It seems to be that anyone at least somewhat savvy with complex systems has an intuitive grasp of the seemingly terrible shape our world is in. Particularly from the perspective of living systems. It’s now at the point where if I sense that the conversation to begin to even flirt with the notion of the meta-crisis I feel the need to proactively steer matters toward more jovial domains—lest we all succumb to despondency.
But lo!—a recent paper on The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols has me feeling—dare I say it?—optimistic about our ability to effectively coordinate, amidst complexity at scale. There may be ways through this yet.*
* Actually, my introduction to web3 provided the glimmer of hope after nearly two decades of being a jaded ex-academic from the school of environmental sciences—but most of the world doesn’t understand web3 yet, so that topic too is fraught. Protocols, however, may just be the way to broach the wider topic of coordination amidst complexity at scale.
The introductory salvo of this paper acutely skewers the milieu many complexity practitioners find themselves within.
“Complex coordination problems have an air of doomed intractability about them. We speak in fatalistic terms of economics being a ‘dismal’ science, of sociological phenomena being dominated by the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ of organizations being hopelessly ‘captured,’ and of complex problems being ‘wicked.’ Even our simplest mental models of coordination and cooperation problems, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory, are built around default expectations of obviously worse outcomes dominating obviously better ones, and worst-case behaviors driving systemic outcomes.
Yet, in practice, we routinely solve coordination problems reasonably well. Workable solutions materialize, pushing through the gloom and doom which often accompanies theoretical views and cultural commentary. In light of this foreboding context, the outcomes appear almost suspiciously lucky, or serendipitous.”
The paper is an evocative read—the kind that enables you to ‘see’ the world slightly anew, with greater acuity for the protocols that shape how we coordinate. It does some heavy lifting in terms of articulating the ‘current moment’ that protocols are having. I have become sufficiently ‘nerd sniped’ by the topic, as it were. I can’t stop thinking about it; I’m seeing protocols everywhere. Or at least, what I suspect may fit my own shorthand definition of ‘codified sensibilities’. The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols paper offers the following definition as a starting point:
“A protocol is a stratum of codified behavior that allows for the construction or emergence of complex coordinated behaviors at adjacent loci.”
The authors go further to highlight ten dimensions of sufficiency. Protocols ought be sufficiently: generative; legible; stewardable; evolvable; legitimate; constrained; learnable; ludic; defensible; and mortal.
Examples of protocols span from handwashing and handshaking through to TCIP/IP and SMTP, blockchains, door holding and right of way, and more. Protocols are also a vital part of any complex magic, as any wizard would know.
Yet I’ve also had the privilege of spending some time with Indigenous scholars here in Australia; there’s a depth to protocol wisdom that goes far beyond anything conjured in recent times. The recently published paper—Indigenous systems knowledge applied to protocols for governance and inquiry—speaks of this.
“While the pools of complexity science and systems thinking have been muddied by grifters and a plethora of pseudo-scientific adventurers (Phelan, 2001), we are drawing from a pure well of intellectual tradition perfected over 60 000+ years, not invented in a castle 600 years ago or in a university 60 years ago. We are not creating a ‘third space’ dialectic between Indigenous Knowledge and complexity science (Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2001) but rather seeking to adapt the language of systems disciplines as translation tools. These tools may provide access to some basic elements of Indigenous Systems Knowledge that may assist with the advancement of human and more-than-human inquiry, particularly in the design of human systems that do not trigger extinction-level events.”
Meanwhile we have the beginnings of an index of protocols that, I suspect, barely scratches the surface of the world of protocols that we operate with and within. Maybe one day this will blossom. It comes from the ‘Summer of Protocols’ initiative—something that has me excited to contribute to our collective ‘protocol literacy’.
Summer of Protocols ☀️
The Summer of Protocols is an initiative born of conversations within the Ethereum community about “the inadequacies of current conversations around protocols, which tend to be deeply siloed around particular protocols, and limited to core engineering concerns intelligible only to experts”. One of my favourite thinkers, Venkatesh Rao, is a key champion within this project (I had previously written of his recent-ish presentation at the Ethereum Developers Conference—There Are Many Alternatives: Unlocking Civilizational Hypercomplexity with Ethereum—before transmuting my substack).
