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<nettime> Interview with Christopher Kelty: the Culture of Free Software
Geert Lovink on Sun, 24 Aug 2008 14:53:15 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Interview with Christopher Kelty: the Culture of Free Software


On the Culture of Free Software
Interview with Christopher Kelty
By Geert Lovink

It is still rare that anthropologists study modern technology, let  
alone the politics of free software. The Houston-based scholar  
Christopher Kelty, who just moved from Rice University to UCLA, has  
done precisely that. Instead of observing the behavior and codes of  
this professional group of computer engineers, Kelty decided to map  
the social ideas behind free software production. Kelty?s Two Bits,  
The Cultural Significance of Free Software contains a historical  
reconstruction of where the ideas of ?openness? and freedom to change  
code originate. Kelty is not repeating the well-known story about the  
1998 schism between the business-minded open source faction around  
Eric Raymond and the religious free software fighters, lead by  
Richard Stallman. Instead, we get a fascinating time travel, back to  
the pre-PC period of early computing. With the different generations  
of the UNIX operating systems we see how collaborative forms of  
writing software are taking shape?and how the ideas about ownership  
grow with it.

In the 1980s everything revolves around ?open systems?. For me the  
chapter on Conceiving Open Systems was a particular highlight. Kelty  
writes: ??Openness? is precisely the kind of concept that wavers  
between end and means. Is openness good in itself, or is openness a  
means to achieve something else?and if so what? Who wants to achieve  
openness, and for what purpose? Is openness a goal? Or is it a means  
by which another goal?say ?interoperability? or ?integration? is  
achieved?? According to Kelty openness is an unruly concept. ?While  
free tends towards ambiguity (free as in free speech, or free as in  
free beer?), open tends toward obfuscation. Everyone claims to be  
open, everyone has something to share, everyone agrees that being  
open is the obvious thing to do.?

Two Bits is accessible and a pleasure to read, but it is not  
particularly theoretical, nor critical for that matter. No critiques  
here of the inward-looking geek nature of free software, the lack of  
a counter economy and therefore a much larger dependency on large IT  
corporations for jobs and income than necessary, and the dominance of  
the conservative-libertarian pop ideology within open source/free  
software circles (see www.slashdot.org). What Christopher Kelty does  
provide us with is an interesting first 80 pages in which he  
describes his wanderings through Berlin in the days of Mikro e.V. and  
WOS (2001), Bangalore and Boston. Out of these encounters with new  
media culture he filters a few concepts that are worth  taking up  
elsewhere. The first one is ?recursive publics?. Recursive not only  
points at making, maintaining and modifying, but also at the depth of  
the technical and legal layers. ?Geeks argue about technology, but  
they also argue through it. They express ideas, but they also express  
infrastructures through which ideas can be expressed in new ways.?  
The second valuable concept is ?polymaths?, described by Kelty as  
avowed dilettantism. This is a part of the book that does address the  
issue of a shared lifestyle amongst programmers. Polymathy is the  
ability to know a large and wide range of things. It?s what Adilkno  
describes as the positive side of vagueness in its Media Archive.  
?Polymaths must have a detailed sense of the present, and the project  
of the present, in order to imagine how the future might be  
different.? All in all, enough slacker insights to get this book and  
read it?supposing you've got an interest in the history of free  
software and share the collective drive to push its ideas further.  
What follows is an email interview with Christopher Kelty, while he  
was moving to set up base in Los Angeles.

GL: Some say that 'geeks' can be studied as an 'alien tribe'. Much  
like the Australian aboriginals once[?], ordinary Westerns do not  
really notice them and thus they continue what they have always done,  
unaware of the big changes ahead. Apart from a few 1990s movies and  
novels in which they feature, computer nerds are an invisible group.  
In Two Bits you decided not to emphasize the lifestyle aspect of  
geekness. Instead, you focused on the ideas that have been behind the  
early Internet, Emacs and the birth of free software, Linux and  
Apache, and then moving to the present with Creative Commons. Why  
have you chosen for an 'anthropology of ideas'?

