Life in a Network for Survivors:
The Thermonuclear Apocalypse and the Protocols of Freedom
A text on the impact of Cold War era apocalyptic fantasy today. A search for the missing ideological history of internet protocols. An essay by P2P foundation’s Nicolás Mendoza (site), presented this week in four daily parts. The final version of this essay will be published later in 2012 by the EnterText journal, Brunel University – West London UK.
Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us,
and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts,
and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John
will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.
How I Learned to Love the Bomb
Today it is impossible to think that the planet could ever be a single union of territories ruled under a totalitarian communist regime. It even seems bizarre to realize that at some point in history, from the 1950s through the 70s, global communism, the ultimate fulfilment of Marxist teleology, seemed like a somewhat foreseeable scenario. The future in that not so distant past seemed to be a tossup between capitalism and communism, and yet the real question haunting humanity was whether a mankind-annihilating thermonuclear apocalypse was around the corner. It was only within such an unprecedented Zeitgeist that the Internet could have been born.
To be more precise, the Internet is the son of the apocalypse. It was conceived not as a means for capitalistic hegemony or even strictly as a means of defence, but rather as a tool for the survivors. It was one of the many inventions of the postapocalyptic world that was starting to exist in the imagination of Cold War strategists. As such, it was even beyond the logic of deterrence through the promise of retaliation. As such, it was really located in the day after. In theory, the first real user of the network was meant to be someone buried in a deep underground bunker desperately looking for signs of life, someone looking for someone, wondering whether or not to press the button of retaliation, while the surface burned, doomed to a century of radioactive thermonuclear winter.
The history of the Internet is usually told in the form of a series of technical breakthroughs by outstanding figures among the scientific community that developed the system because they happened to be useful for the US military, while referring to the extraordinary Cold War mentality merely as if it were an anecdotical serendipity factor. This approach narrates the becoming of the Internet in technical terms, but leaves unanswered questions about its nature, its evolution and its crossroads.
The Internet being first and foremost a postapocalyptic entity is a bizarre beast, alien to all known organization of society, predestined at birth to disrupt every single aspect of what until then was supposed to be. Because the Internet was conceived to perform as a sort of life support machine through the permanent communication and cooperation of survivors in a postapocalyptic environment, with a systematic disregard of any political, economical or cultural consideration concerning the surface, it is fundamentally detached from the continuum of socio-philosophical evolutions by which we normally understand social phenomena. In other words, to understand the Internet we must suspend any attempt to think in terms of the foucaultian epistemic continuums of modalities of the exercise of power, because it basically happened while Dr. Strangelove was dreaming.
Fig 1: Dr. Strangelove’s dilemma. (diagram by the author)
Faced with the Apocalypse, something radical had to be done, whether it was Dr. Strangelove’s underground society of polygamists devoted to the impregnation of “highly stimulating” women, or the Internet. As the unthinkable began to be thought of, Doomsday machines, underground cities and distributed networks were imagined. Critical theory usually overlooks the significance of the extraordinary circumstances in which the Net was conceived. This has led to partial readings informed by categories that under the exceptional circumstances of its conception were no longer relevant. Primarily among these, I argue, is Alex Galloway’s book Protocol: How control exists after decentralisation. In Protocol, Galloway argues that Internet protocols are an apparatus of control; that “The founding principle of the Net is control, not freedom.” This essay wants to show how this is the incorrect dichotomy. Through critical analysis of the dominant narratives at the net’s genesis I will show that, on the contrary, the founding principle of the Net is not control but command and control and, further, distributed command and control. The significance of this precision lays in that the distribution of command and control, as long as it remains real, leads necessarily to the collapse of traditional power and to the emergence of an unprecedented social order of distributed power. Such an order, precisely because of power distribution, is close to what anarchist scholars like David Graeber and web activist groups like Anonymous advocate for. In their theoretical and pure form, the founding protocols of a true distributed network as was initially conceived, even while endangered and partially implemented, break the dam towards collective emancipation. They are the protocols of freedom.
Imagine all the people living death in peace
Artist Marlena Corcoran’s essay The Fiction of the Internet links cold war era narratives of the apocalypse with the development of the technologies and structures that we know as the Internet. “The creation of the Internet was not only a technological but also an imaginative feat. The conceptual structure of the Internet is an imaginative response to the threat of an annihilating catastrophe”The point here is not to merely romanticize the net as ‘imaginative’, but to note that without a very specific and powerful set of shared fantasies of a science-fictional nature (the paranoiac mindset shared by the generals, scientists, and politicians that teamed to invent the Net) none of the technical feats would have even been attempted. And, more importantly, to realise that the design philosophy of the Internet condensed those into the protocols that govern it. “The drama of the Net is best understood in the context of this flowering of one of the most highly articulated fantasies of an event that galvanized a nation -and never took place”The question, then, is what is this particular ‘drama of the Net’, about? Can we start to think about this drama in order to grasp the ontology of the Net before it exploded, in a similar way as physics research the Big Bang to understand the universe?
The figure of the thermonuclear-apocalypse survivor drove the design philosophy of the Net. If Western culture is the result of an epistemic evolution that articulated power around a sequence of discourses that gradually moved from the figures of the leper, to the monster, to the masturbator, etc, we can only note that the figure of the survivor is one that abruptly came to the centre, courtesy of Cold War nightmares. But the survivor was alien to the historical sequence of the dynamics of power, making his sudden protagonism highly subversive. If the Internet is a manifestation of the problematic of the survivor, then its nature is not related to the forces that transformed sovereign societies into disciplinary societies, ultimately evolving into societies of control.
The apocalyptic survivor is, by definition, in charge. In charge of what exactly, however, is an enigma. His specific tasks are unimaginable. All that is known is that he is somewhere deep, that he has time, and that he has a computer. The survivor must be thought of as an historic individual, a living legend… the sole witness and the narrator for his own future generations not only because the apocalypse implies the extinction of the audience, but also because the story that will be told really starts after the bomb. From the point of view of a survivor civilisation the bomb is not the end, but the beginning. Since he has to be imagined as the breeder of a second mankind, the apocalyptic survivor competes in historic potential with Noah himself, hence Strangelove’s underground ark of lust. He must undertake foundation of the utopian society that we never ceased to fail to construct. At the same time, he is a coward that refused to share the fate of his brothers and went underground. With a generation of so burdened apocalyptic survivors in mind, the Internet was thus designed around the ideas of robustness, flexibility, and survivability: to guarantee survivor agency and empowerment to the maximum possible degree.
 Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War., 2nd ed. (Greenwood Press Reprint, 1978).
 Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (The MIT Press, 2006).
 Marlena Corcoran, “‘Worst Case Scenarios’: The Fiction of the Internet,” Leonardo 30, no. 5 (January 1, 1997): 343-348.
 Ibid., 343.
 Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975 (Picador, 2004).
Follow him on Twitter: @nicolasmendo