Aug 13 2012

“I finished by pointing out that, like scientists, people in the web development community had to be ethically and morally aware of what they were doing. I thought this might be construed as a bit out of line by the geek side, but the people present were the ones now creating the Web, and therefore were the only ones who could be sure that what the systems produced would be appropriate to a reasonable and fair society.”Tim Berners-Lee, “Weaving the Web,” p86.

Humans are social creatures. Regardless of your position on how human society should be, we all acknowledge that it does exist. While there may be some who live a lonely life in the wilderness, they still live within the larger social organization of a state. And even though those few people do exist, they are a tiny, tiny portion of the overall population. For the vast majority of humanity, society is a reality.

What do I mean when I say ‘society?’ For this, I turn to Marx:

“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.”Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie

Regardless of your opinions of Marx, I also don’t think this is a particularly controversial opinion: society is made up of our relationships with each other. A single person does not a society make, but our connections to each other. These connections are the foundational aspect of society; they are atomic.

Society is a fractal, rhizomatic object: there is not only the broader ‘society,’ but many smaller, overlapping, societies. These societies are a set of these relations within a given context. These contexts provide us with guidelines of what sorts of qualities these relations possess. For example, when amongst friends at home, a person will act differently than when around those same set of friends in a public place. Often, “social awkwardness” is a transgression of one of these boundaries; someone assumes that they exist in a different social space than those they’re interacting with.

In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else. We think of a dictionary as the repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that a piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.Tim Berners-Lee, “Weaving the Web,” p12

As it turns out, Tim isn’t the only person to find this line of thinking interesting. Ferdinand de Saussure was a linguist in the early 1900s who developed the idea of “structural linguistics,” and in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a French anthropologist named Claude Lévi-Strauss took his concepts and applied them to anthropology, birthing Structuralism. Others followed his lead and used this mode to develop an analysis of psychology, sociology, and more.

Societies exist naturally, but can also be man-made. Any opening of a new avenue for interpersonal relationships creates a new society amongst the multitude. The web is an example of this, and websites are a second, inner socius. The major difference between artificial and natural societies is not one of effect, but of cause. The end result is the same, but the initial conditions for the formation of the society determine the acceptable rules for the given relations that exist within it. Therefore, potential creators of said social enclosures should understand the power that they wield, and use said power to create the exact form of society they wish it make, with deliberate strokes.

Society has a very clean mirror

When people create, they end up creating something that reflects themselves and the societies that they live in. Linguistic relativity in even its weak form implies that language shapes who we are, and it is such with our creations. Many ex nihilo creation myths touch upon this property, like Adam’s receipt of God’s breath, or Atum from ancient Egypt, who not only created himself (?!?) but then other gods (first from his own shadow) and then man from his tears.

Here’s a fun, terrible example of this happening:

Amusingly, even though the tone is wrong, this YouTube user nails it:

(image lost to time)

Exactly. They didn’t test it on darker skinned folks. Of course, it may not be malicious, but this certainly meant that no dark-skinned people were involved in the production of this device, the whole way up to shipping it. If they were, it would have been caught early on before it was even beginning manufacture.

Because we grow up in a society, and we create new societies through technology, it stands to reason that society and our own biases influence the societies that we create. Even beyond that, if we create societies, we should be able to use the same tools that we use to analyze naturally occurring ones on artificial ones.

So how do we analyze societies?

It’s all about power and control

Remember Structuralism? Well, it has some issues, and not just the opposition that Saussure faced from Chomsky. Along comes a bunch of French philosophers, and they have beef. I won’t get into it, except to mention the name of one: Michel Foucault. He wrote this book titled “Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison,” which has some awkward title translation issues, and so ends up as “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” in English. Long time readers of my blog will remember my notes on this book, but the basics are as such:


Feudal society was predicated on divine right. The body of a sovereign is literally the body of God, and since God also created everything, the sovereign is everything. Therefore, if you commit a crime, you commit it against the body of the sovereign, and therefore, he must exact punishment against your body in kind. Hence torture.

Eventually, though, torture became socially inconvenient, and people started challenging the very idea of divine right, and wanted democracy in some form. Therefore, the power to punish would need to take on a new form to survive in this new society. That mechanism is called “discipline.” Discipline (specifically of the body) is how control manifests itself in society. One of the great advances of Taylorism, for example, was studying how the bodies of assembly line workers operated and streamlining their motions.

Foucault also illustrates that control and power in modern society mirror Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the ‘Panopticon,’ which is a prison in a circular shape by which the rooms can all observe each other. The observation would help to keep them all in line, since the all-seeing tower in the middle would be able to observe everyone at all times.


I found this concept amusing, here are the dorms I stayed in during my time at the University of Pittsburgh.

Those in charge get to make the rules?

