The Perils of Decentralization: The Internet-as-Protocol
Posted by <S. Posner> on 2022-02-15
Our contemporary moment is one of great social, political and economic upheaval. In contrast to the overly optimistic visions of a capitalist techno-utopia espoused by dogmatic Neo-liberals and zealous technophiles at the turn of the century, the 21st century has been one marked by the emergence of social climate defined by a pervasive skepticism of and disillusionment with the proliferation of digital technology. The once liberatory promise of technology and the internet, that it possessed the capacity to upend the archaic, calcified institutions that still predominated within American, and by extension, global society, was irrevocably tarnished by the emergence of the monolithic technology firms that subliminally shape and direct the behaviors of the majority of the human populace. Instead of the much heralded dismantlement of institutions purportedly overcome by the ills of bureaucracy, there has emerged a fortuitous partnership between these aforementioned institutions and tech monopolies that permits governments to surveil and manage citizenry through these technologies, among other authoritarian behaviors. While there have been various efforts to curtail these developments, none have attempted to redress fundamental flaws inherent to the predominating organization of the internet while attempting to posit feasible alternatives.
Why? One can hold the governing ethos of the internet, that of decentralization, accountable. Decentralization is a theory of social, and by extension, political organization, that argues for the delegation of planning and organizational decisions away from a centralized location and/or group. In principle, decentralized systems have been constructed in an attempt to wrest power from institutions perceived as hierarchical and authoritarian, namely by redistributing power amongst a disparate group of individuals. The desire to utilize such systems to redistribute power amongst the populace has driven a host of disparate ideologies, from anarchists to proponents of Neo-liberalism, to embrace decentralization as not only a cure-all for a variety of social ailments, but a means of obliterating and subsequently reconceptualizing of the governing social order. Despite these excessively optimistic visions, many of which were/are held by the most ardent of techno-utopians, their project is a failure. It is apparent that in practice, the implementation of decentralized design on the internet has resulted not in the establishment of a new social order predicated on democratic principles, but in the debasement of such principles. What has transpired is that the emergence of a new logic of control has irrevocably destroyed any attempts at using the internet to redress societal ills, many of them exacerbated by these exact technologies.
Of all the developments that have been most destructive to the initial conception of the internet is that the new method of control, aptly named protocol, has effectively rendered the emancipatory aspects of decentralization obsolete, primarily through the weaponization of internet infrastructure to discreetly and more effectively impose control. Protocol, as envisioned in the context of the structure of the internet, is defined as “…the technology of organization and control operating in distributed networks. Protocol functions largely without relying on hierarchical, pyramidal or centralized mechanisms; it is flat and smooth; it is universal, flexible and robust.” (footnote 1) Unlike the methods of enforcing control most associated with centralization, e.g., radio, film and especially television, wherein information was transmitted from one source to a number of receivers incapable of responding. This effectively eliminated the capacity for reciprocal exchange and thus ensuring that there was no capacity for the dissemination of views that would run contrary to the dominant ideology. Decentralized systems were implicitly assumed to have dismantled this hierarchical means of dissemination, as the entity of control is fragmented and ostensibly incapable of managing the regulation of newly “autonomous” subjects.
Protocol invalidates this assumption on three counts. Firstly, given that protocol is a highly flexible, malleable and adaptable, sufficiently powerful entities (i.e. Google, Facebook) can structure networks in a manner that affords them a significant amount of control over the behaviors of users of their platforms. Within the ecosystems created by such companies, users still possess a significant degree of autonomy, as communication with other users is relatively unimpeded. This is only insofar as discussion is permitted by a highly adaptable set of nebulous and arbitrary rules. This gives companies an unprecedented degree of leverage when attempting to shape beliefs and perspectives, as this flexibility permits them to subliminally legislate what beliefs, behaviors and actions are deemed “proper” and “improper”.
