Two Bits - The Cultural Significance of Free Software
Christopher M. Kelty (2008)

Part III modulations


The Cultural Consequences of Free Software

Free Software is changing. In all aspects it looks very different from when I started, and in many ways the Free Software described herein is not the Free Software readers will encounter if they turn to the Internet to find it. But how could it be otherwise? If the argument I make in Two Bits is at all correct, then modulation must constantly be occurring, for experimentation never seeks its own conclusion. A question remains, though: in changing, does Free Software and its kin preserve the imagination of moral and technical order that created it? Is the recursive public something that survives, orders, or makes sense of these changes? Does Free Software exist for more than its own sake?

In Two Bits I have explored not only the history of Free Software but also the question of where such future changes will have come [pg 302] from. I argue for seeing continuity in certain practices of everyday life precisely because the Internet and Free Software pervade everyday life to a remarkable, and growing, degree. Every day, from here to there, new projects and ideas and tools and goals emerge everywhere out of the practices that I trace through Free Software: Connexions and Creative Commons, open access, Open Source synthetic biology, free culture, access to knowledge (a2k), open cola, open movies, science commons, open business, Open Source yoga, Open Source democracy, open educational resources, the One Laptop Per Child project, to say nothing of the proliferation of wiki-everything or the “peer production” of scientific data or consumer services—all new responses to a widely felt reorientation of knowledge and power. 348 How is one to know the difference between all these things? How is one to understand the cultural significance and consequence of them? Can one distinguish between projects that promote a form of public sphere that can direct the actions of our society versus those that favor corporate, individual, or hierarchical control over decision making?

Often the first response to such emerging projects is to focus on the promises and ideology of the people involved. On the one hand, claiming to be open or free or public or democratic is something nearly everyone does (including unlikely candidates such as the defense intelligence agencies of the United States), and one should therefore be suspicious and critical of all such claims. 349 While such arguments and ideological claims are important, it would be a grave mistake to focus only on these statements. The “movement”—the ideological, critical, or promissory aspect—is just one component of Free Software and, indeed, the one that has come last, after the other practices were figured out and made legible, replicable, and modifiable. On the other hand, it is easy for geeks and Free Software advocates to denounce emerging projects, to say, “But that isn’t really Open Source or Free Software.” And while it may be tempting to fix the definition of Free Software once and for all in order to ensure a clear dividing line between the true sons and the carpetbaggers, to do so would reduce Free Software to mere repetition without difference, would sacrifice its most powerful and distinctive attribute: its responsive, emergent, public character.

But what questions should one ask? Where should scholars or curious onlookers focus their attention in order to see whether or not a recursive public is at work? Many of these questions are simple, [pg 303] practical ones: are software and networks involved at any level? Do the participants claim to understand Free Software or Open Source, either in their details or as an inspiration? Is intellectual-property law a key problem? Are participants trying to coordinate each other through the Internet, and are they trying to take advantage of voluntary, self-directed contributions of some kind? More specifically, are participants modulating one of these practices? Are they thinking about something in terms of source code, or source and binary? Are they changing or creating new forms of licenses, contracts, or privately ordered legal arrangements? Are they experimenting with forms of coordinating the voluntary actions of large numbers of unevenly distributed people? Are the people who are contributing aware of or actively pursuing questions of ideology, distinction, movement, or opposition? Are these practices recognized as something that creates the possibility for affinity, rather than simply arcane “technical” practices that are too complex to understand or appreciate?

In the last few years, talk of “social software” or “Web 2.0” has dominated the circuit of geek and entrepreneur conferences and discussions: Wikipedia, MySpace, Flickr, and YouTube, for example. For instance, there are scores and scores of “social” music sites, with collaborative rating, music sharing, music discovery, and so forth. Many of these directly use or take inspiration from Free Software. For all of them, intellectual property is a central and dominating concern. Key to their novelty is the leveraging and coordinating of massive numbers of people along restricted lines (i.e., music preferences that guide music discovery). Some even advocate or lobby for free(er) access to digital music. But they are not (yet) what I would identify as recursive publics: most of them are commercial entities whose structure and technical specifications are closely guarded and not open to modification. While some such entities may deal in freely licensed content (for instance, Creative Commons-licensed music), few are interested in allowing strangers to participate in, modulate, or modify the system as such; they are interested in allowing users to become consumers in more and more sophisticated ways, and not necessarily in facilitating a public culture of music. They want information and knowledge to be free, to be sure, but not necessarily the infrastructure that makes that information available and knowledge possible. Such entities lack the “recursive” commitment. [pg 304]

