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Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization

Author: Alexander R. Galloway
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: March 2005

 REVIEW 1: Jason Lesko

Given the quantity of research existing on the Internet/Web, NYU media ecology professor and cultural critic Alexander Galloway manages to find and explore another niche: the development of Web protocols that govern technology standards development. Galloway argues that power and control in contemporary society follow a particular diagram (the distributed network), technology (the digital computer), and management style (protocol). At its core, protocol is based on a fundamental contradiction in that it sets the rules for standardization to enable "radical openness" (143). For Galloway, protocol serves as a heuristic for introducing political considerations into the book while maintaining his analysis of them at the level of technology development and deployment. He traces "protocological" control through a diverse collection of vignettes, attempting to illustrate the various permutations that control takes in the Web and its technological infrastructure. Galloway's combination of a political-historical reading of protocol with a cultural studies approach to the cultural forms produced through the Web uncovers how the dialectic of control and creative potential plays out in the Web's development.

Galloway outlines his argument in three sections: "How Control Exists after Decentralization"; "Failures of Protocol"; and "Protocol Futures." In the first section, he describes how control exists in the current era of decentralized computer networks. Galloway frames his discussion of protocol by showing how the logic or demands of a prevailing machine, organizational diagram, and management form define a socio-historical period. He focuses on what he calls the control society, which operates on the network-enabled digital computer. Its organizational diagram is distribution, which characterizes the primary structure and operational logic of the Web. The diagram is the distributed network, which is a structural form without a center. Coincidentally, an insidious form of control called protocol manages this distributed network. Protocol is "a set of technical procedures for defining, managing, modulating, and distributing information through a flexible yet robust delivery infrastructure" (xv). It is the principle of organization native to computers, and serves as its management style.

Protocols manage networks by guiding their function to an ideal of "regulated flow," which non-hierarchically distributes information but passes it through sites hierarchically managed by a naming system, which determines their location. Protocol takes the form of two important and ubiquitous networking standards: TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) and DNS (Domain Name System). The Web exists as a dialectical structure of lateral distribution (TCP/IP) and vertical integration (DNS). TCP/IP represents the basic form of communication on the Web. This protocol enables peer-to-peer connections and information sharing while rendering them a transparent functionality of the Web. Conversely, DNS is the protocol whereby every address on the web is submitted to an inverted-tree structure as evidenced by the website's URL. It limits the number of domains considerably to major categories such as business (.com), non-profit (.org), and the country of origin (.jp, .uk, etc.), which correspond to a limited number of physically located root servers. It limits the number of domains considerably to major categories such as business, non-profit, and the country of origin. It is an essential step in gaining access to the TCP/IP-distributed web of addresses and network names, and, Galloway argues, it represents a weakness of the distributed network. Entire countries can be removed from the Web merely by deleting its root DNS entry (.aus, for example).

In the book's second section, "Failures of Protocol," Galloway argues that the Web's protocological structures work to the extent that the software running various elements of the Web maintains interoperability. The rise of commercial Web technologies and their proprietary standards represent an inability of protocol "to blossom fully as a management diagram" (120). The Web's protocological standards compete against the proprietary standards, which are the "trademark" of Internet commercialization. Each undermines the other. Protocol's power of social organization is constituted as a shared ground between different interest groups and technological artifacts. Thus, protocol is the staging ground for power and its resistance. It is enacted in Web designers' and network administrators' abidance to the spirit of interoperability that defines protocol. Therefore, protocol's power is reflected in the uniformity in the design and accessibility of content. Groups that mobilize protocol to suit their software and networking interests weaken protocological control. In other words, protocol is a value and its observance, making it potentially contestable every moment new operating code is introduced to the Web.

