[iDC] introduction

Frank Pasquale frank.pasquale at gmail.com
Tue Dec 2 14:28:35 UTC 2008

Your points about moving from a "privacy-protecting" paradigm to a
"publicity promoting" one are very important.  People using these new
technologies need to recognize a basic asymmetry of information: as many
proprietary software providers accumulate more and more data on individuals,
their own uses of that data become increasingly opaque due to trade secrecy

One solution would be to make individual privacy as protectible as corporate
trade secrecy. But the "fast capitalism" of a neoliberal order makes it
almost impossible for anyone with a job and family to take the time to
meticulously tend a garden of privacy and fend off myriad marketers' coaxing
and cajoling.  The privacy problem has to be assimilated into a larger
public debate on how to regulate projects like 23andMe so they serve public

You've asked "why are all these versions of openness, sociality,
distributedness and so forth
considered good?" Let me try a response, based on some of your ideas on the
recursive public, which you've defined as "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."

Several scholars have recognize the importance of "groups" in social
software, but the term "public" appears both more expansive and more
political than the idea of a group. It reminds me of Habermas's work on *The
Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere*, which focused on the ways
in which new communication technology affected the self-organization and
recognition of new spaces of contestation in politics. Habermas's story is
largely one of missed opportunities, where the extraordinary technologies of
broadcasting and radio gradually fall into the hands of commercial interests
more interested in cultivating consumerism than creative citizenship.

Later reflections by Habermas (and works ranging from Ithiel de la Sola
Pool's to Benkler's) have been more optimistic about communication
technologies. The main justification for optimism has been the prevalence of
"exit" options–for example, if the software company enabling your group gets
too bossy or prying or commercial, you can always jump ship and try another.

But the difficulty of getting your entire group to switch may be the biggest
challenge to such exit options. To the extent the group is outwardly
directed, it pays for it to ignore "hiccups" (which can gradually accrete
into massive invasions of privacy and limits on corporate transparency) and
simply "muddle along" using existing the technology it's always used.
Kelty's work reminds us that, even as new technologies amplify "voice" by
allowing millions to connect, we may just be trading old masters for new
ones if we fail to demand voice. Their massiveness is almost dictated by the
laws of what David Grewal calls network power, so exit is not a scalable
PS: links at

On Mon, Dec 1, 2008 at 6:05 PM, Christopher Kelty <ckelty at gmail.com> wrote:

> 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
> http://p2pfoundation.net/Recursive_Public).
> 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.
> ck
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