Working notes for Summer of Protocols
May 27, 2023
I participated in the Summer of Protocols research program this summer as a Core Researcher. It was an 18-week program, funded by the Ethereum Foundation, that aimed to catalyze a wider exploration of protocols and their social implications.
I decided to focus on protocols as systems of social control, and whether they help or hinder human agency. Protocols have a very technical meaning for the internet (HTTP, TCP/IP, IP, etc), but are also used in a variety of other sectors in nontechnical ways (diplomacy, healthcare, emergency response, etc). I want to develop a unified history of protocols, through this lens of control, that shows how these different types are interrelated – then use that to better predict the role that protocols will play in our near future.
I thought it might be useful to share my working notes from this process, especially since Summer of Protocols is an interesting meta-experiment in funding a cohort of independent researchers. I tried to keep these summaries fairly condensed, with major themes and challenges that I worked through.
The final product will be published in coming months; I’ll link to it from here when it’s available. Enjoy!
[last updated: September 12 2023]
Weeks 17-18 (Aug 21 - Sep 1)
What did it all mean?
- Finished revisions and turned in final draft. It sounds a bit silly to say, but only once I finished the draft was I able to zoom out and think about “What did this all mean?,” why this piece evolved in the direction it did, and how it ties to other ideas that have been rattling around in my head
- I’ve noticed that “agency” has been a recurring theme for me. It’s been implicit in my work for a very long time from the perspective of funding, creators, and the tension between open source maintainers <> community expectations. In recent years, I’ve thought about agency as an essential part of tech culture and what makes it special; as a distinctly American value (America as an idea, not the literal nation state); and as an underlying conflict between worldviews today (I wrote about this a bit wrt a widespread fear of the future and having kids). I’ve also thought about when technology enables greater levels of agency (as I think a lot of tools do), and when it hinders or engenders a lack of agency (the worst effects of social media and smartphones, which are very good at hijacking the mind)
- Although I didn’t go into this research program with an explicit focus on agency, I can see it clearly in my final output (funny how that works), and this project has definitely helped me clarify my own feelings on the topic
- I think my hesitation around embracing protocols as a unilaterally positive future development comes from this ambiguity about whether “protocolized mindsets” increase or decrease human agency, which I find particularly concerning because it seems like there’s a lack of consistency in how we describe the benefits of protocols. In a modern, technological context, they’re seen as a way to enable more customization and interoperability. But in a historical and theoretical context, they’ve always been a way of standardizing and reducing decision making. That makes me feel more hesitant about accepting the utopian view of protocols. Do we really understand what protocols are for, or is this just hopeful rhetoric that distracts us from engaging with more serious problems around the decline of agency today, and its root causes?
Weeks 15-16 (Aug 7-18)
- We’re in the final stretch! My updates are fairly boring from this period; I’ve been heads down revising a semi-final draft of my SoP essay, which I shared with a few other researchers for feedback
- Hardest thing to pin down has been how to describe the evolution, and increased entrenchment, of protocols over time. The first iteration was “material layers” (how protocols exist on everything from e.g. physical infrastructure -> social -> identity layers), second iteration gave it more directionality to suggest that protocols don’t just exist on these layers, but move from explicit to implicit over time
- But Eric gave the feedback - and I agree - that I’m being too prescriptive with that directionality; that protocols don’t always perfectly move in one direction from e.g. hard infrastructure to social institutions, but that they might iterate and loop recursively. So I revised it for a third time to reflect that multi-directionality, while also remaining somewhat opinionated that protocols, as they become more deeply entrenched, ultimately become indistinguishable from our identities. I think I’m happy with this final version now
Weeks 13-14 (July 24 - Aug 4)
In-person time is good
- We had our SoP retreat in Seattle. Face-to-face time was so important and long overdue. I wish we’d done this at the beginning of the program!
- Getting together in person helped me see what the common themes / agenda were among our work. I think this is especially important when a field is very nascent or undefined. You need some common language and experience to ground everyone’s work, otherwise people are working in silos
- Talking about bad protocols (see below) also evolved into the “Kafka Index” (Rafa’s term), a list of evaluative criteria, which I’m going to try to refine as a companion artifact for my essay. Definitely the kind of thing that would’ve only come out of having in-person collaboration time for a few days
Tricks for defining hard-to-define concepts
- Turns out, talking about protocol dystopia (i.e. bad protocols) is way more generative than trying to describe “what is a protocol” from scratch. It’s a lot easier to identify the bad vs. the good (because when something is good, you don’t notice it as much), which you can then invert to get an idea of what a good protocol looks like
- We also did a session on “protocol humor,” which helped us define protocols in a more roundabout way, because humor is easy and intuitive to identify (something makes you laugh, or it doesn’t), and thinking about why it is/isn’t humorous exposes all the fault lines of a concept
Do protocols control or liberate us?
