Galloway on Protocol

Questioning just how liberating the Internet is as a communication medium, Alexander Galloway discusses the manner in which the coded language of computers may be analysed like other natural languages. Included in this analysis is ways in which individuals are challenging the established order and structure of the codes and making their own meaningful reality with computers.

Protocol is not a new word. Prior to its usage in computing, protocol referred to any type of correct or proper behavior within a specific system of conventions. It is an important concept in the area of social etiquette as well as in the fields of diplomacy and international relations.

However, with the advent of digital computing, the term has taken on a slightly different meaning. Now, protocols refer specifically to standards governing the implementation of specific technologies. Like their diplomatic predecessors, computer protocols establish the essential points necessary to enact an agreed-upon standard of action. Like their diplomatic predecessors, computer protocols are vetted out between negotiating parties and then materialized in the real world by large populations o£ participants (in one case citizens, and in the other computer users). Yet instead of governing social or political practices as did their diplomatic predecessors, computer protocols govern how specific technologies are agreed to, adopted, implemented, and ultimately used by people around the world. What was once a question of consideration and sense is now a question of logic and physics.

To help understand the concept of computer protocols, consider the analogy of the highway system. Many different combinations of roads are available to a person driving from point A to point B. However, en route one is compelled to stop at red lights, stay between the white lines, follow a reasonably direct path, and so on. These conventional rules that govern the set of possible behavior patterns within a heterogeneous system are what computer scientists call protocol. Thus, protocol is a technique for achieving voluntary regulation within a contingent environment.

These regulations always operate at the level of coding—they encode packets of information so they may be transported; they code documents so they may be effectively parsed; they code communication so local devices may effectively communicate with foreign devices. Protocols are highly formal; that is, they encapsulate information inside a technically defined wrapper, while remaining relatively indifferent to the content of information contained within. Viewed as a whole, protocol is a distributed management system that allows control to exist within a heterogeneous material milieu. It is common for contemporary critics to describe the Internet as an unpredictable mass of data-rhizomatic and lacking central organization. This position states that since new communication technologies are based on the elimination of centralized command and hierarchical control, it follows that the world is witnessing a general disappearance of control as such.

This could not be further from the truth. I argue … that protocol is how technological control exists after decentralization.

What contributes to this misconception (that the Internet is chaotic rather than highly controlled), I suggest, is that protocol is based on a contradiction between two opposing machines: One machine radically distributes control into autonomous locales, the other machine focuses control into rigidly defined hierarchies. The tension between these two machines-a dialectical tension-creates a hospitable climate for protocological control. …

Protocol is a management style that injects control into “fronts of disorder,” “anti-worlds” (whatever those are), “Mafia networks,” and “crises, conflicts, and imbalances.” Today, protocol is our gravity, our oxygen, our pulse.

Historically the relaxing of hierarchy in social and political systems presented a management problem: How can complete chaos be avoided when all traditional systems of control (hierarchy, centralization, etc.) have slipped away? Protocol is a solution to the problem of hierarchy. It is in many ways an historical advancement. …

But power’s enemies are swimming in that same flow. Media historians Randall Packer and Ken Jordan gleefully proclaim that “[m]ultimedia, by its very nature, is open, democratic, nonhierarchical, fluid, varied, inclusive.” Why does technology seem, as Kevin Kelly likes to put it, so “out of control” yet still function so flawlessly? There must be some machine that, at the end of the day, sorts it all out.

Protocol is that machine, that massive control apparatus that guides distributed networks, creates cultural objects, and engenders life forms.

Protocol has its own extensive history in diplomacy, the military, the government, and the private sector. Instead, I offer a new story of protocol as it intersects with both the digital computer and the distributed network, two historically specific technologies. This three-way historical intersection coincides with the start of the new millennium and therefore will affect culture for many years to come.

  • Protocol is a system of distributed management that facilitates peer-to-peer relationships between autonomous entities.
  • Internet protocols allow for inter-operation between computers.
  • Protocol’s virtues include robustness, contingency, inter-operability, flexibility, heterogeneity, and pantheism.
  • A goal of protocol is totality. It must accept everything, no matter what source, sender, or destination. It consumes diversity, aiming instead for university.
  • Protocol is a universalism achieved through negotiation, meaning that in the future protocol can and will be different.
  • Facilitated by protocol, the Internet is the mostly highly controlled mass media hitherto known.
  • Protocol is materially immanent, but protocological objects never contain their own protocol. Protocols generally resist interpretation.
  • Protocol is a language that regulates flow, directs netspace, codes relationships, and connects life forms. It is etiquette for autonomous agents.
  • Self-determinism of material systems is a precondition of protocol.
  • Protocol is a type of controlling logic that operates largely outside institutional, governmental, and corporate power.
  • In order to be politically progressive, protocol must first be partially reactionary.
  • The best tactical response to protocol is not resistance but hypertrophy.
  • The current global crisis is one between centralized, hierarchical powers and distributed, horizontal networks. But in the future one is likely to see bilateral organizational conflict, that is, networks fighting networks.
  • Code is the only language that is executable, meaning that it is the first discourse that is materially affective.
  • Protocol is synonymous with possibility.
  • Tactical media are effective at exploiting flaws in protocological technologies.

As one learns more and more about the networks of protocological control, it becomes almost second nature to project protocol into every physical system: Traffic lights become the protocol for successful management of moving vehicles; a grocery store queue is the protocol for a successful checkout; airport security points are the protocol for prohibiting weapons; and so on. Protocol pops up everywhere.


Galloway, A. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004, pp. 7-8, 242-244. || Amazon || WorldCat


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