By contrast, some corners of the open-access movement are more likely to meet this criteria. As the appellation suggests, participants see it as a movement, not a corporate or state entity, a movement founded on practices of copyleft and the modulation of Free Software licensing ideas. The use of scientific data and the tools for making sense of open access are very often at the heart of controversy in science (a point often reiterated by science and technology studies), and so there is often an argument about not only the availability of data but its reuse, modification, and modulation as well. Projects like the BioBricks Foundation ( and new organizations like the Public Library of Science ( are committed to both availability and certain forms of collective modification. The commitment to becoming a recursive public, however, raises unprecedented issues about the nature of quality, reliability, and finality of scientific data and results—questions that will reverberate throughout the sciences as a result.

Farther afield, questions of “traditional heritage” claims, the compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals, or new forms of “crowdsourcing” in labor markets are also open to analysis in the terms I offer in Two Bits. 350 Virtual worlds like Second Life, “a 3D digital world imagined, created, and owned by its residents,” are increasingly laboratories for precisely the kinds of questions raised here: such worlds are far less virtual than most people realize, and the experiments conducted there far more likely to migrate into the so-called real world before we know it—including both economic and democratic experiments. 351 How far will Second Life go in facilitating a recursive public sphere? Can it survive both as a corporation and as a “world”? And of course, there is the question of the “blogosphere” as a public sphere, as a space of opinion and discussion that is radically open to the voices of massive numbers of people. Blogging gives the lie to conventional journalism’s self-image as the public sphere, but it is by no means immune to the same kinds of problematic dynamics and polarizations, no more “rational-critical” than FOX News, and yet . . .

Such examples should indicate the degree to which Two Bits is focused on a much longer time span than simply the last couple of years and on much broader issues of political legitimacy and cultural change. Rather than offer immediate policy prescriptions or seek to change the way people think about an issue, I have approached [pg 305] Two Bits as a work of history and anthropology, making it less immediately applicable in the hopes that it is more lastingly usable. The stories I have told reach back at least forty years, if not longer. While it is clear that the Internet as most people know it is only ten to fifteen years old, it has been “in preparation” since at least the late 1950s. Students in my classes—especially hip geeks deep in Free Software apprenticeship—are bewildered to learn that the arguments and usable pasts they are rehearsing are refinements and riffs on stories that are as old or older than their parents. This deeper stability is where the cultural significance of Free Software lies: what difference does Free Software today introduce with respect to knowledge and power yesterday?

Free Software is a response to a problem, in much the same way that the Royal Society in the sixteenth century, the emergence of a publishing industry in the eighteenth century, and the institutions of the public sphere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were responses. They responded to the collective challenge of creating regimes of governance that required—and encouraged—reliable empirical knowledge as a basis for their political legitimacy. Such political legitimacy is not an eternal or theoretical problem; it is a problem of constant real-world practice in creating the infrastructures by which individuals come to inhabit and understand their own governance, whether by states, corporations, or machines. If power seeks consent of the governed—and especially the consent of the democratic, self-governing kind that has become the global dominant ideal since the seventeenth century—it must also seek to ensure the stability and reliability of the knowledge on which that consent is propped.

Debates about the nature and history of publics and public spheres have served as one of the main arenas for this kind of questioning, but, as I hope I have shown here, it is a question not only of public spheres but of practices, technologies, laws, and movements, of going concerns which undergo modulation and experimentation in accord with a social imagination of order both moral and technical. “Recursive public” as a concept is not meant to replace that of public sphere. I intend neither for actors nor really for many scholars to find it generally applicable. I would not want to see it suddenly discovered everywhere, but principally in tracking the transformation, proliferation, and differentiation of Free Software and its derivatives. [pg 306]

Several threads from the three parts of Two Bits can now be tied together. The detailed descriptions of Free Software and its modulations should make clear that (1) the reason the Internet looks the way it does is due to the work of figuring out Free Software, both before and after it was recognized as such; (2) neither the Internet nor the computer is the cause of a reorientation of knowledge and power, but both are tools that render possible modulations of settled practices, modulations that reveal a much older problem regarding the legitimacy of the means of circulation and production of knowledge; (3) Free Software is not an ethical stance, but a practical response to the revelation of these older problems; and (4) the best way to understand this response is to see it as a kind of public sphere, a recursive public that is specific to the technical and moral imaginations of order in the contemporary world of geeks.