"Failures of Protocol" explores an important, core contradiction of protocol. Protocol is both politically radical and conservative. It accomplishes this by setting the standards for network activity to ensure "radical openness" to information (143). To illustrate this, Galloway isolates the activity of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as the group that develops the protocols that become standards. Galloway claims that the IETF is where most of the protocol initiatives start out. The protocols begin in a document called a Request for Comments (RFC). RFCs are the central activity of the IETF, and they document both the emergence of the IETF and its protocols. RFCs present Galloway with a transparent view of the values and standards for networking that get worked out among the engineers and programmers who form the IETF. Before becoming standards, protocols develop through a three-stage process starting at proposal, to draft, and, finally, to their enactment as a standard. Importantly, Galloway shows that the IETF is governed by a more "ragtag, shoot-from-the-hip attitude" about standards (130). Nevertheless, the IETF is a bureaucratic institution whose standards ensure open and free information sharing, which exemplifies the contradictory nature of protocological control. Protocol's fundamental contradiction exists in its simultaneity as a latent feature of objects and the rules by which one uses them. This suggests that protocol is Galloway's shorthand for the dynamic interplay of process and outcome in the development of a technology and its operating social context.

The book's third section, "Protocol Futures," explores the development of the logics of protocol in the cultural expressions found on the Web. Galloway looks at the art and politics of hackers as indices of the changes in protocol on the Web. Hackers are an allegory of protocol. They are created by it; they know it better than most anyone and are "protocological actors par excellence" (157). The keenest example of this is the computer virus, which operates within the logical parameters of the digital computer and the network but whose destructive potential arises from its ability to uncover and exploit weaknesses. These are areas where proprietary software fails to interface correctly with networking protocols or fully embody its values for robust bug checks, which occur in open source projects of which the Web serves as the prime example. For Galloway, the vilification of viruses, then, becomes an index of the success that proprietary software developers have in framing the technology on which it operates to exclude such values and activities.

Galloway's discussion of Web technology and standards is the book's most cogent claim. His discussion of how hackers and other dissident elements on the Web illuminate the features of protocol begins to falter in several respects. He claims that hackers are motivated by the logic of the code that runs the Web. Galloway's argument models hackers as rational actors by making their actions merely faithful expressions of the Web's protocol logic. Hacks follow a logic, which he distinguishes from another form of hacking called social engineering. In Hacker Culture (2002), Douglas Thomas counters this distinction, arguing that hacker culture is about hacking culture and that the language of hackers represents this very notion -- overturning the logic in its use. Thomas' discussion more clearly outlines the way that hackers overextend the logic of protocol by blurring the distinction between machine logic and cultural logic. In this sense, Galloway's analysis too narrowly focuses on hacking as a computer activity bound in its operational logic without pursuing its significance as a cultural activity.

This shortcoming aside, Galloway's argument develops several insightful concepts for the study of the Internet as a political artifact. His discussion of RFCs and the institutionalization of Web protocols, along with his overall theoretical concept of protocol, are Galloway's most important contributions to the study of Web technology. Protocol is a fitting companion to Lawrence Lessig’s work -- Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) and The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (2001) -- for those interested in exploring the significance of Net law and its material manifestation in software and hardware design. Lessig's work presents a persuasive argument about how control over content of the Web, in the form of intellectual copyright, presents the Web's concession to commercial entities operating there. Galloway's argument demonstrates how protocol operates on two registers simultaneously: technology development and implementation. Galloway shows how the influence on Web design and technology works from both directions: from the governing technological protocols and from the broader shifts in Web use. Each activity has a hand in shaping the Web's future, and Galloway's concept, protocol, offers new focal points for study as we explore the nature of control in technologies developed for social organization.

Lessig L. (1999). Code and other laws of cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.

Lessig, L. (2001). The future of ideas: The fate of the commons in a connected world. New York: Random House.

Thomas, D. (2002). Hacker culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Jason Lesko:
Jason Lesko is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication and pursuing Science and Technology Policy certification at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His current projects focus on technology and meaning-formation and technology use as performance.  <Jason.Lesko@colorado.edu>

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