Two Bits

The Cultural Significance of Free Software

Two Bits

Experimental Futures

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Book Pages: 400 Illustrations: 10 illustrations, 1 table Published: June 2008

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Science and Technology Studies > History of Technology

In Two Bits, Christopher M. Kelty investigates the history and cultural significance of Free Software, revealing the people and practices that have transformed not only software but also music, film, science, and education. Free Software is a set of practices devoted to the collaborative creation of software source code that is made openly and freely available through an unconventional use of copyright law. Kelty explains how these specific practices have reoriented the relations of power around the creation, dissemination, and authorization of all kinds of knowledge. He also makes an important contribution to discussions of public spheres and social imaginaries by demonstrating how Free Software is a “recursive public”—a public organized around the ability to build, modify, and maintain the very infrastructure that gives it life in the first place.

Drawing on ethnographic research that took him from an Internet healthcare start-up company in Boston to media labs in Berlin to young entrepreneurs in Bangalore, Kelty describes the technologies and the moral vision that bind together hackers, geeks, lawyers, and other Free Software advocates. In each case, he shows how their practices and way of life include not only the sharing of software source code but also ways of conceptualizing openness, writing copyright licenses, coordinating collaboration, and proselytizing. By exploring in detail how these practices came together as the Free Software movement from the 1970s to the 1990s, Kelty also considers how it is possible to understand the new movements emerging from Free Software: projects such as Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that creates copyright licenses, and Connexions, a project to create an online scholarly textbook commons.


Two Bits is an interdisciplinary hybrid: part theory, part ethnography, part history. It was not written for historians of technology, but it constructs an engaging history of free software that will appeal to readers interested in the history of computing and, more broadly, in the collaborative aspects of technological systems. . . . I liked this book more and more every time I picked it up. . . . The materiality of Two Bits underscores Kelty’s conversion to the experimental dogma of free software: it is printed in an open-source font, and the text is available to be downloaded for free and ‘modulated’ at” — Andrew L. Russell, Technology and Culture

Two Bits is only partly about geeks, code, technology, or software. It’s also about the cultural significance of those elements and how they’ve influenced, and will continue to impact, the ways people work, organize, collaborate, and even think. . . . Kelty’s fine book provides an anthropological basis to investigate our own practices and community.” — Kevin M. Ford, College and Research Libraries

“[A] dense and rich book. . . . I can heartily recommend it to anyone who finds some of the ideas on this blog vaguely amusing: it's the work of a kindred spirit.” — Glyn Moody, Open . . . blog

“[A] superb ethnography. . . . [S]imultaneously the best anthropology monograph and the most important book on information technology of the year, if not the decade.” — C. S. Peebles, Choice

“[A] very good discussion and well worth pursuing.” — Ehud Lamm, Lambda the Ultimate blog

“[W]ill fascinate and surprise even those geeks with a relatively deep historical sense of this world. . . .” — Gabriella Coleman, Interprete blog

“Christopher Kelty's Two Bits is excellent -- it brings detailed ethnographic material combined with complex conceptual innovations all in relation to a phenomenon of major and increasing significance in the world that has so far been little studied in academia. . . . Two Bits is a key intervention into and contribution to analysis of the socially and culturally important field of Free Software and more generally to Internet Studies and social theory.” — Tim Jordan, Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies

“The significance of this book is wider than its subtitle might at first suggest. Its ethnographic focus, so-called ‘free software’, will likely be exotic to many readers. But what the book offers is a remarkable perspective on the wider computing infrastructure that has found its way nearly everywhere over the past decades. . . . This is a rare, richly detailed social science account of an important technology’s history. . . . Overall the book will likely appeal to a broad audience, and it will be difficult to ignore in fields of study focused on media, science, and technology, and globalization and change, in any way involving the Internet.” — Jens Kjaerulff, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“[A] closely argued, well-defended, painstakingly referenced treatise covering one of the most complex, and possibly least understood, cultural movements of recent decades. . . . [D]eeply engaging.” — John Gilbey, Times Higher Education

“[R]ich with empirical insight and exceptionally well written, Two Bits is delightful to read. I recommend the book to readers interested in open source, technology, and social change. . . .” — Zack Kertcher, American Journal of Sociology

“Considering the scope of the subject matter, the book is not especially steeped in technical jargon, and is therefore highly readable for a wide and varied audience. Contrary to first impression this book is not specifically directed towards geeks, software code authors, or other computer nerds, although these individuals will find the book informative and inspiring. It also should be read by all those who have positions of influence such as teachers, cultural studies academics, government decision/policy makers and of course members of the legal profession.” — Rob Harle, Leonardo Reviews

“I think Kelty’s book deserves a wide readership — especially among nerds trying to make sense of the past decade, let alone to prepare for the next one.” — Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

“In this study of the Free Software/Open Source movement, Christopher Kelty provides a fascinating look into a world that may initially seem arcane to those outside the field, but which illuminates many connections between ‘geek’ culture and the wider world as well. . . . In a moment marked by Wikipedia and Facebook, new connections and forms are emerging every day. Two Bits reaches beyond the technicalities of the Free Software movement to help provide productive ways to think about these non-traditional communities as they are only beginning to imagine themselves.” — Erica A. Farmer, Anthropological Quarterly

“It would be a great pity indeed if anthropologists, assuming they have no interest in software development, were to ignore the subtitle of this book. Because ‘the cultural significance of free software’ takes to heart matters of concern to all anthropologists. . . . They would miss a book that has as much to contribute to the anthropology of law as to the anthropology of religion, both much enhanced by the unusual perspective that emerges from software development. They would also miss a good read.” — Daniel Miller, American Anthropologist

Two Bits describes the way those who work and play with Free Software themselves change in the process—engendering what Kelty calls ‘recursive publics’—social configurations that realize the Internet’s non-hierarchical, ever-evolving, and thus historically attuned logic, creatively updating the types of public spheres previously theorized by Habermas and Michael Warner, among others. Two Bits does something similar, pulling readers into an experimental (ethnographic) mode that draws out how Open Source movements have garnered the momentum and significance they have today. The book—on paper and online—quite literally shows how it is done, itself embodying the standards that make Free Software work. Two Bits is critical reading, in all senses.” — Kim Fortun, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“I know of no other book that mixes so beautifully a deep theoretical understanding of social theory with a rich historical and contemporary ethnography of the Free Software and free culture movements. Christopher M. Kelty’s book speaks to many audiences; his message should be understood by many more.” — Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Law School


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Christopher M. Kelty is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

Part I. The Internet

1. Geeks and Recursive Publics 27

2. Protestant Reformers, Polymaths, Transhumanists 64

Part II. Free Software

3. The Movement 97

4. Sharing Source Code 118

5. Conceiving Open Systems 143

6. Writing Copyright Licenses 179

7. Coordinating Collaborations 210

Part III. Modulations

8. "If We Succeed, We Will Disappear" 243

9. Reuse, Modification, and the Nonexistence of Norms 269

Conclusion: The Cultural Consequences of Free Software 301

Notes 311

Bibliography 349

Index 367
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Honorable Mention, 2009 Gregory Bateson Prize, Society for Cultural Anthropology

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4264-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4242-7
Publicity material