Struggle at the scale of objects not the level of networks

By working solely with objects rather than objects and relations, it is possible to explore the specific configurations of computational/governmental networks and approach political change at the scale of those objects rather than ‘network’.

Galloway and Thacker subtitle their book (2007) “A Theory of Networks” but in some ways this is to miss the point and even underplay their project. They set out to understand network politics, social, military and economic relations as well as new biologies using a framework that goes beyond a graph theory model built on nodes and edges. Galloway and Thacker see an urgency in this project as military forces and other layers in Deleuze’s Societies of Control (Deleuze 1992) adopt and adapt network models for their own forms of sovereignty, surveillance, governmentality and biopower. For Galloway and Thacker (in a point echoed in debates more recently about the role of networks in Middle East revolutions) there is nothing intrinsically ‘democratic’ about networks, nothing anti-statist. “networks and sovereignty are not incompatible. In fact, quite the opposite: networks crate the conditions of existence for a new mode of sovereignty. America is merely the contemporary figurehead of sovereignty-in-networks” (p 20).

Galloway and Thacker argue that the dominant model of networks, positining itself as opposed in some way to hierarchies and verticality, misses this ‘control’ nature of networks (a point Galloway had previously explored in Protocol (2004)). An imag(in)ing of networks along the lines of graph theory, a connect-the-dots picture of nodes and lines is “not enough for an understanding of networks; or rather, it is only a beginning” (p 33). Such a perspective, they argue not only forces a”clear division between actor and action” attributing agency to active nodes rather than passive edges, but has a form of ‘diachronic blindness’, an inability to see networks as sets of relations existing in time. Such a perspective imag(in)es networks in an “ideal or abstract formulation (a mathematical graph) estranged from the material technologies that, in our view, must always constitute and subtend any network” (p 34). Furthermore such a picture flattens subnetworks and thus protocological relations into a homogeneity. They see contemporary struggles whether political, military or “terrorist” as symmetrical, networks fighting networks. Their project is find a new asymmetrical “topology of resistance” – an “exploit”.

They conclude: “existing network theories exclude the lament that makes a network a network (its dynamic quality), but they also require that networks exist in relation to fixed, abstract configurations or patterns (either centralised or decentralised, either technical or political), and to specific anthropomorphic actors” (p 34). Just as Harman critiques his fellow actualists who remain tied to relations and thereby a context, so Galloway and Thacker critique accounts of network politics they see as rooted in abstract configurations or patterns. In contrast their model of networks is one starting from protocol. Protocols enable networks. They make them multiple, robust, flexible and dynamic (pp 60-1). They are layered (p 92). What is more they argue, referencing Whitehead,  “networks exist through process” (p 62). Networks only exist when they they are live. Their existence comes from their working, from the process “when they are enacted, embodied, or rendered operational. This applies as much to networks in their potentiality (sleeper cells, network downtime, idle mobile phones, zombie botnets) as it does to networks in their actuality.” (p 62). A model of the complex computational, bio, governmental, control topologies within which we live must, for Galloway and Thacker, be a model of protocol.

And thus, “the target of resistance is clear enough. It is the vast apparatus of techno-political organization that we call protocol” (p 78). With protocol imag(in)ed as at the heart of networks, a depth ontology necessitated by a focus on relations and processes, resistance, change and struggle take place at the level (sic) of protocol. The challenge is to reconfigure it via Exploits. “Within protocological networks, political acts generally happen not by shifting power from one place to another but by exploiting power differentials already existing in the system… [by] discovering holes in existent technologies and projecting potential change through those holes hackers call these holes ‘exploits'” (p 81).

Galloway and Thacker use the example of the computer virus which they position as a model of an exploit[ref]This is of course a vey different model from that developed by Jussi Parikka and his collaborators (Parikka et al 2009) expand…[/ref], using the monopoly position of a control network such as Microsoft. It is the nature of the network that allows a virus to “resonate far and wide with relative ease. Networks are, in this sense, a type of massive amplifier for action” (p 84). Viruses “exploit the network” (p 85). They use the layers, movement and flexibility that protocol gives to networks against itself. They “piggyback on the global standards of TCP/IP and other Internet protocols” (p 96).

In an almost Latourian phrase they say that one of their goals is: “to provide ways of critically analysing and engaging with the ‘black box’ of networks” (p 27). But from an object-oriented perspective, this is the problem. Galloway and Thacker approach protocol as an issue of networks not of objects. They push their analysis of it’s workings and power to a broader framework, a context. I would argue that it is not only graph theory models of networks that create “ideal and abstract formulations” but any model that focuses on relations rather than objects inevitably flattens the protocological connections into a homogeneity. Here a non-relational ontology, a refusal to step outside the object can help us develop just the asymmetrical “topology of resistance” – the “exploit” that Galloway and Thacker look for. Rather than concentrating on ‘networks’ and separating nodes and edges (that is not only ontologically problematic but also opens up debates about agency that distract us from dealing with configurations), we should perhaps imag(in)e objects at different scales – the 21 year-old recruit, the infrared googles, the software, the Haliburton business strategy and the network itself. All are objects, black boxes that withdraw from view but simultaneously connect in the molten heart of new objects in particular material spaces – the “private security object”, the “surge object”, the “soldier object”. These objects in turn withdraw from view and connect in the heart of new objects at different scales (n.b. not ‘levels’), including the object we the network[ref]The important thing in admitting ‘network’ to the democracy of objects is not to privilege it as somehow more fundamental or important than other objects.[/ref]. Here there’s is not the diachronic blindness, the abstract formulation or the homogeneity that Galloway and Thacker fear. Rather there is actual historical location, concrete objects and heterogeneity.

