Book review: ‘Two Bits’

Book Review: ‘Two Bits‘ by Christopher Kelty.

I don’t normally review books, but this is such a good story, so badly told, I have to blow off steam somewhere.

Kelty’s book is about the history and development of the ‘free software’ movement. He charts the development of UNIX and the dreadful muddle that ensued, leading on the one hand to Microsoft dominance, and on the other to effective models for free software development. These involve:
– new ways of co-operation,starting from bulletin boards and the internet RFC system, using the net most of the time
– new forms of copyright, such as the GPL, which protect the author’s right not to have his work slip into copyright by accident (as UNIX did). This means corporate users and software developers alike can use it without risk of civil action.
– a set of assumptions and values, broadly libertarian, but more important, a genuine interest in making programmes work and ICT systems better.

The biggest success story is of course TCP/IP: freely available to all, open to comments from all, but you have to be able to access the internet (using TCP/IP) to join in. So if your version doesn’t work or isn’t compatible, you are by definition excluded.

Kelty also points out that the free software movement extended these values to develop a ‘free knowledge’ expectation,leading to Wikipedia, Plos, and so on. These have the same values and many similar mechanisms – for example cooperative wiki editing and Creative Commons licenses.

The key element, Kelty thinks, is having a ‘recursive public’: “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” (p3). In the footnotes (p 312) he contrasts this with a normal association: a doctors’ union might want to seek the views of nurses on a major medical issue but they would not invite nurses to join their union and ‘change the terms of debate’: they would encourage the nurses to found their own union, rather than allowing their own society to change to one that might be more appropriate.

Alas this is a self-indulgent and arrogant book. For example:
– it is methodologically inept. Kelty claims (p 20) that his ‘participant observation’ of a ‘widely distributed phenomenon’ was combined to a very few instances chosen at random, because he happened to be involved. His anecdotes and descriptions are few, and far between. I don’t feel that I understand ‘geeks’ (or know what they are, even though I sometimes claim to be one) after reading the book.
– in the first section, when he is developing his theory of a ‘recursive public’, he refers repeatedly to ‘geeks’ and the way geeks think and behave, without ever explaining what he means by the term. It makes us sound like some strange animal being observed by David Attenborough (‘in the cool of the evening, the geeks are gathering by the waterhole..’). Later on he distinguishes sharply differing views held bygeeks (eg Richard Stallman vs Eric Raymond) but at the beginning of the book, you get the strong feeling that he doesn’t want to let the facts get in the way of a good theory.
– his example of the ‘free knowledge’ movement is one he happened to be involved with, called Connexions (now OpenStax CNX ). He seems to have a psychological difficulty in mentioning the most obvious and most successful of them all, Wikipedia, substituting instead an ‘also ran’. (There are only 6 references in the index to Wikipedia, two of these in footnotes.)
– he consistently misuses the word ‘modulate’ or ‘modulation’, sometimes using it to mean ‘modularise’ and sometimes just to mean ‘change’.
– there’s a kind of self-indulgent jokiness about his anecdotes, all featuring himself as modest hero of the hour, mixed with waspishness about others – eg Eric Raymond is guilty of ‘amateur anthropological musings’ (p 243) and ‘amateur philosophizing’ (p 244) at a dinner in Houston, where he also commits the cardinal sin of talking to a young woman, and ignoring Kelty completely.

My paragon of anthropological ‘participant observation’ is Tanya Luhrmann‘s ‘Persuasions of the Witches Craft‘, which is detailed, sensible, thorough, and objective. ‘Two Bits’ is none of these. It tells a valuable story, but it is a little like opening a unique account of a conversation with Immanuel Kant about a lost great analysis of ‘a priori’ reasoning, and discovering that the account had been written by George W Bush.

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