Alex Galloway on Protocol @ UvA

On: November 8, 2007
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About Esther Weltevrede
Esther Weltevrede is a second year Media Studies Research Master student at the University of Amsterdam. Before studying New Media she attended the School of Arts in Breda where she received a Bachelor degree in Graphic Design. She is involved as researcher and coordinator in the recently founded Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. DMI is dedicated to developing tools and methods for researching the ‘natively digital.’ Since this summer she is a member of GovComOrg, a foundation dedicated to creating and hosting political tools on the Web. Currently she is a part-time teacher Information Visualization at Master Editorial Design, Utrecht School of Art, and part-time teacher Public Design at Interactive Media, Hogeschool van Amsterdam.


After the talk Alex Galloway gave on The Game of War Rosie asked him to give us an introduction to Protocol, which is key literature for one of our courses. This is the first spontaneously organized event by Geeks for World Domination aka g4wd. Anne has made a great post related to her thesis topic and I cover the session we had.

Did we somewhere switch internets?
The perfect Saturday morning is getting up a little too early, cycling to the Crea2 building at University of Amsterdam and attend a spontaneously organized meeting with Alex Galloway. After setting up our laptops, opening up a skype video chat with one of our mom-mers who was unfortunately out of the country but wouldn’t want to miss it, the meeting started. Michael opened up the conversation by introducing two contradictory notions of the internet. The 80s expression of “information wants to be free” is followed ten years later with the “great firewall of china.” Did we somewhere switch internets? Or is there something inherent in the medium for both to exist at the same time? At the basis of Galloway’s book is the technical infrastructure of the internet, which includes both these opposing logics. In fact, it was exactly this opposition that made him curios about how power works on the internet when he learned how to program in 1996 at Rhizhome. The then dominant idea that networks get around everything (for instance censorship) and the “information wants to be free” expression struck him as very utopian. If this is so, how is it possible that at the same time big power structures such as the US military and Microsoft are adopting this new system? Taking the technical architecture of the internet that is publicly documented in Requests for Comments (RFCs) protocols as his corpus, Foucault and Deleuze‘s writings on power as conceptual foundation, this eventually led to his Phd and later on published as the book Protocol.

Panopticon and rhizome
In this introduction to Protocol the main focus was on how power is distributed through the internet. Especially how this relates to ideas of power from Foucault and Deleuze. Foucault developed his theory of disciplines that are the dominant form of power in the 18th and 19th century by studying institutions such as the church and the school. Deleuze’s short but influential piece Postscript on Control Societies claims Foucault’s disciplinary societies are over, control societies taking its place. Galloway says Foucault didn’t live long enough to fully theorize into the 20th century, although his ideas on biopower are a start and currently very popular among scholars. Deleuze did live long enough to develop his theory. Where Panopticon served as a blue print or diagram for disciplinary societies, control societies have the rhizome. However, Deleuze didn’t study the rhizome as extensively as Foucault did with the Panopticon.

Galloway asks in Protocol, do we actually know how flat rizhomes work? Like Foucault did with Bentham’s architectural plan of the Panopticon, he further developed and matured the concept of the rhizome by taking the very technical architecture of the internet as his archive. The internet is built up of different layers and protocols that each govern specific parts of the internet. Important in thinking about the physical technology of the internet is that it is constituted by a bi-level logic. On the one hand protocols such as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) enable the internet to create horizontal distributions of information from one computer to the other (rhizomatic). On the other, the Domain Name System (DNS) vertically stratifies that horizontal logic through a set of regulatory bodies that manage internet addresses and names (panoptic). Although an important difference with the Panopticon is that there are no central bosses like police or prison guards on the net, the Domain Name System is managed by a central body, ICANN. Following this line of thought, the architecture of the internet can’t be seen as purely rhizomatic, but also incorporates some Panoptic features. This is what creates a dialectical tension which defines the net and makes notions of “information wants to be free” as well as the “great firewall of china” possible in the same net.

The social built in protocol
Anne remarks that in her research on blog software she has found that although blog comments are distributed, there are forces that want them to be centralized. Take the comment aggregator Software like this is developed to centralize distributed comments which seems to be in contrast with the logic of the net from the perspective of the rhizome. Should an extra layer be considered on the net? Maybe an extra social layer?

Galloway replies to this by stating that this has changed since his book was published in 2004. There is a tension between the flat distributed mode of the rhizome and a coalescing power. A power that aims at bringing things back together. This tension can also be found in Google for example. Google is both highly distributed and coalescing, massifying and centralized at the same time. The question whether another more social layer that governs software should be considered relates to questions addressing the extent to which the social is built into technology. In his research into RFCs he came across a variety of protocols. TCP/IP are the most important ones and very technical. The subset of RFCs, such as RFC FYI (informational) and RFC BCP (Best Common Practices) are however about ethics. These social ethics are therefore also built into the architecture of the net. These RFCs are therefore very tangible examples of where the social is built into technology.

Michael takes this line of thought a step further by moving away from technical protocols instead focusing on purely social protocols on the net. As an example he takes Wikipedia. Wikipedia works because of policy, which can be seen as social protocols. He elaborated on the effective functioning of Wikipedia by referring to articles made by mom-mers such as spinplant. Protocols, technical or social, can be seen as these empty boxes which serve as wrappers for the content within it. Wikipedia’s empty box is its universal knowledge goal which puts an enormous prohibition on what you can write. The stylistics of Wikipedia social protocols is what you have to engage in.

Protocol as creative power
Galloway agrees protocols are the major standards ever. This radical standardization is however also progressive. It is universalization and standardization but at the same time not at expense of the specific. That’s not how protocol works. Control is often thought about in negative terms. The contribution Deleuze made, however, is that control is not about erecting walls, not about prohibition. Rather about taking down walls and creating freedom. The free way metaphor serves as an example, it allows you to drive but also within rules. You could drive on the grass but is not in your interest, it is slow etc. In short control is a system of incentives. Thinking about power not only as internalized discipline, which is about prohibition, repression, but also as expressive, being creative. That’s why protocols aren’t necessarily evil, there’s also a lot of progressive power that has totally gone into the rhizome, coexisting with other models. Think for example about politically progressive software development such as p2p.

Thinking about protocological power in this way made him move to play and immaterial labor in his book Gaming: Essays On Algorithmic Culture. He didn’t think of that in Protocol. The new metaphor is surfing: on the surface, push, maneuver a little, tweak. Other media are good at fixing, games are good at making rules, but within the rules many things are possible. It is again this contradiction, openness and closeness. This is what we call a model, or simulation, worlds, this is the new dominant media format.

Last question
Do you have any tips? Yes, don’t read Protocol, read The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. The Exploit is the recently published 2.0 version of Protocol and we placed a batch order right after this spontaneous and inspiring meeting.

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