The Structural Transformation of the Recursive Public Sphere

Christopher Kelty’s book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software offers an anthropological take on a phenomenon often assimilated to the economic or the technical. One of the key concepts in the book is an idea of the “recursive public:”

A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives. Free Software is one instance of this concept, both as it has emerged in the recent past and as it undergoes transformation and differentiation in the near future.

Michael Madison has recognized the importance of groups in “social software,” but the term “public sphere” appears both more expansive and more political than the idea of a group. It reminds me of Habermas’s work on The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which focused on the ways in which new communication technology affected the self-organization and recognition of new spaces of contestation in politics. Habermas’s story is largely one of missed opportunities, where the extraordinary technologies of broadcasting and radio gradually fall into the hands of commercial interests more interested in cultivating consumerism than creative citizenship. (Chopra and Dexter’s critique of the commercialization of many aspects of computer science develops a parallel narrative in the software field.)

Later reflections by Habermas (and works ranging from Pool’s to Benkler’s) have been much more optimistic about internet technologies. The main justification for optimism has been the prevalence of “exit” options on the internet–if the software company enabling your group gets too bossy or prying or commercial, you can always jump ship and try another. But the difficulty of getting your entire group to switch may be the biggest challenge to such exit options. To the extent the group is outwardly directed, it pays for it to ignore “hiccups” (which can gradually accrete into massive invasions of privacy and limits on corporate transparency) and simply “muddle along” using existing the technology it’s always used. Kelty’s work reminds us that, even as new technologies amplify “voice” by allowing millions to connect, we may just be trading old masters for new ones if we fail to demand a voice within online behemoths. Their massiveness is almost dictated by the laws of network power, so exit is not a scalable solution.