Adding scales to our eyes

Discussing the operations of protocol leads inexorably to the issue of ‘depth’. It is tempting to talk of protocols as the building blocks for software or software relations, to speak of different levels within software architectures or within analysis. Galloway for instance talks of the four nested layers of the Internet suite (2004: 39), themselves part of the ISO’s seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection Reference Model. In engineering terms this makes sense but in ontological, and arguably political terms it is problematic.

Graham Harman reads Bruno Latour as advocating a “flat ontology” (2009). He goes on to argue for a more nuanced account of two-types of objects and a fourfold ontology, but for the present purposes, the key thing is the removal of depth metaphors, levels and foundations. ‘Irreduction’ is central to this Latour (Latour 1993) (of course trying to pin down a single “Latour’ object is similar to trying to pin down the wave/particle object, or indeed any other object-actant). Harman says: “nothing can be reduced to anything else. each thing simply is what it is, in utter concreteness” (17). This gives rise to the famous Latour litanies where lists of ‘objects’, material and mythical are made to bump against each other creating the sort of dialectical images Benjamin the collector would have been proud of (Leslie et al 2007).

So if, philosophically, we need to treat all object-actants as ‘equal’ – not in terms of value so much as in status – how are we to map the relations between protocol and ‘the Internet’, between jpeg and Google? Latour and Harman are clear that they need to be treated in their specific locations, as occupying positions within actant-networks particularly when an actant becomes so everyday and transparent in terms of its alliances with other actants that it becomes a ‘black box’. Adrain Mackenzie, although wary of what he sees as a microemphasis in social constructivist accounts (Mackenzie 2010: 218) reads William James’ focus on ‘conjunctive relations’ as an antidote to “most social and cultural theories that tend to cut realities into things, selves, locations and relations” (p39). Analysis and politics cannot collapse all actants into an ontological soup. It is not just thinking of objects in irreductionist terms, it is finding a language to articulate those relations. Mackenzie argues that ideas (our conceptions of levels and depths), “have an immanent function in concentrating and short-cutting transitions” (p32) (the sort of dynamic movement that he sees at the heart of wirelessness and can be seen in the operations of protocol). Ideas are a way of “establishing a trajectory or modulating a movement by substituting experiential short-cuts” (p35). Ideas like any other actant, do things in the world. That is why we need a conceptual apparatus that can account for a dynamic flat ontology.

As many writers following Deleuze (Deleuze &Guattari 2004: 537) such as De Landa (2000) and Bennett (2010) have shown, the language of fractals and complexity offers a way of conceptualising these alliances and black boxes without recourse to foundationalism. A fractal is self-similar. As James Gleick has it: “self similarity is symmetry across scale. It implies recursion, pattern inside of pattern” (1988: 103). It does not make sense to speak of levels as one falls into a Mandlebrot set or a Lorenz attractor. Each scale at which the equation works is self similar. The fern-like branches at one magnification are recursively present at others.

This is not just a metaphor. Actant networks are complex systems. The relationships, alliances and translations within software and media ecologies and assemblages are complex in a scientific as well as an everyday sense. They are fractal. The alliances and relations around jpeg are self-similar to those around Apple’s imaging software and Google’s image search. They are not the same. They are at different scales but one does not determine or act as the foundation or context for the other.

To speak and think in terms of fractal-scales within and across software ecologies is to leave questions about actant-network-relations open, to raise the importance of alliances as a focus of analysis and to potentially open up black boxes to what Galloway and Thacker call ‘counter-protocological struggle’ (Galloway & Thacker 2007).

  • Bennett, J., 2010, Vibrant matter : A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham.
  • De Landa, M., 2000, A Thousand Years of Non Linear History, Swerve Editions, New York.
  • Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F., 2004, A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism And Schizophrenia, Translated by Massumi. Continuum, London.
  • Galloway, 2004, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.
  • Galloway, A.R. & Thacker, E., 2007, The Exploit: A Theory Of Networks, Univ Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Gleick, J., 1988, Chaos, Cardinal, London.
  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Latour 1993, Irreductions, in The Pasteurization of France, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.,.
  • Leslie, E., Marx, U. & Archiv, W.B., 2007, Walter Benjamin’s Archive : Images, Texts, Signs, Verso, London ; New York.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2010, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism In Network Cultures, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..