Life in the Shadow of Protocol


I’ve been reading Alexander Galloway’s excellent Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, which explores what he terms the “protocological” apparatuses of control, or the invisible mechanisms of power that hide behind the horizontally organized distributed networks that define the workings of the post-Fordist information economy. The ‘protocol’ in his term is the combination of the internet’s Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP in shorthand, and the DNS. The TCP/IP model (also called the “DoD model because of its initial development by DARPA) is by virtue of its architecture borderline anarchic; TCP and IP “work together to establish connections and move data packets effectively through those connections… any computer on the network can talk to any other computer, resulting in a nonhierarchical, peer-to-peer relationship.”1 The DNS, by contrast, is fundamentally hierarchical: while it exists as a “decentralized database,” its “maps network addresses to network names,” or the binding of a free-floating digital spaces to a “specific space on the physical networks.”2 In other words, to access the anarchic or rhizomatic planes of the internet, one must travel through gate-keeping procedures that must overcode and territorialize spaces in the network. Galloway describes the DNS structure as a tree, intentionally bringing to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s discourse on rhizomes and trees – the rhizomes’s horizontal nature contrasts with the vertical power of the tree and offers a model of resistance, a new way of thinking, but its still entirely possible for trees to sprout from rhizomes.


Drawing on Deleuze’s analysis of Foucault and his “Postscript on Societies of Control,” Galloway argues that the protocological distributed network is the underlying logic of the control society:

Each point in a distributed network is neither a central hub nor a satellite node – there are neither trunks nor leaves. The network contains nothing but ‘intelligent end-point systems that are self-deterministic, allowing each end-point system to communicate with any host it chooses.’ Like the rhizome, each node in a distributed network may establish direct communication with another node, without having to appeal to a hierarchical intermediary. Yet in order to initiate communication, the two nodes must speak the same language. This is why protocol is important. Shared protocols are what defines the landscape of the network – who is connected to whom.3 (emphasis in original)

This model is identical to Foucault’s conception of the biopolitical, the interchanging programs of knowledge and technology that allows the entire social mass to be monitored, calculated, seen. For Foucault, the biopolitical is in direct contrast with the earlier disciplinary society that he identified; whereas the disciplinarian actively applies force to the body in order to regulate its movements, the biopolitical combines softer forms of discipline, more profoundly democratic activity, with a higher emphasis on the body’s self-regulation. There was so much talk in the 1960s of the “fascist-within,” but it seems that it wasn’t until we passed into a postfascist moment that such a thing came to be truly actualized. Of course, self-regulation occurred during the disciplinary society, but there were overarching norms enforced by the contours of the era’s symbolic order that produced a sort of mass conformity that eventually exploded in the resistance and utopian dreaming of the 1960s. Now, our individuality is urged – as long as we set parameters on what this means.

In his “Postscript,” Deleuze discusses this shift in terms of the factory and corporation: “the factory was a body that contained its internal forces at a level of equilibrium, the highest possible in terms of production, the lowest in terms of wages; but in a society of control, the corporation has replaced the factory, and the corporation is a spirit, a gas.”4 Manuel Castells, as cited by Galloway, has articulated this same shift in the internal structure of the corporation itself, the movement from the factory-corporation to the technological information-corporation: “The corporation itself has changed its organizational model, to adapt to the conditions of unpredictability ushered in by rapid economic and technological change. This main shift can be characterized as the shift from vertical bureaucracies to the horizontal corporation.”5 The visibility of this paradigm shift is visible in our everyday lives: just the other day, I was talking to a friend who works at a consulting firm that updates the information technology in factories around America. He explained that while there was a visible corporate hierarchy, the individuals and groups within that hierarchical structure were granted nearly an absolute autonomy – one that works, obviously, on the methods of self-regulation. By contrast, I work in a warehouse practically devoid of information technology; there is little to no autonomy to be found as long as the higher-ups are on the floors. There is information technology to be found in the warehouse’s receiving department, perhaps the only space that assumes the autonomy that defines the workplace in my friend’s job. While the Italian autonomists would call my friend’s labor “immaterial labor,” we should also acknowledge that there are no absolutes between the Fordist and post-Fordism/disciplinary and control schemas, for the very playing field of the labor economy is uneven.