It is possible now to return to the practical and political meaning of the “singularity” of the Internet, that is, to the fact that there is only one Internet. This does not mean that there are no other networks, but only that the Internet is a singular entity and not an instance of a general type. How is it that the Internet is open in the same way to everyone, whether an individual or a corporate or a national entity? How has it become extensible (and, by extension, defensible) by and to everyone, regardless of their identity, locale, context, or degree of power?

The singularity of the Internet is both an ontological and an epistemological fact; it is a feature of the Internet’s technical configurations and modes of ordering the actions of humans and machines by protocols and software. But it is also a feature of the technical and moral imaginations of the people who build, manage, inhabit, and expand the Internet. Ontologically, the creation and dissemination of standardized protocols, and novel standard-setting processes are at the heart of the story. In the case of the Internet, differences in standards-setting processes are revealed clearly in the form of the famous Request for Comments system of creating, distributing, and modifying Internet protocols. The RFC system, just as much as the Geneva-based International Organization for Standards, reveal the fault lines of international legitimacy in complex societies dependent on networks, software, and other high-tech forms of knowledge production, organization, and governance. The legitimacy of standards has massive significance for the abilities of individual actors to participate in their own recursive publics, whether they [pg 307] be publics that address software and networks or those that address education and development. But like the relationship between “law on the books” and “law in action,” standards depend on the coordinated action and order of human practices.

What’s more, the seemingly obvious line between a legitimate standard and a marketable product based on these standards causes nothing but trouble. The case of open systems in the 1980s high-end computer industry demonstrates how the logic of standardization is not at all clearly distinguished from the logic of the market. The open-systems battles resulted in novel forms of cooperation-within-competition that sought both standardization and competitive advantage at the same time. Open systems was an attempt to achieve a kind of “singularity,” not only for a network but for a market infrastructure as well. Open systems sought ways to reform technologies and markets in tandem. What it ignored was the legal structure of intellectual property. The failure of open systems reveals the centrality of the moral and technical order of intellectual property—to both technology and markets—and shows how a reliance on this imagination of order literally renders impossible the standardization of singular market infrastructure. By contrast, the success of the Internet as a market infrastructure and as a singular entity comes in part because of the recognition of the limitations of the intellectual-property system—and Free Software in the 1990s was the main experimental arena for trying out alternatives.

The singularity of the Internet rests in turn on a counterintuitive multiplicity: the multiplicity of the UNIX operating system and its thousands of versions and imitations and reimplementations. UNIX is a great example of how novel, unexpected kinds of order can emerge from high-tech practices. UNIX is neither an academic (gift) nor a market phenomenon; it is a hybrid model of sharing that emerged from a very unusual technical and legal context. UNIX demonstrates how structured practices of sharing produce their own kind of order. Contrary to the current scholarly consensus that Free Software and its derivatives are a kind of “shadow economy” (a “sharing” economy, a “peer production” economy, a “noncommercial” economy), UNIX was never entirely outside of the mainstream market. The meanings of sharing, distribution, and profitability are related to the specific technical, legal, and organizational context. Because AT&T was prevented from commercializing UNIX, because UNIX users were keen to expand and [pg 308] adapt it for their own uses, and because its developers were keen to encourage and assist in such adaptations, UNIX proliferated and differentiated in ways that few commercial products could have. But it was never “free” in any sense. Rather, in combination with open systems, it set the stage for what “free” could come to mean in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a nascent recursive public, confronting the technical and legal challenges that would come to define the practices of Free Software. To suggest that it represents some kind of “outside” to a functioning economic market based in money is to misperceive how transformative of markets UNIX and the Internet (and Free Software) have been. They have initiated an imagination of moral and technical order that is not at all opposed to ideologies of market-based governance. Indeed, if anything, what UNIX and Free Software represent is an imagination of how to change an entire market-based governance structure—not just specific markets in things—to include a form of public sphere, a check on the power of existing authority.

UNIX and Open Systems should thus be seen as early stages of a collective technical experiment in transforming our imaginations of order, especially of the moral order of publics, markets, and self-governing peoples. The continuities and the gradualness of the change are more apparent in these events than any sudden rupture or discontinuity that the “invention of the Internet” or the passing of new intellectual-property laws might suggest. The “reorientation of knowledge and power” is more dance than earthquake; it is stratified in time, complex in its movements, and takes an experimental form whose concrete traces are the networks, infrastructures, machines, laws, and standards left in the wake of the experiments.

