From cyberpunk’s keyboard-jockey fairy tales, to Wired magazine’s rave-era libertarianism, through the dotcom boom’s fast-company frontier days, the concept of the Internet as an essentially revolutionary space of anti-authoritarian freedoms has remained a key operative myth, serving the needs of start-up hypesters, free-market globalists, and political progressives alike. But NYU professor Alexander Galloway believes that we should lay these techno-utopian fantasies to rest. In fact, he argues that at least some of our old notions need to be turned upside down. His new book, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (MIT), asserts that, far from existing as a counter-hegemonic free-for-all, “the Internet is the most highly controlled mass media hitherto known.”
The 30-year-old Galloway’s first book elucidates his seemingly paradoxical claim within an engaging methodological hybrid of the Frankfurt School and UNIX for Dummies. First conceived as a communications system designed to withstand nuclear attacks on American cities, the Internet took shape as a distributed network, a radically dispersed organizational form based on multiple routes without central hubs, something he likens to both the interstate highway system and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s branching rhizome model, “a horizontal meshwork,” Galloway writes, linking “many autonomous nodes together in a manner neither linear nor hierarchical.” But in Galloway’s view, the Net’s non-hierarchy should not be mistaken for uninhibited freedom. Rather, control exists within the very nature of the Internet protocols, the universally recognized technical standards and shared languages (HTTP, TCP/IP, HTML) that allow information to be shared successfully—creating “a political conundrum that involves the acceptance of universal standardization in order to facilitate the ultimate goal of a freer and more democratic medium.”
“Protocol is a language that regulates flow, directs netspace, codes relationships, and connects life forms,” Galloway writes. “It is etiquette for autonomous agents.” As a language, albeit one composed of computer code, protocol can thus become the object of critical thinking as much as any text—conveniently for Galloway, whose background is primarily in literary studies, though he has worked as a systems administrator and done some programming. “The project basically grew out of my dissatisfaction with all of the dotcom-era books about the Internet,” Galloway told the Voice. “There was this idea that the Internet was at its core a kind of chaotic, uncontrollable technology. And I thought to myself, how could that be the case? Why does it work so well, why is it so bug-free, how is it able to spread globally so quickly? I thought there must be a high level of organization and control at the root of the technology, but that might just be a different kind of control than people are used to seeing.” He learned more about the workings of Internet protocols through developing Carnivore PE as part of programmer/artist collective Radical Software Group. This award-winning project serves as a “personal edition” of FBI software Carnivore, an online wiretap that snoops on data traffic. Both Carnivore PE and Protocol likewise explore how boundaries between online and offline control systems may prove irrelevant. Galloway argues that the logic of protocol extends to biological and social structures as well, with examples like the genome, the VHS/Beta market wars, the actions of hackers and terrorists, and the self-referentially protocological new-media artists like Jodi.org. But Galloway stresses that he’s not merely making an analogy: “Protocol is materially immanent,” he writes, and as such, “protocols generally resist interpretation.”
“It’s important not to situate control and organization metaphorically,” he says. “If you say that something’s just a metaphor, then maybe it’s just in our minds and we can forget about it. But if it’s not a metaphor—if it’s actually being created and lived every day by me and you and everybody that uses the technology—then I think that just underscores the power of it. Because I do think that social relations follow the network diagram, just the way that the body follows the network diagram, which is just the way that the Internet follows the network diagram.”
Though Galloway hashed out his ideas through projects like Carnivore PE and writing in online forums like CTHEORY and Nettime, Protocol is clearly situated within the largely academic traditions of leftist critical theory. As such, it serves as an exemplary example of a recent boom of scholarly titles analyzing video games, Net art, artificial life, and related topics: survival adaptations of 20th-century criticism to fit 21st-century technologies. “The unmasking of the inner workings of the commodity in Marx is the kernel of his entire work,” Galloway says, “and people have used that in a method in everything from feminism unmasking the kernel of patriarchy, to film theory unmasking the inner working of the apparatus of cinema. So I’m trying to do a similar thing by unmasking the inner workings of computer networks.” Despite Galloway’s desire to overturn gee-whiz hype, his criticism retains a streak of utopianism and system-building that indeed leans on metaphor; poetic underpinnings are difficult to exorcise from Continental thinking. As with concepts like power, hegemony, Empire, or patriarchy, protocol at times floats a little too easily through history and existence, and the use of the Foucauldian term “control” needs further unpacking. Though Galloway makes clear he is concerned with how protocol determines “the limits of possibility” of its users—defining protocol as a “circuit, not a sentence”—saying that today’s Internet is more controlled than hierarchically structured media like the 1938 film industry or network television circa 1970 begs for a more detailed analysis of the relationship of content to delivery systems. Still, protocol remains a provocative “diagram” (as he puts it) of how power functions in an increasingly networked culture.
More importantly, Galloway brings the uncool question of morality back into critical thinking. In a last-chapter rundown of his theses on protocol, Galloway writes that “protocol is a universalism achieved through negotiation, meaning that in the future protocol can and will be different.” As an evolving system, protocol “ultimately becomes the blueprint for humanity’s innermost desires about the world and how it ought to be lived.” When asked why one would assume that such desires would necessarily be socially progressive, Galloway laughs. “Well, I’m a Marxist, so I think they are!” he replies. “At the end of the day, one has to have an ethical grounding.” In Protocol‘s final paragraph, he poses this sentiment as an unanswered question: “Do we want the Web to function like a market economy? Can we imagine future technological solutions that fulfill our social desires more fully than protocol can?”