CK: Anthropology has pretty lousy marketing these days. Outside of  
the discipline our two major icons are Margaret Mead and Indiana  
Jones, and much of what the media expects from anthropologists is  
just-so stories about why humans, especially exotic humans, do the  
funny things they do, preferably involving sex and violence. So the  
appeal of the geeks-as-savages story is naturally pretty strong, and  
I was torn as to how to deal with that. Geeks themselves like being  
profiled this way and I was "anthropologist-in-residence" in start- 
ups in both Boston and Bangalore, and routinely introduced and  
paraded around as such.

However, what I think is most important in anthropological research  
today is the vibrancy with which researchers try to identify new  
"objects" emerging through cultural practices--not just new kinds of  
behavior or new organizations of people. And especially today, this  
includes new kinds of practices that are globally distributed. Even  
people who work with the Australian Aborigines (like Kimberly  
Christen http://www.mukurtuarchive.org/ ) struggle with this issue.  
Indeed, socio-cultural anthropologists arguably no longer study  
"cultures" as such, but only practices and meanings which are not  
easily (or violently) reduced to economics or biology.

In Two Bits, I wanted to capture why it is that a large and very  
diverse global population of people recognize and find affinity with  
each other. They do that by understanding, using and building free  
software, which is in turn deeply interconnected with the growth and  
spread of the Internet itself. So the type "geek" doesn't come first-- 
it is the result of adopting certain practices and habits, learning  
particular histories and myths, and becoming deeply committed to  
certain political ideals--and changing them as well. People want to  
know why some people become geeks and some don't (or more often, why  
more men than women do), but I don't have an answer to that. I think  
the fact that geeks exist, are multiplying and diversifying is hard  
enough to explain... why they don't become investment bankers or  
firefighters is the wrong way to start asking questions about the  
phenomena at hand, I think.

When the mainstream media (and many ordinary people) talk about  
Aborigines, by contrast, they are often essentialized, either  
culturally or genetically, as trapped within their culture, usually  
as representatives of a primitive mode of life, rather than vibrant  
actors in a field of practices, technologies and politics. This can  
happen with Geeks as well, when one hypostatizes them as a "culture"  
preceding the advent of the practices and technologies that give  
their lives orientation and meaning... but it rings hollow, I think,  
even to geeks who enjoy such objectification.

GL: A highlight in Two Bits for me is the non-meeting you have Eric  
Raymond. He gets to sit next to a lady and during the dinner you do  
not get to speak to him. You mention a number of topics and  
controversies that you wanted to discuss with him. Instead, you get  
to talk to other people out of which a interesting collaboration  
grows (the Connexions project). Could you nonetheless perform your  
Raymond critique here?

CK: I wrote a lot of stuff before the book, arguing with Raymond  
(mostly in my head) and trying to figure out how to position this  
person who is the ultimate "principle informant" in anthropological  
terms--someone who has deep experience of, and tries to formulate  
theories and explanations about, the practices that an anthropologist  
wants to explain. It didn't help that Raymond called himself an  
anthropologist. Indeed, it's a good indication of the low status of  
the discipline?you can't call yourself a physicist or a biologist  
without a lot more training, and you can go to jail if you call  
yourself an engineer or a lawyer and you aren't!

Nonetheless, Raymond's work is really very good in a certain 19th  
Century mode of anthropology?he is the Sir James Frazer of hacker  
anthropology?but the problem is that there is another 130 years of  
anthropology in between his style and that of today's anthropology,  
which he ignores in favor of a pop evolutionary-psychology, which has  
almost zero status in anthropology today. So he's a weird mix of old  
and new and it's really hard to know what to do with him.

