Protocol

Alexander Galloway‘s Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralizationis a highly useful discussion of how power relations and ideological assumptions are built into the very formal structure of the Internet. Galloway is a professor of Media Ecology at NYU, as well as a net artist and former key figure at Rhizome, one of the key new media art sites on the Web. Galloway is one of a very few people who are equally well versed in poststructuralist cultural theory and computer programming, which makes him uniquely suited for the task accomplished in this book.
“Protocol,” in this context, is an underlying specification of code that helps to make the Net run; examples would include TCP-IP, HTML and HTTP, and DNS. Protocol doesn’t give the technical details of these specifications, so much as it surveys them on a meta-level, showing what kind of work they do, and what sort of effects this work has.
Basically, Galloway argues that such protocols are the way that control is exercised in our globalized “network society,” one where power is “distributed” laterally, rather than being hierarchically structured, stratified, and centralized, or even (merely) “decentralized.” A distributed network is a rhizome rather than a tree, in the terms of Deleuze and Guattari. Note that, although Deleuze and Guattari often seem to be praising the rhizome in opposition to hierarchical “arborescent” models, Deleuze also sees rhizomatic structures as key to the “society of control,” which increasingly replaces Foucault’s “disciplinary society” as the way in which power is exercised in our postmodern world. Galloway expands on this Deleuzian ambivalence. Protocol is what allows for the openness and many-to-many organization of the Net: this is because its underlying guidelines and mechanisms are open-source and indifferent to content. (A web page is formatted the same way, regardless of what words and images it contains). But Galloway points out that this is only one side of the picture: for protocol is also an extreme form of control, in the sense that it constrains and homogenizes all content: no matter what you say, you have to say it in the approved format (or else your statement will not be communicable or readable at all). “Standardization is the politically reactionary tactic,” Galloway writes, “that enables radical openness.” As a result, the Net is never simply “free”; it is always “a complex of interrelated currents and counter-currents,” which interact in “multiple, parallel, contradictory, and often unpredictable ways” (page 143).
Galloway goes through the establishment of protocol on various levels, from the technical (how code actually works to link computers together) to the institutional (how standards for the Net, and for computing devices in general, are actually established and adopted), and from the history of how the architecture of the Web was established, to the various subversive practices (by hackers, tactical media activists, net artists, and others) that test its limits and keep open the possibility of change.
Protocol is both thoughtful and informative; I have certain criticisms or disagreements, but I see these more as testimony to how thought-provoking the book is, than as flaws which would vitiate its impact.
Basically, I am not sure that Galloway addresses the question of how power works in the “society of control” as thoroughly, and especially as structurally, as he needs to do. On the one hand, he presents protocol as the locus of power in distributed networks; but on the other hand, he sharply differentiates such power from the power which comes from closed and proprietary “standards” such as those imposed by Microsoft, or those that currently govern the dissemination of so-called “intellectual property.” Of course Galloway notes that periodization is never closed or total, and that many “disciplinary” and earlier power formations coexist with those of the “society of control.” But I don’t think that things like Microsoft’s monopolies and “digital rights management” can thus be explained as resulting from the subsistence of older forms of power. Rather, it’s the same hardware and software technology, and the same Internet protocols, that generate both (for instance) P2P file sharing and the digital watermarking of files that allows their source to be traced, and restricts their dissemination. That is to say, though Galloway convinces me that “protocol” is one part of how power and control operate in the network, he doesn’t convince me that “protocol” is actually as central to such power and control as he tries to claim. The most insidious forms of power in the network, the ways that it both “incites, induces, seduces” us (to use Foucault’s words) and locates and tracks us, as well as the way that the “informatization” of everything is itself a kind of appropriation and control (as McKenzie Wark argues) — these are not sufficiently accounted for by Galloway’s discussions.
(To be fair, Galloway approaches a sense of all this on a few pages, when he notes that protocol doesn’t so much give us orders, as it puts us in a situation where we already want to obey such orders — pages 147 and 241 — but this is never sufficiently developed).
The result of Galloway’s failure to develop a sufficiently broad and deep conception of power and control in the network, is that when he discusses the forces of resistance to such power and control — as he does in the latter parts of the book — what we mostly get, disappointingly, is just a narrative of various conceptual art projects, some political and some formalist, by the likes of etoy, jodi.org, and RTMark, without the sort of broader theorization that we get in earlier parts of the book.
Still, Protocol is a book well worth reading, essential as a starting point for further considerations.

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