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<nettime> The Limits of Networking
Alexander Galloway on Thu, 25 Mar 2004 06:19:59 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> The Limits of Networking


	[This was originally posted to nettime-l on March 15, 2004, and is
	being resent due to a glitch in the web archive.]

THE LIMITS OF NETWORKING
A reply to Lovink and Schneider's "Notes on the State of Networking"

by Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker


The question we aim to explore here is: what is the principle of
political organization or control that stitches a network together?
Writers like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have helped answer this
question in the socio-political sphere using the concept of "Empire."
Like a network, Empire is not reducible to any single state power, nor
does it follow an architecture of pyramidal hierarchy. Empire is fluid,
flexible, dynamic, and far-reaching. In that sense, the concept of
Empire helps us greatly to begin thinking about political organization
in networks. But like Lovink and Schneider, we are concerned that no one
has yet adequately answered this question for the technological sphere
of bits and atoms.

To this end, the principle of political control we suggest is most
helpful for thinking about technological networks is "protocol," a word
derived from computer science but which resonates in the life sciences
as well. Protocol abounds in techno-culture. It is a totalizing control
apparatus that guides both the technical and political formation of
computer networks, biological systems and other media. Put simply,
protocols are all the conventional rules and standards that govern
relationships within networks. Quite often these relationships come in
the form of communication between two or more computers, but
"relationships within networks" can also refer to purely biological
processes as in the systemic phenomenon of gene expression. Thus by
"networks" we want to refer to any system of interrelationality, whether
biological or informatic, organic or inorganic, technical or
natural--with the ultimate goal of undoing the polar restrictiveness of
these pairings.

In computer networks, science professionals have, over the years,
drafted hundreds of protocols to govern email, web pages, and so on,
plus many other standards for technologies rarely seen by human eyes.
The first protocols for computer networks were written in 1969 by Steve
Crocker and others. If networks are the structures that connect people,
then protocols are the rules that make sure the connections actually
work.

Likewise, molecular biotechnology research frequently makes use of
protocol to configure biological life as a network phenomenon, be it in
gene expression networks, metabolic networks, or the circuitry of cell
signaling pathways. In such instances, the biological and the informatic
become increasingly enmeshed in hybrid systems that are more than
biological: proprietary genome databases, DNA chips for medical
diagnostics, and real-time detection systems for biowarfare agents.
Protocol is twofold; it is both an apparatus that facilitates networks
and also a logic that governs how things are done within that apparatus.

 From the large technological discourse of white papers, memos, and
manuals, we can derive some of the basic qualities of the apparatus of
organization which we here call protocol:

+ protocol facilitates relationships between interconnected, but
autonomous, entities;

+ protocol's virtues include robustness, contingency, interoperability,
flexibility, and heterogeneity;

+ a goal of protocol is to accommodate everything, no matter what source
or destination, no matter what originary definition or identity;

+ while protocol is universal, it is always achieved through negotiation
(meaning that in the future protocol can and will be different).

+ protocol is a system for maintaining organization and control in
networks;

We agree wholeheartedly with Lovink and Schneider's observation that
"networks are the emerging form of organization of our time." And we
agree that, due to this emerging form of organization, "networking has
lost its mysterious and subversive character."

Yet they also note that, despite being the site of control and
organization, networks are also the very medium of freedom, if only a
provisional or piecemeal liberation. They write that networking is able
"to free the user from the bonds of locality and identity." And later
they describe networking as "a syncope of power."

In this sense, Lovink and Schneider posit power as the opposite of
networking, as the force that restricts networking and thus restricts
individual freedom:

	"Power responds to the pressure of increasing mobility and
	communications of the multitudes with attempts to regulate them in
	the framework of traditional regimes that cannot be abandoned, but
	need to be reconfigured from scratch and recompiled against the
	networking paradigm: borders and property, labour and recreation,
	education and entertainment industries undergo radical
	transformations."

Our point of departure is this: Lovink and Schneider's "Info-Empire"
should not be defined in terms of either corporate or state power, what
they call "the corruption of state sovereignty." Instead it must be
defined at the level of the medium itself. (Otherwise we are no longer
talking about Info-Empire but about the more familiar topics of
corporate greed, fascism, or what have you.) Informatic control is
something different and thus it must be defined differently. It must be
defined via the actual technologies of control that are contained within
networks, not the content carried by those networks, or the
intentionality of the people using them. This position resonates with
the "media archaeology" approach mentioned in Lovink's recent nettime
interview with Wolfgang Ernst. This is why we propose the basic
principles of protocol above.

Networks are often seen to be advantageous in political struggles, for
there is presumed to be something about the structure of networks that
enables forms of resistance to take place against more centralized power
structures. The characteristics of multiple sites of locality,
many-to-many communications channels, and a self-organizing capacity
(local actions, global results) are some of the aspects that are cited
as part of the network structure. Indeed, analysis of computer virus
attacks, distributed political protests, and other forms of what John
Arquilla and David Ronfeldt call "netwar" all mention these aspects of
networks.

