Review: “Protocol” by Alex Galloway

Originally published on Furtherfield

Questioning “Protocol”

“Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization” by Alex Galloway is an excellent book for those who are interested in learning how the Internet works. Most books of this nature cover only technical aspects, but this book tells the story of the Internet from political, historical, economical, ideological, and commercial perspectives. The book is also helpful in learning about the subcultures formed around the technology, like hackers and digital artists. However, as you could probably tell from the title of the book, these are not the primary concerns of the author. And, this is where I must raise some issues with this book.

There is Galloway the historian, and there is Galloway the cultural and literary critic in this book. These two Galloways talk alternately, and this switching back and forth becomes a bit of work for the readers. I would imagine that, to the audience that enjoys Galloway the historian, the other Galloway is largely incomprehensible unless they are schooled in postmodern critical theory. It would be difficult to imagine that someone who enjoys Galloway the cultural critic wouldn’t have already known the historical part of the book. Below, I will elaborate on some of the more specific issues I have with Galloway the critic.

The Point of View

Throughout the book, Galloway explains his notion of protocol by extending the Western critical tradition (more specifically French) and by its “periodization” of Western history into the classical era, the modern era, and the postmodern era. He aims to pick up where Foucault and Deleuze left off, but from the perspective of a non-Westerner, such strategy feels inappropriate as the basis of one’s arguments in dealing with such global topics as the Internet, computers, and protocol. If these modern technological phenomena are best explained by Western-male historical perspectives of Marx, Deleuze, and Foucault, are we to assume that the rest of the world had nothing to do with the current technological state? The task at hand is to understand the globally distributed nature of the Internet and its supporting technologies. How relevant could it be to approach this from a strictly Western perspective and in terms of the “periodization” of the West?

Male minds see everything in terms of cause and effect. To take credit for something means to be recognized for causing certain effects. (This is what motivates tree-like bifurcation of constitutive elements in order to reach the root, the ultimate cause.) Thus, to be recognized in history as a significant figure, one must strive in life to be the cause of a significant effect. The last thing men want, therefore, is to do something that cannot be recognized in terms of cause and effect. As far as men are concerned, that is women’s job. The East, being the feminine counter part of the West, took care of the unrecognizable part of the Internet—unrecognizable at least in terms of individual contributions. Theorists can only talk about what can be recognized, so their only recourse is to talk about what Western men have achieved. This in itself is relatively harmless so long as they understand that their theories are nothing more than science fiction. The trouble is that they never see them that way. Critical theories command significant authority in Western societies, and emboldened by that atmosphere, critical thinkers propose and even demand actual social changes based on their science fiction. That is where the trouble comes in.

Galloway does credit female contributors to the Internet in the section about Cyberfeminism, but they are again those who have contributed to recognizable causes of significant effects. They are women whom men can recognize as great women.

The Word “Protocol”

I believe protocol as a root, a centering concept for a thesis, is misplaced. In many of his arguments, the use of the word “protocol” becomes problematic. It is neither his own definition nor what he considers as a general definition, and this leads to confusions. Furthermore, he never makes a clear distinction between the controlling power derived from protocols themselves and that derived from the use of protocols. The two are quite different.

“Protocol is a solution to the problem of hierarchy. It is in many ways a historical advancement.” (p.242)

Here he seems to use “protocol” synonymously with the Internet, but protocol is only one of the many components of the Internet. Protocol by itself cannot be a solution to the “problem” of hierarchy. For instance, some of the protocols used for the Internet at various layers are concerned only with communication between two points, and such protocols could not provide a solution for the said problem. The specific uses of protocols for the Internet may be a “historical advancement”, but protocol itself is an old idea.

“Protocol is a system of distributed management that facilitates peer-to-peer relationships between autonomous entities.” (p.243)

This sentence makes more sense if you replaced “protocol” with “the Internet”. The substitution in principle should work if protocol can truly be interpreted as a root concept of the Internet (like substituting “the unconscious” with a person in a Freudian analysis), but in this case, they cannot be interchangeable since protocol is only a subset, not a root cause of the Internet.

