Saturday, June 28, 2008

Amusement Park Windmill: Week 1 of The Two Bits Processor Project

The Old Mill, Luna Park, Coney Island, N. Y. Postcard from the New York Public Library Digital Images Gallery.

"What geeks may lack in social adroitness, they make up for in archival hubris."
-Chris Kelty, Two Bits

"I am not a nerd. I refuse to revert to my natural state."
-Me as an eighth-grader, in a "fictional" story titled "They're After Me"

* * *

It's Week 1 of the Two Bits Processor Project, and it's time to have something to say. After some freakishly thoughtful and thorough posts from fellow processors Tim, Christina, Michael, and Alex, it's hard to know where to start. But we're going to go ahead and start anyway.

On the phone with Christina the other night, I plotted this post. "It's going to be about my complicated relationship with being a geek," I told her. "And also about how in the world I got involved with Free Culture last year." It was a good plot, but I think it's not what I'm going to do. After all, the second excerpt above tells you just about everything you need to know about the first part, namely:

The relationship. It was complicated.

As for the second part, that's maybe a little bit more timely. As the five of us embark on reading Chris Kelty's new anthropological adventure into "the cultural significance of Free Software," Two Bits, a brief explanation of my ties to Free Culture might be in order.

Last year, as part of my Internet Immersion Project, I started reading a certain blog called BoingBoing on a daily basis. Okay. Minutely. I liked that it was a weird mix of international frippery, internet memes, and steampunk catalog. Needless to say, at some point during this past school year I stopped reading BoingBoing. The volume of posts was absurd, for one thing; for another, I became slightly suspicious of The Internet According to BoingBoing. But. Before this happened, something else happened. And that something was my induction into the culture of Free Culture.

BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow is a big proponent of Free Culture, as formulated by Lawrence Lessig. Creative Commons, the legitimization of remix, the sharing of artistic production: these are all things that people who support Free Culture tend to believe in. In between all the frivolity, Doctorow injects a healthy dose of Free Culture advocacy into his blogging routine. Over the course of last spring, I managed to absorb an awful lot of information about the politics and pertinence of Free Culture. Creative Commons, the legitimization of remix, the sharing of artistic production: these are things I started to believe in, too.

So, I did what any new believer does: I joined a mailing list. The Harvard Free Culture mailing list. It was low-volume, but it did convince me that there were plenty of people at my school who were thinking about these things. Probably, thinking about them way more than I ever had. Fall came, school started, and my suspicions were confirmed. In the muffled hallway of a half-abandoned student center, I asked Tim (someone I barely knew, back then) whether I should join the club. The answer was not no.

Harvard Free Culture introduced me to almost everyone I now know, in one way or another. Halfway through the fall, a subset of HFC turned its attention to a small event you might have heard of, called ROFLCon. I was part of that subset. As such, I feel like my induction to Free Culture was snapped off at the fragile beginning: there's plenty I still don't know. While it felt exhilarating and mischievous to bury a Zune and an iPod at last month's Zuneral, I never quite stamped out the hypocrisy: how many iPods do I have? More than one. I never even got far enough into understanding Free Culture to decide whether or not I personally needed to "stamp out the hypocrisy" on principle. What I do know is that I found more talented and driven people through Free Culture than I ever could have dreamed. For that reason, it is something I still believe in. Anything that attracts that force of gracious dedication is something worth keeping around.

* * *

In Chris Kelty's Two Bits, the "cultural significance" of the Free Software movement ends up having a lot to do with the publics that coalesce around it. In Kelty's introduction, two things caught my attention right away: his formulation of geekdom, and his definition of "recursive publics." Christina already wrote quite beautifully about the cultural reclamation and consequent popularization/sanitization of the term "geek." The geek aesthetic, or even mindset, is something that can be worn like a fashion. Maybe.

