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Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (Leonardo Book Series) - Alexander R. Galloway

*Puts on serious non-fiction hat*

 

An academic book that opens with a scene from Tron, I knew I was going to like this book. 

 

This is a difficult book to categorise: It's a sort of a postcultural cultural theory - computer science - history mish mash of disciplines. But it's so far an fairly easy and accessible read for anyone who's got at least a basic computing background.

 

It's got some really interesting ideas though. I can even apply them directly to an issue dear to all our own hearts, the GR mess. And later he gets into hacking, viruses, net activism and web-feminists. That's going to be fun :)

 

 

Some basic premises here: Social change is not disassociable from technological change - but is not determined by it, rather sort of isomorphic. So there's no way to look at the current social change without examining what's really going on technologically around us - but the reverse is equally true.

 

Next: The internet is not the radical anarchy you'd think just because it's decentralised. 

Just as the decentralised internet produce a sort of order out of chaos, they do so by implementing control. Website speak http, over a network protocol called tcp/ip. You can have your website refuse to answer http requests properly, but you won't get far, because you can't interact with anyone - routers won't send your traffic to computers, web browsers won't understand how to interpret it, it just won't work. So in order to play at all, you have to, on some level, play nice. Just because these protocols are essentially voluntary and distributed, doesn't mean they aren't effective and very powerful.

 

A more accessible example: Two identical streets, in two identical towns, both plagued with accidents due to speeding. In one town, a law is passed, with stiff fines, for speeding. In the other, speed bumps are installed. In both towns the number of accidents fall, the difference is that a fine (stiff or not) is essentially nothing more than a polite request, which most people obey for purely social reasons. Speed bumps on the other hand, enforce a lower speed. Speed bumps on a road are a protocol - you can ignore them if you like, but the only one you punish is yourself. 

 

On the internet, where it's easy to be anonymous but difficult for anyone to effectively dish out a fine, it's social protocols that enforce power dynamics. And changing the protocols offhandedly (like you know, completely changing the TOS of a social network to be arbitrary and essentially unfair) creates a setup where you're randomly driving down the street and speed bumps may or may not pop up under your tires. And the logical response to that, is... change streets. 

 

I'm not sure I buy the whole thing yet, and I have a lot more reading to do. Specifically I am wondering if Galloway sort of just reinvented what the concept of affordance (because speed bumps are definitely an affordance of a kind as well). Heck, you could even call them a behavioral reinforcement. I guess I'll see when I've read more of the book.

 

I just kind of wanted to write this down, mostly for myself, and figured, why not here in case anyone else finds this stuff interesting.