But we find it curious that networks in this characterization are rarely
contextualized--or rendered historical, archaeological. On the one hand,
the centralized structure of "Empire" is assumed to emerge out of a long
history of economically-driven imperialism and colonialism. On the other
hand, the various "networks" which resist Empire seem to suddenly appear
out of nowhere, despite the fact that the technologies which constitute
these networks are themselves rooted in governmental, military, and
commercial developments. We need only remind ourselves of the military
backdrop of WWII mainframe computing and the Cold War context of
ARPAnet, to suggest that networks are not ahistorical entities.

Thus, in many current political discussions, networks are seen as the
new paradigm of social and political organization. The reason is that
networks exhibit a set of properties that distinguishes them from more
centralized power structures. These properties are often taken to be
merely abstract, formal aspects of the network--which is itself
characterized as a kind of meta-structure. We see this in "pop science"
books discussing complexity and network science, as well as in the
political discourse of "netwars" and so forth. What we end up with is a
*metaphysics of networks*. The network, then, appears as a universal
signifier of political resistance, be it in Chiapas, Seattle, Geneva, or
online. What we question is not the network concept itself, for, as a
number of network examples show, they can indeed be effective modes of
political struggle. What we do question is the undue and exclusive
reliance on the metaphysics of the network, as if this ahistorical
concept legitimizes itself merely by existing.

An engaged, political understanding of networks will not only pay
attention to networks generally, but to networks specifically. If there
are no networks in general, then there are also no general networks.
(Marx: "If there is no production in general, then there is no general
production.") Networks can be engaged with at the general level, but
they always need to be qualified--and we mean this in technical as well
as socio-political terms. The discourse surrounding "Empire" has been
very good at contextualizing globalization; it has not done so well at
contextualizing "the movement," "the multitude," or "networks" (which
are arguably, three different concepts).

Biological or computational, the network is always configured by its
protocols. We stress this integrative approach because we cannot afford
to view "information" naively as solely immaterial. Negri notes that
"all politics is biopolitics," and to this, we would add that all
networks are not only biopolitical but biotechnical networks.
Protocological control in networks is as much about networks as *living
networks* as it is about the materiality of informatics.

Thus we are quite interested in a understanding of political change
within networks. What follows might be thought of as a series of
challenges for "counterprotocological practice," designed for anyone
wishing progressive change inside of biotechnical networks.

First, oppositional practices will have to focus not on a static map of
one-to-one relationships, but a dynamic diagram of many-to-many
relationships. This is a nearly insurmountable task. These practices
will have to attend to many-to-many relationships without making the
dangerous mistake of thinking that many-to-many means total or
universal. There will be no universals for life. This means that the
counterprotocols of current networks will be pliant and vigorous where
existing protocols are flexible and robust. They will attend to the
tensions and contradictions within such systems, such as the
contradiction between rigid control implicit in network protocols and
the liberal ideologies that underpin them. Counterprotocological
practice will not avoid downtime. It will restart often.

The second point is about tactics. In reality, counterprotocological
practice is not "counter" anything! Saying that politics is an act of
"resistance" was never true, except for the most literal interpretation
of conservatism. We must search-and-replace all occurrences of
"resistance" with "impulsion" or perhaps "thrust." Thus the concept of
resistance in politics should be superceded by the concept of
hypertrophy. Resistance is a Clausewitzian mentality; the strategy of
maneuvers teaches us instead that the best way to beat an enemy is to
become a better enemy. One must push through to the other side, rather
than drag one's heels. There are two directions for political change:
resistance implies a desire for stasis or retrograde motion, but
hypertrophy is the desire for pushing beyond. The goal is not to destroy
technology in some neoluddite delusion, but to push technology into a
hypertrophic state, further than it is meant to go. We must scale up,
not unplug. Then, during the passage of technology into this injured,
engorged, and unguarded condition, it will be sculpted anew into
something better, something in closer agreement with the real wants and
desires of its users.

The third point has to do with structure. Because networks are
(technically) predicated on creating possible communications between
nodes, oppositional practices will have to focus less on the
characteristics of the nodes, and more on the quality of the
interactions between nodes. In this sense the node-edge distinction will
break down. Nodes will be constructed as a byproduct of the creation of
edges, and edges will be a precondition for the inclusion of nodes in
the network. Conveyances are key. From the oppositional perspective,
nodes are nothing but dilated or relaxed edges, while edges are
constricted, hyper-kinetic nodes. Nodes may be composed of clustering
edges, while edges may be extended nodes.

Using various protocols as their operational standards, networks tend to
combine large masses of different elements under a single umbrella. The
fourth point we offer, then, deals with motion: counterprotocol
practices can capitalize on the homogeneity found in networks to
resonate far and wide with little effort. Again, the point is not to do
away with standards or the process of standardization altogether, for
there is no imaginary zone of non-standardization, no zero-place where
there is a ghostly, pure flow of only edges. Protocological control
works through inherent tensions, and as such, counterprotocol practices
can be understood as tactical implementations and intensifications of
protocological control.

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