Cover photo

Midpoint Review

State of Play halfway through the Summer of Protocols

Issue 16

This week, we hit an important milestone: 21 Affiliate Researchers from all over the world joined the 12 Core Researchers for the second half of the Summer of Protocols. Their challenge will be to quickly make sense of the ongoing projects and find creative ways to build on it. The welcome email we sent out internally captures a lot about the thinking behind this experimental program design, and we figured it might be of interest to people trying to develop similar programs. It also doubles nicely as a midpoint review. So we are sharing a lightly edited version in this public newsletter:

On behalf of the program staff and the Core Researchers, welcome to the Summer of Protocols!

We are now at the halfway point of the program, with a bunch of projects underway, and are excited to have you join us for the second half. Think of this second half of the program as an extended hackathon on steroids — except that instead of a few days of sleepless coding, you get 8 weeks, plenty of sleep, a fun offsite retreat, and freedom to do any kind of building and hacking around the in-progress projects, not just programming.

As far as we know, our Affiliate program is a novel sort of experiment that has never been tried before, and we are very curious to watch how it plays out. From the point of view of those of us already in the program, your arrival is a kind of moment of truth, a test of whether we’ve been doing anything worthwhile, or have been wasting our time.


You’re about to learn about 11 in-progress projects spanning a gamut of topics — technical standards, industrial safety, the built environment, social and cultural dynamics, mortality, historical memory, and power and control. Each project explores a different aspect of the phenomenology of protocols. Collectively, these projects vastly expand and flesh out the map of the territory we sketched out in the pilot study.

Each project comprises an evolving essay draft, and an idea for a “protocol-themed artifact.” You will find links to the current work-in-progress materials in the project pages and/or the discord channel. The Core Researchers are currently scrambling to get their stuff ready for you.

Your challenge is to find an interesting way to proactively build on one or more of them over the next 8 weeks in a concrete way.

The researchers leading these projects have ideas and thoughts on how you can do so, but are also hoping you’ll bring your own ideas to the table, and see possibilities, options, and ideas in their work that they themselves may not see.

The challenge for the Core Researchers is to learn from the real-world test that your arrival on the scene represents. It’s one thing to just write up an idea that excites you. It’s quite another to get another person, coming in cold, excited enough about that idea to build on it. Both sides of this experiment face a tough challenge in the weeks ahead, and we’ll all learn a lot one way or another.


We realize it will feel overwhelming to be dumped into the middle of a story, with a great deal of activity already in progress, strangers to get to know, and an intimidating mass of ideas and bunny trails to explore, make sense of, and engage with.

So why have we chosen this model? Why are we subjecting you to this stressful chaos by design?

In designing the program, we realized that a great deal of modern technology, especially protocol-style technology, depends on people building on other people’s work, often in a permissionless, anarchic way through open-source modes of production. Over the last 30 years, in parallel with technological evolution, cultural evolution has taken on many of the same characteristics. We routinely build on each other’s work through shared memes, and both casual and serious shared subcultural terminology and techniques. In online protocol-enabled zones like the blogosphere or the open-source community, the intellectual production mode that emerges is often far more richly collaborative than the top-down industrial modes it augments, extends, disrupts, supplants, or subverts.

It takes a complex mix of personal relationships and thoughtfully designed hard and soft protocols of impersonal interaction to make this possible, and it doesn’t always work very well. In fact, thirty years into this internet-enabled post-industrial mode, we still don’t quite know how the overall process actually works at all! We don’t even have interestingly wrong theories comparable to say Taylorism or Fordism for industrial production modes.

This sardonic xkcd comic pointing out this absurd condition has become a running joke in SoP discussions (to the point that Program Coordinator Josh Davis was inspired to make a Discord bot to quickly post it — you can invoke with the command /dependencies).

In a way, Some Random Person in Nebraska, invisibly situated in a fragile linchpin position within some complex socio-technical assemblage that helps run our world, is the Main Character of the modern protocolized technological landscape, the way Organization Man was the Main Character of the industrial world. And in a way, you are part of an experiment to help figure out what it takes to play that role, and play it well.

Some Random Person in Nebraska is our collective muse. If Some Random Person in Nebraska finds the output of SoP to be valuable, we can call the program a success.

Our challenge in this program is not just to study this emerging protocolized mode of post-industrial technological and cultural production, but to learn to embody it ourselves. As you work on whatever specific project you design for yourself, we hope you will also reflect on this mode of production, and think about how it is similar or different to existing modes of production, and how to make it work better.

Much more than the impact of the SoP depends on this question. This mode of technological and cultural production is what is going to build the world of tomorrow. The Summer of Protocols program is only one small effort in the broader landscape of tens of thousands of Random People in Nebraska around the world, trying to figure out how to work this way, to tackle everything from climate change to dealing with AI.

We’ve tried to craft something of a microcosm of this emerging modern technological human condition. We hope, by dumping all of you into the deep end like this, we’ll learn deep lessons about that condition.

Ready to get going? Proceed to the Resources, Rough Plan and One Action Item sections below.

And once again, Welcome Aboard!

The Summer of Protocols Team

Tim, Josh, and Venkat

So that's our big experiment for the next 2 months. Will it work? Will the Affiliate Researchers sink or swim? Will the Core Researchers be able to inspire and enable others to build on their ideas in some way?

Stay tuned to find out!

We're also going to be tweaking the format of this newsletter starting next week, now that we're past the bootcamp phase with its calendar of guest talks, so if you've been following along so far, drop us a line to let us know what you've liked/disliked so far about the newsletter, and what you'd like to see more of.

If you're joining us late, check out our YouTube channel, which now has 20 solid guest talks on protocols in it.

Website | Discord | YouTube

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