- In our “imagined protocol futures” session, I noticed that many people seemed to imagine protocolized futures as having a lot of customization and interoperability. This seems in line with how protocols are typically discussed in a software / social benefit context, but doesn’t match the definition of protocols in the abstract. Protocols historically seem to exist to simplify decisionmaking
- To me, a protocolized future is almost certainly highly controlling and constraining - not one where we have a ton of choice. I don’t think it necessarily has to be dystopian, but at the very least, it seems like the opposite of a highly customizable future. (This is the rhetorical disconnect I keep noticing about protocols, which is what I’ve been trying to explore this summer!)
Weeks 11-12 (July 10 - 21)
Revising my draft based on feedback, and making difficult cuts
- Threw out my “material layers” diagram, which I realize doesn’t really make sense anymore, given what I’ve learned. It’s now turning into evolutionary “stages of protocolization,” but I’m still testing the connection between theory and application (i.e. does this model work for all the examples I’ve been working with?)
- The major examples I was previously hoping to center this piece around now feel like they don’t fit my definition of protocols anymore, as I’ve gained a better understanding. Think I’m gonna have to cut most of them, which is painful (especially given how much time I spent trying to understand them!) but necessary
- Cut out a lot of my 3rd-party references, which felt good. Need a word for the research equivalent of “legalese,” where it’s tempting to add lots of citations to “show your work,” but ends up making the paper too convoluted and inaccessible and uninteresting. I feel especially vulnerable to it in a cohort setting where I’m getting a lot more feedback/suggestions from others than usual
- A lot of people seemed to resonate with my concept of “weakly vs. strongly expressed” protocols, so I’m going to lean into that more, though Eric pointed out that these terms don’t seem to quite convey my intent, given that “weakly” expressed protocols are more powerful. I’m going to call them “implicit vs. explicit” protocols instead
Weeks 9-10 (June 26 - July 7)
The not-fun parts of the writing process
- Slogging through first draft of essay. I’m writing it piece-by-piece before synthesizing it into a whole, which isn’t my usual style. Usually, after the research phase, I can sense what “the whole thing” should look like before I start editing, but this time I feel like I can’t see the whole thing yet, which is frustrating
- Finding myself in a familiar place where I kinda hate my current draft because it’s too reliant on others’ authority vs. on my own. I notice this is a tempting crutch when writing about a topic I’m new to or unsure about. I think it’s a subconscious attempt to establish credibility (by “showing one’s work”)
- I need to fight that temptation, so…that means throwing out a lot of my original essay! Which is painful, but I think it’s a good practice. I still think all that background work was useful in a lit review-sort of way, I just don’t need to include it all in the final piece
- The Affiliate Researchers joined the SoP cohort, which served as a sort of midway checkpoint. We were asked to share rough first drafts to get feedback from others, as well as “pitching” our topics to affiliates in speed dating format. This was a difficult exercise for me to do midway through my synthesis process. I did get some helpful feedback, but it was overwhelming to parse through others’ thoughts, and defend or explain certain ideas, while also trying to grapple with them myself. Kinda felt like being woken up while in the middle of a deep dream
- SoP has been a very different process from how I typically work. I don’t think I prefer it, but from a personal development standpoint, it’s probably good mental cross-training to try working in a different style from how I’m used to, if only to help me figure out what I do/don’t like
Exploring my aversions to postmodern thinking
- Revisited some postmodern work because I’m writing about control, but found myself regretting it as usual. I don’t know why postmodernism gets under my skin so much, it’s like a very reflexive allergy
- Mused about this with Venkat in our Discord a bit, his reaction was that they “squat on all topics regardless of how well or poorly they grok it;” “good to have in a big discourse, but bad as stewards of the discourse for everybody.” This feels right to me
- Relatedly, I do worry about my output from this summer being too theoretical; I really don’t like to live at this level of abstraction. But because protocols are such a poorly-defined topic, it felt necessary to zoom out a bit and try to understand them from a more fundamental place. If I’d had a narrower focus, I think I’d feel stuck on what conclusions to draw, because there are no “schools of thought” or shared prior thinking about protocols in the world already. So, I think I know how I got here…but I still feel a bit out of my element
- A shared theme among Core Researchers seems to be that the notion of protocols is just…so broad (or as Dorian put it, “shotgun-blasted across the internet”) that it’s been hard to build a coherent discourse around it. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s been feeling this way!
