A Discussion with Alexander Galloway on Protocol @ University of Amsterdam

On October 27th, 2007 Alexander Galloway presented Guy Debord’s “The Game of War at Mediamatic, Amsterdam. After his excellent talk we asked Galloway if he would be interested in meeting us for a coffee at the university to discuss his book Protocol. Esther covered our session with Alexander Galloway on the Masters of Media blog but I will address some of the questions I asked Galloway concerning my thesis.

On Learning Code

Galloway states that “this mind sound snobby, but if you study New Media you got to know something about code. It is not even like studying Baudelaire and not know French but it would sort of like studying Baudelaire and not know how to read.” I totally agree with this statement as code is what vitalizes new media. In Protocol Galloway studied how control in the distributed network works by looking at the material layer of the network with its Request For Comments and code.

I first started learning code when I was a little girl. My father noticed I was very interested in the Atari and he bought me an educational game that would teach children the basics of programming. The game was Atari LOGO developed in collaboration with MIT. I had a lot of fun with Mr Turtle who could only go forward and right.

Logo MIT Turtle

We’ve all got to start at the basics and I started learning code at six years old by learning how to make squares and other figures with only two commands: forward and right. Gotta love Turtles! MIT has a great page on the history of logo and ‘what’s up with the Turtles?‘. Ten years and a million Atari Giana Sister games later I started learning HTML and another ten years later I started learning PHP and CSS. I am still in the middle of learning it and I sometimes long back to just having two commands but I am still having fun.

To cut a long story short, I am eager to know code. I am not a programmer, I am a passive coder. I know how to interpret code and usually figure out how to bend and mend it to my own needs. Unless I’m at a RFID Hacker’s Camp and it’s four o’clock in the morning and code is not doing what I want, then I look like this and my co-worker looks like this. We eventually built a fantastic RFID Photobooth. With code we can build (amazing) objects and programs . By understanding code we can not only see how things are made but also better understand their implications, constraints and empowerments.

Code is Wrapped in Layers and Layers are Wrapped in Code

HTML is one of the easiest web ‘codes’ to learn and by understanding HTML we can understand the layering on the internet. Things are constantly encapsulated and wrapped in different layers. We can definitely see this happening in blog software where PHP, CSS and HTML are wrapped in different layers and processed in different layers. Both code and the layers constrain in the sense that they are hierarchical (especially CSS) and empower because of their rhizomatic possibilities (you can put HTML in PHP and CSS in HTML etc.)

Distributed Commenting in the Blogosphere

Alexander Galloway wrote in a paper titled Protocol in Theory Culture Society that:

[…] distributed networks produce an entirely new system of organization and control that, while perhaps incompatible with pyramidal systems of power, is nevertheless just as effective at keeping things in line. (NOTE)

What is the new system of organization and control in the blogosphere? We could consider the blogosphere as a distributed network on its own within the distributed network of the internet. The commenting system in the blogosphere is flawed in the sense that we cannot keep things in line because of its distributed nature. We are turning to centralized servers such as CoComments.com and Haloscan.com to aggregate our comments on a single central server. Are we returning to the centralized network to get things in line that don’t work within the distributed network?

Galloway replies that things have changed since the book came out in 2004. In the late 90s and the decade after that there was a big push towards distributed networks. Centralization is a early-modern, pre-modern associated used Foucauldian language. There’s now a tension between creating between distributing power and coalescing power. This tension can be found in the technical sense in the foundations of the internet with IP (rhizomatic) and DNS (decentralized, hierarchical). This tension is now even stronger, with Google as an example of a totally rhizomatic system that is massified and centralized in the distributed network.

Not everything is rhizomatic, but the rhizome form has become a new dominant player. The way control and organizations exist today is through the dualistic way networks are now built. We are now using the distributed nature and the coalescing, massifying and centralizing structures at the same time. We use comment aggregators as a centralizing structure.

Layering the Internet

My next question concerned the layering of the internet. Galloway quotes the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) Reference Model in Protocol.

Developed in 1978, the OSI Reference Model is a technique for classifying all networking activity into seven layers. Each layer describes a different segment of the technology behind networked communication, as described in chapter 1.

Layer 7 Application
Layer 6 Presentation
Layer 5 Session
Layer 4 Transportation
Layer 3 Network
Layer 2 Data link
Layer 1 Physical (Protocol, p. 130)

Shouldn’t we add an eight layer to this model which consists of devices such as Technorati and Google which have their own protocological control build within?

Galloway says that these devices might already be build into the application layer but that we might need a social layer. The OSI model just governs software but if we see Google as a hybrid and see its social and political dimension and technical dimension we might need a layer 7.5 that deals with the social.

Thanks to Alexander Galloway for having this spontaneous, interesting and fruitful discussion with us on a grey Saturday morning. His new book The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (co-authored with Eugene Thacker) recently came out and I just received an e-mail from Amazon that it’s on its way. Can’t wait!

7 thoughts on “A Discussion with Alexander Galloway on Protocol @ University of Amsterdam

  1. Wonderful. I did my first programming on the Commodore computers (eek!) as a young teenager, but I had been working with full frame computers and the first “dumb” computerized typewriters long before that with my family’s business. Hmm, I’d have to say that my first interaction with machine coding was on a teletype in my mother’s real estate office before I turned seven or eight…wow! I’d already started learning to type on her old manual keyboard, pounding my fingers great distances so the key would hit the paper, and she let me practice typing in sales ads into the rattling teletype machine.

    So you are not the only one to whom modern technologies can spin off ancient, dust-covered memories! Thanks for the flashback.

    Also, the comment above is spam. Kill it. And your reply. I know you appreciate a clean blog. :D

  2. I love hearing “ancient” computer-related stories, thank you for sharing your wonderful.

    I remember writing my first essays on a manual typing machine and the wonderful sound the keys made. I really had to get used to WordPerfect for writing as you had to manually code italic, bold, paragraphs and the whole layout.

    I also have fond memories of the old “soft” floppy disks. Nowadays I just use my iPod to transfer files, I only burn DVDs if I have to snailmail someone.

    Comments deleted, it was spam pretending to be nice :)

  3. WordPerfect!!! You are a memory magnet, aren’t you? :D

    There was something so satisfying about the manual pounding of the keys and the automatic grabbing of the metal letter arms to pull them back when the fingers moved faster than the mechanism. Now, I hate it when keyboard “make” noises. I’d rather hear silence. What a twisted way to thing, but thank you for reminding me how much I wish I, too, could go back to only two instructions to get anything done on a computer. SIGH.

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