Democratization in Three Dimensions of Technosocial Self-Organization

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* Article: Recursive Depth in Generative Spaces: Democratization in Three Dimensions of Technosocial Self-Organization. By Ron Eglash and David A. Banks. The Information Society, 30: 106–115, 2014



"Kelty’s “recursive public” is defined as a binary: whether or not ownership of intellectual property is legally in the public domain. We propose a broader continuum of recursive depth, which spans the range from shallow constrained generative spaces (e.g., photo-memes) to the deeply open collaborations of “critical making” communities. Recursive depth is assessed by the capacity for transformation across three distinct continuums: public/proprietary, virtual/material, and high/low social power. Transformations across all three continuums is not always necessary for deep recursion (as Kelty and others note for many cases of open source), but we argue that paying attention to all three, and treating them as continuums rather than binaries, allows a better evaluation of the capacity for democratizing the technosocial landscape."


"In proposing the concept of recursive depth, we seek to contribute to discussions of technosocial systems in two ways. On the one hand, it offers a simple, intuitive term for describing the difference between deep generative spaces such as open source, and the shallow playing field of something like Facebook. On the other hand, we believe that by breaking down recursive depth into three attributes, and showing how it is applied to transformations across three continua, it can be used as an analytic tool to compare and contrast the nuances between different systems, and perhaps even can offer some prescriptive recommendations.

Two comments from Kelty’s Two Bits were the inspiration for creating our concept of recursive depth, and thus we close with them.

The first was his caution against confusing social media with recursive publics: “In the last few years, talk of ‘social software’ . . . has dominated

. . . discussions: Wikipedia, MySpace, Flickr, and YouTube, for example . . .. But they are not (yet) what I would identify as recursive publics.” 

Recursive public tends to be a binary dichotomy — either you are one or you are not — in part because it is based on legal definitions that require decisive categorization. Recursive depth, on the other hand, is deliberately conceived as a gradient; thus, open source is deeper than Wikipedia, which is deeper than Flickr. Wikipedia does have layered generative capacity, but in ways that are vastly more constrained than open source. However, even shallow chains of innovation, such as Flickr’s photo sharing, can become a layered component in a deeper recursive system. That is the case in the generative capacity of the Arab Spring ICT appropriations: Recall that in order to post photographic evidence of the First Lady in her luxury shopping trip, group members scoured websites created by “plane spotters,” whose recreational activity is focused on taking unauthorized photos of commercial aircraft (Koppel 2008). Thus, a relatively shallow recursive chain of photo sharing allowed the Takriz group to generate politically powerful transformations across the virtual/material continuum: one layer in the accumulation of a deeper recursion. One drawback to such “recursive ad-hocracy” is that the depth — its growing repertoire of techniques and practices — is tenuously patched together by the agency of particular individuals. In contrast, if Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds died tomorrow, theGNU/Lunix software would live on. But this difference in“obduracy” (Hommels 2005) is a matter of degree: Even open-source software must be constantly updated to keep pace with changes in the Internet ecology, and those who discover that their code is no longer compatible with a popular browser, plug-in, or operating system must either rally the human resources to update the code, or risk destroying the crucial breadth requirement of recursive depth.

The second comment from Kelty was regarding the role of recursive publics in facilitating transformations across the social power continuum:

Concepts of the public sphere have been roundly critiqued in the last twenty years for presuming that such “equality of access” is sufficient to achieve representation, when in fact other contextual factors (race, class, sex) inherently weight the representative power of different participants. But these are two different and overlapping problems: one cannot solve the problem of pernicious, invisible forms of inequality unless one first solves the problem of ensuring a certain kind of structural publicity.

To Kelty’s credit, it does at first seem reasonable to posit that powerful tools against social inequality need to exist prior to using them. But to cast tools versus the social effects they create as a linear sequence puts us on the slippery slope of “ends justify the means.” It is better to view the relation as chicken and egg. From Emma Goldman and Ghandi to M. L. King and Gene Sharp, the antiauthoritarian tradition has opposed this separation of ends and means. It is for this reason that recursive depth deliberately includes “transformations across the social divide” as one of the three continua it in which it is accessed. Indeed, the very notion of recursion should problematizethe thinking that sees chicken and egg as a paradox.

The acronym “GNU” stands for “GNU’s Not Unix.” What does the acronym “GNU” represent in that defining sentence? It stands for “GNU’s Not Unix”–and soon “down the stack.” Recursion means more than just “many iterations”; it is a way of understanding self-generation as a fundamental principle of self-governance: one that can be deliberately “engineered” for making things more public, democratizing access, and facilitating transformations across all social continua."