Protocols are frequently touted as the liberating alternative to walled technological gardens, but the historical purpose of protocols has always been to simplify decision-making and reduce human agency. How do we reconcile these two narratives? I explore the dangerous side of protocols, and how their ability to drive coordination means they also have an ability to control us. Protocols help us accomplish more by reducing complexity, but as they become more powerful, they exert control not just via physical constraints, centralized authority, and peer enforcement, but ultimately via our internalized sense of self. Today, domains of self-expression – work, relationships, leisure, ideology – are increasingly “protocolized,” characterized by a lack of agency, which we defend as if they reflected our own desires. Reasserting control requires bringing awareness to the presence of protocols in our lives in the first place, then finding ways to work subversively through – not against – their constraints.

Sharing Protocol