Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software
This is a book about Free Software, also known as Open Source Software, and is meant for anyone who wants to understand the cultural significance of Free Software. Two Bits explains how Free Software works and how it emerged in tandem with the Internet as both a technical and a social form. Understanding Free Software in detail is the best way to understand many contentious and confusing changes related to the Internet, to ‘commons,’ to software, and to networks.
Whether you think first of e-mail, Napster, Wikipedia, MySpace, or Flickr; whether you think of the proliferation of databases, identity thieves, and privacy concerns; whether you think of traditional knowledge, patents on genes, the death of scholarly publishing, or compulsory licensing of AIDS medicine; whether you think of MoveOn.org or net neutrality or YouTube’the issues raised by these phenomena can be better understood by looking carefully at the emergence of Free Software.
Why? Because it is in Free Software and its history that the issues raised-from intellectual property and piracy to online political advocacy and ‘social’ software-were first figured out and confronted. Free Software’s roots stretch back to the 1970s and crisscross the histories of the personal computer and the Internet, the peaks and troughs of the information-technology and software industries, the transformation of intellectual property law, the innovation of organizations and ‘virtual’ collaboration, and the rise of networked social movements.
Free Software does not explain why these various changes have occurred, but rather how individuals and groups are responding: by creating new things, new practices, and new forms of life. It is these practices and forms of life-not the software itself’that are most significant, and they have in turn served as templates that others can use and transform: practices of sharing source code, conceptualizing openness, writing copyright (and copyleft) licenses, coordinating collaboration, and proselytizing for all of the above. There are explanations aplenty for why things are the way they are: it’s globalization, it’s the network society, it’s an ideology of transparency, it’s the virtualization of work, it’s the new flat earth, it’s Empire. We are drowning in the why, both popular and scholarly, but starving for the how.