The role of humor in research
- Venkat and I also talked about the importance of humor in research. I think this is especially true when dabbling in abstract thinkwork (and again, part of my aversion to postmodern thinking, which I find too serious and humorless)
- But even for research more generally, I think humor is helpful as a way of keeping one’s mind open, which helps form unexpected connections between ideas. I find The Discourse to be far too literal and lacking playfulness today; ex. “cringe” is IMO a dangerous concept that stifles creativity
Weeks 7-8 (June 12-23)
Did philosophy die with the early internet?
- It’s weird that there’s this whole string of philosophers that wrote about control and protocols and technology up til, like, the 1990s or early 2000s, and then…what? I had this same feeling while researching open source, too (which is why I wrote Working in Public!)
- It’s like, people had so much to say about the internet in its early days, and then (IMO) the internet got REALLY weird in the 2010s, and suddenly no one has anything to say about it? The 1990s/2000s era looks nothing like the 2010s/2020s era, but I feel like our current era is woefully undertheorized. The only people who write about it now are much more grounded and political, like those who study misinformation or mental health effects from a social science perspective, or chronicle weird internet subcultures from a more journalistic perspective. Those people existed in the early internet days too, but that’s not what I’m looking for. (There’s also plenty of theorizing on random blogs and corners of the internet, of course, but why don’t those conversations live on a bigger stage? Are those conversations enduring? Will anyone remember them, 50 years from now?)
- My secret, cynical theory is that we are so completely numbed and overwhelmed by information these days that we simply don’t think in these more abstract terms anymore (and I think it’s that numbness that I want to capture in this piece somehow). Or maybe we still do, but it all gets lost in idle musings on Twitter or in group chats or messages to each other. I’m not trying to be regressive in wishing for a rosier time where cyberpunk philosophy was a thing, because that’s not even what I want today, I just find myself wanting…something, some deeper level of dialogue, that seemed to exist throughout the entire 20th century and then mysteriously disappeared in the 21st
The inevitable panic stage of research
- Starting to panic a bit about needing to have something to show Affiliate Researchers by the July 5th kickoff. I don’t like sharing half-finished drafts until it’s really polished and done, but this program is structured to have a “checkpoint” of sorts, so I need to figure out how to create something that’s shareable, while also not disturbing my own messy process. It feels like having to clean up my metaphorical desk in the middle of a creative project to show visitors around. I like having my papers all strewn about!
- Decided to take a step back and reassess my research direction. My current strategy was going through each material layer and doing a deep dive on “case studies” for each one, in hopes that a common understanding of protocols would emerge. But it’s honestly turned into a bit of a slog, and I’m not sure I’ll get much more benefit from continuing down this path, vs. zooming out and starting to try to pull all this into a draft
- In the end, I think the material layers are gonna be just one snippet of this essay, and I’ve learned enough so far. More important to try to synthesize what I’m saying overall. So that’s what I’m gonna do instead
- I like this line from Galloway about how protocols aren’t good or bad, they’re just “dangerous,” so I’m gonna try to use that as my framing (and title!)
- I have this notion of “strongly” vs “weakly” expressed protocols that still feels important to include, too. Protocols that we know are governing us, vs. being unaware of their control
Weeks 5-6 (May 29-June 9)
Protocols as an industrial phenomenon and beyond
- Read The Control Revolution, which a few people recommended to me (thank you!). Beniger’s thesis is that the “control revolution” (information processing society) was a direct outcome of the Industrial Revolution, and the loss of control that resulted from the rapid increase in production/distribution/consumption
- I imagine we could say a similar thing about “cultural protocols” today emerging as a direct result of the Social Age in the 2010s (which feels distinct to me from the onset of digitization / i.e. birth of the internet…we need a better name for this that’s not Web 2.0) and the loss of social control that came from context collapse? Which I think sparked a new era of protocols (“weakly expressed” / harder to pin down)
- Not sure exactly how to describe this newer set of protocols yet, or why those differences exist. I think it has something to do with exerting control in digital / nontangible spaces vs. physical ones, but I’m not sure yet
- I feel like I’ve been dancing around this topic for awhile now though, from multiple angles! Antimimetics, proprioception as the primary sense for moving through nonphysical spaces today, etc. It’s all related…somehow…
- Also, this seems obvious now in retrospect, but I’m realizing that protocols kinda just…weren’t a thing, pre-industrialization? Surely there were still some informal social protocols, and the word existed (in a different context), but I can’t imagine that protocols, as we understand them today, were really relevant or even identifiable as a social construct?
