[iDC] recursive publics and forking

nathaniel tkacz nathanieltkacz at gmail.com
Sat Jul 11 16:43:02 UTC 2009

Hi all,

I would like to add to the discussion about recursive publics, consensus and
forking. Anna briefly mentioned Christoph Spehr's discussion of "withdrawal"
in Free Cooperation. Her point, as I understand it, was to emphasise
dissensus rather than consensus as the aspect of recursive publics that
makes it significant as a political structure. Chris Kelty (from now on CK
to avoid confusion) pointed to the practice of forking as an instance of
productive dissensus. Through the practice of forking people can leave a
project, taking the (non-exclusive) source code or whatever other materials
that constitute the public with them and continue in a different direction.
The fact that forking is a possibility, writes CK, keeps contributors
responsive to each other and this presumably also works to legitimize the
recursive public:

One aspect of this are the debates around "forking" a project.
Linux is, quite remarkably, a *single* project with a now nearly 20 year
coherence... but there is no legal or technical reason why it must be so,
anyone can fork the code and create their own version... and people have
tried... so there is no absolute consensus here other than one that says "we
agree there can never be any absolute consensus, but will make do with the
best we can put together.  The option to fork is always in the consciousness
of those who contribute to a real free software project, and those that are
successful have to deal with it as a perpetual danger.

While forking is "legally and technically" possible, it is often highly
unrealistic and I think this complicates the notion of consensus. Part of
Spehr's idea in Free Cooperation is that not only must contributors be free
to quit the collaboration, but importantly the cost of leaving for all
members must *similar and bearable*. This is clearly not the case with the
projects CK describes as recursive publics. There is always more at stake
for some members than others; more important contributors and less important
ones. Further, the modular or 'granular' structure of many of these projects
means that the people who want to fork will not be able to continue alone
(as they do not have the diverse set of knowledges and skills required).
This would leave the option to exit, but not of forking, or the option of
remaining, but not of consensus. A possible third option might be to leave
and seek new allies (in the Latourian sense, of gaining allies - new
members, converts, new software etc. - to increase the 'reality' or in this
case feasibility of the fork). Once again though, the position of the
fork-initiator in the original project would, I imagine, greatly impact the
chances of success here. (That is, the asymmetries in the original project
would carry over. For example, Larry Sanger might be able to fork Wikipedia,
but the chances that I would be able to do it are much smaller. I would say
zero! The chances of Jim Wales starting a fork might be greater again. The
point however, is that each person is in a different position in relation to
the project.) I should also note that this is as much a critique of Spehr's
thought here, as I'm yet to find a situation where his  "similar and
bearable cost" have been satisfied or could even be worked out. (Admittedly,
Free Cooperation is more a manifesto than a mapping of the present.)

It seems obvious that open projects become less malleable as they persist
and increase scale. They produce their own structural asymmetries and often
their own celebrities (Linus, Jimbo). As complexity and scale increase, and
new political structures emerge, forking becomes harder to achieve and the
chances of success are unevenly distributed among members. Forking, then, is
not a solution to dissensus (that also reaffirms the legitimacy of the
recursive public) nor is it necessarily about justice. Instead, a close
consideration of the conditions in which the desire to fork emerges,
together with the success or failure of the fork itself, might be a good
place to get a grip on the political dynamics of open projects.



Nate Tkacz

Room 111, West Tower, John Medley Building
School of Culture and Communication
University of Melbourne

tkaczn at unimelb.edu.au
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