[Translucent Papers]Protocols

Protocols are everywhere. They lurk in every corner of our human experience, forcing people and machines to conform to identifiable standards and patterns of behavior.

What is a protocol?¹

I believe it is a generalized formal method for describing patterns.

Here are some things each of which I would consider a protocol:

  • Language
  • A method for making coffee
  • The programming language Python
  • The way a computer enters into communication with another computer
  • The United States Constitution
  • How I define the word “friend”
  • How human beings define any word
  • The arrangement of keys on a keyboard
  • The arrangement of petals on a flower
  • The types of faces I make at a newborn child
  • “Happiness”
  • A method for converting analog sounds to digital notation
  • The scientific method
  • Art
  • The rules for atomic electron configuration
  • Bulleted lists

The list goes on. Nature is full of patterns, and where you have a pattern you will often find an underlying protocol.

Footnote | 1. From Byzantine Greek (prōtókollon) and later Latin (protocollum), meaning the first sheet glued onto a manuscript.

Enter Humans

While I don’t read the news or watch television , I do succumb to checking Twitter, Reddit, and occasionally Facebook.

I’ve noticed some patterns in the type of interactions typical of these social media platforms. Ideology and identity expression seem like common protocols.

Here’s an example. Consider the truth claims (or beliefs, or articles of faith — whatever you want to call them) of a group we will call the PB&J League:

  1. The Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich is both a combination of food items and a method of construction that results in the pinnacle of human culinary achievement.
  2. The phrase “Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich” is a mouthful, and we can reduce it simply to “PB&J.”
  3. “Peanut Butter Jelly,” on the other hand, is an invalid name; it is a phrase fit for lower forms of life and is an abomination
  4. A PB&J consists of [two pieces of bread, peanut butter, jelly].
  5. A PB&J is constructed by [f(Applying one portion of either peanut Butter or jelly to one side of the first piece of bread), f(Applying one portion of the opposite ingredient to one side of the second piece of bread), f(Pushing the sides of the two pieces of bread together such that the ingredients are touching in the formula B1-i1-i2-B2), f(Cutting the sandwich in half either diagonally, vertically, or horizontally such that the cutting instrument passes through one piece of bread and then the other.)]
  6. Amendments to the definition of this document (“the PB&J mandate”) will be decided by proof-of-PB&J voting.

Say the author of this founding document publishes it online. Then some people declare that they are in agreement — in league — with the PB&J mandate. However, they interpret the mandate in a way that is not 100 percent in accordance with its original intent. (For that matter, even the founder cannot recall his exact state of mind or full intentions when he wrote it.)

Over time, the mandate’s original interpretation is lost, perverted, or simply altered to appeal to new PB&J converts. Eventually the PB&J League has a following of millions of people.

By now, several compromises have been made in the definition and interpretation of the PB&J mandate . None of these compromises have been witnessed or voted on by the entire constituency or even by all the governing members of the League. Nevertheless, people continue to associate their identities with the PB&J League. There are millions of competing or even contradictory interpretations of what the PB&J League stands for, and yet people identify with it in solidarity with one another.

Finally, the contradictions become so great that someone who does not agree with the dominant interpretation of the stated purpose of the PB&J League decides to fork a new faction: the PBJ League. Like the original sect, this new faction soon amasses a following.

Battle lines are drawn. Society is divided into those who identify as PB&J Leaguers, those who identify as PBJers, and undecided persons of no consequence. The PB&J Leaguers hate the PBJers because the best science of the day clearly demonstrates that PB&J is superior. Somehow the PBJers hate the PB&J Leaguers just as fervently, and for the same reason.

Disaster strikes. People are so busy arguing about sandwiches that no one is paying attention to the rise of a dolphin-cyborg army.

The dolphins kill all the humans and make sandwiches out of them.

Political Camps

I work on technology, primarily as a software architect. My main motivation is to feel useful to society and to have fun turning abstract concepts into tangible products and services.

