[iDC] introduction

Christopher Kelty ckelty at gmail.com
Mon Dec 1 23:05:22 UTC 2008

Trebor asked me to introduce myseflf to this list, which i'm very
happy to do since it includes lo ts of people whose work I know and
respect and a few people I know personally.  For those who don't know
me, I am trained in anthropology and history (science and technology
studies, more specifically), and I wrote a book about Free Software
called /Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software/
(http://twobits.net).  Trebor and I had a very interesting discussion
about one of the concepts central to that book, namely "recursive
public" which was a way of trying to capture what made free software
distinctive--and whether it remains distinctive in this way as its
ideas and practices percolate into all kind of other areas of, as this
list has it, distributed creativity (Michel Bauwens excerpted my
explanation of this concept on the P2P foudation wiki

For me, that concept was specific to free software, as it existed in
the period from roughly 1998-2002.  Lots of things have changed since
then, obviously, some features of which are explored in part 3 of my
book.  But it's clear that the purity of the idea of a recursive
public as I describe it doesn't apply to most of the current
generation of "open" "free" "social" "web 2.0" etc. projects out
there, whether facebook and myspace or the new generation of web
services, clouds, grids and so on.  Nonetheless, I like to think the
concept remains diagnostic for new projects because it points to the
role of democracy, participation and dialogue which increasingly
occurs not only in discourse, but in software, infrastructures, and
tools.  In part, this comes from my desire to shift the discussion,
occasionally, away from mechanism and towards function... why are all
these versions of openness, sociality, distributedness and so forth
considered good?  And how can we more rigorously examine whether or
not they are goods of the sort presumed?

My current projects are turning towards places where I think this will
matter most in the future.  One has been nanotechnology, which is both
a collaboration (http://opensourcenano.net) and an academic project.
Nano matters in this realm for a particular reason:  distributed risk
forecasting of new and unknown environmental and biological materials.
  Most of nano is focused on making fancy new toys and devices, but
there is also a surprisingly large community of people trying to
figure out how to forecast the risks of nanomaterials.  The old
paradigms associated with the FDA, EPA and chemical regualtion (in the
US, the EU has REACH, which is much more interesting) are clearly
insufficient, not only for nano, but for all kinds of new risks, like
melamine in chinese milk products.  I think there is a role here for
"distributed creativity" whether that takes the form of DIY Nano, or
something more like citizen science.

The other is the life sciences (especially genomics, post-genomics,
epigentics, post-epigentics, etc).  Current hype around companies and
projects like 23andMe and the Personal Genome Project is focused on
the applying the power of Google to our genomes.  I think this is a
good point to take a very critical approach, one grounded in the
ideals of Free Software.  One reason is to shift the discussion from
Privacy, which dominates the ethical discussions, to publicity, which
is virtually absent from discussions about these projects.  What
public function does commercial genome mapping serve, and how should
it be configured?  I'm at the beginning of these projects and I hope
this will be a place to discuss them as they evolve.


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