Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 8


The main aspect of Kelty’s work that I found interesting was the idea of “recursive publics.” The way that such publics, as conceived by Kelty, seek to perpetuate the material, technical and conceptual means of their own existence is intriguing and caused me to wonder how social movements in general would compare with Kelty’s take on the free software/open source movement. It may be just due to my recent readings but I saw recursive publics in a performative light. A public must be performed, otherwise it risks merely being a figment of the academic’s imagination. How could an actual public exist if constituents are not aware of or working towards sustaining the public? Apart from that, the book served well to acquaint me with a great deal of computer history that I was ignorant of.  

In terms of research methods, I saw a bit of Martin in Kelty’s work (in how he became actively involved with object of study). Additionally, Kelty’s own admittance of how many of his questions and thoughts did not mature until in the thick of it, so to speak, is a relief to hear. One need not be overly worried about having all one’s ducks in a row before beginning fieldwork. I liked the way he structured the book, interspersing dense theoretical points between ethnographic data, history and bits of narrative. It definitely makes a work like this more accessible.  


Kelty asks why do geeks become associated to each other. And his answer is because they make a recursive public. I am not sure whether I can use this concept to answer the following question: why do climate change skeptics or critics become associated to each other? Is this the answer? : Because they make a recursive public or it is wrong, since these groups are interest groups and not recursive publics?

One thing which was interesting to me was the idea of Kelty on hackers. He believes that hackers create things and introduce new entities to the world which overturn the existing concepts and established modes of representation. I would like to apply the same thing to climate change skeptics and critics who are overturning the established existing scientific assessments. These collective groups which are changing the normality have a specific identity.  While kelty distinguishes between two publics, new and old publics, and distinguishes them from interest groups, I also distinguish between old climate change “disagreements” and new kind of climate change “disagreements”. However, I am not sure whether climate change skeptics and critics are different than interest groups or not.

Kelty chooses the concept “public” in order to make a general and vague arena to include an unspecified number of multiple phenomena within this arena. As you may notice, I don’t use the term “skeptics”; indeed I use the term “disagreements “in order to include both climate change critics and skeptics within this category.  They are from multiple groups, multiple identities but they are coherent enough to show a collective action: to disagree with one aspect of anthropogenic climate change.

As Kelty believes that open softwares are not just softwares , they are embodying notions of power and knowledge, the recent controversies show that climate change science is not just a scientific fact, it is more than that, it embodies the notions of power, especially between developed countries and developing countries,

The other issue Kelty attempts to persuade us is to abandon the word “hacker” and indeed use the word  “geek” , because according to him hacker has a criminal connotation. The same thing happened to me when I was doing an interview with one of climate change skeptics , he got angry of me because I used the word skeptic. He told me “we are not skeptical of climate change; we are challenging the science of climate change in order to enrich it. We are critics not skeptics.”  I disagree with this skeptic and still prefer to call him skeptic as he is different than the” critic” group. The critic questions the influence of anthropogenic climate change on some environmental issues, while skeptics question completely the nature of climate change and not its effects; they believe that human activities do not cause climate change. The shared identity of skeptics is different than those of critics.This emphasis of this critic thought me a lesson: when we are doing ethnography, we should be careful of the words and concepts we use while we are in contact with our subjects of study.

We should also pay attention to this issue  that both groups, critics and skeptics,  make a new form of representation with their own language and scientific practice.

Kelty believes that though internet is a singular phenomenon but it is open to different interpretations, and is constantly rewritten because of the involvement of multiple different actors, such as users, governments, corporations etc. Climate change is the same. It is a singular natural phenomenon but because climate change is an interdisciplinary science, multiple actors are involved in the interpretations of this phenomenon. As it is contested by different scientific disciplines, such as physicists in the US or  geologists in India…

David M.

To piggyback off of Taylor’s comment, I have a feeling the “underlying” subconscious idea the texts we’ve been reading seem to portray is that while it’s crucial to not be a total idiot, being open to and even more importantly expecting changes is valuable. While not being certain that “things will get clearer as I progress”, the researcher should be flexible and now stress over being totally unprepared.

Now the part that did interest me was the idea of the publics. Simply because I feel that this area that deals with involvement and public participation, and “publics” has gone from one extreme to the other. From having one amorphous and passive public, to so many different versions and levels of publics that makes one wonder about the middle ground, and if there is such a thing. Because most of the authors that deal in “publics” have the same spiel “nobody is actually looking at the different kinds of publics so I’m going to do it”. And then it becomes a bit hard to distinguish the different types. That being said, the author is good at making distinctions. I do have to dispute the fact that (i’m taking what he’s saying more in the absract) their shared x-type and y-type or understanding of Z transcends the common, or pre-cyberspace answers to what keeps Free Software people together. It’s simply a different plane of understanding. Basically, I don’t question the idea of recursive publics, I just question whether geeks and the internet are such a different and “magical” thing to actually, earnestly, require the imagination of recursive publics. But I might just be a bitter non-geek. :)

David B.

The concept of a recursive public seems really useful. I wonder how Kelty would square this concept with Thomas Hughes isometric technical and social systems, or some of the early SCOT literature. If the technology changes significantly, does the public change just as dramatically? It seems like Kelty would say “yes” given the quote, “A recursive public is a public that is constituted by a shared concern for maintaining the means of association through which they come together as a public.” His insistence that it is the decentralized nature of the technology that allows it to foster this “protestant” ethic. It would have been interesting to see a connection to Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the explicit references to protestantism.

