest that Kelty got the story right, so far as I can tell. Similarly, as somebody who had a key role for nearly five years in a fairly large open source project, I can attest that Kelty correctly describes such arcane topics as patch policy, different flavors of source code control systems, and build/integration systems. There is an awful lot of detail here, but Kelty persuasively argues that a correct understanding of these technical facts and historical realities is crucial to understanding how licensing became central to Free Software, and why Free Software licenses took on the forms they did.

Part One is a bit of a mixed bag. Kelty needed to establish the concept of the recursive public, and he needed to document some key aspects of geek culture–such as its practical nature and fundamentally meritorcratic ethos. He does so in this part of the book. However, I found it very repetitious –I lost count of how many times the “recursive public” idea was explained–and wordy. As for the exegesis of geek cultural norms, let me just say it quickly got tedious. An example:

“Eugen’s understanding of what technological progress means is sufficiently complex to confound most of his interlocutors. For one surprising thing, it is not exactly inevitable. The manner in which Leitl argues with people is usually a kind of machine-gun prattle of coevolutionary, game-theoretic, cryptographic sorites. Eugen piles on the scientific and transhumanist reasoning, and his interlocutors slowly peel away from the discussion. But it isnt craziness, hype, or half-digested popular science–Eugen generally knows his stuff–it just fits together in a way that almost no one else can quite grasp.”

There are thirty pages of this, and I found myself saying “enough already” out loud more than once. Kelty also introduces a riff on “Transhumanists” and “Polymaths” which I didn’t completely follow. What I did follow of it was not especially convincing, but in any event it wasn’t very important, as far as I can tell, to the central argument. Kelty does capture certain key aspects of the geek worldview. I just wish he could have done it in ten pages.

Part Three, Modulations, is the most ambitious and least satisfying part of the book. In it, Kelty attempts to explain how concepts and practices from Free Software have migrated to other domains, such as the Connexions “open textbook” project and Creative Commons.

For one thing, Kelty loses critical distance as he describes a project (Connexions) in which he is an active participant. In theory, it would have been fine for him to describe a project he has worked on. But what also seems to have happened is that as he delved into topics close to him, his writing became sloppier and more self-indulgent. For example, in this section he relates an unflattering story about a meeting with a prominent figure in the Free Software movement that seems to have no point other than to establish that in Kelty’s opinion, the guy is a jerk. Kelty spends another few pages explaining in excruciating detail just how bad he, Kelty, is at telling a joke, and how much better one of his friends is at telling jokes. And yet we don’t even get to hear one such joke! This is the part of the book I was most looking forward to, and I have to admit that I was disappointed.

To put it charitably, the analysis of the Connexions and Creative Commons projects are interesting but lack the rigor of part two. Said less charitably, there are parts of this section where I felt trapped in a college dorm room listening to somebody trying too hard to impress everybody.

In the Introduction, Kelty says, “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.”

Also in the introduction, Kelty raises many provocative questions about these developments. What they have in common, he says, is an Internet-facilitated radical reorientation of knowledge and power. A reorientation that we can expect to see resisted by the current beneficiaries of the status quo–for example, governments and very large corporations. Now, that is heady stuff. But the introduction let me to expect a deeper analysis of these topics than part three actually delivers.

To be fair to Kelty, he states over and over again that the whole evolution of Free Software has been driven by pragmatism. Recursive publics adapt to the technical, political and legal problem at hand. So that means that there is much we cannot know a priori about how principles from one domain will map to another. Kelty gives us tantalizing clues, but not much more.

Still, Kelty has given us a lot. His theoretical model, his ethnographic observations and historical analyses are all useful contributions–even if they are, at times, in dire need of a heartless editor.

In his conclusion, Kelty restates his thesis:

“The detailed descriptions of Free Software and its modulations should make clear that (1) the reason the Internet looks the way it does is due to the work of figuring out Free Software, both before and after it was recognized as such; (2) neither the Internet nor the computer is the cause of a reorientation of knowledge and power, but both are tools that render possible modulations of settled practices, modulations that reveal a much older problem regarding the legitimacy of the means of circulation and production of knowledge; (3) Free Software is not an ethical stance, but a practical response to the revelation of these older problems; and (4) the best way to understand this response is to see it as a kind of public sphere, a recursive public that is specific to the technical and moral imaginations of order in the contemporary world of geeks.”

This seems to me to be an original and provocative argument, and I think that Two Bits succeeds in making it.

As to where all this goes from here, there are, as Kelty says, plenty of subject areas for other researchers to investigate:

“Understanding how Free Software works and how it has developed along with the Internet and certain practices of legal and cultural critique may be essential to understanding the reliable foundation of knowledge production and circulation on which we still seek to ground legitimate forms of governance. Without Free Software, the only response to the continuing forms of excess we associate with illegitimate, unaccountable, unjust forms of governance might just be mute cynicism. With it, we are in possession of a range of practical tools, structured responses and clever ways of working through our complexity toward the promises of a shared imagination of legitimate and just governance.”

This is important. I hope they get on it. For what’s at stake is everyone’s ability to communicate with everyone else, and perhaps even whether government of the people, by the people and for the people shall perish from this earth.

One Comment

  1. Julian Egelstaff

    Thanks for the insightful review, it looks like an interesting book…off to the library website now…. 🙂


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