Culture's Open Sources: Software, Copyright, and Cultural Critique

By Kelty, Christopher M. | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Culture's Open Sources: Software, Copyright, and Cultural Critique


Kelty, Christopher M., Anthropological Quarterly


Over the last two decades, there has emerged a practice of software programming and distribution which, when combined with novel uses of intellectual property law, has come to be known as "free software" or "open source software." It is distinguished from other forms and practices of software production for many reasons, but most interestingly because its practitioners discuss it not simply in technical terms, but as a philosophy, a politics,. a critique, a social movement, a revolution, or even a "way of life." For practitioners, observers, and advocates who have been drawn into this net of zeitgeisty claims, it seems to offer an answer to the 21st century question of how we should live-or at least, how we should promise, share, code, hack, license, lawyer, organize, buy, sell, own, sing, play, or write. More recently, such talk has broken free of its connection to software and become common amongst artists, writers, scientists, NGOs, and activists. It has provided them with not only a new rhetoric, but a new set of practices concerning authorship, ownership, expression, speech, law, politics, and technology.

These papers are short pieces that represent new anthropological research on these phenomena in widely disparate social spaces and global locations.1 They are meant to provoke anthropologists (even those who might be utterly indifferent to information technology) to pay attention to arcane technical and legal issues and see them as no more or less arcane, and indeed no more or less cultural than those of the Kwakiutl, the Yanomami, or the Trobrianders. Anthropologists' interest might be piqued, for instance, by the widespread talk of "gift economies" amongst computer geeks or the extensive debates about private ownership, public domains, and collectively managed commons, or the somewhat contorted versions of the classical anthropological concepts of landtenure, collaborative stewardship, political representation, formal and informal norm systems, resistance and domination, partially digested economic and evolutionary theories, and a great deal of talk of culture itself.

Or, one might find compelling the portentous discussions of intellectual property, free speech, and its relationship to technology, music downloading and its discontents, the transparency of governments, the endlessly diverse forms of intellectual property, and more generally, the increasingly everyday experience of living in multiple technically-mediated worlds in which intellectual property and software are densely intertwingled with basic activities like dating, creating, and political agitating. As these papers demonstrate, the people and practices analyzed here have significant relevance to many large and small theoretical issues long of interest in anthropology and social theory more generally.

Two broad concerns connect the projects of these papers: site and critique. First, the question of field-site has dominated discussions of late 20th century anthropology, both because of changed conditions in the world that render home and away grayer than ever before, and through a concern with methodological innovation in the very process of going, staying, participating and returning. Research into "cyber-culture," "online communities," or "virtual worlds" has promised much, but produced little that could fairly be called exemplary long-term, detailed, and careful qualitative research into the practices ostensibly denoted by these once alluring words, much less any single method for doing so. Most work in these areas tend to be either grand philosophical ruminations on "information society" or else detailed expositions of the subjectivity and computing practices of cyber-culture scholars. To be fair, such attempts may be necessary prolegomena to any careful delineation of the questions that might guide method in these areas-and given the speed and insanity with which the technologies and practices of cyber-culture have been trumpeted, marketed, distributed, embraced, upgraded, outdated, rejected, and denounced, it is certainly no surprise that scholarly deliberation on the precise nature of the conceptual problems specific to cultural and social analysis has been left in the lurch. …

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