Protological Control

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Nicolas Mendoza:

(a critique of the thesis defended in Alexander Galloway's book, Protocol.)

"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” . 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” 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 else about their properties. 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).” 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 otherwise incompatible actors (both human and non-human) to communicate. It is an inclusive protocol. 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” 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 it means fundamentally repressive control, of the President, over nuclear missiles. The significance of the term '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. The identity of the network, this essay argues, is shaped after both principles alike, not just control. Galloway’s description of the Internet as ‘the most controlled mass media hitherto known” is too blunt a statement, he 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, but 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. This stochastic assemblage renders even the most powerful actors impotent.

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 and 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, it is that the true counterprotocological practices, when it comes to TCP/IP and other realms of digital technologies, are censorship, surveillance and commodification." (February 2012)