Recursive Public

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From Christopher Kelty's book, Two Bits, http://twobits.net/discuss/chapter1/15:

"A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives. Free Software is one instance of this concept, both as it has emerged in the recent past and as it undergoes transformation and differentiation in the near future. There are other instances, including those that emerge from the practices of Free Software, such as Creative Commons, the Connexions project, and the Open Access movement in science. These latter instances may or may not be Free Software, or even “software” projects per se, but they are connected through the same practices, and what makes them significant is that they may also be “recursive publics” in the sense I explore in this book. Recursive publics, and publics generally, differ from interest groups, corporations, unions, professions, churches, and other forms of organization because of their focus on the radical technological modifiability of their own terms of existence. In any public there inevitably arises a moment when the question of how things are said, who controls the means of communication, or whether each and everyone is being properly heard becomes an issue. A legitimate public sphere is one that gives outsiders a way in: they may or may not be heard, but they do not have to appeal to any authority (inside or outside the organization) in order to have a voice.3 Such publics are not inherently modifiable, but are made so—and maintained—through the practices of participants. It is possible for Free Software as we know it to cease to be public, or to become just one more settled form of power, but my focus is on the recent past and near future of something that is (for the time being) public in a radical and novel way.

The concept of a recursive public is not meant to apply to any and every instance of a public — it is not a replacement for the concept of a “public sphere” — but is intended rather to give readers a specific and detailed sense of the non-obvious, but persistent threads that form the warp and weft of Free Software and to analyze similar and related projects that continue to emerge from it as novel and unprecedented forms of publicity and political action.


By calling Free Software a recursive public, I am doing two things: first, I am drawing attention to the democratic and political significance of Free Software and the Internet; and second, I am suggesting that our current understanding (both academic and colloquial) of what counts as a self-governing public, or even as “the public,” is radically inadequate to understanding the contemporary reorientation of knowledge and power. The first case is easy to make: it is obvious that there is something political about Free Software, but most casual observers assume, erroneously, that it is simply an ideological stance and that it is anti–intellectual property or technolibertarian. I hope to show how geeks do not start with ideologies, but instead come to them through their involvement in the [PAGE 8] practices of creating Free Software and its derivatives. To be sure, there are ideologues aplenty, but there are far more people who start out thinking of themselves as libertarians or liberators, but who become something quite different through their participation in Free Software.


The second case is more complex: why another contribution to the debate about the public and public spheres? There are two reasons I have found it necessary to invent, and to attempt to make precise, the concept of a recursive public: the first is to signal the need to include within the spectrum of political activity the creation, modification, and maintenance of software, networks, and legal documents. Coding, hacking, patching, sharing, compiling, and modifying of software are forms of political action that now routinely accompany familiar political forms of expression like free speech, assembly, petition, and a free press. Such activities are expressive in ways that conventional political theory and social science do not recognize: they can both express and “implement” ideas about the social and moral order of society. Software and networks can express ideas in the conventional written sense as well as create (express) infrastructures that allow ideas to circulate in novel and unexpected ways. At an analytic level, the concept of a recursive public is a way of insisting on the importance to public debate of the unruly technical materiality of a political order, not just the embodied discourse (however material) about that order. Throughout this book, I raise the question of how Free Software and the Internet are themselves a public, as well as what that public actually makes, builds, and maintains.


The second reason I use the concept of a recursive public is that conventional publics have been described as “self-grounding,” as constituted only through discourse in the conventional sense of speech, writing, and assembly.6 Recursive publics are “recursive” not only because of the “self-grounding” of commitments and identities but also because they are concerned with the depth or strata of this self-grounding: the layers of technical and legal infrastructure which are necessary for, say, the Internet to exist as the infrastructure of a public. Every act of self-grounding that constitutes a public relies in turn on the existence of a medium or ground through which communication is possible—whether face-to-face speech, epistolary communication, or net-based assembly—and recursive publics relentlessly question the status of these media, suggesting [PAGE 9] that they, too, must be independent for a public to be authentic. At each of these layers, technical and legal and organizational decisions can affect whether or not the infrastructure will allow, or even ensure, the continued existence of the recursive publics that are concerned with it. Recursive publics’ independence from power is not absolute; it is provisional and structured in response to the historically constituted layering of power and control within the infrastructures of computing and communication.


