Free Software is good to think with…

How does one re-mix scholarship? One of the central questions of this book is how Free Software and Free Culture think about re-using, re-mixing, modifying and otherwise building on the work of others. It seems obvious that the same question should be asked of scholarship. Indeed the idea that scholarship is cumulative and builds on the work of others is a bit of a platitude even. But how?

Is it obvious how scholarship builds on the work of others? Is such re-use unlimited, heterogenous, irrational? Are we literally re-mixing each other’s work? Or are we engaging in peer production? Or are we just clickworkers for the Man?

I think Free Software is “good to think with” in the classic anthropological sense.  Part of the goal of launching Two Bits has been to experiment with “modulations” of the book–and of scholarship more generally–a subject discussed at length in the text. Free Software has provided a template, and a kind of inspiration for people to experiment with new modes of reuse, remixing, modulating and transducing collaboratively created objects.

As such, “Modulations” is a project, concurrent with the book, but not necessarily based on it, which is intended to explore the questions raised there, but in other works, with and by other scholars, a network of researchers and projects on free and open source software, on “recursive publics,” on publics and public sphere theory generally, and on new projects and problems confronted by Free Software and its practices…

Modulations are coming.


[...] 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 [...]

Two Bits » Blog Archive » It’s a book! Two Bits on Jun 06 08 at 2:41 pm

[...] 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 [...]

Kelty on the Culture of Publishing « another anthro blog on Jun 11 08 at 4:41 am

[...] to the book, blog them or use the comment system over at–we’re all about modulation here at the 2-Bit Processor Project.  Any reactions to my interpretation/modulation are more than [...]

My Contribution to the 2-Bit Processor Project, Installment I: The Preface/Introduction « Machinations on Jun 28 08 at 5:13 am

[...] and one conclusion. One section per week. Compose and comment and collaborate. Chris calls this modulation (I call it awesome). Hopefully our endeavor will succeed more fully than a two-bit processor would [...]

Two Bits Processor Project: A New Hope « Quotidianity on Jun 30 08 at 5:30 am

[...] only is the book available free online there; Kelty has also set up a section of the site called “modulate.” Kelty describes this section like this: As such, “Modulations” is a project, concurrent with [...] » Another book for my pile/for English 516: Two Bits on Jul 16 08 at 11:53 am

[...] website, One can read the book online, comment on its various chapters, and “modulate” with it – use it in small chunks to create new scholarship. Kelty uses the concepts of re-mix [...]

Scholarly Communications @ Duke » Irrational publishing and recursive publics on Jul 31 08 at 6:10 pm

“How does one re-mix scholarship?” Kelty’s framing of the question, drawing on the vocabulary of contemporary DJing and electronic musicking, is arresting to me because it straightaway directs attention to the materialities, media, and metaphors that organize cultural production. Think of Kelty’s “remix” keyword in the frame of ethnographic representation. What would a remixed ethnography be like? Departing from Geertz’s notion that ethnographies deliver interpretations of culture as a text, moving away from Clifford’s notion of culture as a set of differently positioned “voices” in contestation, ethnography as remix seems to me to foreground ethnographic representation as technology.

To be sure, scholarship in a variety of fields has experimented with the techno remix idiom. Avital Ronell’s Telephone Book — a mash-up of bookish conventions and telephonic aesthetics — springs immediately to mind. Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter is populated by lengthy samples — pages long — of other writers’ work, samples that carry Kittler’s argument for him, in the mouths of others. Chris Kelty’s Two Bits as book and website clicks such strategies into our digital days, to ask what difference two bits make. This is all a way of saying that I’m keen to follow how the “Modulations” feature of this website (Modulations, by the way, fittingly, was also the title of a 1998 documentary about electronic music) might not only offer applications of Kelty’s concept of the “recursive public” to other domains, but might also provide pointers to ways to transform and deform the form of ethnography online.

Stefan Helmreich on Jun 10 08 at 4:47 pm


Christopher Kelty on Jun 10 08 at 6:15 pm

Chris, Stephan, et. al.