“Yet the success of protocol today as a management style proves that the ruling elite is tired of trees too.” (p.242)

Here, he uses “protocol” to mean non-hierarchical (decentered) management style. Protocol makes possible any style of management. It is confusing to imply that protocol specifically endorses non-hierarchical management style. In a way, management style is a content of protocol, and the latter does not limit the possibilities of the former. “The ruling elite” may be in love with the use of “protocol” because it allows them to make their hierarchical structure more efficient and powerful.

In this manner, the use of the word “protocol” feels forced throughout the book. It appears that Galloway wanted to ground his arguments with a singular concept, but the word “protocol” is not quite up to that task. A Western mind has a tendency to hold on to a centralizing concept to build its arguments. Freud had a phase where he explained everything in terms of sexuality. Notions such as the Unconscious, Alienation, and Simulation have been used to conveniently explain everything under the Sun. And, the fact that they can explain everything, is taken as the proof of their truthfulness.

Where Galloway went wrong, in my opinion, is his extension of Foucault’s periodization; from violence and bureaucracy to “protocol”. Here he means self-regulating distributed (democratic) control. It is confusing because protocol is merely a tool that can be used for that style of control, just the same way weapons are for violence, and institutions are for bureaucracy. Protocol can even be used for both violence and bureaucracy.

The Structural Analysis

Galloway often opposes “decentralization”, “decentered”, “distributed”, and “horizontal” against “centralization” “centered”, “hierarchical”, and “vertical”. And, within each side, he uses the words almost interchangeably. This becomes rather confusing. For instance:

“... the reason why the Internet would withstand nuclear attack is precisely because its internal protocols are the enemy of bureaucracy, of rigid hierarchy, and of centralization.” (p.29)

“The emergence of distributed networks is part of a larger shift in social life. The shift includes a movement away from central bureaucracies and vertical hierarchies toward a broad network of autonomous social actors.” (p.33)

“The current global crisis is one between centralized, hierarchical powers and distributed, horizontal networks.” (p.244)

“Distributed” and “decentralized” do not mean the same thing as decentered or non-hierarchical. We can decentralize a hierarchical structure, and in fact many corporations and government institutions do. Even if, say, IBM decentralizes or distributes their physical operations throughout the world (e.g., by outsourcing their customer support to India), their power structure could still remain hierarchical. A distributed network allows a hierarchical power structure to be decentralized. It can in fact support and enhance both hierarchical (vertical) and non-hierarchical (horizontal) power structures.

And, “centered” does not necessarily mean hierarchical either. An organization can be centered on a specific ideology, and employ a non-hierarchical power structure. Both Catholics and Quakers are ideologically centered on teachings of Christ, but the former employs a hierarchical power structure, whereas the latter employs a non-hierarchical one (a consensual structure). In general, the East tends to be ideologically decentered while being hierarchical in power structure. The West tends to be less hierarchical in power structure, but highly centered ideologically.

“This book addresses how control exists after decentralization, that is, in specific places where decentralization is done and gone and distribution has set in as the dominant network diagram. Protocol is my answer for that. And ... protocol not only installs control into a terrain that on its surface appears actively to resist it, but in fact goes further to create the most highly controlled mass media hitherto known.” (p.147)

“The founding principle of the Net is control, not freedom. Control has existed from the beginning.” (p.142)

Since freedom and control are two sides of the same coin, it is neither here nor there to say that protocol is about control. It is necessarily about both. Freedom is a specific manifestation of control, and control, a specific manifestation of freedom. Where there are no possibilities of control, there is no freedom. And, where there are no possibilities of freedom, there is no control. For instance, we do not think the movement of the Sun to be controlled because we do not understand what it would mean for the Sun to have freedom of movement. Conversely, if someone were to walk across a football field after the game, no one would think to themselves how “free” he is. If the rules that control the movements of the football players are no longer applicable, the notion of freedom disappears with it. The question of something being about freedom or control, is analogous to the question of a glass being half full or empty.