Ethereum is a revolutionary enabler of coordination amidst complexity at scale. The ethos that guides Ethereum and many of its developers is relatively ‘solarpunk’* (in the classic sense), rather than cyberpunk. That is to say, the directionality of the development is towards a beacon of ‘planetary mutualism’, more so than ‘sovereign individualism’. At least, this is how I see it. Of course, within this movement itself are many perspectives and voices; the charm being that open-source development brings a level of inclusiveness and rigour to any decisions made. The dispositional outlook is thus rather optimistic; there is a genuine belief that we can collectively surmount the complex challenges that face us as a species.†
* If you’ll allow me use of what was once a relatively benign term used to represent a polyphonic and optimistic constellation of visions for the future, in punk-like defiance to the dystopian gloom that seems to be our future-vision default. The term itself has been rendered fraught since this naïve piece I wrote a few years ago, yet still I concur with the inclination to ‘move quietly and plant things’.
† It might be argued that Ethereum is thus ‘pro civilisation’, but I would hope that the regenerative finance elements being developed may bring us healthily into a ‘post-civ’ chapter; as we hit up against the planetary limits of the extractive project that is ‘civilisation’, it behooves us to somehow sublimate into a new paradigm. We’ll see.
The Discord server for the Summer of Protocols is already active with researchers beginning to explore and develop protocol literacy. I’m not yet sure exactly how I might contribute—the fox in me doesn’t like bold proclamations—but I am tentatively excited by the following concept. Particularly as it will be winter for me during the ‘summer of protocols’; I appreciate the relative contrast to the bright ideas already at play.
Here’s what I pitched—
There Is No Antimemetics Protocol
“This project explores the role of knowledge gatekeeping protocols in the context of planetary mutualism. In a world of public, transparent, shared, open-source protocols, where might it be important to withhold potentially dangerous knowledge or ideas? What protocols might be maintained to ensure this? How might they be ethically cultivated? And how might they be renewed?”
This thrust is partially inspired by the book There Is No Antimemetics Division—a collection of short stories by qntm that revolve around the concept of antimemes: information that is intrinsically difficult to perceive, comprehend, remember, or share. The stories highlight various ‘Special Containment Procedures’ deployed to protect humanity and maintain normalcy by securing, researching and understanding antimemetic anomalies. This is evidently a fictional concept (or is it? ha) yet it surreptitiously approaches the concept of gatekeeping/‘containing’ knowledge; something I suspect will remain an important and relevant topic. And yet it conjures all sorts of uncomfortable notions such as: Privilege! Hierarchy! Secrecy! Such concepts don’t seem to naturally fit within default solarpunk visions of planetary mutualism—yet perhaps they have a place?
Maybe! A risk of this research project is that it could easily become conspiracy theorist or crackpot. But... that’s not my vibe. I’ve worked with enough senior leadership teams in very powerful companies to know that it’s coordination challenges all the way down.
Another risk of this research is that it might become dangerously arrogant and elitist. This whole avenue is fraught; which is perhaps why it appeals to me. How could knowledge gatekeeping work in a decentralised and egalitarian manner? What form might it take that is coherent to the worlds we are working towards?
There are plenty of sources to look to for this: military intelligence protocols, the secret society characterisations in popular films like John Wick, the sensibilities of Studio Ghibli films, knowledge gatekeeping within web3 subscultures and academia... so many avenues. But I suspect that Indigenous knowledge systems may hold some of the most profound insight into this. For well over half a hundred thousand years we’ve had a sustainable culture that has somehow resisted the existential perils of exponential technology. When compared to the relatively recent unfurling development of Ethereum (an exponential technology), I can’t help but feel that there may be some fascinating avenues for insight.
Most profundity is found within paradox. It is my hope that, somehow in my endeavours, I may be able to surface and centre some of the sensibilities from within Indigenous knowledge systems (respectfully, with grace—ideally bringing some Indigenous scholars into the Summer of Protocols). In doing so, we might get a little better at understanding, cultivating and stewarding protocols that do not trigger extinction-level events.
That’s the hope, anyhow.
Second to this, I genuinely hope that these ongoing developments may inspire further interest from my academic and research colleagues. I want for them to experience the ‘physiological quickening’ that Tim Ferriss once aptly described on his podcast:
“So first I’ll say that I’m relatively new to this sphere, but like you said, once it started to land or sink in, I felt something, and this is going to sound very odd perhaps, but this like physiological quickening, that really kept me up. I was not able to sleep well for about a week straight. That only happens to me every five to seven or five to 10 years, because I started to see some of the possibilities, and some of the beneficial societal changes and on and on and on that, not just could, are already in a sense, a byproduct of this paradigm shift.” [transcript]
I had this experience a while ago; it’s near impossible to go back. To view the possibility of coordination (amidst complexity, at scale) without becoming reliant on overly-centralised control and/or monopolies of violence is nothing short of profound.
There’s much to be excited for. I’ll keep you posted with any developments.