Take the popularity of the notion of a "gift economy" which almost  
every geek in the world can talk about with some familiarity, thanks  
to Raymond. This was a really good orienting idea--an "object lesson"  
which helped make sense of Free Software. On the one hand, this is  
exactly the right direction, and anthropologists inspired by or  
trained by Marilyn Strathern immediately grok how our concepts of  
exchange and person-hood are challenged by the emergence of Free  
Software. On the other hand, rather than take it in this direction,  
Raymond concocts a mix of vulgar Marxism (stadial theories of  
development), innate "territorialism" (shades of 1960s Robert  
Ardrey), and vague definitions of reputation and credit to offer a  
putative explanation of why Free Software works. Needless to say, I  
don't think it will be remembered as an explanation--it will be  
remembered as a kind of geek-myth, which in some cases is what  
Raymond almost seems to think he is doing.

Ultimately, I left all this out of the book for just this reason: if  
I argue with him, I give him the status of a fellow researcher, and I  
don't think either his research or his ideas merit that. Rather, I  
think it's important for people to understand that Free Software  
includes Raymond as an *actor*, as one of the key actors in making it  
into the vibrant phenomenon it is, and so I include him (and Stallman  
and Torvalds and Perens and O'Reilly and others) as one component of  
five--the "movement"--which makes up the practices of Free Software.  
I needed to explain why Raymond existed more than I needed to explain  
why his explanations were off base.

GL: Rishab Ayer Ghosh and his Cooking Pot Theory would be another  
case. But anyway. Maybe it was a missed opportunity that you have not  
dwelled upon your Raymond criticism. There is no culture of debate  
and criticism in these circles. Look at Stallman and how hysterically  
he responds if you criticize him for his embarrassing lack of  
knowledge of political philosophy, talking about freedom this and  
that. We, social scientists and humanities scholars are supposed to  
learn Linux, know the technical basics of operating systems, but the  
other way around, forget it. Engineers can say whatever they want  
about society, and get away with it. You, Steven Weber and many  
others are from a new generation of FLOSS scholars that do try to  
push the boundaries of theory. Do you think there is a new wave of  
software studies in the making? In what direction would you like this  
field of knowledge to grow?

CK: I agree... and I would much rather see Rishab's work, and work on  
FOSS by anthropologists like James Leach, Bernard Krieger, Gabriella  
Coleman and others be valued by engineers and programmers more than  
the ravings of Stallman and Raymond... but I also think that's  
impossible. I don't think of the latter two as scholars at all, more  
as politicians or demagogues, which explains why you can't really  
argue with either of them. I think the same is true in many domains,  
where there are a few loud voices that capture all the attention.

I would argue to the contrary, however, that there is indeed an  
extremely well developed culture of debate in hacker circles, once  
you get beyond the demagogues, and this is something Gabriella  
Coleman has captured well in her work. Projects like Debian and  
Ubuntu represent the best of that culture, I think, combining an even- 
increasing understanding of the political and legal issues with the  
technical sophistication. But that kind of debate is much less  
visible than the histrionics of the big men, so people miss it unless  
they are directly involved. Such geeks are also far less libertarian  
than they are often accused of being and are more likely to be  
practicing a form of liberal communitarianism; and they are well  
aware of the form of sociality they are building and promoting, even  
if Stallman and Raymond are not. Again, I think the accusation of  
libertarianism comes from listening to a few loud voices, rather than  
getting close to the work of the mass of people involved.

I do think there is a new wave of software studies emerging and it  
represents a kind of generational shift away from the quick and dirty  
explanations towards sustained research questions that seek not only  
to explain FLOSS as such, but to challenge existing theory in  
different disciplines?whether that's public goods and collective  
action theory in political science and economics or theories of  
technology and culture in anthropology. Much of the earliest work on  
FLOSS lacked depth because it was so new and responded so quickly to  
the phenomenon. But with sustained attention, I think some of the  
deeper issues have started to become clearer. A new generation of  
"software studies" might be able to move beyond the logic of newness  
that dominates the world of IT and software; it could be a chance to  
identify a "longer duree" of political, economic and cultural issues  
of which each new generation of cool tools and "new" ideas are seen  
to be expressions. That might allow scholars to gain purchase on this  
sense of rapid change and simultaneously to become more authentically  
critical of the claims of each new generation of toys. That would be  
a real achievement.