Diagramming the Ages

In the introduction to Protocol, Galloway conducts a brief but illuminating diagrammatization of the three ages of capitalism, attempting a broad synthesis of the historical outlook on Foucault’s sovereign and disciplinary societies, Deleuze’s control society, Castells’ network society, Friedrich Kittler’s own analysis of the ages, and Hardt and Negri’s Empire.

In Foucault’s genealogy, the “sovereign society” existed roughly between the years of 1750 and 1830, where the sovereignty of the state became personified, or perhaps even more aptly, deified, in the figure of the society’s leader. His famous opening pages to Discipline and Punish illustrates this through his depiction of the public spectacle of criminal punishment; this spectacle not only fulfilled the role of a strange ‘bread and circuses,’ but also showed how power itself was transcendental, that it operated in a realm above everyday and held absolute power over it. To commit transgression was to break this contract, and the brutal length that punishment would go to were to drive home a clear point: power had the right to take life away, because it was above power. We can further grasp this evolution of the sovereign in terms of the views of Nietzsche (whose ghost hovers above Foucault’s work, even if we can’t see always it) on the thought after the Enlightenment, where God’s death didn’t mark a new freedom, but the elevation of man and his own laws to God-like status.

images (13)

Punishment as a public spectacle in the sovereign society

Galloway draws a comparison between Foucault’s sovereign to Kittler’s analysis of the hundred years between 1800 and 1900. Kittler’s main concerns are with what he calls the ‘discourse networks’ of each century, the way that information is understood and exchanged, particularly with regards to how technology, which is born from information, changes the nature of this information. 1800 was the century of the pen and ink, the direct linkage between the human and his or her thoughts and the paper; information circulated out with an absolute emphasis on the word. It is the age, first and foremost, of the signifier as the “voice of man.” If Foucault found the elevation of man over all in terms of power’s capacity for ownership of the individual body through punishment, then Kittler finds it on the everyday terrain through man’s deployment of his voice to put himself above nature. Technology lurks behind both – the basic technology that allowed writing, and the basic technology that made punishment such a horrible spectacle.

1900 was a time of change that Kittler identifies with the advent of the typewriter, the earliest platform of mechanical media. Writing was now something mass-producible, words could spill out across the page at a higher velocity and greater frequency than with 1800’s pen. Words became fundamentally uncoupled, Kittler argues, from the mind; the mind, in turn, is mechanized. This outlook is particularly interesting to me, because in my post Machinic Oedipus, Machinic Multitude, I became interested in Kittler’s idea that these media technologies – the typerwriter and its descendent, the computer – would eventually produce Lacan’s reworking of Freudian theory into his cybernetic, machinic unconsciousness. This in turn, of course, was appropriated by Deleuze and Guattari for the basis of their two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, theory-poems that, in my opinion, trace out the ultimate cartography of our times.

McLuhan wrote that “A modern battleship needs dozen of typewriters for ordinary operations. An army needs more typewriters than medium and light artillery pieces, even in the field, suggesting that the typewriter now fuses the functions of the pen and the sword.”6 Information-media technologies have now become attached the development of war; it becomes increasingly difficult find the boundaries between knowledge and combat and the way this is balance is processed. This is Foucault’s disciplinary society, and even if he doesn’t pay so much attention to it, its not hard to envision the utilization of the typewriter in the standardizations needed to sustain this array of power. Under none-stop tabulation, the barracks become the prison, the prison becomes the factory, the factory becomes the society.

