Last night, I stayed up until an obscene hour playing with Google MapMaker. I’m excited about it because it has quickly become more than a tool–its inherently social aspects have turned it into a community. The MapMaker Google Group is still small because the tool was just announced a few days ago, but the discussion is already starting to blossom in a productive way: bug reports, suggestions of additional resources, and structural questions about the project. Even though the young MapMaker community must work with the Google engineers who ultimately make the changes, aspects of a self-sustaining and -reliant community are definitely surfacing. With conversations like the one currently occurring about how Google Maps can best collaborate with existing open-source mapping efforts like OpenStreetMap, it seems increasingly like the command structure is not as much one-to-many as it is many-to-one: Google’s going to have a lot of work on their hands if they want to keep this passionate and eager userbase satisfied.
Where did these expectations for how online collaboration should work come from? What is the precedent for this type of behavior? Many have described MapMaker as Google’s approach to “Wikipediaize” mapping, but Chris Kelty would argue that Wikipedia, too, is a cultural descendant of the free software movement.
<Prologue! class=”In Medias Res”>
What geeks may lack in social adroitness, they make up for in archival hubris.
– Chris Kelty, Two Bits
Alongside my friends Tim, Diana, Alex, and Mike, I am going to be blogging my responses to Prof. Kelty’s new book about this whole free software thing, Two Bits, chapter-by-chapter as part of 2B2P (the official abbreviation for the Two Bits Processor Project). I’m excited about this because:
- All the people I just mentioned are brilliant and totally interesting.
- As an aspiring historian/anthropologist of science and a free culture activist besides, this book is right up my alley. More to the point, it is up my thesis’s alley.
- In addition to being a kickass moderator for ROFLCon and amazingly well-dressed, Chris Kelty is the only professor I’ve taken more than one class with. His History of Software and Networks (which is how Tim & I met Mike!) basically convinced me to become a History of Science major after one lecture.
Of course, reasons 1 & 3 also mean that this is somewhat stressful for me. I have to write commentary on a book written by one of my most respected mentors? And have it look good while sitting next to the posts of my brilliant friends? Damn.
So here’s a quick summary of what you can expect to see here, just so I’m not fooling anybody. Unlike my wonderful housemate Mike, I am not capable of using the phrase “In a Marxian reading of Kelty” and you won’t find much reference to existing social theory basically because I suck at reading. Unlike Diana, I am not full of delightful 19th century postcards that somehow manage to be relevant to every situation. Unlike Tim, I am not a robot.
This is what I can promise. I will always be asking the question “is this really new?” because history has surprised me enough times when I assume that something is revolutionary. I will always be wondering what the big picture is for those outside of the digital elite or even on the other side of the digital divide.
This week, we read the introduction to Two Bits, which doesn’t so much provide detailed arguments to chew over as much as a framework for how the rest of the book is going to proceed. I already have tons of questions, but I’m sure most of them will be answered later. Instead, I’ll offer a bit of an introduction myself to two (as in bits) basic concepts: geeks and non-geeks. Along the way, I hope I’ll reveal something about where I’m coming from…
“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.
The first part of Two Bits is an ethnographic look at the international free software community–basically, a long-term study of geeks in their natural habitat of listservs and IRC chats. I’m sad to say that this is not a community I was ever a part of. Growing up, I never even FOUND the free software community, and since my introduction to it in college I still haven’t really joined it in anything more than a sympathetic sense. However, I suspect that the characters and events that Kelty will describe will be incredibly familiar.
Within the introduction, Kelty uses the word “geek” many times to refer to his free software hackers. While this is almost certainly the self-identity chosen by most of this community, however, these days the term also encompasses a much larger subculture that may or may not agree with or even know of free software.
I’m not saying this just to nitpick Kelty’s word choice, but to show that as the word “geek” evolved from an insult to a reclamation to a subculture to a not-so-sub-culture, the actual community, lifestyle, and connotation it describes also changes. This seems obvious, but I want to make it explicit. Once upon a time, the “geek” community–that is to say, the community of people who were proud enough of their geekdom to define themselves as geeks–was much more technically-adept as a whole. This meant that the people creating and participating in geek culture were also the ones involved in geek activities like free software. Now, however, geek culture envelopes much more because being a geek has become more socially acceptable, and the sites (no pun intended) where geek discourse take place are filled with people who have a strong stake in the culture and the identity without necessarily being involved in the actual infrastructural work. Basically, Slashdot’s user base has not just free software hackers but also Microserfs and gamers and a whole bunch of other sub-sub-cultures who are united in geekdom but often divided on everything else. Are these other geeks part of the recursive public? If so, then what does it mean when not everyone in the recursive public is actually, you know, recursing?
The conflation of the two in the introduction, accidental or not, brings up the interesting question of how the two interact. Are “mainstream geek” and Free Software ever tugging in different directions? I’ll be keeping an eye out on this for the rest of the book for sure.
When it comes to non-geeks, one potential way of dividing them is by power.
More Powerful Non-Geeks
A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.
So independence seems to be pretty important in Kelty’s concept of a recursive public. That is to say, not independence as in we-don’t-need-anybody, but independence as in sovereignty. What does this mean, however, in a world with proprietary hardware, ICANN, and Ted Stevens? Since absolute independence isn’t feasible in a world as interconnected as ours, where does dependence begin? And what does that mean for free software? Understanding this will help, I think, in understanding which battles free software is capable of winning–and how.
Less Powerful Non-Geeks
The significance of Free Software extends far beyond the arcane and detailed technical practices of software programmers and “geeks”…it exemplifies a more general reorientation of power and knowledge.
If free software really is a reorientation of power and knowledge, what does it mean that those doing the reorientation are probably overwhelmingly American and definitely overwhelmingly male? What are the implications of the fact that because, as Kelty points out, geeks argue not only about technology but also through it, the technically proficient prevail? I mean, obviously this means that certain values are privileged over others, but are we actually in danger of losing something important to large swathes of the population because of this reorientation?
Hopefully, these are questions that will get brought up again (and perhaps answered?!) when I read through more of the book. Meanwhile, feel free to modulate on this blog post via commenting and responding! The more bits, the merrier.