Availability, reusability, and modifiability are at the heart of this reorientation. The experiments of UNIX and open systems would have come to nothing if they had not also prompted a concurrent experimentation with intellectual-property law, of which the copyleft license is the central and key variable. Richard Stallman’s creation of GNU EMACS and the controversy over propriety that it engendered was in many ways an attempt to deal with exactly the same problem that UNIX vendors and open-systems advocates faced: how to build extensibility into the software market—except that Stallman never saw it as a market. For him, software was and is part of the human itself, constitutive of our very freedom and, hence, inalienable. Extending software, through collective mutual [pg 309] aid, is thus tantamount to vitality, progress, and self-actualization. But even for those who insist on seeing software as mere product, the problem of extensibility remains. Standardization, standards processes, and market entry all appear as political problems as soon as extensibility is denied—and thus the legal solution represented by copyleft appears as an option, even though it raises new and troubling questions about the nature of competition and profitability.

New questions about competition and profitability have emerged from the massive proliferation of hybrid commercial and academic forms, forms that bring with them different traditions of sharing, credit, reputation, control, creation, and dissemination of knowledge and products that require it. The new economic demands on the university—all too easily labeled neoliberalization or corporatization—mirror changing demands on industry that it come to look more like universities, that is, that it give away more, circulate more, and cooperate more. The development of UNIX, in its details, is a symptom of these changes, and the success of Free Software is an unambiguous witness to them.

The proliferation of hybrid commercial-academic forms in an era of modifiability and reusability, among the debris of standards, standards processes, and new experiments in intellectual property, results in a playing field with a thousand different games, all of which revolve around renewed experimentation with coordination, collaboration, adaptability, design, evolution, gaming, playing, worlds, and worlding. These games are indicative of the triumph of the American love of entrepreneurialism and experimentalism; they relinquish the ideals of planning and hierarchy almost absolutely in favor of a kind of embedded, technically and legally complex anarchism. It is here that the idea of a public reemerges: the ambivalence between relinquishing control absolutely and absolute distrust of government by the few. A powerful public is a response, and a solution, so long as it remains fundamentally independent of control by the few. Hence, a commitment, widespread and growing, to a recursive public, an attempt to maintain and extend the kinds of independent, authentic, autotelic public spheres that people encounter when they come to an understanding of how Free Software and the Internet have evolved.

The open-access movement, and examples like Connexions, are attempts at maintaining such publics. Some are conceived as bulwarks [pg 310] against encroaching corporatization, while others see themselves as novel and innovative, but most share some of the practices hashed out in the evolution of Free Software and the Internet. In terms of scholarly publishing and open access, the movement has reignited discussions of ethics, norms, and method. The Mertonian ideals are in place once more, this time less as facts of scientific method than as goals. The problem of stabilizing collective knowledge has moved from being an inherent feature of science to being a problem that needs our attention. The reorientation of knowledge and power and the proliferation of hybrid commercial-academic entities in an era of massive dependence on scientific knowledge and information leads to a question about the stabilization of that knowledge.

Understanding how Free Software works and how it has developed along with the Internet and certain practices of legal and cultural critique may be essential to understanding the reliable foundation of knowledge production and circulation on which we still seek to ground legitimate forms of governance. Without Free Software, the only response to the continuing forms of excess we associate with illegitimate, unaccountable, unjust forms of governance might just be mute cynicism. With it, we are in possession of a range of practical tools, structured responses and clever ways of working through our complexity toward the promises of a shared imagination of legitimate and just governance. There is no doubt room for critique—and many scholars will demand it—but scholarly critique will have to learn how to sit, easily or uneasily, with Free Software as critique. Free Software can also exclude, just as any public or public sphere can, but this is not, I think, cause for resistance, but cause for joining. The alternative would be to create no new rules, no new practices, no new procedures—that is, to have what we already have. Free Software does not belong to geeks, and it is not the only form of becoming public, but it is one that will have a profound structuring effect on any forms that follow.

 348. See,,,,,,, [pg 348],,,,,,,, and

 349. See Clive Thompson, “Open Source Spying,” New York Times Magazine, 3 December 2006, 54.

 350. See especially Christen, “Tracking Properness” and “Gone Digital”; Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? and “Heritage as Property.” Crowdsourcing fits into other novel forms of labor arrangements, ranging from conventional outsourcing and off-shoring to newer forms of bodyshopping and “virtual migration” (see Aneesh, Virtual Migration; Xiang, “Global Bodyshopping” ).

 351. Golub, “Copyright and Taboo”; Dibbell, Play Money.

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