In its contemporary media context, protocol refers to “standards governing the implementation of specific technologies.”1
Originally derived from the Greek protokollon, protos meaning “first” and kola “glue,” which designated a flyleaf glued to the front of documents to guarantee their authenticity, the word was absorbed into Latin, French, and eventually English, taking on a number of new meanings in the process.2
The technological definition of protocol was shaped by a convergence of certain connotations and denotations of its other definitions, especially those related to diplomacy, the natural sciences, and behavioral etiquette.
In the context of diplomacy, protocol describes the formal rules that should be followed in order to establish agreeable relations between different national or governmental entities.3 The emphasis placed here on formality as a means of bridging difference and enabling cooperation is taken up by technological protocol, which also relies on formalized standards to allow communication between foreign devices and systems. Alexander Galloway, in his book Protocol, captures this homology between the diplomatic and technological uses of protocol, “Like their diplomatic predecessors, computer protocols establish the essential points necessary to enact an agreed-upon standard of action.”4 For both computer and diplomatic networks, then, protocol designates standardized modes of interaction between foreign entities that enable the establishment of working relations.
Computer protocol is formal not only in the sense of conventionality, as described above, but also in that technological protocols specify the formal requirements of a given interchange or operation, the “how” something will be done, and remain largely indifferent to the content of the interaction. Protocol’s association with form over content may be related to its usage in the field of natural science, wherein it details the method of carrying out an experiment, the how, while excluding the experiment’s results and findings, the what. Protocol in most of its usages encompasses this notion of formality, from the military sector, wherein it elaborates the chain of command that must be adhered to, regardless of the content of the order, or in terms of etiquette, which lays the guidelines or rules of how to behave, but not necessarily the particulars of what to say, wear, eat, and so forth. Galloway aptly acknowledges the formal continuity between scientific, behavioral, and new media protocol, “[Technological] protocols are highly formal; that is, they encapsulate information inside a technically defined wrapper, while remaining relatively indifferent to the content of information contained within.”5
Protocol’s formality, in both of the senses discussed, as standardized and empty of content, is crucial not only in its allowance of interactions between disparate entities, but also in its enabling of highly complex structures to be assembled around a core of uniform protocological principles. These complex structures range across new media objects from electronic databases, to the Internet, to programming languages. Each of these structures is modular, meaning they are built from smaller modules that accord to the same principles of interaction and organization as the total structure.6 The modules constitutive of the total structure can in turn be viewed modularly, as built from even more derivative modules. Conversely, the larger structure itself could be integrated into an even larger totality, becoming one module among many. Protocol elaborates the guidelines that each module must follow to ensure compatibility amongst modules.
From the various meanings discussed above, then, protocol conforms perfectly to the fourth definition of “medium” set forth by the Oxford English Dictionary, “An intermediate agency, instrument, or channel.” In a very precise sense, protocol is both the channel through and instrument by which new media objects communicate, collaborate, and otherwise interact. However, protocol constitutes a medium only insofar as media is taken in the sense of a particular mode of instrumentality, such as lanes mediating traffic flow, and not in a more generalized abstract sense, such as a canvas and paint comprising the medium of painting.
Perhaps the most significant and widely referred to technological protocol is TCP/IP, which governs the transmission of information over the Internet. IP abbreviates “Internet Protocol” and provides the protocol for basic communication over the network,7 specifying the procedure for sending data from one place to another and for breaking the data into manageable chunks.8 TCP abbreviates “Transmission Control Protocol” and provides additional capabilities needed by applications to transfer data over networks,9 such as ensuring data was received by the receiver.10 Though a number of network protocols predated TCP/IP and enabled communication between distributed devices, the key shift responsible for popularizing TCP/IP, and in turn creating the Internet as it is known today, was the openness of its protocol. In other words, the details of TCP/IP were made available to anyone, and so to connect to the Internet network one had to merely to follow the published protocols.11
Invoking Deleuzian terminology, the TCP/IP protocol constitutes the framework for a rhizomatic network. Whereas military protocol would be, as classed by Deleuze, arboreal, i.e., structured according to a set hierarchy and allowing for only certain interactions, (the infantry does not communicate directly with the general), TCP/IP is designated “peer-to-peer,” meaning that any device is an equal to every other device and thus any device on the network may communicate with any other. As illustrated by TCP/IP, protocol not only designates a form or standard of interaction, but in its very formulation implies the structure of a network.
