Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics

Peer Reviewed


This article investigates the social, technical, and legal affiliations among “geeks” (hackers, lawyers, activists, and IT entrepreneurs) on the Internet. The mode of association specific to this group is that of a “recursive public sphere” constituted by a shared imaginary of the technical and legal conditions of possibility for their own association. On the basis of fieldwork conducted in the United States, Europe, and India, I argue that geeks imagine their social existence and relations as much through technical practices (hacking, networking, and code writing) as through discursive argument (rights, identities, and relations). In addition, they consider a “right to tinker” a form of free speech that takes the form of creating, implementing, modifying, or using specific kinds of software (especially Free Software) rather than verbal discourse.

"Web Page."

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published essays on the epistemological and cultural politics of information and digital technology.  These essays include Gabriella Coleman's "Code Is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest Among Free and Open Source Software Developers" (2009), Brian Keith Axel's "Anthropology and the New Technologies of Communication" (2008), and René T.A. Lysloff's “Musical Community on the Internet: an On-line Ethnography” (2003).  Also see "Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies," a conversation in Cultural Anthropology amongst open access advocates.

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on media and publics. See Victoria Bernal's  "Eritrea Goes Global: Reflections on Nationalism in a Transnational Era" (2004) and Diane M. Nelson's “Maya Hackers and the Cyberspatialized Nation-State: Modernity, Ethnostalgia, and a Lizard Queen in Guatemala” (1996).

"Code Sample."

About the Author

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Center for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How do geeks conceptualize technology? In what ways does their conceptualization differ from your own understanding of technology?

2. Kelty describes geeks as a 'recursive public'; do you think the formation of recursive public is specific to the digital age? Why or why not?

3. How does Kelty differentiate between the public sphere and a social imaginary? What role do geeks have in the formation of these two social/discursive bodies?  How are geeks different from other publics, and how might they challenge us to rethink the characteristics of a social imaginary?

4. What are some of the competing epistemologies of the Internet?  In what ways do geeks' understandings of technology challenge the "folklore" of the Internet?

5. In what ways is code different from speech? How are these differences made culturally meaningful?

6. How might geeks' understanding of technology as discourse inform the way anthropologists conceptualize the relationship between form and content? How might such an ideology complicate the claim that discourse is immaterial?

Related Readings

Anderson, Benedict

1991 Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Routledge.

Doyle, Richard

2003 Wetwares: Experiments in Post-Vital Living. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Escobar, Arturo

1994 Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture. Current Anthropology 35(3):211-231.

Galloway, Alexander

2004 Protocol, or How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen

1989 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Latour, Bruno

1987 Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Lessig, Lawrence

1999 Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.

Taylor, Charles

2004 Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.

Warner, Michael

2002 Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

Editorial Overview

In the May 2005 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Christopher Kelty examines how a shared social imaginary of the Internet creates and mobilizes “people who write software and deal regularly with the underlying protocols of the Internet (i.e. geeks)” into a recursive public. While geeks are geographically dispersed in locales as far flung as Boston, Berlin, and Bangalore, they are united by a shared concerned over the “technical and legal conditions of possibility for their own association.”

With the Internet as their playground, geeks are constantly building and rebuilding the very infrastructure that allows them to associate. Through coding and argumentation-by-technology, where technical objects such as programs and code become forms of speech, they seek to propagate shared values of openness, freedom and technological inevitability in order to maintain their existence, which is contingent upon the possibility of being addressed as a public.  Kelty shows how the Internet becomes more than a space where people assemble; it becomes a site of intense political contest.

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