Protocol by Alexander Galloway

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

This is the book I forgot at the office I'm only at for a day or two every second week. I should have seen that as a sign. But now I've finally read it through, and I'm a little underwhelmed.


Protocol, both computer or social, is the agreed upon language of action that regulates behaviour. This is definitely not light reading, despite opening with a scene from the movie Tron. It's a serious academic work that's attempting to cross disciplinary boundaries, between computer science, philosophy, cultural theory and probably a few more between.  




It's ambitious in scope, and I think, maybe too ambitious. But in the end, it doesn't take a stand - protocol is neither positive nor negative, it's dangerous and powerful. Well no kidding. It's also, when you come down to it, common sense writ large. Protocol (in the literal sense of etiquette as well as in a more formal sense) dictates that we do what we do because the expected and correct course has the least cost to ourselves, which often but not always equals having the most benefit. Or because the consequences of not following the correct course is to be excluded entirely. It is a slightly different way of looking at and thinking about social interaction though. 


But none of this is exactly a mind-shattering discovery. Yet it is something worth bearing in mind when designing a network. Or a book review site. Particularly the fact that protocol is negotiated, and flexible, and can change very quickly if enough people agree upon it, and operates on another layer from that of formal rules. A rule saying "You must not do X" is still, outside of leading to imprisonment, nothing more than a polite request that we as users acquiesce to. 


In the first three chapters it goes from a fairly comprehensive history of the internet and the (computer) protocols that it runs on, to dissecting Marxism and Derrida, after taking a tour via Foucault, de Saussure, Vannevar Bush and Castells. Any one of those is pretty dense reading, so while I appreciate the author's trying to give a thorough background to the rest of the book, I think there is a very small intersection of audience who will usefully follow all the discussion, and even if I belong to that audience, I found it fairly dense and dull going. In particular there's a goodly chunk of a chapter about the nature of life, artificial and natural, that just read like so much irrelevant rambling to me.


So, I was hoping it would pick up again, but it really didn't. And even when it got into discussions of hacktivism and feminism on the net I just couldn't really get into it. You'd think anything about the Riot Grrls on the net would be at least colourful reading, but even that couldn't hold on to me.


In the end, the major takeaway I got from this book is a Tim Berners-Lee quote "We define mechanism, not policy". Ideally, that's how a social network should work too: Provide the platform, let the protocol and the community that builds upon it, build organically.