It was in this runaway fusion of information-media technology and the shadow of war that the computer and cybernetic theory were birthed. Alan Turing, who conceived of a computation device that we now call the ‘Turing Machine,’ would dedicate much of his work on algorithms and logic systems to British code-breaking efforts in the second World War. Meanwhile Norbert Wiener, the undisputed father of cybernetics, had first stumbled across the field while studying the interaction between aircraft pilots and the anti-aircraft guns that were deployed against them. Even the 60s counterculture, which in many ways had pushed the entirety of the social (inadvertently) into the control society through their ideological exodus from the disciplinary society, is linked to this technological lineage: it was both the government’s Cold War-driven work on cybernetics and its intertwined research into hallucinogenic drugs that was a catalyzing factor the movement that was, by large, anti-war.

Rigid Rhizomes

Alexander Galloway’s period diagram:

Period Machine Dates Diagram Manager
Sovereign society Simple mechanical machines March 2nd, 1757 (Foucault) Centralization Hierarchy
Disciplinary society Thermodynamic machines May 24th, 1844 (telegraph); 1942 (Manhattan Project) Decentralization Bureaucracy
Control society Cybernetic machines, computers February 28th, 1953 (Watson and Crick;) January 1st, 1983 (TCP/IP) Distribution Protocol

If the manager of the sovereign society was the formal hierarchy embodied by the divine right of the state, then the manager of the disciplinary society was the bureaucracy: the state, particularly in its Fordist-Keynesian mode, was bound up in endless bureaucracy; the military has traditionally been top-heavy with bureaucracy, and the factory’s own ‘upper classes,’ mad with joy at the possibilities provided by Taylor’s scientific management, were consumed with internal bureaucracy. The manager of the control society, Galloway contrasts, is the protocol itself. He writes that

The term protocol is most known today in its military context, as a method of correct behavior under a given chain of command. On the Internet, the meaning of protocol is slightly different In fact, the reason why the Internet could withstand a nuclear attack is precisely because its internal protocols are the enemy of bureaucracy, of rigid hierarchy, and of centralization.7

This age of protocol, he further insists, is captured by Hardt and Negri’s Empire hypothesis. For them, Empire is at heart a network society, to recall Castells’ term, and the post-Fordist regime of production – immaterial labor, off-shoring, out-sourcing, etc. – requires a transnational information structure, i.e. the internet. This structure, they tell us, is both democratic and oligopolistic. It is democratic because it is an “indeterminate and potentially unlimited number of interconnected nodes with no central point of control; all nodes regardless of territorial location connect to all others through a myriad of potential paths and relays.”8 This model is rhizomatic, and transferring into Galloway’s analysis it is the TCP/IP. On the other hand, the oligopolistic is a matter of fixed territories, “centralized production, mass distribution, and one-way communication.”9 It is tree-like, and would correspond to the DNS.

We can also re-apply this informational protocol format to the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) that has occurred in the armed forces in the last two decades. Originally developed by strategist Andrew Marshall from the RAND Corporation, the RMA is both a streamlining of how the military operates and a reconfiguration of its primary apparatuses in order to adapt to both changing information technologies and the post-Cold War era of globalization. Marshall’s concepts, having gained traction throughout the 1990s, finally came to fruition during the Bush administration, with its proponents including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. It is no mistake that each of these individuals have gone on to become the quintessential ‘corporate cronies’; much of the RMA involved the outsourcing of many key areas of the defense to the private sphere, making wartime into a contractor bonanza. Thus it is a reflection of the ongoing corporatization that Deleuze highlighted as a defining characteristic of the society of control. At the same time, however, the RMA also incorporates abstract transformations that underlay its truly postmodern nature:

According to the ideology of the RMA… war no longer needs masses of soldiers who are massacred in the trenches. The humans on the battlefield, in the air, and at sea have become prostheses of the machine or, better, internal elements of the complex mechanical and electronic apparatuses… The RMA depends not only on technological developments, such as computers and information systems, but also on the new forms of labor – mobile, flexible, immaterial forms of social labor… According to this new vision, the new soldiers must not only kill but also be able to dictate for the conquered populations the cultural, legal, political, and security norms of life.10


