Protocols, objects and exceptional topologies

If we are to follow the likes of Anna Munster and Geert Lovink in problematising the concept of the network as a unified or stable object, then perhaps we need a different point of view. As they put it: “the very notion of a network is in conflict with the desire to gain an overview” (2005). Maybe it is that ‘overview’ that leads us astray. Perhaps we need an ‘underview’, a view not from a different level but at a different scale. Protocol studies offers such a perspective… if we account for protocols as objects without foundations. If we locate protocols and standards – Internet in Galloway’s case, Ethernet in Miyazaki’s or imaging in my own – as either the outcome of structural processes (capitalist development, control societies etc) or as some determining essence, we not only fail to address the specific operations of those protocol objects and the alliances within which they enfolded, but also open them up to the sort of counter-protocological struggles or ‘exploits’ that Galloway talks about with Eugene Thacker (2007).

Miyazaki’s focus on time, through rhythm, adds a certain level of dynamism to the imag(in)ing of networks and so network politics, but that needs to be framed within an ontology that also places the emphasis on movement. It is here where I believe an object-oriented philosophical (OOP) approach (drawing on Harman’s reading of Latour (2009) and later speculative realism) offers a way of tracing the connections (or in OOP terms, the alliances) between protocol and corporate interests and state institutions as well as other scales of software. What is particularly useful about OOP is not only its refusal to engage with foundations and its flat ontology (treating protocols as actants equal with other material and immaterial forces and players), but its demand that networks (in the ANT rather than the narrow technical sense) be seen as always in motion, folding and enfolding, fractal and generative. In terms of my own work. The jpeg protocol’s alliances with Google’s search algorithms and business practice, Facebook’s data mining and face-recognition strategies as well as Apple, Nikon and Adobe’s businesses, Police databases etc are themselves enfolded with other software, material and immaterial actants. Those alliances are continually remade as artists and activists imag(in)e through the jpeg scopic apparatus but also as Facebook friends who have no interest in “network politics” use its capacity for metadata to tag, geolocate, link, connect and share.

This movement, the sort of rhythm perhaps that Miyazaki is exploring, demands an analytical framework that is equally fluid. As Galloway says: “we require a method of analysis unique to protocol itself”.

But it is not just at the level of analysis that an object-oriented approach to protocol offers possibilities. Galloway and Thacker say that “to be effective, future political movements must discover a new exploit… an antiweb… an ‘exceptional topology’” (p22). This is not some alternative space but rather the sort of different view, conceptualisation or ontology that OOP allows. By framing protocol as object-actant setting network effects and affects in motion, we are able to not simply deconstruct dominant imag(in)ings but also open the black boxes (OOP’s term for objects that have become so everyday they have become transparent) to reconfiguration. Mashups can be seen as an example of this exceptional topology. Here protocol generates new imag(in)ings. In terms of my own case study (the 2012 Olympics), the same protocol that generates imaginaries around legacy can generate imaginaries of globalised sports-business. My hacking the jpeg metadata to geolocate an image of a sportswear sweatshop inside the Olympic stadium, an exceptional topology is set in motion as soon as a visitor to the opening ceremony uses their iPhone to view “images taken nearby”. This is not to say that such protocol-trickery, such semiotic samizdat is the sum total of scopic network politics. What is more important is that protocol is not a fixed tool but a field of possibilities.

  • Galloway, A.R. & Thacker, E., 2007, The Exploit: A Theory Of Networks, Univ Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Munster & Lovink, 2005, Theses on Distributed Aesthetics. Or, What a Network is Not, FibreCulture(7).

Added as contribution to Network Politics: Request For Comments.