even better than the [ethe]real thing:
a response to Alex Galloway's "Protocol"
"All of us were slowly losing that intellectual light that allows you
always to tell the similar from the identical, the metaphorical from
the real. We were losing that mysterious and bright and most
beautiful ability to say that Signor A has grown bestial – without
thinking for a moment that he now has fur and fangs."
- Casaubon from Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum"
ALEX GALLOWAY IS A GEEK. IT'S A GOOD THING.
When reading a text on media theory, my underlying skeptical question
is always, "How much do the nuances which are foregrounded and
analyzed here practically relate to human experience and human
society?" If they barely do, the book winds up being one more
exercise in scatological academia and/or cyber-utopian fluff-urism.
Refreshingly, Alex Galloway's "Protocol" succeeds in avoiding what
Geert Lovink calls "vapor theory." This is due in no small part to
the fact that Alex Galloway is a geek (or at least a wanna-be geek).
Not "geek" in the pejorative sense, but "geek" in the "down with the
root workings of technology" sense. For example, Galloway's research
led him to read hundreds of RFC (Requests for Comments) documents,
the technical documents that establish Internet protocol (among other
things). Galloway writes, ""Far more than mere technical
documentation, however, the RFCs are a discursive treasure trove for
the critical theorist." I wonder how many other critical theorists
would think so.
Observation, interpretation, and application are the three steps of
inductive textual criticism. Not a few technological pundits breeze
through the initial observation step, acquiring only a superficial
understanding of the tech, and then rush off to boldly interpret and
apply. This leads to elaborate, inventive conclusions that are
frequently misguided if not altogether wrong. But Galloway has
looked long and hard at the network and its protocol, and his
interpretations (even though I disagree with some of them) are more
intricate and less cliche as a result of his having looked. As such,
"Protocol" lays the groundwork for anyone to riff off of Galloway's
insightful observations, even if her preconceived biases differ from
Furthermore, Galloway's range of sources is so diverse, it feels like
an academic compilation tape. His research is intimidatingly broad
– from usability expert Jeff Veen to generative software artist
Adrian Ward, from open source evangelist Richard Stallman to cult
lawyer Lawrence Lessig. Marx, Baudrillard, Barthes, Foucault, and
Deleuze make expected appearances. But also appearing are Marxist
media theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, cyberfeminist Doll Yoko, and
phone phreaker Knight Lightning. The list goes on (and on and on).
Furthermore, "Protocol"'s tangential anecdotes about the formation of
the internet and the history of hacking and virii read like a
scattershot compendium of geek folklore.
HEAVY INSIGHTS, WELL CODIFIED
Galloway's prose, although not exactly McLuhan-esque, is inordinately
sound-bytable. Below are just a few "spoilers," nuggets of
particularly acute and concise insight:
On the nature of protocol:
"From a formal perspective, protocol is a type of object. It is a
very special kind of object. Protocol is a universal description
language for objects… Protocol does not produce or causally effect
objects, but rather is a structuring agent that appears as the result
of a set of object dispositions. Protocol is the reason that the
internet works and performs work… It is etiquette for autonomous
agents. It is the chivalry of the object."
[Note the rare combination of precise description and poetic flair.
"The chivalry of the object" is a definite keeper.]
On protocol's inherent imperviousness to Modern criticism:
"Only the participants [of protocol] can connect, and therefore, by
definition, there can be no resistance to protocol… Opposing
protocol is like opposing gravity – there is nothing that says it
can't be done, but such a pursuit is surely misguided and in the end
hasn't hurt gravity very much."
Along the same lines:
"The internet can survive [nuclear] attacks not because it is
stronger than the opposition, but precisely because it is weaker.
The Internet has a different diagram than a nuclear attack does; it
is in a different shape. And that new shape happens to be immune to
Galloway rightly insists that just as code is more than a mere
semantic language (it causes machines to actually do something), the
network is more than just a metaphor for connectivity (it actually
behaves according to protocol).
He instructively traces of the cultural perception of computer
viruses – from a form of intellectual exploration to a form of
machinic contagion (akin to AIDS) to a form of terrorist weapon.
He makes the important distinction between protocol and proprietary
market dominance (Windows XP is not a form of protocol because its
source code is opaque).
And he offers these inspirationally punk rock samples regarding tactical media:
"Everyone interested in an emancipated media should be a manipulator."
"Fear of being swallowed up by the system is a sign of weakness."
"The best tactical response to protocol is not resistance but hypertrophy."
All culminating in this rousing definition:
"The goal is not to destroy technology in some neo-Luddite delusion,
but to push it into a state of hypertrophy, further than it is meant
to go. Then, in its injured, sore, and unguarded condition,
technology may be sculpted anew into something better, something in
closer agreement with the real wants and desires of its users. This
is the goal of tactical media."
Right on! Where do I sign?