Thus, when Galloway asserts that “this book addresses how control exists after decentralization”, my response is: How could it be otherwise? Decentralization is a specific implementation of control, and therefore of freedom. Without freedom and control as its necessary constituents, decentralization as a concept would be meaningless.

The Motive

Galloway employs a conventional analytical strategy in which he breaks up the Internet into its individual components (physical components like various networking configurations; formal components like record, object, protocol, browser, etc.; political components like ICANN, ISO, IEEE; and subcultural components like hackers and digital artists), and at the root of it, he finds protocol. However, this discovery does not lead to any illuminating conclusions or implications. It leaves me wondering what the point of this complex tree structure is. Apparently, I am not the only one to feel this. At the very end of the book, he mentions how people respond to his ideas of protocol.

“People often ask me if I think protocol is good or bad. But I’m not sure this is the best question to ask.” (p.245)

I too felt the urge to ask this question, not because every argument needs to be defined in terms of good or bad, but because the lack of motives for the arguments makes one want to dig around for them. For topics like media and technology, where we constantly analyze everything, analysis for the sake of analysis does not seem so unnatural. We thus lose sight of why we are analyzing it in the first place.

In contrast, if someone were to set up a dualism between anti-Israel and anti-Semitism to explain his opinion that criticizing the policies of Israel as a nation is not the same as criticizing Jewish people, we immediately understand his motive.

“... protocol is based on a contradiction between two opposing machines, one machine that radically distributes control into autonomous locales [TCP/IP], and another that focuses control into rigidly defined hierarchies [DNS].” (p.142)

Dualistic analysis, such as this one, comes up frequently in the book. The use of dualism in itself does not trouble me, but for it to have a meaning, I would want to know the motive behind it. It is easy to arbitrarily choose a topic and set up a dualistic analysis, but dualism for the sake of dualism would not produce anything constructive. For instance:

A pencil is based on a contradiction between two opposing concepts: one of control and the other of freedom. A pencil provides a way to control the distribution of lead by encasing it in wood which protects the lead from easily breaking. This aspect of pencil is contradicted by another aspect, which is that it must allow the users to freely sharpen it with a knife. For this reason, the support material for pencil cannot be too hard, or it becomes useless. A pencil therefore exists with two contradicting forces of control and freedom.

This is true enough, but its motive is not clear. It makes one want to ask questions like: “So, are you saying that’s good or bad?” Dualism for the sake of dualism could only engender unnecessary confusions and prejudice. If it is not necessary to divide the world we see, we are better off leaving it as is.

My Definition of Protocol

My definition of protocol is a set of instructions agreed upon by its participants in order to achieve mutual goals more efficiently. A traffic light is a good example of a protocol. In the days before traffic lights, who had the right of way was never so easy to determine. Because of this, accidents were more common. We needed a protocol. The system of traffic light we have now is not the only way we could have implemented it, but as long as it did the job, specificity of implementation was secondary.

Similarly, in the 50s, a situation came up in which we wanted computers to communicate with one another more efficiently. So, we defined certain protocols to satisfy that need. Protocol therefore is less of a control (or freedom) mechanism than a mutual agreement for efficiency. I therefore disagree with Galloway’s assertion that “protocol is a system of management historically posterior to decentralization.” (p.21)

Protocol is like the American Constitution (or vice versa) in that, we cannot control how people interpret and use it. Those in charge of defining the protocols can only set a rough trajectory. If something can be put to good use, then it can also be put to bad use. This is not necessarily a failure of protocol. It becomes a failure if you see protocol only as a device for control, not for freedom. But again, this is a matter of a glass being half full or empty. Is the Constitution about freedom or control? It is both.