An account based on objects avoids the distinction between the potential and the actual. Here idle mobile phones and zombie botnets are not objects waiting for something; passive, sleeping actants unactivated by an outside force or context. Rather they are actual objects in particular configurations. The mobile phone and the telemarketing direct dialling software are not potential, they are actual. The meet in in the molten heart of a “mobile marketing strategy object”. And because they are actual not potential, they are open to struggle and configuration now, not in some potential future or space.

An imag(in)ing of the computational/governmental space based on objects not networks or relations, changes the focus of struggle and change. For Galloway and Thacker, counterprotocological struggle “must not be anthropomorphic (the gesture, the strike); it must be unhuman (the swarm, the flood)” (p 98). A virus does not fight the system, it overwhelms it. That struggle must be seen not as resistance but as “hypertrophy”  – a desire for pushing beyond. Viruses do not resist software they push it until it breaks. They clog up the server with too many requests. Finally, struggle happens in the spaces between the nodes, in the relations. “nodes will be conducted as a by-product of the creation of edges, and edges will be be the precondition for the inclusion of nodes in the network” (p 99). A virus’ power arises from the relations it enables, the overloads, the spam, the new configurations. Just as Latour and Whitehead argue, the object is nothing without its relations.

A non-relational, object-oriented account in contrast would approach the issue of computational/governmental protocol and power not as a matter of networks but of objects. It would explore counter-protocological struggle through objects not through their relations.

An object-oriented approach to protocol allows one to see the protocol object at the same scale as other objects in the computational/governmental topology. Here jpeg, TCP/IP, Photoshop, IE6, the IPad, Facebook’s face recognition algorithm and a police officer with a Nikon are all at the same ontological level. The governmental and biopower work happens as they connect  within the molten core of another object (n.b. not at another level) – the IT strategy object, the surveillance database object etc. Their status and power is not exhausted by being subsumed into a network or a context. By shifting at the imag(in)ing from network to object, the ways in which subjects are constructed can be addressed in terms of actual presences, vibrant matter, located experience not as the outcome of, or precursor to, something bigger or more powerful.

In terms of ‘struggle’, this means that one can avoid anthropomorphism because it is not that objects are human or even subjects. They remain distinct entities outside of any relations. They do not need verbs. The connection is not: “jpeg enables the state to archive protestors” (a relation). Rather it is: “jpeg is connected to a police office and his Nikon within the ‘surveillance object’”.

Galloway and Thacker’s second principle of hypertrophy can also be redrawn from an object-oriented perspective in such a way as to give it new power. If objects connect and reconnect within the molten core of another object, then pushing objects toward failure becomes more possible because one can look for ways of making more connections. A distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack works not by simply overwhelming a network but by reconnecting more objects (the https protocol, server requests, customers details etc) within the PayPal object.

Reversing Galloway and Thacker’s third maxim that struggles happens in relations, towards a focus on actual objects, also opens new possibilities. When the target of resistance and struggle is not the network through the objects but the objects themselves, success and failure is judged not on whether the “network is brought down”, the system changed, but rather whether new connections are made. This is not to seek a hierarchy of radical value with revolution at one end and liberal tinkering at the other, but rather to open up the possibility of micro reconfigurations. A focus on the code object not the whole Internet allowed the connecting of objects within the Apache server (object). This was not a revolutionary new Internet but rather a reconfiguration of objects whereby new possibilities for server-client relations were released. The hackers who brought objects together as they created the (open source) code for the Apache server were working with and through objects in the creation of a new object. Their connecting of protocols and code within the molten core of the new Apache-server-object was a form of exploit. Outside the software field, the sorts of projects and rethinking that Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash discuss {%Esteva 1998}, are examples of where a local, actual focus on objects brought into new alignments, constituting object (not network) black boxes opens up possibilities for counter-protocological, topological struggle.

  • Deleuze, G., 1992, Postscript on the Societies of Control, October, 59, pp. 3-7.
  • Esteva, G. & Prakash, M.S., 1998, Grassroots Post-Modernism : Remaking The Soil Of Cultures, Zed Books ; Distributed in the USA exclusively by St. Martin’s Press, London; New York; New York.
  • 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.
  • Parikka, J. & Sampson, T.D., 2009, The Spam Book : On Viruses, Porn, And Other Anomalies From The Dark Side Of Digital Culture, Hampton Press, Cresskill, N.J..