This “bodyless war” is matched by new ground tactics modeled on swarm behavior, utilized currently by both sides of the present conflict on ‘terror.’ In swarming, the larger body of the military is dispersed, transformed into a network of smaller cells or units that operate with higher degrees of autonomy; as the swarm tactic is a distributed model (as opposed to a centralized or even decentralized model), it makes critical usage of advanced communicative and informational technological assembled into greater machinic whole. Much of the DoD’s research into swarming has been based on careful, algorithmic studies of ant movements, so it is illuminating then to recall that in A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari write “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines or on new lines. You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed.”11 Indeed, there is a current approach to swarming combat the urban zones of the Palestinian territories that has led the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to appropriate Deleuze and Guattari for their own philosophico-military strategy. The European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies’ Eyal Weizman recounts visiting IDF’s Operational Theory Research Institute:

In the interview, I asked [Institute co-director Shimon] Naveh: “Why Deleuze and Guattari?” He replied that: “Several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaus became instrumental for us […] allowing us to explain contemporary situations in a way that we could not have otherwise explained. It problematized our own paradigms. […] Most important was the distinction they have pointed out between the concepts of ‘smooth’ and ‘striated’ space […] [which accordingly reflect] the organizational concepts of the ‘war machine’ and the ‘state apparatus.’ […] In the IDF we now often use the term ‘to smooth out space’ when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. We try to produce the operational space in such a manner that borders do not affect us. Palestinian areas could indeed be thought of as ‘striated,’ in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roadblocks and so on. […] We want to confront the ‘striated’ space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice [the way most military units presently operate] with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. Rather than contain and organize our forces according to existing borders, we want to move through them.”


Before the smooth space: IDF in Gaza

The work of Deleuze and Guattari was made in an attempt to both map out a cartography of what was then the near future (and our now-current moment) and to find an exit point, a line of flight for it. Writing A Thousand Plateaus before Foucault launched his discussion of biopolitics and Deleuze penned the “Postscript on Societies of Control,” the rhizome and the smooth space were described in order to visualize the creation of free, anarchic spaces and alternative methodologies for thought and communication – things that had to be horizontal. But under the militaries of the world, the use of cybernetic theory and communication and information media technologies have been wrangled into control, and these horizontal dreams have themselves been overcoded by a very vertical power formation – the protocol.


1Alexander Galloway Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization MIT Press, 2004 pg. 8

2Ibid, pg. 9

3Ibid, pgs. 11-12

4Gilles Deleuze “Postscript on Societies of Control” October, Vol. 59, Winter, 1992, pg. 4

5Manuel Castells The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture: Vol 1: The Rise of the Network Society Blackwell, 1996, pg. 164; cited in Galloway Protocol, pg. 24

6Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man 1964, pg. 228

7Galloway Protocol, pg. 29

8Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, 2000, pg. 299


10Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire Penguin Books, 2005 pg. 44

11Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pg. 9

12Eyal Weizman “Walking Through Walls” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, January, 2007

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6 Responses to Life in the Shadow of Protocol

  1. noir-realism says:

    Reblogged this on noir realism and commented:
    Edmund over on Deterritorial Investigations has a excellent post on the work of Alexander Galloway’s Protocol, which in its complementarity feeds into many of my own thoughts of late. I read Galloway’s work a few years back… worth a good read… and Edmund has done it justice!

  2. Great post! Tiziana Terranova’s Network Cultures is also a slam dunk on these issues. She takes on the notion of the “democracy” of the internet, arguing that is simultaneously creates commonalities and differentiation that tend to change control rather than eliminate it. Well worth a look if you haven’t already.

    • edmundberger says:

      Thanks for the comment and the book recommendation! You’ve been putting up some stellar material on so many of the same questions as well, great food for thought…

  3. Pingback: Between the Transnational Capitalist Class and Global Civil Society: The Structures of Imperial Protocol | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

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