Chess has 8 by 8 squares. The Japanese version of chess called Shogi has 9 by 9 squares. In games like these, beyond a certain point, the rules themselves make no difference in the substance (enjoyment) of the game. Having more squares does not necessarily make Shogi any better. In a similar way, among many variations of democracies, material changes in their societies are made by specific uses or abuses of them. Through studying specific uses, we can intelligently revise our constitutions or protocols. In this, it is important to observe that we control only after the fact. There is only so much we can control in advance. (Hence the concept of amendments to the Constitution.) To put it in another way, it is not so much through the definitions of protocols that we control, but through the uses or abuses of them. To focus on the controlling power of protocol as such would make us blind to the controlling power derived from the specific uses of it. Just as with ordinary language, it is in the use of protocol that there is any real meaning.

My Issues with Protocol

When protocols become well-established, they have a way of projecting authority. The American Constitution, for instance, has an almost religious connotation for some people. We tend to forget that protocols are not moral directives or standards of value. This is when protocols become dangerous.

For instance, Western philosophers must follow a specific set of protocols in order for any piece of writing to be taken seriously by their community. Otherwise, it will be ignored, like the Japanese cell phone protocol would be ignored by the American one. One must exhibit the understanding of the Western philosophical tradition by making references to important figures of the past and by using historically loaded terms. One must follow a specific rhetorical strategy (e.g., providing arguments, facts, proofs, and conclusions) and a format (e.g., footnotes, rules of citation). One must also provide a credential (e.g., professorship, associations with well-known institutions, etc..).

These protocols have been established for so long that they command a sense of authority independent of the content. This is a scenario where protocols themselves are interpreted, not their content. Thus when a submission of writing follows the protocols faithfully, it is assumed to be substantial. This was vividly demonstrated by Alan Sokal when he submitted an entirely bogus essay called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text. His essay, despite it being entirely bogus, faithfully followed the protocols (rhetorical strategy, references, format, credential, etc..), and therefore was deemed substantial. In this sense, Sokal was a constructive hacker who exposed the abuse of protocols.

Into your critical writing, if you were to insert an expression of your feelings without providing reasons or logical explanations, the community of critical thinkers will quickly dismiss it. The same will happen if you were to refer to spiritual leaders like J. Krishnamurti, or to use astrology in your argument; they will tell you to go speak to a New Age publisher. In the West, “critical” thinking is synonymous with logical thinking. If your arguments are not logical, then it is judged non-critical.

Shu-Hsien Liu said, “It is precisely because the Chinese mind is so rational that it refuses to become rationalistic and ... to separate form from content.” I believe the same can be said of women. In a typical Mars-Venus situation, men feel compelled to analyze feelings when women express them. From women’s point of view, to think that it can be logically explained already demonstrates men’s naiveté, but in the West, reason has been established as being superior to emotion. In fact, all that come naturally to men have been established as such. To command any authority in the West, one must conform to the protocols of men. This is the aspect of protocol that concerns me more; privileging of rational over physical and emotional via the use of protocols.

The advancement in information technology encourages further split of mind from body and emotion, and identification of self with one’s mind. When we use the word “I”, in general, we mean our minds, our thoughts, our rational selves. Our bodies are mere containers, and our emotions a mere communication mechanism between mind and body. Some say the Internet is liberating because it frees us from the limits and prejudices associated with our bodies, but from the perspective of the body as the “I”, what you are is what you are. Prejudices like racism are not the problems of the “I” as the body or the skin itself. The Internet encourages you to be further alienated from your own body and emotion. It allows you to essentially ignore the other “I”, never to come to terms with what you are as a whole. In this process, you become imbalanced, intellectually smart but emotionally stupid, and physically out of touch. The wisdom and the beauty of life that our emotions and bodies can offer, which are infinitely greater than our intelligence, are forever subordinated and suppressed. To the “I” that consists only of rational self, what is “material” is naturally another rational construct. That is, to a concept, another concept is “material” and what is physical is “immaterial”. This is how concepts like DNA become “life” itself.


Because of all these disagreements, you might think that I hated this book. Quite the contrary. I love books that make me think in my own way. The joy of reading critical writing lies in the fact that there are so many ways you can disagree with others. Digging into someone’s thought process is like solving a good puzzle. Critical writing for me is the most fascinating form of science fiction both to read and to write. For this reason, I would highly recommend this book.