For instance, a very important aspect of the contemporary Internet, and one that has been fiercely disputed (recently under the banner of “net neutrality”), is its singularity: there is only one Internet. This was not an inevitable or a technically determined outcome, but the result of a contest in which a series of decisions were made about layers ranging from the very basic physical configuration of the Internet (packet-switched networks and routing systems indifferent to data types), to the standards and protocols that make it work (e.g., TCP/IP or DNS), to the applications that run on it (e-mail, www, ssh). The outcome of these decisions has been to privilege the singularity of the Internet and to champion its standardization, rather than to promote its fragmentation into multiple incompatible networks. These same kinds of decisions are routinely discussed, weighed, and programmed in the activity of various Free Software projects, as well as its derivatives. They are, I claim, decisions embedded in imaginations of order that are simultaneously moral and technical.


By contrast, governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other institutions have plenty of reasons—profit, security, control—to seek to fragment the Internet. But it is the check on this power provided by recursive publics and especially the practices that now make up Free Software that has kept the Internet whole to date. It is a check on power that is by no means absolute, but is nonetheless rigorously and technically concerned with its legitimacy and independence not only from state-based forms of power and control, but from corporate, commercial, and nongovernmental power as well. To the extent that the Internet is public and extensible (including the capability of creating private subnetworks), it is because of the practices discussed herein and their culmination in a recursive public.


Recursive publics respond to governance by directly engaging in, maintaining, and often modifying the infrastructure they seek, as a public, to inhabit and extend—and not only by offering opinions or protesting decisions, as conventional publics do (in most theories of the public sphere). Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.


The fact that recursive publics respond in this way—through direct engagement and modification—is a key aspect of the reorientation of power and knowledge that Free Software exemplifies. They are reconstituting the relationship between liberty and knowledge in a technically and historically specific context. Geeks create and modify and argue about licenses and source code and protocols and standards and revision control and ideologies of freedom and pragmatism not simply because these things are inherently or universally important, but because they concern the relationship of governance to the freedom of expression and nature of consent. Source code and copyright licenses, revision control and mailing lists are the pamphlets, coffeehouses, and salons of the twenty-first century: Tischgesellschaften become Schreibtischgesellschaften.7


The “reorientation of power and knowledge” has two key aspects that are part of the concept of recursive publics: availability and modifiability (or adaptability). Availability is a broad, diffuse, and familiar issue. It includes things like transparency, open governance or transparent organization, secrecy and freedom of information, and open access in science.

Availability includes the business-school theories of “disintermediation” and “transparency and accountability” and the spread of “audit culture” and so-called neoliberal regimes of governance; it is just as often the subject of suspicion as it is a kind of moral mandate, as in the case of open [PAGE 11] access to scientific results and publications.8 All of these issues are certainly touched on in detailed and practical ways in the creation of Free Software. Debates about the mode of availability of information made possible in the era of the Internet range from digital-rights management and copy protection, to national security and corporate espionage, to scientific progress and open societies.


However, it is modifiability that is the most fascinating, and unnerving, aspect of the reorientation of power and knowledge.

Modifiability includes the ability not only to access—that is, to reuse in the trivial sense of using something without restrictions—but to transform it for use in new contexts, to different ends, or in order to participate directly in its improvement and to redistribute or recirculate those improvements within the same infrastructures while securing the same rights for everyone else. In fact, the core practice of Free Software is the practice of reuse and modification of software source code. Reuse and modification are also the key ideas that projects modeled on Free Software (such as Connexions and Creative Commons) see as their goal. Creative Commons has as its motto “Culture always builds on the past,” and they intend that to mean “through legal appropriation and modification.” Connexions, which allows authors to create online bits and pieces of textbooks explicitly encourages authors to reuse work by other people, to modify it, and to make it their own. Modifiability therefore raises a very specific and important question about finality. When is something (software, a film, music, culture) finished? How long does it remain finished? Who decides? Or more generally, what does its temporality look like, and how does that temporality restructure political relationships? Such issues are generally familiar only to historians and literary scholars who understand the transformation of canons, the interplay of imitation and originality, and the theoretical questions raised, for instance, in textual scholarship. But the contemporary meaning of modification includes both a vast increase in the speed and scope of modifiability and a certain automation of the practice that was unfamiliar before the advent of sophisticated, distributed forms of software.


Modifiability is an oft-claimed advantage of Free Software. It can be updated, modified, extended, or changed to deal with other changing environments: new hardware, new operating systems, unforeseen technologies, or new laws and practices. At an infrastructural level, such modifiability makes sense: it is a response to [PAGE 12] and an alternative to technocratic forms of planning. It is a way of planning in the ability to plan out; an effort to continuously secure the ability to deal with surprise and unexpected outcomes; a way of making flexible, modifiable infrastructures like the Internet as safe as permanent, inflexible ones like roads and bridges.