EPISTEMOLOGY IS AS EPISTEMOLOGY DOES
Having sufficiently praised "Protocol," I'd like to enter into
critical dialogue with it. My first problem with the text is that it
oversteps its stated scope. Galloway makes epistemological
assertions without offering epistemological defenses.
He says in the introduction, "I draw a critical distinction between
[the] body of work [that deals with artificial intelligence], which
is concerned largely with epistemology and cognitive science, and the
critical media theory that inspires this book. Where the former are
concerned with minds and questions epistemological, I am largely
concerned with bodies and the material stratum of computer
Unfortunately, "bodies" and "matter" to Galloway take on markedly
metaphysical meanings, meanings that delineate a fairly explicit view
of reality which he feels no obligation to defend. He asserts a kind
of "aesthetic materialism" (his term). In short, he seeks to recast
the spiritual and soulish in terms of the "virtual," the "second
nature," the cultural/sociopolitical, the "artificial," a "patina,"
the essence or sheen that derives from matter but is not "other than"
matter. (More on this later.)
"Protocol" eschews epistemological questions as not pertinent to its
scope, but by deeming such questions irrelevant, Galloway has already
entered into implicit dialogue on "the matter" (pun intended). If I
wish to discuss human origins without talking about evolution, I'm a
creationist. If I wish to discuss life without talking about soul or
spirit, I'm a materialist.
In the book's foreword, Eugene Thacker calls "Protocol" a type of
"materialist media studies." He goes on to observe, quite
accurately: "'Protocol' consistently makes a case for a material
understanding of technology. 'Material' can be taken in all sense of
the term, as an ontological category as well as a political and
economic one." Galloway gladly owns up to politics and economics,
but his ventures into ontology, although apparent, are less disclosed.
MARX SAID IT, I DECONSTRUCT IT, THAT SETTLES IT
My next critique of "Protocol" is that it awkwardly uses Marx's
"Capital" to justify a contemporary materialist understanding of
After 14 pages of foregrounding Marx's vitalistic language, Galloway
concludes, "'Capital' is an aesthetic object. The confluence of
different discourses in 'Capital,' both vitalistic and economic,
proves this. The use of vitalistic imagery, no matter how
marginalized within the text, quite literally aestheticizes
capitalism." That poetic language can transform a theoretical text
into an aesthetic object seems perfectly plausible. That poetic
language can "literally aestheticize" capitalism itself is a more
vague and suspect assertion.
Even if Marx does attribute a kind of "will" to objects within
capitalism, he's not exactly celebrating reification or commodity
fetishism. Galloway asserts, "[The] vitalism in Marx heralds the
dawning age of protocol, I argue, by transforming life itself into an
aesthetic object." Aside from the fact that "life itself" was
understood as an aesthetic object in the soulish realm long before
Marx, likening commodity fetishism to machinic artificial life seems
an awkward stretch. Galloway himself points out that Foucault's
theories of control date Marx's, and Deleuze's date Foucault's. Is
Marx so canonical that he's worth 14 pages of deconstruction in order
to claim him as the historical genesis of one's contemporary
DUMBING DOWN LIFE
Continuing on the "artificial life" critique (and invariably stepping
on dozens of cyber-toes), there are two ways to make "computers" seem
more than what they are. You can discern life where there is none,
or you can redefine "life" until it matches what you discern in
computers. Galloway subtly snubs futurist Ray Kurzweil and the Wired
"gee whiz" crowd for doing the former, and then proceeds to do the
Building on Foucault and Deleuze, Galloway asserts that "life,
hitherto considered an effuse, immaterial essence, has become matter,
due to its increased imbrication with protocol forces."
He assents to Crary and Winter's definition of "protocological" life
as "the forces – aesthetic, technical, political, sexual – with
which things combine in order to form novel aggregates of pattern and
After an explication of Norbert Weiner's ideas on cybernetics,
Galloway concludes, "If one views the world in terms of
information…, then there is little instrumental difference between
man and machine since both are able to affect dynamic systems via
feedback loops." Would Weiner himself have agreed to such a sweeping
So matter is life and life is matter. Not metaphorically, but
actually. This is achieved by defining "life" very loosely.
I'm reminded of a passage in "The Language of New Media" where Lev
Manovich comes very close to defining "narrative" as any action that
constitutes a change of state. Walking from room to room thus
becomes a narrative. At which point I would simply choose a
AESTHETIC MATERIALISM AND THE CYBORGS FROM MARS
Why is Galloway so keen to show that a "second nature" of aesthetic
materialism exists in both social and machinic systems? Because such
a "second nature" affords the exploration of an aesthetic realm
without the abandonment of a materialist world view. Such a "second
nature" also admits the possibility of man/machine hybridization. If
reality is all just matter, and matter may be abstracted into
organized information, artificial life and biological life are
"virtually" kissing cousins. Galloway actually defines the
information age as "that moment in history when matter itself is
understood in terms of information or code. At this historical
moment, protocol becomes a controlling force in social life."
