[iDC] "recursive publics"

Christopher Kelty ckelty at gmail.com
Thu Jul 9 20:54:35 UTC 2009

On Thu, Jul 9, 2009 at 1:01 PM, Dean, Jodi <JDEAN at hws.edu> wrote:

> 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.'

yes, but the meaning of "experts" is also recursive amongst free software
programmers--anyone can become an expert given the desire and the stamina to
become one.  Or in the language dear to geeks, "you are a hacker when
another hacker calls you a hacker."  I'm sensitive to the critique that
there are hidden and not so hidden reasons why "becoming an expert" is not
as open as all that (as with any attempt to claim a public sphere).

> What makes characteristic 2 connect with
> characteristic 1 (or is the combination contingent?)?

Based on the above claim, the logic is that what makes free software public
is the potential to become an expert, (or a user, or a developer or an
advocate) not the actual discussions of current experts.

> 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).

if I understand you, the "maintenance" part here is tied to the technical
conditions.  Maintaining the publicness of free software is absolutely
something that takes the constant and vigilant work of programmers, lawyers,
activists, and users, who argue endlessly about it so that they might argue
endlessly about it.  That's also what I meant by the "pure" form of it.
There are lots of free software projects and projects that use free software
(Google) that very quickly "de-maintain" this openness in order to achieve
closure, control politics (in the sense you mention) and pursue a different
set of goals.

> 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?

they are not indistinguishable.  I think what I wanted to get across was
that I could have developed the concept as a "recursive market" instead of a
"recursive public" because for the kind of liberalism that most free
software geeks express (consciously or not), an ideal market and an ideal
democracy both have the same characteristics of radical openness, and both
can deliver justice when properly maintained.  My way of connecting this
line of thought to the practices of free software was via the language of
"social imaginaries" in Charles Taylor... and for him, markets, publics and
self-governing populations are all species of the modern western social
imaginary, for what that's worth.  That being said, I do think there is a
sense in classical liberalism that markets and publics are, if not
indistinguishable, at least alternative regimes of veridiction--they can
both be treated as spheres that governments should intervene in minimally
because they can be relied on to provide better solutions, better forms of
distributive justice, etc.  than a government or individual can.

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