Anyway, all of that implies this: the people who are ‘in charge’ are so because they get to define the rules. Most people would say this the other way around, but that’s wrong: You don’t get to make the rules because you’re in charge, you’re in charge because you get to make the rules. Regardless, what does it mean to make the rules?

In a simple sense, discipline is pretty easy to grasp: there’s a king (or boss). He makes the rules. Done. And it’s the same with our ‘creation of societies’ from above. When you make a society, you make it, so you get to make the rules! This ‘rule-making’ property is everywhere in software: operating systems are absolutely about creating a society of software programs on your computer. APIs are all about the connections between various systems, and the web, with its hyperlinks, even more explicitly so.

That’s why this stuff matters to programmers. We create societies all the time, and need to be careful of the kinds of societies that we create. We also participate in many, and need to be sure that we participate in the kinds of societies that we agree with.

One problem: we’ve already moved beyond discipline society, twice.

Deleuze and Guattari

Oh these two! What a pair! If you picked up a random copy of either volume of “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” without knowing what it was, you would be oh so confused. I mean, I vaguely knew what I was getting into, and I was still confused.

Deleuze specifically wrote an essay called “Postscript on the Societies of Control”. You can find it online here.

These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing disciplinary societies. “Control” is the name Burroughs proposes as a term for the new monster, one that Foucault recognizes as our immediate future.

He also discusses it in Negotiations.

Control societies are different from disciplinary societies because discipline is all about confinement. Control is a slippery beast compared to discipline:

Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.

Discipline is direct, while control is indirect. I won’t get into control too much more here, because we’re past that too; control’s time on this earth was fleeting. Now we live in the era of protocol.


Alexander Galloway is an Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, and every programmer should read him. Specifically, his book Protocol: How control exists after decentralization. Galloway takes Deleuze’s work and applies it to our modern computer systems, and terms that ‘protocol.’

Protocol is a system of distributed management.Protocol facilitates peer-to-peer relationships between autonomous entities.Protocol is anti-hierarchy and anti-authority.Protocol engenders localized decision making, not centralized.Protocol is robust, flexible, and universal.Protocol can accommodate massive contingency.Protocol is the outcome (not the antecedent) of distributed power.Galloway, “Protocol”, p82

Sounds awesome, right? Sounds like the web.

I saw one [advocate of informational organization systems] after the next shot down because the developers were forcing them to reorganize their work to fit the system. I would have to create a system with common rules that would be acceptable to everyone. This meant as close as possible to no rules at all.This notion seemed impossible until I realized that the diversity of different computer systems could be a rich resource– something to be represented, not a problem to be eradicated. The model I chose for my minimalist system was hypertext.Tim Berners-Lee, “Weaving the Web,” p15.

Tim recognized that centralization was the root of exploitation:

It also shows how a technical decision to make a single point of reliance can be exploited politically for power and commercially for profit, breaking the technology’s independence from those things, and weakening the web as a universal space.Tim Berners-Lee, “Weaving the Web,” p129.

Tim saw that control was an issue:

Whether inspired by free-market desires or humanistic ideals, we all felt that control was the wrong perspective. … Technically, if there was any centralized point of control, it would rapidly become a bottleneck that restricted the web’s growth, and the web would never scale up. Its being ‘out of control’ was very important.Tim Berners-Lee, “Weaving the Web,” p99

Galloway, however, contends something else, and this is the crux of it:

Thus it is an oversight for theorists like Lawrence Lessig (despite his strengths) to suggest that the origin of Internet communication was one of total freedom and lack of control. Instead, it is clear to me that the exact opposite of freedom – that is, control – has been the outcome of the last forty years of developments in networked communications. The founding principle of the Net is control, not freedom. Control has existed from the beginning.Perhaps it is a different type of control than we are used to seeing. It is control borne from high degrees of technical organization (protocol) not this or that limitation on individual freedom or decision making (fascism).To put it another way, in order for protocol to enable radically distributed communications between autonomous entities, it must employ a strategy of universalization, and of homogeneity. It must be anti-diversity. It must promote standardization in order to enable openness. It must organize peer groups into bureaucracies like the IETF in order to create free technologies.In short, control in distributed networks is not monolithic. It proceeds in multiple, parallel, contradictory, and often unpredictable ways. It is a complex of interrelated currents and counter-currents.Galloway, “Protocol”, p141-143.

This is the kind of control that startups exert on the rest of the world. This is the kind of control that’s hard to see coming, because it’s inexact. This is the kind of control that lets you feel like you have freedom, even when you don’t. This is the kind of control that likes open standards, and uses them against you.

Discipline is Microsoft. Protocol is Google. Protocol is Facebook. Protocol is Twitter.

It’s in this tradition that I critique and GitHub.