At the end of his chapter on "control," Galloway goes on to predict a
historical period "after distribution" – a future where computers
are replaced by bioinformatics, information is replaced by life,
protocol is replaced by physics, and containment is replaced by peace.
A similar "gee whiz" passage occurs earlier in the "control" chapter:
"When Watson and Crick discovered DNA…, they prove not simply that
life is an informatic object…, but rather that life is an aesthetic
object; it is a double helix, an elegant, hyper-Platonic form that
rises like a ladder into the heights of aesthetic purity. Life was
no longer a 'pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of
silent seas' (Eliot), it was a code borne from pure mathematics, an
object of aesthetic beauty, a double helix! This historical moment
– when life is defined no longer as essence, but as code – is the
moment when life becomes a medium." I agree that DNA is fascinating
stuff, but to attribute the mystery and wonder of existence to the
aesthetic beauty of a DNA strand seems more like cyber-utopian poetry
and less like scholarship aloof from ontological concerns.
Elsewhere, Galloway waxes eloquent about biometrics: "Biometrics [the
science of measuring the human body and deriving digital signatures
from it] considers living human bodies not in their immaterial
essences, or souls, or what have you, but in terms of quantifiable,
recordable, enumerable, and encodable characteristics. It considers
life as an aesthetic object. It is the natural evolution of Marx's
theory of second nature." The progression from souls to quantifiable
biometric information is presented as an aesthetic advancement? If
anything, biometrics seems a neo-techno form of alienation.
Another curious assertion: "Computer use could possibly constitute a
real immigration of bodies (from the online to the offline)," which
seems akin to this cryptic statement by feminist Sadie Plant: "You
can't get out of matter, that's the crucial thing. But you can get
out of the confining organization of matter which is shaped into
things and of course, organisms." I find it difficult to accept such
conceptions of the self at face value.
IT'S THE PEOPLE, PEOPLE.
"Protocol" radically posits that the Internet is successful not just
because it is anarchic, but because this "anarchy" coexists with a
rigid form of control. I agree, but I think the rigid form of
control is not the DNS (Domain Name System) hierarchy (as Galloway
proposes), but the core, old-boy geek community of RFC-writing
protocol-shapers (which Galloway critiques as an institutional
weakness of protocol). Domain names are a mnemonic convenience, but
their use is not a prerequisite for entry to the network. One can
still access a server using its IP number, it's just inconvenient.
Yet protocols, according to Galloway's definition, are not merely
meant to make access more convenient, they are meant to either enable
it or forbid it altogether. Thus the real control of the Internet
derives not primarily from the DNS but from the fact that protocol
itself is shaped by an altruistic, but nonetheless human and
Galloway argues that, "Life forms, both artificial and organic, exist
in any space where material forces are actively aestheticized." I
agree. But who is doing the aestheticizing? He continues, "The same
protocological forces that regulate data flows within contingent
environments such as distributed networks are the same forces that
regulate matter itself." I'm not so sure. The forces that regulate
"non-organic" "life" in network environments are protocols created by
humans. The forces that regulate organic life in "natural"
environments are material needs like food and shelter that are not
created by humans (unless we're talking about a capitalistic
environment, where many forces are man-made. But capitalism is not
A reasonable string of questions thus arises: can vitality exist in
economic and social systems apart from human life? Is Foucault's
desire to "define a method of historical analysis freed from the
anthropological theme" really viable? Does vitality exist in
machinic systems without initial human input? There may be some
minimal form of "vitality" on the network even without any humans
actively using it (Eugene Thacker muses, "Is a network a network if
it's not being used?"), but would that vitality exist without humans
first constructing the network's protocol to begin with? Is
individual human soulishness (mind, will, emotions) at the root of
Even Tom Ray's "Tierra" (software that creates a virtual evolutionary
environment in which "artificial lives" autonomously "live") still
begins with human input. The "life" initially comes from Tom, and
only indirectly from the protocol of the environment.
STRANGE IS GOOD
"Protocol" concludes on a less speculative, more balanced note.
Galloway summarizes the problems inherent in protocol, and recognizes
that its ethical use will ultimately depend on what we humans make of
The fact that I'm able even able to dialogue with "Protocol" from a
non-materialist, soulish perspective is testament to the solid,
methodical, observational foundation Galloway has laid.
Personally, the chapters in "Protocol" on hacking, tactical media,
and internet art make me excited to be making internet art in 2004.
Not because "Protocol" extols the virtues of some futuristic AI
utopia that's just around the bend (and has been just around the bend
for the last 30 years without ever quite materializing), but because
it exposes and delineates the very actual, sexy, dangerous shifts in
media and culture currently underway. The truth is always stranger
than fiction, and strange is good.