Monday, December 29, 2008

Punting to culture

Christopher Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software: You can download the whole thing here. I liked Kelty’s essay on open source, Punt to Culture, which you can also read for free—I thought it provided an interesting theoretical context for the open source movement. This is Kelty’s larger project, and I had more trouble with it than I did with Punt to Culture. He focuses on free software and its contexts, arguing that free software is an instance of a “recursive public,” “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.” I love the idea, because it fits in with what the Organization for Transformative Works is trying to do: owning the servers, writing the code that makes being fannishly creative easier.

But the meat of the book frustrated me, perhaps because I’m not familiar with anthropological writing of this sort. It felt like he half-told a bunch of stories: early development and forking of UNIX; the story of Apache; debates over the Linux kernel; the founding of an "open source" textbook/module project called Connexions; etc. But then at the end each story seemed to turn into generalities, or at least the absence of useful lessons. (This is the standard law professor's reaction: what's the payoff? What do you want me to do? And Kelty's specialty is understandably resistant to answering that question.)

There was a great story about UNIX, which at the relevant time was under relatively tight formal control by AT&T. A non-AT&T person wrote a commentary, which because of intellectual property concerns had a copyright notice and instructed people not to make copies. But, because access to actual code (not to mention access to actual computers) was very hard to come by, there was immense pressure to disseminate it. As one programmer wrote:
We soon came into possession of what looked like a fifth generation photocopy and someone who shall remain nameless spent all night in the copier room spawning a sixth, an act expressly forbidden by a carefully worded disclaimer on the first page. Four remarkable things were happening at the same time. One, we had discovered the first piece of software that would inspire rather than annoy us; two, we had acquired what amounted to a literary criticism of that computer software; three, we were making the single most significant advancement of our education in computer science by actually reading an entire operating system; and four, we were breaking the law.
Kelty points out that this generation of computer science students therefore learned the essentials of UNIX while also learning that AT&T was trying unsuccessfully to control the distribution of the commentary. Computer science already had, at the moment of its explosion, a fraught relationship with law and with copying, here photocopying. Kelty concludes:
This nascent recursive public not only understood itself as belonging to a technical elite which was constituted by its creation, understanding, and promotion of a particular technical tool, but also recognized itself as “breaking the law,” a community constituted in opposition to forms of power that governed the circulation, distribution, modification, and creation of the very tools they were learning to make as part of their vocation. The material connection shared around the world by UNIX-loving geeks to their source code is not a mere technical experience, but a social and legal one as well.
Going forward, he notes, intellectual property can be expected to remain central to the recursive public--a tool and a barrier--as participants try to reframe and rewrite that law and the social practices that undergird compliance with or resistance to law.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the review rebecca... I'm actually relieved to hear that you had trouble with it because the majority of reviews have been, well... kind of glowing. Which doesn't really help me understand what people don't understand, or whether there is actually something to argue with.

    If there is a practical lesson to take away from the book (just to be provocative), it's that there is a way to look at Free Software in which the legal issue is just one of several different components that make Free Software work. Focusing on the law as if it represented all of the important stuff distracts our attention from the clearly articulating and understanding value of FS.

    in any case, I appreciate the reading... thanks for posting about it...