- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Thursday, 27 August 2009 09:00
- Written by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker
This was originally posted on the nettime.org mailing list.
Kasama does not necessarily share the analysis being provided, but we are posting this because it poses a provocative framework for envisioning political organization and strategy.
THE LIMITS OF NETWORKING
A reply to Lovink and Schneider's "Notes on the State of Networking"
by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker
The question we aim to explore here is: what is the principle of political organization or control that stitches a network together? Writers like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have helped answer this question in the socio-political sphere using the concept of "Empire." Like a network, Empire is not reducible to any single state power, nor does it follow an architecture of pyramidal hierarchy. Empire is fluid, flexible, dynamic, and far-reaching. In that sense, the concept of Empire helps us greatly to begin thinking about political organization in networks. But like Lovink and Schneider, we are concerned that no one has yet adequately answered this question for the technological sphere of bits and atoms.
To this end, the principle of political control we suggest is most helpful for thinking about technological networks is "protocol," a word derived from computer science but which resonates in the life sciences as well. Protocol abounds in techno-culture. It is a totalizing control apparatus that guides both the technical and political formation of computer networks, biological systems and other media. Put simply, protocols are all the conventional rules and standards that govern relationships within networks. Quite often these relationships come in the form of communication between two or more computers, but "relationships within networks" can also refer to purely biological processes as in the systemic phenomenon of gene expression. Thus by "networks" we want to refer to any system of interrelationality, whether biological or informatic, organic or inorganic, technical or natural--with the ultimate goal of undoing the polar restrictiveness of these pairings.
In computer networks, science professionals have, over the years, drafted hundreds of protocols to govern email, web pages, and so on, plus many other standards for technologies rarely seen by human eyes. The first protocols for computer networks were written in 1969 by Steve Crocker and others. If networks are the structures that connect people, then protocols are the rules that make sure the connections actually work.
Likewise, molecular biotechnology research frequently makes use of protocol to configure biological life as a network phenomenon, be it in gene expression networks, metabolic networks, or the circuitry of cell signaling pathways. In such instances, the biological and the informatic become increasingly enmeshed in hybrid systems that are more than biological: proprietary genome databases, DNA chips for medical diagnostics, and real-time detection systems for biowarfare agents. Protocol is twofold; it is both an apparatus that facilitates networks and also a logic that governs how things are done within that apparatus.
From the large technological discourse of white papers, memos, and manuals, we can derive some of the basic qualities of the apparatus of organization which we here call protocol:
+ protocol facilitates relationships between interconnected, but autonomous, entities;
+ protocol's virtues include robustness, contingency, interoperability, flexibility, and heterogeneity;
+ a goal of protocol is to accommodate everything, no matter what source or destination, no matter what originary definition or identity;
+ while protocol is universal, it is always achieved through negotiation (meaning that in the future protocol can and will be different).
+ protocol is a system for maintaining organization and control in networks;
We agree wholeheartedly with Lovink and Schneider's observation that "networks are the emerging form of organization of our time." And we agree that, due to this emerging form of organization, "networking has lost its mysterious and subversive character."
Yet they also note that, despite being the site of control and organization, networks are also the very medium of freedom, if only a provisional or piecemeal liberation. They write that networking is able "to free the user from the bonds of locality and identity." And later they describe networking as "a syncope of power."
In this sense, Lovink and Schneider posit power as the opposite of networking, as the force that restricts networking and thus restricts individual freedom: