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  • Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software
  • Rob Harle (bio)
Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelty. Duke University Press, Durham and London, U.S.A./U.K., 2008. 400 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 0-8223-0-8223; 0-8223-0-8223.

I have commented in my own writing that the Free Software movement is not a movement at all but a revolution. This book is a detailed scholarly investigation into this revolution, although Kelty himself does not specifically call it such.

It is not at all melodramatic to suggest that Open Source publications, software, intellectual property and artistic creations are part of a revolution. Consider the following three examples: Firefox (an Open Source web browser) has achieved well over 500 million downloads! The Dutch Government legislated that all its departments must use Open Source software applications when available. Computers in China come bundled with Linux operating systems, and their national banking system uses Linux. Hardly trivial backyard geeks having fun! Open Source is opposed to oppressive control of poorer and developing nations, opposed to racial prejudice and encourages sharing as a path to a more peaceful, sustainable global future.

Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software discusses the enormous [End Page 274] cultural significance of Open Source and explains clearly how it involves far more than simply free software applications such as Open Office or Linux. If we accept the notion that "knowledge is power," this book argues,

All of these concerns amount to a re-orientation of knowledge and power that is incomplete and emergent, and whose implications reach directly into the heart of the legitimacy, certainty, reliability and especially the finality and temporality of the knowledge and infrastructures we collectively create

(p. 6).

The book is well written, well argued, and extremely well researched. It is arranged in three parts, of 10 chapters, together with an Introduction, Index, extensive Notes and a comprehensive Bibliography.

Part I, "The Internet," "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 shared interest in the Internet" (p. 5).

Part II, "Free Software," moves away from the ethnographic approach and presents a "historically detailed portrait of the emergence of Free Software and why it has emerged at this point in history" (p. 5).

Part III, "Modulations," re-engages the ethnographic approach and discusses in detail "two related projects inspired by Free Software": "Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that creates copyright licenses, and Connexions, a project to develop an online scholarly textbook commons" (p. 6).

Much of Kelty's argument rests on what he calls "recursive publics," and this is the nitty-gritty of why Open Source is a quiet, nonviolent revolution (à la Gandhi) and is inextricably involved in power struggles, large and small corporate business and global politics. "Recursive publics are publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place" (p. 7).

Considering the scope of the subject matter, the book is not especially steeped in technical jargon and is therefore highly readable for a wide and varied audience. Contrary to first impression, this book is not specifically directed towards geeks, software code authors or other computer nerds, although these individuals will find the book informative and inspiring. It also should be read by all who have positions of influence, such as teachers, cultural studies academics, government decision/policy makers and of course members of the legal profession.

I think it is fair to say that open source has moved on from its innocent infancy into adolescence and thus far more debate and investigation into its nature is required. This book goes a long way in forming a foundation for such further informed inquiry. The "Conclusion," at the end of Part III, has some surprising suggestions and recommendations and very succinctly sums up the evolving, mutable nature of Open Source/Free Software. In Kelty's own words,

A question remains, though: in changing, does Free Software and its kin preserve the imagination of moral and technical order that created it? Is...


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pp. 274-275
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