[iDC] "recursive publics"

Christopher Kelty ckelty at gmail.com
Wed Jul 8 19:23:16 UTC 2009

On Thu, Jul 2, 2009 at 6:12 AM, Trebor Scholz <scholzt at newschool.edu> wrote:

> Hi Chris,
> One of the connections between your work and the conference, for me, is
> that of "recursive publics."
> Could you briefly outline that on the list for the 1600 subscribers?

talk about audience exploitation and free labor! ;)

I've had many discussions with people about the concept of recursive
publics, and how it might be applied or not to other domains.  The place to
look in my book (http://twobits.net/) is Chapter 1 and the Conclusion.
There is also a nice interview with Geert Lovink that goes into more detail:
http://twobits.net/2008/08/24/interview-with-geert-lovink/  a quick summary
by Ethan Zuckerman (
and a page on Michel Bauwen's site (

I won't burden people with yet another new thread here, but instead try to
plug this into to two different discussions.

1. Ken Wark brought up Sennett's *Craftsman*.  I'm all for critiques of that
book, but it does have an orientation that I'm also trying to capture, which
is the way the distinction between work and labor is connected to the
fashioning of public/political worlds.  So my use of "recursive publics"
with respect to Free Software was a bid to claim that it is work, not labor,
in Arendt's formulation.  Which is to say, the work that people put into
Free Software is explicitly and deeply organized around the fashioning of a
particular kind of political world, one in which *every layer of a
communicative and technical infrastructure is open to future modifiability*
(the recursive part).  Together (I claim) Free Software and the Internet,
around 1998, represent a political achievement of this sort.  As with
Habermas's public sphere, however, I think it has turned out to be
incredibly fragile and easy to dilute.  Sennett, by the way, misreads Arendt
(his beloved teacher) in my opinion.  The kind of craft he discusses there
is not labor at all in her terms, but a version of work--coding,
glassblowing, cooking and so forth have become newly public (or newly
world-making) of late, and this is not unrelated to the rise of the
Internet.  In addition, his understanding of coding is as a practice is just
sad, and his understanding of glassblowing comes entirely from Erin
O'Connor's work (his student, duly cited) whose work on the subject is much

2. Infrastructure.  The thread about data centers struck a nerve.    Free
Software is a creature of the era of the PC and the widely distributed (in
the sense of not-centralized) Internet.  It is not a creature of the heavily
concentrated data center, massively clustered "cloud" computing era we are
now living in.  This is important to me, because whatever the priniciples of
free software are, they now confront changed technical conditions of massive
concentration and control at a particular layer of the infrastructure.  So
in terms of recursivity, one can have Free software on the desktop, or on a
mobile device, and one can have free software operating systems running the
servers in a cluster, but it is much harder to have a Free Software "cloud"
system.  Web services and cloud computing could be created in a Free
Software-inspired manner,  (see http://autonomo.us/ for dicussions of just
this problem)  but the reality of the situation is that Americans seem to
love Really Huge Shit, and so the tendency is towards Google and Facebook
and their hundreds of Millions of users and hundreds of thousands of servers
since it feels big, solid and fundable, like a natural resource.   This sort
of sucks when we are talking about Facebook and its exploitation of your
data to sell advertising... but where it really sucks, in my opinion, is in
healthcare and in science, where it's clear that the concentration of
data+control leads to badnesses of all sorts.  But that would be a new
thread :)


ps.  if people made an effort to trim posts and quote it might be easier for
everyone to follow the discussions.  It's a labor saving device :)
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