The Way I See It — Burn my book (and rip and mix it, too): Adding your two cents to ‘Two Bits’

Burn my book (and rip and mix it, too):
Adding your two cents to ‘Two Bits’

Special to the Rice News

It’s a great feeling to know that my first book, “Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software,” is finally published and in bookstores. But it’s an even better feeling to know that it is freely available online, for download, for teaching, for reading, for ripping, mixing, burning and whatever else anyone can imagine doing with it (


The reason I’m so excited about this is that “Two Bits” isn’t just a book; it’s an experiment, and the more people who participate, the better. The book is about “free software” (aka “open source” software) and in particular about the cultural and historical significance of this phenomenon. Much of the book is about how people have discovered free software, and then remixed the ideas in other media and other projects, like Rice University’s own Connexions project (, which I discuss in the book. In many ways, the book is just such a remix — and making it freely available is a way of demonstrating how and why free software is important.

From the very start of the publication process with Duke University Press, I discussed ideas of “modulating” the book, which is a key aspect of the text itself. What are modulations? To begin with, they might be articles, essays or student papers and projects that make use of, take issue with or expand on “Two Bits” itself. Modulating uses the practices of free software, which are “good to think with” and provide us with ways to change how our own scholarship is written, read, published, circulated and built upon. The idea is related to “remixing” experiments, like Larry Lessig’s “Code V2” wiki ( and Yochai Benkler’s wiki version of his book “The Wealth of Networks” ( However, my primary interest here is just what it might mean to “remix scholarship” — and beyond just my own book.

In the book, I try to explain why some of the practices that work in free software won’t work in other domains — so remixing music or movies doesn’t work the same way remixing and reusing software does, even if there is a strong family resemblance. By the same token, I think the idea of remixing or modulating scholarship is one that can benefit from thinking carefully about how it is done in other domains, like free software or Connexions.

Duke University Press agreed and helped to launch the related site, which is devoted to this experiment in modulating scholarly knowledge. I welcome any work on free software, public spheres and recursive publics, history of software, software studies, geeks and hackers, intellectual property, liberalism and technology, free culture and so on — especially those works that track the spread and movement of these issues beyond the domain of free software.

But it isn’t all about me: I’m interested in moving scholarly discussion into new configurations — beyond the journals and conferences and edited volumes that we know well, but as something that’s more serious than another blog or a wiki. I think of this project as blurring the lines between an online repository, a scholarly journal and an edited volume. It’s more than a blog and less than a large-scale publishing project. And with the blessing of Duke University Press and the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collabratory, or HASTAC, it’s also slightly more official and legitimate than a simple list of links. It’s an online volume of work, edited by me, with uneven periodicity and hopefully some occasional vibrant discussion.

Why? In short, because I think we need to start experimenting with the limits of scholarly collaboration — beyond the journal and the edited volume, but also beyond the blog and the wiki. There is nothing technically new about what I’m proposing here (yet); what’s new is that I want scholars and scholarly presses to rethink publication and circulation, and to use the example of free software to do so in a way that’s free, permanent, legitimate and alive. I worry, perhaps too much, that our scholarship is increasingly unfree, unstable, unauthorized and unread, and I certainly don’t think it’s because our work is boring or bad. We suffer from too much focus on getting published and not enough focus on getting circulated, discussed, refined, remixed or modulated, and I think we need to change that.

Not all disciplines are equal in this respect — some disciplines like computer science and physics have already created some great and robust new forms of scholarly circulation — not to mention having a different sense of what “remixing” might mean. However, my colleagues in history and anthropology are sure to recognize the kind of crisis facing these disciplines — scholarly societies that are rapidly becoming obsolete, more and more demand for publication in fewer and fewer underfunded journals, and an increasing sense that our work is disconnected or alienated from a community of peers. Some people might see what I’ve done as risky, but I see it as essential. Even if my own project in “modulation” goes nowhere, I hope it serves as a template for others to follow with their own works in the future, so that we can start rethinking the circulation, not just the publication, of our work.

— Christopher Kelty is an assistant professor of anthropology in Rice’s School of Social Sciences.

— “The Way I See It” is a special guest column written by faculty, staff and students at the invitation of Rice News.

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