But what is the cultural significance of modifiability? What does it mean to plan in modifiability to culture, to music, to education and science? At a clerical level, such a question is obvious whenever a scholar cannot recover a document written in WordPerfect 2.0 or on a disk for which there are no longer disk drives, or when a library archive considers saving both the media and the machines that read that media. Modifiability is an imperative for building infrastructures that can last longer. However, it is not only a solution to a clerical problem: it creates new possibilities and new problems for long-settled practices like publication, or the goals and structure of intellectual-property systems, or the definition of the finality, lifetime, monumentality, and especially, the identity of a work. Long-settled, seemingly unassailable practices—like the authority of published books or the power of governments to control information—are suddenly confounded and denaturalized by the techniques of modifiability." (http://twobits.net/discuss/chapter1/15)


Discussion

Felix Stadler describes with an example of how such new communities challenge the state:


"the old mode of political (mass) communication is not just becoming weaker, but is actively challenged by a new one.

Perhaps the most unexpected challenge is in the area of international treaty making, the exclusive domain of nation states since the creation of the Westphalian system in the seventeenth century. Since most international treaties are highly specific and technical, mass media, driven by the need to address the broadest possible audience, rarely reported on them in a prominent fashion. Thus, even the negotiations which were legally public were de facto closed and the representatives of states were amongst themselves. Not anymore.

One of the new actors challenging the state in this once exclusive territory is the collaborative project bilaterals.org (http://bilaterals.org/), which bills itself as “a collective effort to share information and stimulate cooperation against bilateral trade and investment agreements that are opening countries to the deepest forms of penetration by transnational corporations”. Through collecting, aggregating and publishing critical information in real time, they create a public in order to challenge the state in an arena — international treaty making — that is has never been challenged before. But who is bilaterals.org? One the one hand, some of the people who run the site can be identified with hyper–precision and they are easily accessible via e–mail. On the other hand, they are merely temporarily aggregating information generated by much larger networks, which are very hard to identify with any precision because they are built on open, weak cooperation. As they write “no one owns or controls bilaterals.org, [but] a small group of people collaborate informally to keep the site going on a day to day basis.” Yet, this loose organization has the capacity to analyze and digest very large amounts of information and thus create a critical public in areas where there has never been one, even if the underlying information has, formally, always been public. By networking local and global actors, the organization is not just capable of creating a translocal public, but mobilizing people to take to the streets when state representatives meet and try to discuss the issues behind closed doors. Bilaterals.org is not an exception. There are thousands of groups like it, advocating the full range of imaginable demands.

What makes it hard for the state to interact with such organizations is not just that it can be hard to identify whose really responsible. That problem can be solved. What makes it really difficult is that these organizations are not built on the principle of representation, but on the principle of weakly coordinated action. They stake their legitimacy not on formal membership, but on expertise, moral imperatives or informal public support. Here, people, by and large, speak for themselves or for their often very small organizations. They do so on behalf of very large constituencies (the “people”, the “global south”, “developing nations”), but they do not represent them, nor do they have any authority over them.

The state and its organizations have a highly developed capacity to deal with homologous organizations — structurally similar to itself — with a small number of representatives with a formal mandate to speak on behalf of many people — such as unions or professional associations. Yet, they it poses significant challenges to interface with organizations that are structurally very different as described above. For one, there are simply too many of these networked organizations and taken together, their demands are often contradictory. They filter their demands not in a way that bureaucracies can easily recognize and address them. The lack of representation — which is so characteristic for these networked organizations based on weak cooperation — makes it dangerous for the state to interact with them because the state draws its very legitimization from representation. Thus, in a formal way, incorporating non–representative organizations further undermines the legitimacy of the liberal state.

One of the ways in which the state can react to this development is by trying to withhold certain types of information, thus preventing the analysis and publication by networked actors most likely very critical of their actions. The notion of “executive privilege” — that is the right of the government to act outside the realm of public scrutiny — is playing a key role in the governance of the current U.S. administration. But similar tendencies can be observed in Europe as well, which lead, as Saskia Sassen observes, to a general strengthening of the executive organs at the expense of the legislature tasked with overseeing them and interfacing with the public at large." (http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2077/1989)