Secondly, the logic of protocol has numerous applications within the real world, which, in a cruel twist of fate, are dictated and ordered by the internet. Gilles Deleuze wrote about the ramifications of this shift from the “disciplinary modes” of control that governed social life since the dawn of industrialization to the Society of Control that predominates today, whereby systems of Control, i.e., Protocol, are no longer bound to the rigid and delineated enclosures so characteristic of disciplinary structures. (footnote 2) In a particularly incisive passage, Deleuze elaborates on how these developments have invariably altered the structure of disciplinary institutions and their operations, writing,
“In the prison system: the attempt to find penalties of “substitution,” at least for petty crimes, and the use of electronic collars that force the convicted person to stay at home during certain hours. For the school system: continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the “corporation” at all levels of schooling. For the hospital system: the new medicine “without doctor or patient” that singles out potential sick people and subjects at risk, which in no way attests to individuation—as they say—but substitutes for the individual or numerical body the code of a “dividual” material to be controlled. In the corporate system: new ways of handling money, profits, and humans that no longer pass through the old factory form.” (footnote 3)
Deleuze possesses an intuitive grasp of what is so imperative to the functioning of these new systems of control is their reliance on the logic of decentralization and reciprocal exchange endemic to computer systems and more accurately, the internet. For example, one can envision the relationship between the convict and the carceral system as described above as reflective of this logic. The convict is granted “autonomy” in that they are no longer confined to the institution of the prison. Instead, through the usage of electronic collars, the convict becomes a entity whose true autonomy is limited by their own movement, as they are subliminally coerced into remaining in place at specific times by another atomized entity, who in turn relays these behaviors to other entities within the system. This new relationship between convict and overseer mimics that of other relationships influenced by the logic of protocol, wherein the need for a omnipresent overseer can be 1. shared amongst a robust network of independent servers, who in turn can more efficiently manage the behaviors and actions of select individuals through coercive methods, and 2. that the subject of such control becomes a server in-and-of-itself, which permits it to engage in a reciprocal exchange of information which is essential to its own total oppression. (footnote 4)
Thirdly, the growth of algorithms and other self-modifying regulatory mechanisms have virtually supplanted the need for any external management of the systems of control that govern the decentralized structure of the internet. Through the implementation of algorithms, companies such as Google and Facebook have been able to exert considerable sway over the behavioral patterns of the users of their services without having to allocate an inordinate amount of resources, namely in terms of manpower, to the arduous process of tracking and managing the actions of individual users. Algorithms are far more efficient, as they can be written to target not only individuals, but vast swathes of the user base, while continuously modifying themselves to become ever more efficient data collection apparatuses. Writing on the emergence of what is known as “Surveillance Capitalism,” Shoshanna Zuboff constructs a disconcerting image of algorithmic control, wherein algorithms serve as a means of “behavioral surplus capture” - the collection of behavioral information of users for subsequent sale. (foonote 5) Zuboff argues that this practice has led to the construction of algorithms which are so precise in their analysis that they produce frighteningly comprehensive profiles of users that incorporate data detailing not only their usage behaviors, but their appearance and personal information, with the aim of dictating users’ current and future behavior. (footnote 6) This is the vision of totalizing control outlined by Deleuze made manifest, wherein the the entirety of a person’s identity can be subliminally manipulated through the application such of regulatory mechanisms within decentralized networks. Every exchange between independent servers is are now at the mercy of algorithmic interference in service of the logic of protocol.
It should now be apparent that any capacity decentralized systems once possessed for the liberation of individuals alongside the destruction of ailing, antiquated institutions has become thoroughly subdued by the logic of Protocol, which has contaminated the enduring vision of networked utopia that still inform deep-seated sentiments held amongst cyberneticians, programmers and other technologists. No one has devised strategies capable of contending with the tyranny of protocological systems. Their integration within the structure of the internet is inarguably permanent - the system would collapse without the algorithmic models or regulatory mechanisms that direct, as well as automate, many of the programs and interconnected systems which sustain the internet. The impossibility of dismantling such a complex, self-regulating system with current tools is abundantly clear. As Deleuze states, “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.” (footnote 7)
1. Galloway, Alexander R. “Protocol.” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 2–3 (May 2006): 317. https://doi.org/10.1177/026327640602300241.
2. Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (1992): 4.http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828.
4. Galloway, Alexander R. “Protocol.” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 2–3 (May 2006): 319. https://doi.org/10.1177/026327640602300241.
5. Zuboff, Shoshanna. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” (New York: Public Affairs: 2019), 15.
6. Zuboff, Shoshanna. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” (New York: Public Affairs: 2019), 305