[iDC] "recursive publics"

Dean, Jodi JDEAN at hws.edu
Thu Jul 9 20:01:49 UTC 2009

I have a question about 'recursive publics.' Here is an excerpt from the interview with Geert Lovink. (The cases are Debian and Ubuntu). Chris says:

The concept of a recursive public was my way of articulating the significance of these pure forms, not just the conditions of their existence. 
And that significance is 

1) that they treat technical infrastructure and decisions about its design as political through and through, as far down the “recursive” stack of technical layers as possible and 

2) they do so in order to maintain the possibility not only of an authentic public sphere that they inhabit, but the possibility of the emergence of publics oppositional to themselves, and to those that emerge, and so on. 

Whether or not people take advantage of these publics to develop counter-hegemonic discourses and new political powers is uncertain, it’s not implied by the form of the technology, but it is enabled by it.

It seems to me that characteristic 1 restricts the notion of recursive public to the reflections of technicians and experts, that is, to expert debates about design (which could be
about laws as well as protocols or roads. To this extent, 'public' means 'group of experts talking about the conditions of talking.'  What makes characteristic 2 connect with
characteristic 1 (or is the combination contingent?)? It seems to me that characteristic 2 is a statement about politics--basically, politics designates the impossibility of closing
off a sphere, of preventing the emergence of opposition, of eliminating closure, or completely stifling resistance, etc. So, there really isn't anything to maintain--unless one wants
to say that this maintenance has to take a specific form (say, non violent but even that is impossible to maintain). 

Can you also say something about how it is the case that markets and publics are basically indistinguishable in your view. Doesn't this lead to the view that anything that is good
for the market is good for the public?


From: idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net [idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net] On Behalf Of Christopher Kelty [ckelty at gmail.com]
Sent: Wednesday, July 08, 2009 3:23 PM
To: Trebor Scholz; idc at mailman.thing.net
Subject: Re: [iDC] "recursive publics"

On Thu, Jul 2, 2009 at 6:12 AM, Trebor Scholz <scholzt at newschool.edu<mailto: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 (http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/06/17/chris-kelty-the-cultural-significance-of-free-software/), and a page on Michel Bauwen's site (http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/book-of-the-week-christopher-keltys-two-bits/2008/07/07).

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 richer.

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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