[iDC] "recursive publics"

Christopher Kelty ckelty at gmail.com
Sun Jul 12 05:21:10 UTC 2009

On Sat, Jul 11, 2009 at 9:55 AM, Dean, Jodi <JDEAN at hws.edu> wrote:

> >Christ says

thank you :) many people confuse the flowing robes and big beard, but I'm
just a regular underpaid academic.

> I do not think that the market is an instrument of justice. In fact, I
> would say that the claim that the market is an instrument of justice is a
> political claim and moves the discussion into a political terrain. Again,
> questions of justice are political/moral claims.  My own view is that
> markets are terrible mechanisms for 'making hard decisions about allocation
> amongst hetereogeneous desires'-- primarily because they begin from
> self-interest rather than collective interest (but that's only one of many
> reasons--include also inequality, exploitation, short-term mindsets,
> boom-bust cycles and instability, monetarization of basic goods/needs, etc).

i guess i agree with you here, since that would also be *my* view.  However,
what I think is irrelevant-- what I'm trying to elaborate is the way free
software is tied to and made possible by practices and ideals derived from
this tradition; and to do so means taking that tradition seriously.  Free
Software is not a practice that relies on markets of the kind we currently
have in the world--it is also critique of them.  Your position is one I
would call revolutionary (i.e. markets of any kind are no good for justice);
that of some, perhaps most, of the Free Software geeks is reformatory (i.e.
the markets we have today are bad versions of something which could be
better for justice).

> At this point, I don't find the term recursive publics useful. I reviewed
> Warner's book a number of years ago and have a critique of his use of
> publics. My book Publicity's Secret goes through the Habermasian
> version of the concept and criticizes that. What's particularly fascinating
> in Chris's version is the way that a 'mindset' shared by a group of
> technocrats who are not accountable to anyone but themselves can somehow
> position itself as a 'public', presumably carrying with it the
> moral/political connotations from the 18th century. This is alarming in part
> because this group/mindset is pro-capitalist yet positions itself as somehow
> neutral.  (Fred Turner's critical approach to the rise of cyberculture
> provides an important contrast to the kind of account Chris gives).

I call them a public, a recursive public, as a way of trying to say what
makes free software distinctive.  No geeks or hackers refer to themselves
this way, save the 2-3 who have read my book.  In addition, they are not
technocrats, by any definition of that term.  What's more, whatever power
they have is mind-bogglingly small compared to that of, say, big pharma, or
big content, or big energy, or indeed big finance.  While it's important to
recognize the extent of the success of free software, you are making it out
to sound like some hidden cabal of super-powerful, auto-legislating,
hubris-laden ideologues.  They're *geeks*-- they enjoy a quiet weekend
watching the new star trek and thinking  about dynamically scoping variables
for god's sake...  The people fred turner writes about, by contrast, do have
more cultural power, to be certain... but his excellent book is not about
free software.  I would venture to say that most free software geeks are
appalled by the kind of drumbeating people like Kevin Kelly or Chris
Anderson do these days... but unless we can actually make these
distinctions, it seems pointless to argue about wether or not to be for or
against them.

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