June 25, 2008

The Cultural Significance of Free Software

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Chris_Kelty,Hackers,Open Access,Tech — Biella @ 6:33 am

When it comes to research and writing, anthropologists are notorious for being slow as molasses. It takes, on average, 9 years to finish grad school and then another 3-6 years before you write and publish your first book. Such is the sometimes frustrating pace of academia. But sometimes it is worth the wait as this new book, Two Bits, the Cultural Significance of Free Software by the anthropologist of science and technology Chris Kelty, makes clear.

I am pretty intimate with the details of the book as ck was one of my dissertation committee members. I have read earlier versions and was fortunate enough to teach the final version to a small group of graduate students last spring. While there have been previous books on the subject of open source or peer-to-peer production more generally, this is the first book to delve deep, analytically and historically, into the cultural significance of free software. And the best part is that ck managed (I am not sure how but he did) to convince Duke University Press to release the whole book under a CC license. So download it to your heart’s delight and if you find it useful, do order a treeware copy (as you can’t beat that for easy and comfortable reading).

For the developers out there, I would suggest starting with the introduction, which provides an initial overview of some of the main themes he develops and then I would dig into part two where the historical chapters reside and then loop back to the theoretical chapters in part one or continue to part three.

Trust me, these will fascinate and surprise even those geeks with a relatively deep historical sense of this world. In fact, my very favorite academic piece on free software exists in these pages: and is the chapter on the history of the actual conflict between James Gosling and Richard Stallman that led to the creation of the GNU General Public License. Here is a small excerpt to whet your appetite:

In brief the controversy was this: in 1983 James Gosling decided to sell his version of EMACS—a version written in C for UNIX called GOSMACS—to a commercial software vendor called Unipress. GOSMACS, the second most famous implementation of EMACS (after Stallman’s itself ), was written when Gosling was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. For years, Gosling had distributed GOSMACS by himself and had run a mailing list on Usenet, on which he answered queries and discussed extensions. Gosling had explicitly asked people not to redistribute the program, but to come back to him (or send interested parties to him directly) for new versions, making GOSMACS more of a benevolent dictatorship than a commune. Gosling maintained his authority, but graciously accepted revisions and bug-fixes and extensions from users, incorporating them into new releases. Stallman’s system, by contrast, allowed users to distribute their extensions themselves, as well as have them included in the “official” EMACS. By 1983, Gosling had decided he was unable to effectively maintain and support GOSMACS—a task he considered the proper role of a corporation.
[ . . .]
Indeed, the general irony of this complicated situation was certainly not as evident as it might have been given the emotional tone of the debates: Stallman was using code from Gosling based on permission Gosling had given to Labalme, but Labalme had written code for Gosling which Gosling had commercialized without telling Labalme—conceivably, but not likely, the same code. Furthermore, all of them were creating software that had been originally conceived in large part by Stallman (but based on ideas and work on TECO, an editor written twenty years before EMACS), who was now busy rewriting the very software Gosling had rewritten for UNIX. The “once proud hacker ethic” that Labalme mentions would thus amount not so much to an explicit belief in sharing so much as a fast-and-loose practice of making contributions and fixes without documenting them, giving oral permission to use and reuse, and “losing” records that may or may not have existed—hardly a noble enterprise.
[. . .]

The story is a lively one, punctuated with some great e-mail “moments,” and gives you a play-by-play sense of how it is that free software become so entangled with the law and how the unwritten norms that guided sharing were violated to then become transformed, explicit, and written.

The other chapter that will also fascinate those who want a deeper sense of this history is on UNIX and its role in creating the technical and collaborative conditions necessary to secure the explosion of free software years later. “The story of the norms of sharing source code is, not by accident,” writes Kelty, “also the history of the UNIX operating system.” This connection has been made by others but not shown in any historical detail as it is done in this book.

For those interested in more anthropological issues, the first few chapters is where this type of more conceptual theorizing is at. Chris Kelty introduces the master trope of his book: the recursive public which is an idea that feeds into a longer academic debate, inaugurated by Jurgen Habermas, on the role of publicity, dialogue, and circulation of ideas and texts in cementing a democratic sphere. Many others, such as Charles Taylor, Michael Warner, and Nancy Fraser have since refigured and rehashed the meaning publics and public debate but there have been few ethnographies on the topic. It is here where Chris Kelty intervenes most forcefully to conceptualize publics in explicitly ethnographic terms and in an arena—technology and the Internet—which is often left undertheorized by cultural theorists. There is a lot more in the book (the third section examines some of the various political modulations of free software, such as Connexions and Creative Commons) but instead of saying any more, I will just leave you with his definition of a recursive public and again urge you to check out the book for yourself!

“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.”

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