The Bones of Time
We're going to be talking protocols a lot around here
A phrase from Bruce Sterling’s novel Schismatrix has been stuck in my head since I read it years ago: “the mathematical bones of reality.” I recalled the phrase recently while thinking about good mental images for protocols. It struck me that bones of time is a very evocative image for protocols. A rather macabre image I guess. I made this rather disturbing x-ray-like drawing for myself. The transient flesh of history surrounding the bones of time.
I’m thinking about protocols a lot these days because of a new gig: I’ll be running the upcoming Summer of Protocols program, which you may have seen me mention elsewhere. If the name intrigues you, go check it out. If you think it might be of interest to somebody you know doing interesting work on the themes, please forward the link to them. Applications are now open, and due by March 21. The program will fund a bunch of full-time and part-time researchers over the summer to think about protocols in the broadest sense: everything from handshakes and diplomacy to blockchains and climate protocols. There is also an associated draft study, The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols, which I authored with a bunch of collaborators. If you’re interested in the running themes of this newsletter, you’ll probably enjoy that. The program is funded by the Ethereum Foundation, but the scope is all kinds of protocols, not just blockchains.
Back to my macabre metaphor. Why bones? I started thinking about the metaphor because people in the blockchain world talk about “ossified protocols” a lot, but why is that an apt metaphor? What about protocols is, or can become, bone-like? I think it has to do with how protocols exist in time.
Think of it this way: we can’t predict most things about the future, but some things we can predict with an eerie amount of confident precision. For example, I am pretty confident that this time 5 years from now, whether or not the US exists as a country, and whether or not zombies or aliens have taken over, we’ll still be driving on the right-hand side of the road on this continent and using 110V electricity. That’s because road rules constitute a pretty ossified protocol and are part of the bones of time. The electric grid is built around a set of standards and protocols and is also part of the bones of time. These social realities seem to have a preternatural stability across the fan of possible futures, and a kind of inflexible hardness we normally associate with the natural laws of physics.
Most things we think of as protocols seem to have this kind of property. Whatever else happens, chances are, in the future, we will still do things like shake hands, use TCP/IP for networking, listen to flight attendants going through their spiels, and so forth. One of the reasons the pandemic felt like such a dramatic disruption of life was that several foundational protocols of life, like shaking hands and smiling, got broken.
Broken is the right word here. Unlike softer social realities, while protocols can sometimes be bent a little, beyond a point of stress they generally break rather than deform endlessly. That’s why we use the phrase break protocol to describe a class of social transgressions. That fundamental rigidity is also the source of the predictability associated with protocols. You trade smoothly undulating landscapes for temporal escarpments punctuating temporal plateaus. You get stability and predictability between breaks.
Protocols create artificial “vertebrate” time out of natural “invertebrate” time.
The same lens can be applied to the past. We structure our understanding of the past in terms of bone-like procedural social realities that don’t change easily, and induce a certain hard-edged quality in event streams. We have histories of the United States, China, the Catholic Church, and railroad technologies in large part because those entities enjoy an ontological stability that emerges out of the protocols defining their ossified social realities. The United States is in a sense the hard-edged procedural forms of its system of governance. The Catholic Church is the ritual forms that define the practice of that religion. The railroad industry is the set of standards and protocols that define how the infrastructure works.
Protocols are a bit like laws of nature in this regard: defined by stable symmetries and conservation principles that limit the space of possible futures and pasts. That they are the product of social contrivance and technological artifice doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they endure for long periods while changing slowly or not at all. They may be made-up and arbitrary, but they create persistent laws of social reality.
Though I’m calling protocols the bones of time, it is worth noting that time in the sense of consensual social realities (as opposed to felt psycho-physical reality) is itself a set of protocols governing clocks and calendars. Calendars have a regular grid-like structure. A particularly platonic set of bones. When you talk about time, you are usually talking about the state of a time-structuring protocol rather than the psycho-physical phenomenon.
I’ll be thinking and writing more about protocols through at least the summer, and you may want to follow the work of the Summer of Protocols as well. The theme obviously intersects with many of the threads we’re developing here, so it will probably start showing up as at least a B-plot in upcoming posts.
Apologies for an unplanned skipped newsletter last week. I was at EthDenver (a major Ethereum conference) partly to soft launch this program. My newsletter writing protocol broke under the stress of launching a new thing :)