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, 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.
Why Alex Galloway is out of control
Alex Galloway has coined the term ‘Protocologic Control’ to describe the notion that the underlying protocols that make electronic networks operational are the instruments of a grand shift in contemporary societies to become the Deleuzian “Societies of Control” [i]. In that sense, the term describes a situation of thorough disempowerment of the individual. For Galloway the distributed network, the digital computer, and the network protocol define “a new apparatus of control”[ii] through which power is exercised in contemporary societies. While he argues that all distributed media is necessarily endogenous to the societies of control, the analysis of the apocalyptic narratives that gave shape to the net shows us that, contrary to Galloway’s reading of Deleuze: a protocol with the characteristics and origin of TCP/IP is a threat to social control precisely because it transfers significant control to its users.
The term “Protocologic Control”, I think, needs to be used with caution because when taken out of context it gives the impression that wherever there is protocol, the dominant logic is that of a hegemonic society of control. It is true and concerning that through code and protocol hegemonic power can be exercised and control can be implemented. This concern is real. Nevertheless, pointing the finger at ‘protocol’ is analogous to seeing someone die after drinking poison and deducing ‘liquids’ are poisonous. To say ‘Protocologic Control’ is like saying ‘Liquidic Fluidity’ in that, yes, liquids are fluids, but the term ‘fluid’ tells us little new about the actual liquids (or protocols) at hand. Network protocols do control informational processes, but the question is in what ways and for whom. Raising suspicion on all protocol is unhelpful; rather, the call should be for a differentiated examination of what each one does, who owns them, through what processes they are managed, etc. Such analysis is central to focus the efforts needed to secure the integrity of the full transformational potential of the Internet.
Galloway’s notion of ‘Protocologic Control’ conflates two levels of the meaning of the word ‘protocol’. On the one hand the expression refers to languages within the technical universe of computers that come into play at different layers in their interactions: the institutionalised feedback mechanisms that effectively route datagrams through distributed digital networks. On the other hand, intermittently through Galloway’s analysis the technical essence of ‘protocol’ is concluded in itself to carry a political weight: “the Net is not simply a new, anarchical media format, ushering in the virtues of diversity and multiplicity, but is, in fact, a highly sophisticated system of rules and regulations (protocol).”[iii] This quote exemplifies the confusion present all through Galloway’s argument, consisting in inferring (or implying) hegemony from the existence of ‘rules and regulations’ in the protocol, regardless of what they are.
In Galloway, all of the ‘highly sophisticated’ technical standards known as protocol necessarily negate political ‘virtues of diversity and multiplicity’. While it is clear that protocols can be designed for exclusion and oppression, the sophistication of TCP/IP lies precisely in that it is able to glue networks of diverse nature, enabling even deeply incompatible actors (and even the human and non-human) to communicate. What its ‘rules and regulations’ do is precisely the opposite of what Galloway’s text implies: they allow to afford unprecedentedly diverse and multiple inclusion. TCP/IP articulates what we know as ‘the Inter-net’ because it is designed to enable the dialogue between computers and digital networks as diverse as they can be imagined.
Further, Galloway’s recurrent assertions in the sense that the Internet is “the mostly highly controlled mass media hitherto known”[iv] are the result of a second conflation: in this case of two meanings of the word ‘control’. On the one hand, the term ‘control’ in TCP (Transfer Control Protocol) stands for the ability of the protocol to modulate and route datagrams ensuring that they reach their desired destination. It means feedback-based control, of the protocol, over the movement of datagrams. On the other hand, we have the historical use of the term ‘control’ described earlier, used by Cold War strategists, always preceded by the term ‘command’ to conform ‘command and control’. Here ‘control’ means fundamentally repressive control, of the President, over nuclear missiles.
The significance of the phrase ‘command and control’ is that it is critical to understand the ethos of the Net as a communication system devised to empower its users both to initiate and terminate action. This key term is missing from Galloway’s analysis; his texts gravitate exclusively around ‘control’. The identity of the network, this essay argues, is shaped after both principles (‘command’ and ‘control) alike, not just ‘control’. Galloway’s description of the Internet as ‘the most controlled mass media hitherto known” is a spectacular but one-sided statement that fails to differentiate between a media that enables control over its users, and a media that gives them both command and control. Not total command and control, for that describes a perfect monopoly of which only one can exist, but the field for genuinely multilateral (and often contentious) negotiations that is distributed command and control. When billions of actors, a diversity of humans, governments, corporations, machines, and software actors are all given their share of command and control, a new level of complexity emerges. Even the environment and ‘nature’ exercise their agencies in this new arrangement. In this stochastic assemblage control shifts owner in largely unpredictable ways, rendering porous and uncomfortable habitual hegemonies.
While protocol determines the universe of possibility in the network, and in that sense it can be said to determine the very ‘physical’ properties of the net, it does not follow TCP/IP is an instrument for social control from above. The opposite is true, as it is a protocol that, at least in its purest theoretical form, distributes the opportunity of access to power, or command and control, evenly through the nodes in the network. Actually, it represents a massive blow to the existing ‘control’ as it, protocologicaly, takes power from its historical monopolists to distribute it among those who had none, an operation that represents a double setback for the hierarchical-and-centralist entities of power.