While TCP/IP is responsible for the prevailing notion of the Internet as an egalitarian and even anarchic network, another protocol equally necessary to its functioning, called Domain Name System (DNS), is decidedly arboreal and thus runs counter to these popular conceptions. As implied by its title, DNS establishes the protocol for translating domain names, e.g., www.uchicago.edu, into IP addresses understandable to computers. These addresses are defined by an inverted tree schema such that the end of the address specifies the most general locale, equivalent to what state a home is in for a traditional address, and then slowly narrows the field of information, to city, street, etc, until it arrives at the desired site. Obviously, this movement from generality to specificity implies an arboreally structured protocol constructed around privileged sites, roots and nodes that must be relied upon.
Notably, an obsolete definition of protocol has slowly come back to prominence within media and cultural theory circles. In this extinct definition, protocol, now functioning as a verb, meant, “To influence (a person) by or as if by a protocol; to use diplomatic means to persuade (someone).”12 An exemplary sentence employing this usage reads, “The French… quietly enjoying the plight into which they had protocolled his self-complacent Lordship.”13 This usage associates protocol with an indirect and subtle mechanism of control, even coercion, that occurs without the controlled person’s knowledge, and perhaps even with his or her willingness. In Protocol, Galloway both lauds technological protocols for their anti-patriarchal, egalitarian and creative potential, but also warns that protocol tends to become increasingly “coextensive with humanity’s productive forces, and ultimately becomes the blueprint for humanity’s innermost desires about the world and how it ought to be lived in.”14 This aspect of protocol, “makes [it] dangerous,” he says in the Foucauldian sense of concretizing our contingent and otherwise immaterial desires and, in so doing, taking on authoritarian hold over our beings.15 To “protocol” someone or something, then, is to make externally inculcated desires appear inborn and coextensive with the possibilities afforded by the protocol responsible for forming and channeling them in the first instance. In other words, to protocol someone into performing some act is to make she or he misrecognize the motivating desire which was imposed from the outside as naturally arising from within.
Along similar lines, in The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich considers the implications of protocol, here in the form of the “computer interface,” which defines the rules of user interaction with a given application, in externalizing the processes of mind. Manovich worries that protocols may be mechanisms serving to standardize subjects, making them more amenable to the exigencies of mass-consumer society. For Manovich, the proliferation of protocols may radically externalize thought so that it conforms to the logics of the interfaces with which it interacts. However, since the protocols governing thought are decided and defined according to corporate and commercial dictates, the machinations of our mind come to coincide with these interests. Manovich compares such an externalization of the mind via protocological identification to a post-industrial form of Althusserian interpellation. The logic of interpellation works according to the “always-already” of subjective formation. An individual, in the mere act of responding to a “hailing,” a call, for example “hello daughter,” misrecognizes herself as having always-already been the subject called out to, as having always-already been “the daughter.” In actuality, however, the subject is constituted at the moment the hailing occurs, and only retroactively projects the newly occupied subject position backwards as what they always-already were. Similarly, Manovich believes that interaction with computer protocols leads the user to misrecognize his thought processes as aligning with the operations made available by the computer’s protocol when, in fact, the protocol is actively constituting and externalizing the very contours of the user’s thoughts. Manovich states, “We are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own… The computer user is asked to follow the mental trajectory of the new media designer.”16 The mental trajectory of this designer, of course, is inscribed by the protocol s/he implements and is only later to be misrecognized later as the user’s own.
As can be discerned from its variety of usages, both within and across contexts, protocol is marked by a certain connotative ambivalence. While in itself protocol always and only designates specific formal standards of interaction, within this designation reside a number of ethical and hegemonic concerns centered on issues of agency and control.
Often, the visibility and transparency of a given protocol constitutes the rubric by way of which its impact, whether positive or negative, is measured. For example, the accessibility and transparency of diplomatic and TCP/IP protocols make them not only usable but also open to analysis and comprehension, thus garnering a degree of trust for their protocological principles. Conversely, as Manovich and Galloway demonstrate, protocol is most dangerous precisely when it is not acknowledged as operating at all, i.e., when protocological control is mistaken by the user for the enactment of her own sovereign will.
A second rubric by way of which the implications of a protocol are assessed is the systemic structure and lines of determination the protocol will enact. As discussed above, specific protocols facilitate certain modes of interaction that in turn structure networks. Hobbesian political theorists, for example, would likely favor a top-down arboreal structure with the sovereign placed at the root-node. Democratic systems, on the other hand, while also structured arboreally, are, unlike Hobbes’ top-down model, structured bottom-up, such that the flow of determination travels from the leaf-nodes (the masses) up to the offices of governance, and subsequently back down. Similar to McLuhan’s maxim “the medium is the message,” protocol’s meaning, positive or negative, is often directly tied to the structure it gives rise to.