The recursive public as practice and imaginary

by Sebastian Benthall

Chris Kelty’s Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software is one of the best synthetic histories of the Internet and Free Culture that I’ve encountered so far. Most exciting about it is his concept of the recursive public, the main insight of his extensive ethnographic work:

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.

Speaking today about the book with Nick Doty and Ashwin Mathew, we found it somewhat difficult to tease out the boundaries of this concept. What publics aren’t recursive publics? And are the phenomena Kelty sometimes picks out by this concept (events in the history of Free Software) really examples of a public after all?

Just to jot down some thoughts:

  • If what makes the public is a social organization that contests other forms of institutional power (such as the state or the private sector), then there does seem to be an independence to the FOSS movement that makes the label appropriate. I believe this holds even when the organizations embodying this movement explicitly take part in state or commercial activities–as in resistance to SOPA, for example–though Ashwin seemed to think that was problematic.
  • I read recursion to refer to many aspects of this public. These include both the mutual reinforcement of its many components through time and the drive to extend its logic (e.g. the logic of open systems that originated in the IT sector in the 80’s) beyond its limits. If standards are open, then the source code should be next. If the source code is open, then the hardware is next. If the company’s aren’t open, then they’re next. Etc.

I find the idea of the recursive public compelling because it labels something aspirational: a functional unit of society that is cohesive despite its internal ideological diversity. However, it can be hard to tell whether Kelty is describing what he thinks is already the case or what he aspires for it to be.

The question is whether the recursive public is referring to the social imaginary of the FOSS movement or its concrete practices (which he lists: arguing about license, sharing source code, conceiving of the open, and coordinating collaboration). He does brilliant work in showing how the contemporary FOSS movement is a convergence of the latter. Misusing a term of Piaget’s, I’m tempted to call this an operational synthesis, analogous to how a child’s concept of time is synthesized through action from multiple phenomenological modalities. Perhaps it’s not irresponsible to refer to the social synthesis of a unified practice from varied origins with the same term.

Naming these practices, then, is a way of making them conscious and providing the imaginary with a new understanding of its situation.

Saskia Sassen in Territory, Authority, Rights notes that in global activism, action and community organization is highly local; what is global is the imagined movement in which one participates. Manuel Castells refers to this as the power of identity in social movements; the deliberate “reprogramming of networks” (of people) with new identities is a form of communication power that can exert political change.

It’s difficult for me to read Two Bits and not suspect Kelty of deliberately proposing the idea of a recursive public as an intellectual contribution to the self-understanding of the FOSS movement in a way that is inclusive of those that vehemently deny that FOSS is a movement. By identifying a certain set of shared practices as a powerful social force with its own logic in spite of and even because of its own internal ideological cacophony (libertarian or socialist? freedom or openness? fun, profit, or justice?), he is giving people engaged in those practices a kind of class consciousness–if they read his book.

That is good, because the recursive public is only one of many powers tussling over control of the Internet, and it’s a force for justice.