Book of the Week: Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software

John Gilbey relives the heady days of IT upheaval

August 21, 2008

Just occasionally, you come across a book that reflects part of your own life and experience in a way that makes you stop and say: "Yes, that is the way I remember it happening." This is one such book.

I was caught up in the swirling periphery of the information technology industry during the period of radical and dramatic change central to this book. I was one of many trying to second-guess forthcoming changes and invest in IT systems that would keep their organisations competitive and effective. The voice of the book captures the familiar uncertainties, complexities and challenges of the time particularly well - a period when the technical barometer remained obstinately set to "change".

Christopher Kelty's book is much more than merely a technical - or even a social - history. It is a broadly based analysis of how the congruent elements of otherwise wildly differing ideologies have interacted across human development at those critical nodes where technology-induced change or intellectual revolution has threatened social stability.

This discussion of the origins, current impact and potential future of free software as a significant force covers an enormous range of historical, human and technological issues - from the cultural politics of the Reformation to how internet standards are defined. But the author succeeds in weaving these disparate threads into a closely argued, well-defended, painstakingly referenced treatise covering one of the most complex, and possibly least understood, cultural movements of recent decades.

Has free software had a significant impact on us? In my own case, I can safely offer a definite "yes". I am writing this review on a laptop running a Linux operating system and using the word processor of the Open Office package in preference to using commercial software tools. Only a few years ago, in some quarters this combination would have seen me labelled a dangerously radical uber-geek, but this package came from the department store Selfridges, which is about as mainstream as you are likely to get.

When the review is finished, I will send it to Times Higher Education using a similarly non-commercial email client via a number of servers, many of which will also be running Linux. Still think you don't use free software? Think again.

As an opening gambit, Kelty uses aspects of internet development as case studies with which to introduce his methods and processes before delving into the special case of free software. The use of casually presented examples and reported conversations gives a lively and unusually involving account of the past decade or so when the internet moved from the educational/governmental/corporate arena to become a massive social force in its own right. Kelty examines the start-up companies, the sudden new opportunities and the rash of killer concepts that bloomed - and often withered - with such startling speed, placing them carefully in a wider cultural framework.

I had never expected to enjoy a book that delved so deeply into the writing of software licences - let's face it, reading them is hard enough - but I did. By placing the issues around Unix licensing in the Eighties and Nineties at the centre of the free software debate, Kelty shows just how much downstream impact such documents can have. The Babel of the commercial Unix market at that time, and the position taken by the free-software zealots in response to it, is captured effectively. And for once, the pivotal role played by the software developer and activist Richard Stallman is not overshadowed or diluted. Ageing computer people will smile in recognition when they see some of the software advertising of the day reproduced in the book, and for others it demonstrates just how far IT has developed in the past 20 years. The almost universal connectivity that today we take for granted in computer systems was still a distant dream when many of these ads were written.

Despite the deeply technical nature of much of the discussion, this is not a traditional history of the computer industry. The author is an anthropologist, and he uses the techniques, insights and disciplines of that field as the basis of the work. This is important because much of the existing published work in this area has been written for geeks by geeks, or by industry commentators and trade journalists. By examining the roles of the protagonists from the outside - and then delving deeply into the minutiae of their processes and motivations - Kelty succeeds in delivering a book that is academically sound, thoroughly researched and deeply engaging.

The author's research has not been limited to an examination of traditional sources. He has made a serious effort - one that he has obviously enjoyed - to engage with the people at the centre of the subject. He has gone deeply into the topic; and rather than merely providing a restatement of the commonly touted anecdotes, he has gone to significant lengths to trace them to their origin and to place authoritative references in their original contexts.

Dangerous as it is to indulge in stereotypes, I can't escape the mental image of a khaki-clad anthropologist seeking out a strange new tribe of culturally aware technologists lurking in the sprawling, steamy intellectual jungle of early 21st-century corporate hegemony. Taking another track, you could easily let the subject matter evolve into a dramatic cyberpunk epic of the William Gibson genre - but, to his credit, Kelty has avoided pursuing either of these visions.

In several important respects, this book itself is a product of the free software movement. The printed version is typeset in an open-source font and is published under a Creative Commons licence, but the real story is the simultaneous production of a web version at www.twobits.net, where a person can download either PDF or HTML versions of the book. There is also a forum where readers can post comments relating to individual sections of the book. This is a financially brave move by the author and the publisher, but one that deserves to succeed - and you can help that success by making sure that an appropriate number of the printed copies get purchased.

This is a very significant book that succeeds in capturing the essence of a period of huge change in the way we look at intellectual property and commons. The word revolution is overused, but I'd suggest that it might be appropriate to apply it in this instance. More than this, Kelty's solidly focused text offers an effective roadmap for the deeply convoluted raw material that defines this period - providing a detailed, and well crafted, reference for future investigators.

The author

Whether it's sharing the sheer brilliance of watching the Muppets in Dutch or setting up a fictional festive institute "dedicated to the advancement of kringological sciences", Chris Kelty has a passion for the bizarre, the thought-provoking and what can only be described as the geeky.

Not that being considered geeky is a bad thing. Indeed, he says: "The biggest win for me is when someone else recognises me as a geek." He started with an interest in opening up the web to others and soon became fascinated by free software and the people championing it and - in the way of all good anthropologists - to study geeks, he became a geek himself. The advantage of this, he explains, is that although he was meeting people from around the world, they all shared a computing language.

He specialises in science and technology studies, but his academic interests range far beyond this, as proven by his first degree in literature and mathematics. He says that he has always wanted to learn about as many different academic areas as possible, explaining: "I didn't want to be a bench scientist or a computer programmer but I didn't want to be a humanities person who didn't engage with the world around them either." His students appreciate his enthusiasm and he has been the recipient of a teaching and mentoring award at Rice University in the US, where he is assistant professor of anthropology. - Sarah Cunnane.

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