With idea of what’s possible or desirable in mind, I want to shift gears to give you a sense of how this connects, or not, to some of the bigger issues at stake here. I feel I need to say something about my title.
Preparing this talk, I was reading about computational processes as metaphors for social organization, and I came across a Nathaniel Tkacz fascinating essay on “The Politics of Forking Paths.” As Tkacz describes it, forking “originally referred to an operating system process where the output of the process is a functional duplication of the process itself, thereby creating two separate but virtually identical processes” (96). He suggests that this idea of software splitting (forking) into identical copies is a key idea in the FOSS/FLOSS (Free (Libre) and Open Source Software) movement.
Focusing on the example of the Spanish Wikipedia group’s split from the larger Wikipedia movement into EL, Tkacz looks at how “this event is framed within a newly politicized discourse of ‘forking,’ the splitting a project to create two separate entities” (96). This wikipedia fork provides away to think through the slippage from software and political processes. And as Tkacz writes,
Forking represents a unique opportunity to make visible the messiness and modalities of force in these projects. It is a rare moment when the fundamental organizing principles of a project are put to the test and when possibly irreconcilable differences are foregrounded over values held in common.
In foregrounding of questions of irreconcilability—which seems to me be at the crux of a host of political emergencies around Truth and Reconciliation, ecological disaster, economic devastation that are exacerbated by local neoliberalisms and the dehumanizing “Harper government”—forking troubles (and is toubled by) the idea a perfect copy.
For Tkacz, forking is in direct contradiction of capitalist notions of scarcity, because, in theory, forking creates two identical entities out the exact same amount of resources—each entity might now exist with half the resources of the original. Forking, at least in principle, functions outside of the Hegelian dialectic of winners and losers. Tkacz talks of a politics of exit, in which the leaving party simply takes the code/process and sets up in a different space / time.
Eventually the two identical iterations morph into new projects and take on separate content. Pointing out the fact that, beyond a formal equivalence, the two forked entities were never really the same to begin with, Tkacz suggest that both are subject two different materialities. In the context of wikipedia and the FLOSS movement, he takes issue with the ideological use of “forking,” a computational term, to describe what are in essence social processes:
A consideration of forking also brings into view a series of questions about the ontological boundaries of open projects, questions that problematize the very possibility of forking and reveal the ‘making invisible’ of certain features of open projects necessary for the political discourse of forking to be preserved.
Making visible the social / material aspects underlying the wikipedia fork, he argues that even in its purest digital form that two forks are spatially and temporally distinct, existing on different hard drives or servers the are subject to significant material differences. Tkacz wonders,
Is it possible to fork? From a formal perspective, the answer is ‘possibly yes’ but only by keeping forensic difference at bay and only if a shared understanding of source code or content preexists as the political essence of a project. It requires, that is, a kind of sourcery that might nonetheless create a sense of political satisfaction (if it is shared by all). From a forensic perspective, however, the answer is a definite ‘no’. Not only is the source itself not forkable, but it also cannot be seen as the essence of a project. The contributors are part of the project, as is the unique logo, but so too is the domain, the hosting, and the servers. It gets more difficult: What about the rules that underpin a project, its discussion pages, its users, or the people who donate money to it? Its material infrastructure? (p 100)
This theoretical argument points toward the confluence of new forms of social production, an ever growing complexity of computer code and the difficulty of disentangling it from everyday materiality, that helps me to consider my own disappointments with web development.
Turning Tkacz argument upside, shifting away from the focus of on the open source software movement to look at real political process, it seems to me that this notion of forking might help us thinking about how to break with political process or organization that attempt to circumscribe difference. If as Jeff Derksen argue neoliberal political process function as a kind of software for the continued concentration of capital and social stratification, how might aspect of this process be forked to create different outcomes and most importantly different social groupings.
For me the idea of forking goes some way to understanding how we might work with the web to shift it to function in ways that are central to our needs or wants. Seeing the code as a material entity (e.g. the website as a thing or space of assembly to borrow from Latour) requires consideration of the who, the where and the what. It also provides a means of think about how to recycle or reformulate of earlier ventures—codes or social processes.
So am I saying, find a great FOSS website or application and break with the original users and make our own version? Sure why not. Seems a little ambitious and perhaps unnecessarily spiteful, but sure why not?
What is perhaps more useful, timely is to think about how this organizational principle might be brought to bear on our collective interests. To “fork” a national agenda—to make a vital and viable alternative to the original script—how might we think about parallel groups working toward entirely different aims? And with what means?
When the nature and function of the means of production—and I’m including mass communication and mediation here—are beyond the kenning of government and pundit, it seems to be a good time to think again about how we might “think different” differently—to hijack Steve Job’s sloganeering (and to clean up his grammar).
Organized around an set of ideals—not to mention deep social and material concerns—that governments want to will away with an apology, I think that groups like this one have a great opportunities to make change. Change that for me gets to the heart of the disciplines we work with and around.
We have some of the elements, a basic structure, a shared interest in developing a discourse and sharing imagery, finding ways of working together that are not entirely circumscribed by the existing code / networks. With this in mind, I’m hoping we will start small and begin today to float some trial balloons. Or at least replace the photobombs with something more interesting. I’ll say more about what these might look like in the a few minutes, before I do I want to turn back to my title.
The key issue with forking has less to do with the reproducibility of code or our apparent ability to copy ad infinitum. Instead, it provides a way of looking at how the shifting means of cultural production / communication raise irreconcilable differences within user groups and how these differences are embedded in the material means of breaking, decoupling, disconnecting from a dominant user group.
Forking also suggests that in the act of disconnecting, reconnecting is assumed. The members of an exit group take with them core values, shared concerns, and projected outcomes that are fundamentally at odds with the initial iteration, but shared nevertheless—at least for the moment.