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Do It Yourself

Christopher Kelty examines the ideas behind free software
October 20, 2008

The free-software movement is devoted to making the source code of computer programs available to anyone, at no charge, so that the programs can be collaboratively modified and improved. But understanding how free software (or its close cousin, open-source software) is created and maintained can be life-changing even for people who will never write code, says ­Christopher Kelty, PhD ‘00, an associate professor at the Center for Society and Genetics and the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. In his book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, Kelty writes, “People–even (or, perhaps, especially) those who do not consider themselves programmers, hackers, geeks, or technophiles–come out of the experience with something like religion, because Free Software is all about the practices, not about the ideologies and goals that swirl on its surface.” The free-software community, Kelty says, consists of people who come together to build practical alternatives to the status quo–and to maintain, improve, and share them. Some have devoted countless hours to building the Linux operating system and then freely distributing it so that others can use it, understand it, and modify it to suit their needs. Kelty thinks that anyone who understands this process will wonder how to create similar communities elsewhere–around “movies, music, science or medicine, civil society, and education,” he writes.

Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software
By Christopher Kelty, PhD ’00
Duke University Press, 2008, $23.95

Kelty’s own “religious” experience came while he was working on his PhD through the MIT Program in Science, Tech­nology, and ­Society in the late 1990s. For his dissertation, he followed the teleradiology startup ­Amicas, then run by Sean Doyle ‘83 and Adrian ­Gropper ‘74; in the process, he got caught up in the appreciation for open standards and free software that drove the founders to push for using Internet standards in medical systems, rather than using proprietary systems. While Kelty had always wanted to be able to hack software, he’d also believed he needed a computer science degree to do so. “When I discovered free software,” he says, “I realized, ‘Oh my God, I could actually sit down and look at this and learn the entire thing on my own, by communicating with the people who created it.’”

But Kelty became a hacker of culture, not software. At Rice University, where he was an assistant professor of anthropology until earlier this year, he participated in the Connexions project, working to create a community of people who write educational materials, share them freely, and build on and repackage each other’s work. He also helped write licenses for Creative Commons, an organization that extends the practices of free software to visual art, music, and writing. Like free-software licenses, many Creative Commons licenses protect users’ rights to modify and share creative work.

Two Bits “is a chance to articulate how the culture of free software is significant,” Kelty says. “Not just the mechanics of how does it work, but what does it mean?” He says people could use his book to apply practices common to free software elsewhere.

The book is available free at Twobits.net, where readers are invited to transform it as they see fit.

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