Researching material layers (May 15-26)
- I expected to be more interested in the Freud/Jung era of psychoanalysis in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but I ended up getting sucked more into the personality test frameworks that were first developed after WWI and rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, and how they are used to sort people, especially in hiring contexts
- I’ve been rabbitholing on corporate towns as heavily “protocolized” physical environments. Drew made a great point in distinguishing company towns as more like platforms, vs. e.g. bottoms-up Jacobs-esque urban neighborhoods as more like protocols, which could probably be a whole research topic in itself!
- I think the notion of company towns as platforms (vs. bottoms-up planning as protocols) is correct, based on the common definitions of protocols vs. platforms. But now, from the perspective of my more generalized definition of protocols as systems of social control, I think platforms are really not that different from protocols? Or maybe they’re a sub-category of protocols? And maybe we’ve been making this false distinction between them for political reasons. Platforms are certainly a more “all-in-one” solution, but they still serve the same fundamental purpose as a protocol
- I think the notion that protocols are customizable or extensible at all is itself an illusion of control. We like protocols (in the political, anti-platform sense) because we think they give us more control, but protocols are actually always in control. (“Greatest trick the devil ever played,” etc)
- Looking at how protocols are intertwined with promises for social reform. “Give up a bit of control / enter into this social contract, and you will experience XYZ social benefits”
Running our research meeting
- Angela and I ran our research meeting for the group on our shared theme, “unconscious protocols”
- One takeaway from our exercise + discussion was that even when we think we’re subverting a protocol, we’re often just redirecting the energy (but still complying with the rules). If you break out of the protocol entirely, you’d also need to exit the ecosystem that supports it. TLDR protocols are very difficult to actually escape, if at all!
- Angela’s musings of “are we just talking about culture, not protocols?” and what the difference is between them, were also useful
Synchronicity is hard to manage against deep work
- A month+ into this program, I’m definitely struggling with the synchronicity of the SoP schedule. Because so many of the meetings are in the middle of my morning work block (time zones are hard to synchronize when everyone lives across the US and Europe), it makes it harder to for me get into a deep workflow. It’s been fun discussing with people and finding new ideas to tug on, but I feel like I haven’t made progress nearly as quickly on the actual research part as I would have liked. I need my quiet time in order to synthesize and make connections
- I don’t know what it is about morning work blocks, but I’ve noticed nearly every person I know who does creative work (especially research / writing) is very protective of their morning time, and I’m no different. I can’t have scheduled meetings before noon; it just blows up my whole day. So that’s been a challenge to manage this summer
Weeks 3-4 (May 1-12)
Looking for protocol literature
- Having a hard time finding any literature about protocols that isn’t purely technical, which I guess is unsurprising. I think I need to use my own definition of protocols to figure out what isn’t necessarily coded as protocols right now, then weave that story together myself
- I did re-read a old book I remembered I had about protocols and control, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. I remember thinking it was way too postmodern for my taste when I first read it, but it’s actually been quite useful to return to (though I still skimmed through a lot of the Foucault talk). It’s funny to consider where our common understanding of protocol governance was when I first read it in 2018, right after the first big crypto boom but well before the web3 era, and how much more relevant this book feels now. I think I wasn’t really able to place this book into modern context when I first read it, but I got a lot more out of it now.
Starting to flesh out my “material layers” of protocols
- Aka psychological, physical, social, technological, cultural layers. After reading Galloway’s book (see above), I’m sort of thinking about these as the various “corporeal” forms that protocols take
- Starting to work through each of these sub-themes as practical applications of my thesis, and hopefully come out with a more refined intuition for what “protocols” are vs. everything else (culture, norms, rituals, etc)
- I realized that each of these layers had a “golden era” of development in post-industrial history (I think?), which I’ve started to outline. I’m gonna try to do a deeper dive into each of those periods on their own, and also see if they string together into any sort of interesting chronology
- Had a useful convo with Angela about our shared interest in protocols that exist on the psychological layer (psychoanalysis, internal narratives, etc). We all have unconscious protocols (i.e. patterns of behavior) that dictate our reactions in any given situation, and these protocols are often hidden even to ourselves. We also often don’t know how we acquired these protocols, but can still be “trapped” (aka controlled) by them nonetheless.