To create a successful new field of software studies, however,  
requires that scholars are willing to sustain their attention and  
take the risk of collecting, observing, participating and reflecting  
over a longer period of time. When I started this project in 1999, it  
was about Free Software... but by the time I finished it, the project  
was about the cultural significance of the various practices involved  
and how they could be understood and related historically to more  
recent changes (like Wikipedia and Web 2.0), as well as much older  
events (like UNIX and the Open Systems debates of the 70s and 80s). I  
like to think that it is a more general analysis, and a better one,  
as a result.

GL: Open and free are two key concepts if we want to understand the  
significance of free software. There is a great chapter in your book  
on the history, the use and abuse, of the term openness. You did not  
write about the confusion about free and freedom. You have not  
deconstructed the Cult of the Free into the realm of peer to peer  
networks, or the debate about precarity, for instance. Why not?

CK: Well, in a way I've tried to do this in a different idiom--that  
of publics and public spheres. For me, the language of freedom and  
openness?and the concern with definitions, principles and the  
enumeration of freedoms are a small part of the phenomenon of Free  
Software. I repeatedly insist that what makes Free Software  
interesting is that whether you call it free, libre or open, whether  
you are with or against Stallman, as long as the other four practices  
are in place (sharing source code, copyleft, coordinating  
collaboration, open infrastructure debates), then the shouting  
doesn't matter--it only matters that those vitriolic debates are  
conducted *in the service of* the other four components, and the  
phenomenon of FLOSS as such. The debates very rarely imply clear  
practical choices about how to do FLOSS, they are much more often  
about the meaning of it.

Where the 'public sphere' aspect is important is that I want my  
readers to focus on the places where these debates (about free or  
open) are conducted in the service of maintaining an independent,  
technically mediated and radically modifiable public sphere. And  
independent means independent of states, corporations, professions,  
churches and so forth. I think this is in line with the concerns over  
"precarity", "casualization" and some aspects of anti-globalization.  
I think it relates wherever there are questions of fairness and the  
construction of public infrastructures that give people the freedom  
both to speak freely and safely, and to modify or extend those  
infrastructures in ways that don't serve only the interests of  
constituted powers. So I would say that skepticism about both  
openness and freedom is certainly warranted--but I'm trying to help  
give researchers ways to ask whether there is anything behind that  
talk that might really contribute to the expansion of an authentic  
public sphere, rather than just being cynical about the claims

GL: The trend is clearly away from software towards a proliferation  
of social, cultural and political fields where the basic notions of  
free software, eat themselves into the issues, so to say, as memes.  
Do you also think that the core of the philosophy will remain the  
same, or will certain elements mutate, once they travel from context  
to context?

CK: Since I don't think the philosophy is at the "core" I suspect it  
will not remain the same at all. What has occupied my attention is  
what happens when the *practices* of free software are adopted more  
as templates for action than as memes, and then are modified based on  
pragmatic concerns. So Creative Commons modulated the notion of a  
copyleft license, but in an attempt to be all things to all people,  
they also created a  new problem--multiple conflicting licenses and  
debates about the meaning of "non-commercial" or "third world" or  
"sampling." The Connexions project modulated the meaning of "source  
code" to include textbooks, but in doing so encountered (and has not  
quite solved) the problem that educators don't write or share  
textbooks the way programmers do code. These modulations are  
interesting in themselves for what they can tell us about different  
domains (e.g. how film works or doesn't as a collaboration, how music  
can be pulled apart, recombined and re-valued), but 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).

