Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (review)
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Reviewed by
Christopher M. Kelty. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, 440 pp.

In a world where technology, technological savvy, and the Internet grow in social significance every day, a look into the importance of cyber-space and its practices could not be more relevant. In this study of the Free Software/Open Source movement, Christopher Kelty provides a fascinating look into a world that may initially seem arcane to those outside the field, but which illuminates many connections between "geek" culture and the wider world as well.

Free Software is, at its root, a bit of an enigma. Meshing public and private spheres in complicated ways, it seeks to create software that is "privately owned, but freely and publicly accessible. Free Software, as its ambiguous moniker suggests, is both free of constraints and free of charge"(Kelty 1). The related term, Open Source, highlights the ability of software to be changed due to its open-ness and availability to those with the interest and ability to manipulate its underlying code and create new [End Page 617] permutations. Kelty identifies a number of major elements which define Free Software. These include its existence as a movement, the sharing of source code, conceptualized ideas of openness, innovative applications of copyright, and the practice of coordination and collaboration. Over the extended period of his research, a number of changes have occurred both within the movement and as it came to the attention of the larger non "geek" world. "Free Software does not explain why these various changes have occurred, but rather how individuals and groups are responding: by creating new things, new practices, and new forms of life"(x).

The text is organized into three major parts. The first is an anecdotal and ethnographic segment in which Kelty introduces the concept of "recursive publics." The second is a historical overview of a number of the elements of Free Software, including a discussion of major products and controversies. Finally, he explores future directions for the movement by looking at the cases of the Connexions project (a collaborative online repository of educational modules), and Creative Commons (an activist group which seeks to modify existing legal structures to allow for greater openness and creativity). In particular, the historical section examines the way business and legal constraints shape the development of Free Software and the internet, as well as the growing dispersion of power between relevant actors.

"Recursive public" is the cornerstone of Kelty's argument. In his analysis "[a] recursive public is a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public"(28). The creators, maintainers, and adapters of free software constitute a community invested in the creation and development of the very software that binds them together as a community in the first place. Kelty sees the existence and maintenance of recursive publics as a fundamental reorientation of power and knowledge in the contemporary world (2).

This whole process is emergent. In many parts, Two Bits becomes a narrative of creation and transformation focused on the ways in which technology merges with life. Rather than being predetermined prior to actors' involvement with the movement, ideologies are generated through inter-action with Free Software and inflected by the difficulties which arise and the decisions which are made. Free Software is cast as cultural process, uniting disparate actors with common goals and some, but not all, shared values. The growth of the movement is seen repeatedly as something organic, growing from its past, the influence of certain charismatic personalities, and sources outside itself altogether. [End Page 618]

All of this ties in with ideas of the changing nature of the commons in the contemporary world. The idea of this type of recursive public actively reorients the distinction between public and private, as even software which is "owned" is made available for modification by other actors within the community. "Free Software is public in a particular way: it is a self-determining, collective, politically independent mode of creating very complex technical objects that are made publicly and freely available to everyone—a "commons" in...