Struggling to define what protocols are
- I’m surprised how much of a blocker this has been for me. It feels difficult to proceed with my current project scope until I understand where the boundaries are.
- I don’t normally like to get this meta, but I think it’s important, given that this is a nascent field of study without existing precedents. Not addressing this question up front will make everything feel loose and disconnected later on
Challenges to field building when a research topic is too broadly defined
- We don’t want to broaden the definition of protocols so much that it becomes meaningless, which is a real danger when evaluating protocols in a non-purely-technical sense
- Bernadette shared this paper with me about how the lack of definition around “culture” has caused challenges in academia for those studying organizational culture. I like this excerpt about how to build a field that doesn’t just attract grifters:
“In 1996, Ed Schein, perhaps the seminal figure in the field, called for researchers to meet four conditions to make progress in understanding organizational culture.
- First, the culture research needed to be anchored in concrete observations of real behavior in organizations.
- Second, these observations needed to be consistent or “hang together.”
- Third, there needed to be a consistent definition of culture that permitted researchers to study the phenomenon.
- And, fourth, this approach needed to make sense to the concerns of practitioners confronted with real problems, an edict that likely contributed to the consulting emphasis that we discussed above.
Without consistency in definition and measurement, he argued, studies of culture will simply fail to aggregate, with different researchers studying different constructs even as they label them “culture.” Unfortunately, we believe that this lack of unity describes the current state of the field. While there have been voluminous studies on the subject, it is difficult to see with any clarity what we really understand about culture.”
- Dorian also drew parallels to the UX field, which apparently has become similarly populated with grifters due to lack of clear definitions + industry’s interests overshadowing academia
- Venkat shared a paper about low-paradigm vs. high-paradigm fields, which helped me think about where the study of protocols should fall. He also clarified that we don’t need a proper research field (i.e. “protocol studies”) to emerge from SoP, and maybe that’s part of the experiment in itself. I still think it’s important to feel like this body of work is cohesive and practically useful to “protocol practitioners,” even if it doesn’t turn into a field, and I want that to guide my work
Core researchers come up with their own definitions of protocols
- The aforementioned paper on organizational culture defines culture as “the norms and values that guide behavior within organizations and act as a social control system.” I like this term “social control system,” and think this is more precisely relevant to protocols vs. culture as a whole
- Toby’s definition
- Rafa’s definition
- Dorian’s definition
- Venkat reminds us that we are unlikely to all settle on a single, shared definition of protocols, and that’s perfectly fine - but that if we end up with several competing schools of thought, that would be a good thing!
- I settled on a working definition of protocols for myself: “Systems of social control that dictate the procedural steps to resolve a coordination problem”
- I don’t want to spend more brain cycles on definitions than I have to. I want to keep things intentionally simple; I just need a heuristic that helps me guide my work, and I trust that I’ll improve on it as I get deeper into research. But I know I’m not going to get to the right answer just by thinking about it in a vacuum
- I’m also realizing that core researchers are approaching protocols from many different angles, beyond what I had even considered on my own. I think I can understand “protocols as systems of social control” by looking at how they exist across many different layers: psychological / self, physical / built environment, social, technological, cultural. I’m gonna try to workshop this into a more coherent framework, but will use this initial hypothesis to guide my plan of attack (i.e. try to dive deep into each layer and see if this is true)
Guiding questions I’ve collected to scope my project + focus
- What is not considered a protocol? (via Rafa)
- What problem/s do we see among current practitioners / users of protocols in the wild that we would like to address? (via Kei)
- What do we currently all believe about protocols? What may or may not be true about that?
- 30 years from now, if someone were to write a history of protocols, what would they say about this era, and how it evolved into the next era?
- How would someone describe our collective history of prior thinking about protocols, even up til this day?
In light of all this definitional work, I’ve decided to adjust my project scope. Originally, I wanted to look at how protocols spread and are transmitted (especially since I’ve had a tangled body of thought around antimimetics that I think would complement this work nicely). But writing about antimimetic protocols feels like Protocols 201. As fun as it would be, given the nascency of the field, I think I need to stick to a Protocols 101 project first. Otherwise it will just be confusing and not stick in the heads of anyone reading it. Updated my project description here.