Protocol How Control Exists after Decentralization - Alexander R. Galloway - MIT Press, Usa, 2004

Is the Internet a vast arena of unrestricted communication and freely exchanged information or a regulated, highly structured virtual bureaucracy? In Protocol, Alexander Galloway argues that the founding principle of the Net is control, not freedom, and that the controlling power lies in the technical protocols that make network connections (and disconnections) possible. He does this by treating the computer as a textual medium that is based on a technological language, code. Code, he argues, can be subject to the same kind of cultural and literary analysis as any natural language; computer languages have their own syntax, grammar, communities, and cultures. Instead of relying on established theoretical approaches, Galloway finds a new way to write about digital media, drawing on his backgrounds in computer programming and critical theory. "Discipline-hopping is a necessity when it comes to complicated socio-technical topics like protocol," he writes in the preface.

Galloway begins by examining the types of protocols that exist, including TCP/IP, DNS, and HTML. He then looks at examples of resistance and subversion—hackers, viruses, cyberfeminism, Internet art—which he views as emblematic of the larger transformations now taking place within digital culture. Written for a nontechnical audience, Protocol serves as a necessary counterpoint to the wildly utopian visions of the Net that were so widespread in earlier days.

Alexander R. Galloway is Assistant Professor of Media Ecology at New York University.

Taken from "The Physical Media" Chapter:
While many have debated the origins of the Internet, it’s clear that in many ways it was built to withstand nuclear attack. The Net was designed as a so- lution to the vulnerability of the military’s centralized system of command and control during the late 1950s and beyond. For, the argument goes, if there are no central command centers, then there can be no central targets and overall damage is reduced.
If one can consider nuclear attack as the most highly energetic, dominat- ing, and centralized force that one knows—an archetype of the modern era— then the Net is at once the solution to and inversion of this massive material threat, for it is precisely noncentralized, nondominating, and nonhostile.
The term protocol is most known today in its military context, as a method of correct behavior under a given chain of command. On the Internet, the meaning of protocol is slightly different. In fact, the reason why the Inter- net would withstand nuclear attack is precisely because its internal protocols are the enemy of bureaucracy, of rigid hierarchy, and of centralization. As I show in this chapter, the material substrate of network protocols is highly flexible, distributed, and resistive of hierarchy.

The packet-switching technologies behind the Internet provided a very different “solution” to nuclear attack than did common military protocol during the Cold War. For example, in 1958 the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Air Force entered into agreement under the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). NORAD is a radar surveillance system ringing North America that provides early warnings of missile or other air attacks against Canada and the United States. “The command monitors any potential aerospace threat to the two nations, provides warning and assessment of that threat for the two governments, and responds defensively to any aircraft or cruise missile threatening North American airspace.” The NORAD system is a centralized, hierarchical network. It contains regional control sectors, all of which are ultimately controlled by the USSPACECOM Command Center at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It functions like a wall, not like a meshwork. 

Faced with a nuclear attack, NORAD meets force with force. Once the outer protection zone of the land- mass is compromised, the NORAD command is able to scramble defensive air power through a rigidly defined system of command and control that is directed outward from a single source (USSPACECOM), to subservient end- point installations that help resist attack. The specific location of each radar installation is crucial, as is the path of the chain of command. During the Cold War, NORAD was the lynchpin of nuclear defense in North America. It is a “solution” to the nuclear threat. 

The Internet system could not be more different. It follows a contrary organizational design. The Internet is based not on directionality nor on toughness, but on flexibility and adaptability. Normal military protocol serves to hierarchize, to prioritize, while the newer network protocols of the Internet serve to distribute.
In this chapter I describe exactly what distribution means, and how pro- tocol works in this new terrain of the distributed network. I attempt to show that protocol is not by nature horizontal or vertical, but that protocol is an algorithm, a proscription for structure whose form of appearance may be any number of different diagrams or shapes.
The simplest network diagram is the centralized network (see figure 1.1). Centralized networks are hierarchical. They operate with a single authorita- tive hub. Each radial node, or branch of the hierarchy, is subordinate to the central hub. All activity travels from center to periphery. No peripheral node is connected to any other node. Centralized networks may have more than one branch extending out from the center, but at each level of the hierarchy power is wielded by the top over the bottom. 

Read the Physical Media chapter on PDF

Protocol...is a book on computer science written by someone who's not a computer scientist, and that's a good thing."
Gary SinghMetro
"Galloway is one of the very few people who are equally well versed in poststructuralist cultural theory and computer programming."
Steven ShaviroThe Pinocchio Theory Weblog
"An engaging methodological hybrid of the Frankfurt School and UNIX for Dummies.... Galloway brings the uncool question of morality back into critical thinking."
Ed HalterThe Village Voice