Galloway’s confusion results in the proposal of thinking in terms of ‘counterprotocological practices’ to achieve emancipation. Yet it is actually governments and corporations who are currently attack the protocols most vigorously, i.e. practicing counterprotocological practices: pushing in the US draconian legislative projects like DMCA, SOPA or PIPA (and their equivalents around the world), implementing censorship machines like ‘Great Firewall of China’, Australia’s ‘Great Firewall Reef’, Hosni Mubarak’s Internet ‘kill switch’, injecting malware into consumer products to prevent data duplication, etc. The bearers of power defend their hegemony by attacking the protocols that distribute power. If real world current events tell us something about this debate, it is that counterprotocological practices, when it comes to TCP/IP and other realms of digital technologies, are in fact the tools for censorship, surveillance and commodification.
The air we breathe
An analogy can be attempted. When we speak, our brains, lungs, vocal cords and mouths control the flow of air to enable the emission of sound waves required to say whatever we want. This control is performed by several biological protocols embedded in the body. In order to be intelligible we rely on the social protocols of language, protocols that belong to a different realm. And yet, there are still occasions when we are unable to say what we want: this may occur for reasons different than biological control preventing us from it. It can happen because of political or cultural control, control that exists on yet another realm than the biological and language protocols that enable human speech in general. In extreme cases of political repression, someone can be threatened not speak their mind or die: a promise of ultimate violence from external political control on internal biological control. Because the lower protocological levels are vital to all the others, silence is usually chosen in this situation.
The analogy of speech leads then to a deeper question to disentangle Galloway: How should we conceptualise control when analysing media?
Is the voice, the biologically protocolised channel, the thing itself or ‘just’ the medium? If voice is a medium between our thoughts and the consciousness of others, can we say that thought is the thing itself? Is thought not merely equally protocolised symbolic activity of the mind, and therefore mediated and substanceless in itself? Does the thinking mind not operate as media within, as ultimately algorithmically controlled manipulation of symbols? (in this sense Eastern practices of meditation would be methods that strive to suspend this algorithmic activity, to shut down the symbolic factory, to de-mediatise existence, to experience being the elusive ‘thing itself’: that immanent entanglement with the signified, but without the signifier.)
This elusiveness of substance is in a sense the universality of Norbert Wiener’s control theory, the very negation of both medium and message through an understanding of an all-encompassing intrinsic entanglement through the notion of feedback. Constant, dynamic, multidimensional communication that affects the future state of all entangled parties: feedback. Reality not as matter but as a universal flow of information, Wiener’s ‘control’ is far beyond the concept we associate with oppression. ‘Control’ in Wiener takes mystical dimensions, for ‘control’ itself is the very substance of existence, the infinite entanglement of feedback that is life, “any organism is held together in this action by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information.”[v] Such ‘means’ that hold together life are the protocols, the life in the network. And so, the political questions of our time tend to increasingly be about how it is and how it should be, this life in a network for survivors.
In her book Protocol Politics, The Globalisation of Internet Governance[vi] Laura DeNardis shows how the notion of protocols (Wiener’s ‘means’) cross from physics, biology, or technology to culture and politics:
Technical protocols are functionally similar to real-world protocols. Cultural protocols are not necessarily enshrined in law, but they nevertheless regulate human behaviour. In various cultures, protocols dictate how humans greet each other, whether shaking hands, bowing, or kissing. … There is nothing preordained about these communications norms. They are socially constructed protocols that vary from culture to culture.[vii]
Conflicts arise as forms of machinic life emerge and gain complexity, culture and idiosyncrasy of its own. It is still relatively uncontroversial to attack network protocol because everything about it seems morally trivial: isn’t it all artificial in the end? A result of human cultural, economic and political forces, machinic life seems enslavable. But the Net as a life form that assembles machines, information and humans alike, strives for freedom for itself. This realisation leads to a profound reconsideration of our relationship with the machine layers of the network:
We should embrace the deeper uncertainty arising from freeing technology from subservience to the merely instrumental goals of human pro?t. …We may then begin to make out a politics beyond the network where human and non-human, living and non-living are connected to mutual bene?t.[viii]
It is rarely that ethical consideration regarding machinic life takes place. Ethics in this realm, must be stressed, are not about what good can the machine do for us, and not even about how we can use the machine to do good, but about how can we make machinic life healthier. It means making the whole assemblage healthier by fostering what Wiener’s calls “the means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information.” It is in our benefit, and the only reasonable approach, for the network is a heterogeneous assemblage of which we are part. Still, claiming ownership of the other, sweet exploitation temptation knows no frontiers, less when colonisation and exploitation within the electronic frontier is where it’s at.
A perfect storm of counterintuitive grey ethical areas, the Net is metal, electron and flesh. Hardware, software and wetware looking for harmony in the storm. This harmony will only come as the full potential of the assemblage is realised, as (and if) it overcomes the enclosures that contain it: the mandate of profit and accumulation, modern human fear and pettiness, and the territorial boundaries of the nation-state. Will the Western inventions of materialism (i.e. communism and capitalism alike) and westphalianism, modernity itself, finally decline under the relentless swarms of the global machinic life-form?
No less, I think, is the size of the political promise the early days of the decade are pregnant with.
[i] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (n.d.), http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828.
[ii] Galloway, Protocol, 3.
[iii] Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: how control exists after decentralization (MIT Press, 2004), 69.
[iv] Ibid., 147.
[v] Wiener, Cybernetics, Second Edition, 161.
[vi] Laura DeNardis, Protocol politics: the globalization of Internet governance (MIT Press, 2009).
[vii] Ibid., 6.
[viii] Sean Cubitt, Robert Hassan, and Ingrid Volkmer, “Postnormal network futures: A rejoinder to Ziauddin Sardar,” Futures 42, no. 6 (August 2010): 624.