So to answer your question, I think the modulation of the  
"philosophy" of free software will continue. The world of open  
educational resources has a much different approach to understanding  
the relationship between freedom and the tools of thought; groups  
like Autonomo.us are modulating the principles of Free Software to  
deal with web services; and perhaps the clearest case are the debates  
within various "free culture" movements about whether the philosophy  
is too software-centric, and what freedom means with respect to other  
cultural materials. Certainly within anthropology there is massive  
suspicion of projects like Creative Commons and its imperial approach  
to defining cultural freedom-- but this is, as I say, just one  
component of the changing landscape?it's also important to pay  
attention to whether and where the other practices are replicated? 
licenses, definitions of open infrastructure, tools and schemes for  
coordination and collaboration, the definition of what objects can be  
shared, etc. The modulation of the philosophy of free software is  
part of the more general process of these practices being adopted and  
transformed?and not the driver of those changes.

GL: How do you look at the Oekonux debates in 2002-2003, the current  
activities of www.keimform.de, the P2P foundation and theoretical  
work of Adam Arvidsson, Michel Bauwens and others? What do you make  
of such practical and theoretical efforts to bring together the  
principles of free software and peer-to-peer production? Do we have  
an economic turn ahead of us? Would this be a very European idea or  
do you see similar tendencies in the USA? Some say that it is really  
urgent that the FLOSS efforts focus on cell phones and RFID tags. In  
which direction would you like to see research and activism go?

CK: I think this is a huge question, far beyond what I tried to do in  
the book. In some ways, I see this as the next iteration of social  
science questioning after the "information economy" or "network  
society"-- ethical economies, creative capitalism, germ-forms, peer  
production (Benkler), and p2p societies are grand socio-economic  
diagnoses, and as such, crucial  for debating how to analyze and make  
sense of the changes we are seeing. I don't think it is particularly  
European, but in the U.S. it is more likely associated with things  
like von Hippel's "User-driven Innovation", Henry Chesborough's "open  
innovation" and other work in management and innovation studies.  
Scholars in those domains in the US are often less aware of the socio- 
political and activist concerns that I think are much more on the  
surface in Europe, much more philosophically grounded in cases like  
Oekonux and P2P Foundation. By contrast, groups like Indymedia or  
Riseup.net represent a more radical genealogy in the US and abroad,  
which is the subject of Jeffrey Juris' recent book (Networking  
Futures). So there are obviously different ways to tell the story of  
this confluence of ideas.

One way to understand my position vis-a-vis these debates is that I  
have started from the assumption that the practices involved in the  
creation of Free Software (and the Internet as well) which emerged in  
the 1980s and 1990s are at the core of the changes we are seeing?and  
not general economic or cultural ideologies, which I see instead as  
effects of changing practices. So for me, Wikipedia and Facebook are  
not examples of the same thing that Free Software is an example of  
(peer production or creative capitalism or user-driven innovation  
etc.) but *derivatives* of the practices that coalesced so  
productively in Free Software. And Free Software is also not original  
in this sense, but drawn from the modulation of UNIX in the 1970s,  
the open systems debates in the 1980s. I think it is important, for  
instance, to understand the role of telecommunications regulation and  
anti-trust politics in the US and Europe in the 1980s to understand  
why Free Software gained a foothold in the 1990s. I'd be less likely  
to attribute the emergence of Free Software to a new stage of history  
than I would to a detailed working out of a previous structure of  
legal and economic practices. In this, I think I'm in partial  
sympathy with the Oekonux and P2P Foundation projects because I think  
"critique of political economy" in the strictest sense of the term is  
what is needed here.

On the other hand, I'm skeptical that theorizing a new kind of  
economy will make any difference to the kinds of persistent  
inequalities and injustices already present in actually existing  
markets. For example, a colleague of mine Robert Foster, has just  
published a great book about Coca Cola's role in the global economy  
(Coca-Globalization). Many of the things he describes about how Coca  
Cola interacts with its customers, encourages them to innovate and  
draws them into the "experience" of Coca Cola share a great deal with  
the explanations offered by the "user innovation" people. The  
difference of course is that Coca Cola is, well, evil. Identifying  
why it's not the same thing for Coca Cola or Apple to engage in "peer  
production" as it is for Wikipedia seems to me to be the most  
difficult question. Similarly, for me it was important to identify  
the core practices of free software in order to distinguish what  
Apple and Microsoft were doing from what real free software projects  
are doing. That's why I turned to the problem of publics and public  
spheres and their independence from constituted forms of power,  
rather than to the theory of public goods, or a revived Marxism. I  
don't think they are incompatible, but I'm a pragmatist at the core:  
I want to see whether such theories help make sense of, and  
potentially transform, concrete realities of practice.