This dilemma reminds me of something my friend MacArthur once said about Seattle: "I hate hipsters. But I love all the trappings of hipsterdom." As with hipsters, so with geeks: there's a way to access the trappings without espousing the identity. But I think Christina's point stands. It's not that we have some rarified "genuine" hard core of geeks, attended by a periphery of wannabes. That would be weird. But the recursiveness of contemporary geekdom is somewhat precarious. If you just accept geek culture without contributing to its production, or enhancing its reflexivity, or cataloging its existence in excrutiating detail, then: are you in or are you out? Are you part of the recursive public that continuously redefines itself as a condition for its existence, or are you a consumer of that public's identity? If the continuous redefinition of those identities is sent out in daily listserv digests, or a weekly batch of RSS feeds, then do those identities become things you can subscribe to?

"Lurk moar," the snide entreaty goes. Lurking in the definitional space of a community—say, a listserv, or an IRC channel, or some other medium—has the advantage of introducing a novice to all the levels of recursion. I certainly absorbed a sense of that recursive complexity when I attended a certain Free Software Day last fall, lurking in three dimensions. (Incidentally, I met Christina for the first time that day, and Tim for the first time that didn't involve anarchy and red jumpsuits. I am glad I did not lurk forever.) Maybe it's not that every geek—Free Software or otherwise—has to participate actively in the process of continuous definition, in order to be the genuine article. Maybe it's just that they need to care. The willingness to lurk is the willingness to be bombarded with the dull but crucial details of text-based arguments and endless email threads, and to admit through your passive reading that—at some level—the results matter to you.

* * *

I have a lot more to say about "archival hubris," and there's plenty more to say about Kelty's introduction. However, since it was an introduction, after all, I trust that it prefigures thought-provoking excellence to come. I'm going into this book eager to see what Kelty does with the ethnography of geekery; to witness his up-to-the-minute anthropological methods in action; and to talk on a weekly basis with four of my closest friends about all that and the rest of it, too.


Tim Hwang said...

"This dilemma reminds me of something my friend MacArthur once said about Seattle: "I hate hipsters. But I love all the trappings of hipsterdom." As with hipsters, so with geeks: there's a way to access the trappings without espousing the identity.

I think this comparison is awesome. In some senses, the sense of an assured "cool" identity and established peer group is alluring about any subculture, its very nature as set of traits carving out the boundaries of an exclusive group are at the same time repulsive.

The unique difference with Free Software, I think, is that the posers and outsiders have a freakish regular talent for eating the Cool (relatively speaking) Kids' lunch.

Consider Lessig -- who in some sense could be a total poser in the Free Software world (he essentially voiced an agenda that was an old hat issue in the coding world). Or otherwise Doctrow, who seems largely outside on the "original" Free Software battles per se and focuses his attention most on upstart Free Culture concerns. Both have amassed huge power in the original geek community, and formed new ones as well.

I dunno, I'm still debating whether or not this is something unique to Free Software as a cultural movement. If so, I wonder whether the nature of Free Software being a recursive public has anything to do with it...

Christina said...

I think I failed to convey the basic essence of my interest in this "what is geekery" problem in my post, but you managed to reach it anyway in your post!

That is, I was interested not just in "are you in or are you out," but just what these outsiders can do to impact the inside: which is, in short, participation through caring. But not just caring. Because the arenas of general geekdom inevitably engage "core topics", these outlier geeks engage in conversation and even pass judgment on new developments in the core. Furthermore, to people outside the geek world, any geek represents every geek in some sense, which means that the outliers are also granted powers of reinterpretation and transmission. This, IMO, gives them a lot of power...

Just some clarifications. Or not?? I don't know. Thanks for the postcard!!

Tim Hwang said...

True! One thing I've noticed that the entire geek culture "industry" as such spawns a whole other subculture of people who are popularizers, promoters, pundits, entrepreneurs, and blowhards that appropriate geekdom for their own ends. They definitely serve an important purpose in acting as an interface, but I wonder about the extent to which the groups are in conflict/support with one another...thoughts?

sfpoet said...

Geek used to mean "Nerds with social skills" in the age of Geek Houses which has died out more than a decade ago. The battle is still the same: Who vs. what. If we are asking *what* is a geek then all the "sciences" or objectifications of humanity are at our service. If we are asking *who*, then that provides a horizon for encountering the Other, and maybe the gods will answer us.