Taylor’s point about performativity is really interesting, and I it pushed me to think about what is actually happening when these geeks are grousing about web standards. I think the key contribution Two Bits makes, is the physicality of a social movement. Which brings me to Morar’s point as well. I don’t think Kelty’s point was that the Internet  is “different and ‘magical’” but that this was a good contemporary case to study the materiality of publics. I think the recursive public could be applied to such non-technoscientific case studies as the loss of an indigenous people’s story-telling rituals, or contemporary art movements.  

What I had a hard time following was his stance on the political leanings of his informants. I didn’t quite understand how his data backs up the following quote, “To many observers, geeks exhibit a perhaps bewildering mix of liberalism, libertarianism, anarchism, idealism, and pragmatism, yet tend to fall firmly into one or another constituted political category (liberal, conservative socialist, capitalist, neoliberal, etc.).” His informants all seem to have taken the “reformist” route of capitalist with a few caveats about solving problems with technological fixes.

Oswalt on the Japanese Otaku and the American Geek: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/12/ff_angrynerd_geekculture/all/1


The Kelty piece is a fascinating look at the development of a particular kind of social network that has at it's core the reproduction and development of itself as a existing body. This is fascinating as a concept because is is different than being a development that exists as a body within or determined by the rules of the existing social arrangement that it comes out of wholy (e.g. the development of 'new' business arrangements that mirror existing norms of capitalism). This is a novel arrangement, this recursive public, and raises a few questions for me about it both as an idea and as a research methodology.

In it of itself, the recursive public seems to be a number of things at once. As a glimmery eyed 'oh look, it's the singularity!' believer myself, I see it as part of the promise of the development of technological development that, while not magical, at least as it's own autonomouss developmental scheme that is equally threatening to those with control and liberatory for those who exist outside of the existing power structure. Coders and geeks in Sub-Saharan Africa have an equal stake in the development of code and a process that works. I won't problematize the educational infrastructure that allows for that involvement here, but I am thinking on it. What I do wonder is that, while it has evaded the first step of capitalist capture, the 'Can I sell it?' drive, to what end does it link into a more liberating form of the production of knowledge? If the idea that it promotes it that if such a reorganization of the power and control of knowledge is possible, in what ways does it seek to open that door to low-tech users/non-computer users?

As a methodology, it is comforting to hear Kelty do a good job of wearing multiple hats in the course of his inquiry (The number of bars he ends up in is comforting as well). As a person who is studying a subject where I see no way to be exclusively researcher or activist, I think he gives some good points about staying in the moment and strangifying what you find yourself in the middle of (e.g. Metal Music, Unix platforms, etc.)

Lastly, to the comment about hackers and recursive publics, I think that Kelty was arguing that some publics can be recursive and that not all will be (or maybe can be). The differentiation then between geek and hacker captures this idea that these are two groups of people that experience some overlap (hackers take part in recursive publics) but they are not the same thing such that a term to distinguish the two becomes different. Hacker can come to mean a number of people acting through the Internet who have no real aim towards maintaining the methods by which the public constitutes itself (I speak as a reformed, nihilist ‘script kiddie’, cracker myself).


(Short comments due to jet lag)

In reading this, I got flashbacks to my undergrad days (1997-2001) because I was unknowingly at ground zero in the Bay Area.  I remember my CS friends espousing the virtues of different browsers, and we used UNIX at Stanford for our email.  I didn’t at the time understand all of the dynamics going on, but I did struggle through some basic C++ programming while my friends were playing with shiny new Java coding.  I remember my friends using “The Geek Code” and I would wonder if I qualified as a “geek,” even though I wasn’t a technogeek like my friends (they reassured me I was merely a different flavor of geek).

  Dan’s comments about the conflict between making money and spreading good ideas is one of the key concepts that resonated with me.  I wonder often if rather than finding ways to make money through existing parasitic methods like advertising, we should find a way to support the work of open-source developers in the way we supported artists.  This expands out to larger questions in society whenever activities that don’t inherently generate revenue are involved, but the history of the open source movement helps to make the need more apparent by showing many of the benefits from shared resources of coding. In light of the concept of recursive publics, the people defining themselves and their activities through their activities are still constrained by the surrounding social paradigms of “capitalism”.  But I think that there may be a way for them to “bust the brackets” around them and potentially redefine how services are compensated - creating an alternative to a profit model for programming design.  

TLA: Three-letter acronym  

ETLA : Extended three-letter acronym

Maybe STS should stop being open-source.


(even shorter comments due to be a slacker)

Kelty rocks. Long live Kelty. More elaborations in class...

Baudrillard (& Paul Virilio) – the virtual bomb - the map of the map – gulf war

Refresh rates of mud vs. code – James Gleik “Faster” – inaccessibility of the material due to the estrangement of the digital

Inability to see the bigger picture requires local self organization?

Social imaginaries - a social and cultural interpretation of the map

Kelty as multisited ethnographer – the difficulty of showing how the map is being made vs. able to see what is being mapped. Participatory research gives the researcher a bit of both?