GL: As you may have noticed, there is no Web 2.0 platform for  
activists. Indymedia is more or less dead (at least, the English/ 
international edition). Activism and social networks do not seem to  
match that well. The problem of transparency for police and other  
services of these platforms plays an important role in this. On the  
other hand, social movements have always been prime examples of  
networks that can scale very well, if the circumstances are right. Do  
you also see a problem here? The social seem to have gone technical,  
and it is questionable if we can just make a romantic move back in  
such an instance?

CK: I don't think of any of the web 2.0 platforms as being  
particularly true to the principles of free software. Wikipedia yes,  
and a few projects such as Shay David's Kaltura are explicit about  
their commitment, even as they struggle with solvency and  
sustainability, to say nothing of profitability. But Facebook,  
MySpace, Friendster, Ning, and so forth all lack some component that  
leads, in my terms, to the creation or expansion of a recursive  
public. I would like to think that this concept helps explain, in  
part, why activists might shy away from such platforms, insofar as we  
are talking about activist publics whose commitments are to an  
independent and legitimately powerful civil society whose discussions  
and deliberations have real effect on the constituted forms of power  
they address. The technical commitment of such publics is essential,  
however, because, yes, we cannot go back to a world without the  
technical infrastructures, new modes of expression and circulation  
that have been created. We are, in some ways, condemned to address  
the technical as a political problem. Rising 'above' such details  
into the realm of principles may clarify things, but only if such a  
move can be tested in the concrete and complex skein of the  
contemporary operating systems of our world.

GL: Would it be possible to identify 'kernels' of conceptual hegemony  
in projects like Debian and Ubuntu that are not corporate and  
conservative in nature? How can we open an intellectual dialogue  
about this? In the case of Web 2.0 we see again the importance of  
(collaborative) meme construction? Just think of all this talk of  
'swarms'. How to regain the confidence to build up a counter- 
hegemonic discourse? Is your concept of the 'recursive publics'  
offering a way out here?

CK: In the cases of Debian and Ubuntu, there is a strong core of  
people and practices, well developed, exquisitely argued and widely  
implemented that I would characterize as "pure" free software.  
Insofar as my characterization of the practices of free software as a  
kind of ideal type has a real expression of those ideal features,  
Debian and Ubuntu are probably the best exemplars. But just  
certifying these projects as pure is meaningless. 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.  Whether or not people take advantage of these  
publics to develop counter-hegemonic discourses and new political  
powers is uncertain, it's not implied by the form of the technology,  
but it is enabled by it.

Free Software provides a radical form of openness which is, perhaps,  
a very American way of constituting a public (suspicious of the state  
and corporations, obsessed with ideas of balance and fairness, and a  
weird mix of individualism and populism). The question I think it  
raises is whether, as a politics it has a content. Free Software as  
it exists has an insanely refined focus on form over political  
content (and this is the source of the suspicion about the dominance  
of the technical). But the question is: is this focus on form itself  
a particular kind of political content? At some level yes, but it is  
one that is open to, and maybe even encourages people to challenge  
it. It is a way of saying: if this is a (for instance) "libertarian"  
form, it is one that you are allowed to change--so make it less  
libertarian if you believe that will make it better. It says nothing,  
however, about whether people will have the power to do that, which  
is its weakest feature, its inability to incorporate the concrete  
fact that history has led us to this point.

Christopher Kelty, Two Bits, The Cultural Significance of Free  
Software, Duke University Press, 2008


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