It’s a book! Two Bits

So I have an announcement: I have written, and published, A Book. I know that Savage Minds readers harbor the suspicion that we are all just doing this gig until someone pulls the curtain back and we have to dust off our barista aprons and work for a living, but I am actually in this for the long haul… The book is called Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, and it is produced by the punkrockingest press ever, Duke University Press. It is now available for purchase, for download and for derivation and remixing. Two Bits Cover

I am extremely happy to finally be able to announce its arrival. I’m also happy to announce that it is part of a series edited by Michael M.J. Fischer and Joe Dumit called “Experimental Futures” of which Jeff Juris’ excellent book Networking Futures: The Movements against Corporate Globalization is also a part. And as well to thank HASTAC for helping out in its publication and in marketing it as well.

Two Bits has taken a long time, and it’s a better book for that. In some ways, it is untimely: the moment of Free Software is over– both the media and many of the scholars who focused so much attention on it starting in about 2000 seem to have moved on to some other next big thing. This is a shame, but predictable given the drive for novelty and for being first in academia. But I think (and I will throw modesty to the wind here) that anthropology has a tack on such things that is slower, more coherent, and more concerned with a certain precision in charting historical changes. I like to think that the book isn’t only about free software, but an anthropology of knowledge circulation more generally, and I hope that it interests even those who are too cool for old school.

Obviously I hope that others think the same thing, and I expect people to read it in light of the current peak of interest in web 2.0, social networking and internet celebrities, or whatever, which might be usefully re-thought through the lens of Free Software. And maybe it might just convince a few people, scholars especially, that the moment of Free Software is definitely not over, and that there is some really incredible scholarship out there by people like Gabriella Coleman, Matt Ratto, Shay David, Casey O’Donell, Jelena Karanovic, Anita Chan, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, Jenny Cool, Allison Fish, David Hakken and Karl Hakken, Jeff Juris (my labelmate!), Bernhard Krieger, Karim Lakhani, James Leach, Siobhan O’Mahoney, Greg Vetter and many others on these topics. Like the scholarship emerging on gaming (with Rex representing), that on Free Software constitutes a major locus of scholarly concern and questioning that should be the basis for understanding much of the recent past and near future.

Having been through the process of publishing a book, like oneman, I wish we could publish our books faster, and try to merge some of the timely but ill-considered insight of the blog-form with the deliberate and peer-reviewed caution of the book-form… but I’m nonetheless a committed modernist in that I think the book-form has a quality that no other form of communication has, and it has taken centuries for that quality to develop. Nonetheless, nothing lasts forever, and since this is a book about software, there are a few special things that I want readers to know about this book:

  • the book is licensed under a Creative Commons (by-nc-sa) license, and is therefore freely available for circulation and modulation. Duke generously permitted me to do this both because I (and the audiences of the book) expect it, and also because I think it is a good experiment (I’d have preferred to drop the non-commercial restriction, but it’s obviously understandable why Duke might want it). I’m convinced, the way Cory Doctorow is, that we can sell books and give them away. And though it is impossible to know how many copies the book might have sold without this decision, I’m convinced it will sell as many and more (and for those wondering, the reasonable expectations in our little corner of the world are more on the order of one or two thousand, not tens or hundreds of thousands in Doctorow’s case). For me, as a teacher and a scholar, openly licensing the book is primarily a way of getting it in front of people the way it used to get in front of you in a bookstore. If you are serious about the book, you’ll probably buy it, but if you aren’t you might a) read a bit anyways, and b) not be angry that you bought it and don’t like it. In either case: bottoms up to Duke University Press for taking the risk.
  • The book is online in pdf form, but I also created a site using the Institute for The Future of The Book’s “comment press” template for Word Press. I think the IFB is the bionic bees knees, and I’m keen to see people use this version as a place to discuss the book, both as individual readers, and for classes (btw, Jonathan Zittrain’s book is also in IFB format, and they would make great reading together… hint hint to those organizing reading circles). I like to think that this is a first step towards producing living books, books that modify and modulate, books that respond and transform, but without sacrificing the kinds of permanence and scholarly apparatus that we value. Thanks in no small part to some work by people at Achorn International (Joel Ibarra) and IFB, the online version is correlated with the print version by page number, and includes all the notes and references as well. Adding and updating links is also something that this renders possible.
  • The book is beautiful. Duke (and in particular Cherie Westmoreland) did a fantastic job. The font is an open source font (Charis SIL), the cover is combination of a painting from the Boston Public Library by the 19th century symbolist painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes depicting the telegraph (and called colloquially “Good News, Bad News”) and a Hollerith punch card. And here’s a reason to choose a short title: the spine has the title written perpendicular to, not parallel with the length of the book. Minor, I know, but how cool is that?
  • Last but not least, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of “re-mixing” a scholarly work. Various works on the Internet and free software have experimented with this… Lessig’s Code V2, Benkler’s Wealth of Nations as well as others, scholarly and not. However, I’m not so sure it’s clear what remixing means in scholarly terms. I’d love it if people want to translate parts of it, or transform it for other media (anyone interested in doing a version for the Wii contact me immediately), but those are explorations of the form, and not the content of the book… so what would remixing scholarly work really mean? One thing I hope it means, in the social and human sciences especially, is that we contribute to a shared collection of conceptual tools that are refined by confrontation with empirical reality. Two Bits contains a couple such concepts (recursive publics, usable pasts) as well as contributing more generally to research on the public sphere, on the meaning of making things and making things public, as well as a substantive field of work focusing on software, networks, geeks, hackers, entrepreneurs, intellectual property and so forth. So one key aspect of the future of this book is a project I’m calling “Modulations” for short, which is an attempt to think about not just these concepts and problems in particular, but the modes and manners in which we interact as scholars around the development, refinement and co-ownership of such concepts. I don’t really know what this means yet, but I’m looking for anyone with ideas.

Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

12 thoughts on “It’s a book! Two Bits

  1. I suppose I should have set up a paypal acccount to let people pay two bits for two bits… doh.. what was I thinking!

  2. Chris–
    this looks awesome, and it looks like i will teach parts of it in the fall. do you know if the juris book is available for download in any form? i am teaching (a series of classes in english) in francophone w. africa, and you can might imagine the pressures this puts on materials.

    best wishes and congratulations for your book,


  3. I would love to see a further study, if its possible on expanding your idea, to lower cost (almost free) higher education. With modern software availability, there is no reason why higher education should not be free to all those who want it. The more educated as a society, the higher the standard of living. Yet no one is addressing this issue. We see smatterings of this on youtube, but with the available technology being so cheap, why is not usefull higher education free, when a high school degree is nearly worthless in our economy? This is not to say if you can afford it, you get it free, there is a supply and demand issue, but really, this issue needs to be addressed.

    Just a thought.

  4. gretchen… that’s great news, let me know if any of your students want to translate parts of the book 🙂

    I don’t think Juris’ book was released under the same license, but I’m sure that Duke would be willing to consider ways to make it available for use in W. africa. That’s just one super obvious argument for open access.

    and teal: chapters 8 and 9 of the book are about exactly what you mention, a project called Connexions whose goal is to make higher education teaching materials freely available.

  5. Congratulations and thanks for making it available online – I also have problems getting hold of all the books I need here in Malaysia.

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