I’m totally up for Chris’s call to re-mix. Kavita and I have also been playing with the idea of “re-mix” at the Red Technopolitics blog. Re-mixing not only has the music/technical edge to it, but also genealogies of baking, and of course, all sorts of alchemical vats and contemporary reactors. I particularly liked your formulation as re-mixing genres/modes of communication/thinking — book, blog, scholarship, etc. This historian in me can’t help but think the re-mix as genealogical, as inheretances (reproductions) undergoing messy redistribution.

stirring it up,

Michelle Murphy on Jun 11 08 at 5:30 am

Richard Stallman does not like the phrase “content” and avoids the use of the term “content management system.” He says “That usage adopts a specific attitude towards those works: that they are an interchangeable commodity whose purpose is to fill a box and make money. In effect, it treats the works themselves with disrespect.”

I think in many ways “module” can have a similar effect. It’s just something that fills a box. I don’t want to think of my code, or even my functions, or libraries as modules. They are functional, but they are also something I’m proud of. When I write educational works, I don’t want to think of them as mere modules, either. And if I were to draft legislation or legal code, I think I would feel similarly. It’s hard work, and it takes a mix of art, craft, and logic to create functional works that you are proud enough to share with others.

As such, much care should taken when we talk about those works. If we ask people to create modules for us, they probably won’t, because they will feel like they just us to toss some dirt in a whole that needs to be filled. So when we advertise our desire for people to jump in to put their time, energy, and imagination to join us to make some text, or music, or video, or code, we should talk about what we are striving for. That we are going to make things other people are going to want to use, because it’s awesome. And we are going to make it in a form that others can make it even more awesome and unique and different.

We can be good salespeople. We can communicate in a way that understands the psychology of the reader and feeds into and garners and directs their unique talents, energies, and ideas. And we can do so in a way that promotes kinship and mindfulness.

Here’s an idea. When we advertise to people that we want their help, we should try to choose language that is gemeinschaft* in nature. When we need to get into details, like how patches are submitted, or other things, we can delve into the more contractual language, that is, in a sense, gesellschaft* in nature. (*

Coordinating collaborations is a hard problem, but, I think it should motivated first by the movement, and secondly by the idea of sharing, and lastly by the idea of how to effectively share, and then the details of ensuring that the works can be preserved socially and legally. A phrase like “module,” seems like a legal abstraction, so far removed from the work and the individual — perhaps best left as a formal language hidden away inside of documents.

Joshua Gay on Jun 26 08 at 7:13 pm

Josh… good points, I agree that module can have that implication, and I’ve often thought that, in the connexions project, it doesn’t work to call the chunks modules, for precisely the reasons you meantion. I think modularity is a powerful idea, but it’s only powerful when people can see how modularity creates something that is more than the sum of its parts, such as the EMACS text editor or the Apache Web server. Stallman might prefer the term “extensible” since it implies that every modular part is an extension for some purpose, rather than just a cog, all of which are identical. But “extensions” also does not communicate what a module is. I’ve always been partial to words like “chunk” “chunklet” because they are more playful and have a wider semantic interpretation.

I’m not sure whether you are responding to “modulations” here, but the words modulate and module are actually very different words. They share a Latin root (modulus) which means ‘measure’ but the former is most often used in music, and in the 20th century, to modulate signals; whereas the latter is more general in its sense of a measure of something, and has a range of meanings in different domains. I obviously think the term modulation, with its connotations of music making and clever manipulation of signals speaks to the kinds of fears you mention…

Christopher Kelty on Jun 26 08 at 8:25 pm

Congratulations, Chris, on all the great attentionto your book. I’ve blogged about it again on the HASTAC site and we’ll be doing another mailing soon and be giving the book some homepage real estate there. HASTAC’s interest in the Free Software movement is not only as fellow traveler but as a network interested in what the hidden costs of the “free” are to nonprofits and others who are scraping by in the Neoliberal economies of the world and all its configurations. John Seely Brown reminded me after one of my recent talks on what I call “DIY” and “DIFT” (Do-It-For-Them) appropriations of the DIY that the original WWW was assuming that there would be large subsidies to the infrastructure of the web as a public good. The Information Superhighway idea is now a Digital Tollroad. Creative Commons, the Free Software movement and others are fighting hard to keep information free. But it is sometimes at a cost and because of the incredible dedication and devotion of lots of people behind the scenes, whose labor is invisible on the consumer end of the “free” movement spectrum. GREAT book! Congratulations again. We’re really proud to be part of this, Chris.

Cathy Davidson on Jul 02 08 at 11:58 am

I just noticed that this book is out.
will read with interest.have a look at my SSRN page for my recent work on
open source, traditional knowledge
krishna ravi srinivas

krishna ravi srinivas on Jul 05 08 at 11:21 am

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