Felix Stalder on Tue, 17 May 2005 17:44:04 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> The Ghost in the Network

On Monday, 16. May 2005 12:56, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker wrote:>

> We suggest that this opposition between closed and open is flawed. It
> unwittingly perpetuates one of today's most insidious political myths,
> that the state and capital are the two sole instigators of control.
> Instead of the open/closed opposition we suggest the pairing
> physical/social. The so-called open logics of control, those associated
> with (non proprietary) computer code or with the Internet protocols,
> operate primarily using a physical model of control. For example,
> protocols interact with each other by physically altering and amending
> lower protocological objects (IP prefixes its header onto a TCP data
> object, which prefixes its header onto an HTTP object, and so on). But
> on the other hand, the so-called closed logics of state and commercial
> control operate primarily using a social model of control. For, example,
> Microsoft's commercial prowess is renewed via the social activity of
> market exchange. Or, using another example, Digital Rights Management
> licenses establish a social relationship between producers and
> consumers, a social relationship backed up by specific legal realities
> (DMCA). Viewed in this way, we find it self evident that physical
> control (i.e. protocol) is equally powerful if not more so than social
> control. Thus, we hope to show that if the topic at hand is one of
> control, then the monikers of "open" and "closed" simply further confuse
> the issue. Instead we would like to speak in terms of "alternatives of
> control" whereby the controlling logic of both "open" and "closed"
> systems is brought out into the light of day.

I think this equation of "protocol = control", which is also the core of 
Galloway's stimulating book [1], is fundamentally flawed, because it mixes 
terms in ways that is not helpful to a critical political analysis.

A protocol, technical or social, is a series of standards which regulate 
how different entities can interact without the establishment of a formal 
hierarchy. Remember, the term originated in the context of exchanges 
between the king and foreign diplomats. The key about this relationship 
was that the diplomats were not the king's subjects, yet the diplomats 
were the equal to the king. They were different. The purpose of a protocol 
was to allow them to interact without the establishment of a formal 

To argue that the protocol now, somehow, controlled the king and the 
diplomats seems strange. The same problem occurs when arguing that the 
Internet Protocol is somehow the ultimate controlling mechanism of the 
Internet. The fact that communication takes place within certain 
constraints, which enable communication in the first place, does not 
equate control. Rather, constraints on one level (the protocol of 
communication) can provide the grounds for freedom on an other level 
(content of communication). This is social theory 101.

The whole argument of protocol = control seems to rest on a somewhat 
unimaginative reading of Foucault's micro physics of power, in which he 
argued that language itself is a main source of power and that the 
establishment of categories (e.g. madness) was itself a supreme act of 
power.  To transfer this one-on-one to protocols of communication 
networks, yields yet another control phantasy (or nightmare, depending on 
your agenda). The only choice it leaves you is to jump into a some sort of 
'pre-social' state. And this is precisely what Galloway & Thacker offer 

> Unplug from the grid. Plug into your friends. Adhocracy will rule.
> Autonomy and security will only happen when telecommunications operate
> around ad hoc networking. Syndicate yourself to the locality.

What we have here is the 'social' vs. the 'technical', and the 'unplanned' 
vs. the 'planned'. Why this should lead to more freedom is dubious. Unless 
we understand freedom as absence of rules and control as presence of 
rules. This, however, is a very misleading understanding of these 
concepts, as has been argued often, not the least by in the feminist 
critique of the anti-authoritarian social movements of the late 1960s. [2]

PS: I am not arguing that protocols cannot be used as mechanism of social 
control. Rather, this has to be established on a case-by-case basis, 
rather than pronouncing protocols as means of control per se.

[1] Galloway, Alexander R. (2004). Protocol: How Control Exists After 
Decentralization. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press

[2] Freeman, Jo (1972). The Tyranny of Structurelessness. The Second Wave. 
Vol. 2 No. 1 http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm



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