Part of my work involves gathering information about competing technical solutions and then choosing to implement one instead of the others.

I try to employ a scientific methodology when it comes to forming an opinion, but … I have a silly human brain. The chances of my falling victim to a dolphin conspiracy are high. Maybe by chance I have watched a news broadcast and a brain virus has infected me, giving me an unscientific or otherwise invalid bias. Of course, this is probably not literally true, but a brain virus cooked up by malevolent, hyperintelligent dolphins can serve as a stand-in, or metaphor, for any external factor that might irrationally shape my preconceptions, influence my decisions, or inform my beliefs.

When I was younger I came across the exciting terms “libertarianism,” “anarcho-capitalism,” and “cypherpunk.” These were new concepts to me, which lay outside the scope of my previous education. At the time, some of the rhetorical arguments I came to associate with these ideologies seemed cogent in many contexts.

It would be easy, then, for me to attach completely to a few of these ideologies, lock everything else out, and pass all of my decisions through a filter which prioritizes the ideology — and my attachment to it — as part (maybe even a core part) of my identity.

The problem with this is that ideologies — and the manifold permutations they undergo and various interpretations they admit as they are transmitted from person to person — are flawed. Once assimilated as a core part of a person’s identity, they are practically unassailable. Confronting someone’s ideology almost always provokes that person to an irrational emotional reaction.

The soundbites of dogma that I associate with the ideologies I mentioned above are as follows:

  • Regulation is (always) bad.
  • State actors are (always) evil.
  • Government use of force is (always) unjustifiable.

While these statements might be true in some contexts, I don’t think they can serve as universal truths. Here is a partial deconstruction:

Being dogmatically anti-regulation is itself a kind of regulation. It is an ideology that dictates people’s thoughts and actions — the opposite of real liberty.

By the same token, using an anti-state ideology to inform decisions which impact society can be interpreted as acting on behalf of a kind of pseudo-state — the anti-state state — governed by the set of people who subscribe to that ideology. In essence, sharing this ideology makes the participant a state actor.

And if government use of force is unjustifiable, how do you enforce universal pacifism?

I have noticed that this cognitive dissonance often goes unacknowledged by the very people who should be afflicted by it. People in the crypto-asset industry, for instance, frequently opine on the evils of regulation but advocate for the use of web-based protocols. Aren’t the terms regulation and protocol functionally identical in the context of open blockchains?


I see regulation, guidance, and law as terms which all represent various layers of the protocols that govern societies.

The determined absence of all regulation is still a regulation. The absence of a specific regulation is still a state of affairs arrived at through the bargaining of a social collective. (Another word for this is governance.)

Since society must have protocols, I can only hope that the protocols we decide to use are well-informed and effective. Does this mean I’m pro-regulation?

I don’t like labels. In fact I am allergic to them, because I know that the minute I attach myself to one I might hear something that changes my position or my understanding of a given argument. I would rather remain in uncertainty, doing my best to choose rationally from among the available options. I would rather operate on a case-by-case basis than try to cram all of experience into the narrow confines of a specific ideology. It would be like trying to write every piece of software in existence with only a single programming language, or trying to solve every math formula with only one or two basic operations.

A New Protocol

We’re silly humans, and the evidence suggests that we largely don’t know what we don’t know. I’m very suspicious of “influencers” and decision makers who spout their own ideological biases as fact. It demonstrates a misunderstanding of the humanities, science, history, and the nature of protocols.

So please call me out if my human tendencies make me guilty of thinking I’m right when I’m not. Especially if I can’t back up my position with relevant a priori knowledge or a posteriori research.

At work I categorize this sort of unfounded certitude as ego-driven software development, and I try to subscribe to its opposite.

I want software that is built by people who passionately devalue their personal beliefs and opinions, who put their prejudices on the back burner, and stick to a scientific methodology for their decisions, whether those decisions are driven by theory or by empirical evidence.

Do you share my interest in what I call ego-and-ideology-minimized-software (EIMS)? Let me know.