Two Bits

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Book: Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Christopher M. Kelty. Duke University Press, 2008


From the publisher:

"In Two Bits, Christopher M. Kelty investigates the history and cultural significance of Free Software, revealing the people and practices that have transformed not only software but also music, film, science, and education. Free Software is a set of practices devoted to the collaborative creation of software source code that is made openly and freely available through an unconventional use of copyright law. Kelty explains how these specific practices have reoriented the relations of power around the creation, dissemination, and authorization of all kinds of knowledge. He also makes an important contribution to discussions of public spheres and social imaginaries by demonstrating how Free Software is a “recursive public”—a public organized around the ability to build, modify, and maintain the very infrastructure that gives it life in the first place.

Drawing on ethnographic research that took him from an Internet healthcare start-up company in Boston to media labs in Berlin to young entrepreneurs in Bangalore, Kelty describes the technologies and the moral vision that bind together hackers, geeks, lawyers, and other Free Software advocates. In each case, he shows how their practices and way of life include not only the sharing of software source code but also ways of conceptualizing openness, writing copyright licenses, coordinating collaboration, and proselytizing. By exploring in detail how these practices came together as the Free Software movement from the 1970s to the 1990s, Kelty also considers how it is possible to understand the new movements emerging from Free Software: projects such as Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that creates copyright licenses, and Connexions, a project to create an online scholarly textbook commons." (


"Two Bits has three parts. Part I of this book introduces the reader to the concept of recursive publics by exploring the lives, works, and discussions of an international community of geeks brought together by their shared interest in the Internet. Chapter 1 asks, in an ethnographic voice, “Why do geeks associate with one another?” The answer—told via the story of Napster in 2000 and the standards process at the heart of the Internet—is that they are making a recursive public. Chapter 2 explores the words and attitudes of geeks more closely, focusing on the strange stories they tell (about the Protestant Reformation, about their practical everyday polymathy, about progress and enlightenment), stories that make sense of contemporary political economy in sometimes surprising ways. Central to part I is an explication of the ways in which geeks argue about technology but also argue with and through it, by building, modifying, and maintaining the very software, networks, and legal tools within which and by which they associate with one another. It is meant to give the reader a kind of visceral sense of why certain arrangements of technology, organization, and law—specifically that of the Internet and Free Software—are so vitally important to these geeks.

Part II takes a step back from ethnographic engagement to ask, “What is Free Software and why has it emerged at this point in history?” Part II is a historically detailed portrait of the emergence of Free Software beginning in 1998–99 and stretching back in time as far as the late 1950s; it recapitulates part I by examining Free Software as an exemplar of a recursive public. The five chapters in part II tell a coherent historical story, but each is focused on a separate component of Free Software. The stories in these chapters help distinguish the figure of Free Software from the ground of the Internet. The diversity of technical practices, economic concerns, information technologies, and legal and organizational practices is huge, and these five chapters distinguish and describe the specific practices in their historical contexts and settings: practices of [PAGE 6] proselytizing and arguing, of sharing, porting, and forking source code, of conceptualizing openness and open systems, of creating Free Software copyright, and of coordinating people and source code.

Part III returns to ethnographic engagement, analyzing two related projects inspired by Free Software which modulate one or more of the five components discussed in part II, that is, which take the practices as developed in Free Software and experiment with making something new and different. The two projects are Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that creates copyright licenses, and Connexions, a project to develop an online scholarly textbook commons. By tracing the modulations of practices in detail, I ask, “Are these projects still Free Software?” and “Are these projects still recursive publics?” The answer to the first questions reveals how Free Software’s flexible practices are influencing specific forms of practice far from software programming, while the answer to the second question helps explain how Free Software, Creative Commons, Connexions, and projects like them are all related, strategic responses to the reorientation of power and knowledge. The conclusion raises a series of questions intended to help scholars looking at related phenomena."


Kim Fortun, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute:

"“Two Bits describes the way those who work and play with Free Software themselves change in the process—engendering what Kelty calls ‘recursive publics’—social configurations that realize the Internet’s non-hierarchical, ever-evolving, and thus historically attuned logic, creatively updating the types of public spheres previously theorized by Habermas and Michael Warner, among others. Two Bits does something similar, pulling readers into an experimental (ethnographic) mode that draws out how Open Source movements have garnered the momentum and significance they have today. The book—on paper and online—quite literally shows how it is done, itself embodying the standards that make Free Software work. Two Bits is critical reading, in all senses.” (

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 of 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 is 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 Also, do not expect to read Levi-Strauss' the raw and the cooked adapted to Linux. 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."


Christopher M. Kelty is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University.

More Information

  1. Video presentation: Christopher Kelty on Free Software as Culture
  2. Interview by Geert Lovink: Christopher Kelty on the Culture of Free Software
  3. The concept of Recursive Public