The protocols of the money markets

While it is not difficult to approach protocol from an object-oriented perspective, following Latour’s Irreductions to understand it as an actant enfolded in alliances and translations, actively doing things in the world, it is perhaps more difficult to imag(in)e it as material.

Miller’s discussion of the Internet in his chapter on Media: Immaterial Culture and Applied Anthropology in Stuff (Ch4) highlights the problem. He discusses his research on mobile phone use and argues for media being seen as more than a means to an end (p132), but rather as a cultural genre (p114). Here the material phone or the immaterial phone call/text conversation is the object of study and in his terms an active player in constituting subject and object relations. In this short chapter he does not discuss the position of software or protocol but does present a definition of ‘The Internet’ as: “a term we use to consolidate genres of usage that are linked through online access”. Having positioned what is, in reality, a complex network of infolded standards, protocols and code built on them, he then use the ‘Internet’ as almost a background to his material commentary. “It’s not that Trinidanians use the Internet, or that the Internet creates Trinidanians. It’s more that the Trinidanian Internet is something distinct from all other Internets and makes the Trinidanian who uses the Internet something beyond previous forms of being Trinidanian” (p118). It is not just this potentially essentialising of complex networks (not just in the technical sense but in the ontological sense) that is problematic. Rather it is the avoidance of the question of what is material about the Internet and protocol?

You can’t hold protocol. You can’t even ‘see’ it like you can with the code of a particular programme. As I will argue in a paper due to be presented at the ASCA International Workshop ‘Practicing Theory’ in Amsterdam, March 2011 (PDF 8MB. Sorry it’s got imag(in)ings embedded!), one is left ‘chasing protocol’, tracing its effects across a scopic regime but unable to pin it down. But that doesn’t mean it is not real and material.

Others are exploring aspects of immateriality. Recent work on how (immaterial) finance theory relates to (material) realities in the money markets and the world economy (cf Donald MacKenzie on arbitrage; Miller and Carrier on ‘virtualism’ and Miyazaki on the ‘materialization of finance theory’) shows not only the relation between theory and object of analysis (cf John Law) but also how it is possible to study the immaterial. The traders enfolded their theories and the complex immaterial protocols of securitisation, derivatives and arbitrage into their material practices and material objects affected by those practices. The protocols of the money markets and those of digital imaging have real effects in the world (particularly, as with all black boxes, when they fail) yet they are immaterial

Just as (immaterial) jpeg becomes materialized in scopic practices and texts (images and mashups), so (immaterial) financial protocols and objects become materialised in trades, crashes, commodities and home repossessions. One might not be able to pin down the immaterial but one can trace its work. That tracing shows that the immaterial is not separate from, prior to or dependent on the material but rather is enfolded in it.