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Protocol Humor

Knock, knock...

Issue 18

If you have been enjoying this newsletter, we have a favor to ask: tell us any protocol jokes you know (or can make up). Next week, we have the Summer of Protocols retreat in Seattle, and one of the planned sessions is about protocol humor.

So what is protocol humor? There are many varieties. Here is a classic example of the most obvious variety:

Hello, would you like to hear a TCP joke?
Yes, I'd like to hear a TCP joke.
OK, I'll tell you a TCP joke.
OK, I'll hear a TCP joke.
Are you ready to hear a TCP joke?
Yes, I am ready to hear a TCP joke.
OK, I'm about to send the TCP joke. It will last 10 seconds, it has two characters, it does not have a setting, it ends with a punchline.
OK, I'm ready to hear the TCP joke that will last 10 seconds, has two characters, does not have a setting and will end with a punchline.
I'm sorry, your connection has timed out... ...Hello, would you like to hear a TCP joke?

This joke is shared often in software circles, and invariably someone adds a topper along the lines of "Here's a UDP joke, I don't care if you get it."

A great deal of engineering nerd humor is of this kind, and usually requires some specialized knowledge to appreciate. In this case, the guarantees offered by TCP/IP at the cost of a lot of handshaking overhead, and the lack of delivery guarantees in the UDP protocol.

A second variety of protocol humor is where the joke itself follows a stylized protocol. Knock-knock and lightbulb jokes are classic examples. Jokes may turn purely on the content, but in the best examples, typically involve some subversion of the format. In either case, the format requires the listener to know how to play their role.

Many classic xkcd comic strips, such as Dependency and Standards, represent a third variety: observational humor of the sort favored by late-night hosts. But as with true nerd jokes, they take some knowledge to appreciate. Much as most techies love xkcd, it is doubtful that this kind of humor can go mainstream. A short-lived TV show in the US, Important Things with Demetri Martin, brought this kind of humor to television in 2009-10, but it did not last.

Casting a wider net, a great deal of mainstream humor is indirectly about protocols. Early in the program, we had a bit of vigorous debate about Seinfeld, with some people arguing that the entire show was protocol humor. Episodes like the Soup Nazi, waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant, and the low-fat yogurt episode were particularly protocol-ish.

Another example is the classic British Yes, Prime Minister series, which had many episodes built around the humorous potential of bureaucratic protocols.

Humor, arguably, is the most protocol-ish of fiction genres, and it's interesting to explore why.

In her essay Puzzle Theory, (well worth reading) Sarah Perry, cites an interesting theory of humor that sheds some light on the question:

every joke, gag, pun, humorous incident, and funny cat picture, can be understood under the theory of humor presented by Hurley, Dennett and Adams in their book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind.

In Hurley et al.’s model, the emotion of mirth is a built-in reward, incentivizing the discovery of an error in committed belief. People are constantly activating concepts in mental space, concepts learned from previous experience and communication. Jokes and comedy are designed to take advantage of this reward system. The comedian leads the listener down a “garden path,” covertly introducing a committed belief that will later turn out to be faulty. Then the listener “tumbles” to the realization that the belief was faulty. The purpose of humor, Hurley et al. say, is to protect us from epistemic catastrophe – to prevent the storage of a faulty belief in long-term memory – and serving this very important debugging function is how the phenomenon of humor “pays for its extensive reward system.”

The idea of "covertly introducing a committed belief" points to the essential relationship between humor and protocols: protocols are the most common vehicles for unconscious committed beliefs.

Throughout the summer, we've been using A. N. Whitehead's quote, "Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them" as a pointer to the essence of protocols. An important element in "not thinking" about the premises of protocolized behavior is a kind of willful blindness as a designed feature. One of our researchers, Seth Killian, dubbed this property "strategic insensitivity" in a Discord conversation: "we don’t care what else is happening, if we see x we do y."

This is an extraordinarily powerful mechanism and design principle. It is also the source of much of the comedic potential of protocols.

The Whitehead unconsciousness, coupled with strategic insensitivity, ensures that when acting within a protocol, not only do we not notice any category of situational data not pre-figured and pre-coded by the protocol design, we do not even notice that we do not notice. The benefits of following the protocol are bought at the expense of a kind of designed degeneracy in perception, where the environment is perceived through the simplifying lens of a model with very limited and prescribed kinds of feedback. We could call this "Seeing Like a Protocol" or "protocol vision." All kinds of protocol humor seem to derive from the blindness caused by protocol vision.

This deep-rooted essence suggests that protocol humor is essentially modern. You need behaviors based on a lot of sophisticated but unconscious beliefs in the environment as fodder. And certainly this seems at least somewhat true. Modern humor relies much less on cruelty, stereotypes, or status performances, and much more on the shared absurdities of technological modernity. While protocol humor can be cruel too (such as jokes that rest on working class people being ignorant of upper-class norms or codes, or rubes in cities fumbling with technology), in general the best protocol humor points to more universal experiences created by modern conditions, and especially modern technological conditions. The Seinfeld joke about having to zigzag through a stanchions-and-ropes maze to reach a counter at a bank, even when there is nobody queued up ahead of you, is about all of us.

Many people have observed, for instance, that many classic Seinfeld episodes don't work at all today because we all have smartphones that invalidate many plot premises. We don't queue up in stanchions-and-mazes ropes as often these days for example. Instead, we get text alerts on phones (anyone got a good joke about that?).

Often, comedians get out of touch with what's funny simply by getting out of touch with technology. A fictional example can be found in an old Simpsons episode where Krusty the Clown, faced with a failing late career, attempts to make a modern joke wondering why phone books have white, yellow, and blue pages. Lisa patiently explains that they they are for private, business, and government numbers. The meta-joke there is that Krusty fails to become sufficiently aware of a protocol to even make fun of it. The episode ends with Krusty retreating to a different style of humor, based on curmudgeonly ranting about modernity instead of literate digs at its absurdities.

Today, phone book jokes would fail for a different reason: nobody uses them anymore.

This coupling with technological evolution does not mean, however, that protocol humor is somehow artificial. You can even find naturally evolved examples in the wild. For example, beavers apparently instinctively build dams around the sources of sounds of running water, not around actual water flows. You can trick beavers into building dams over speakers playing the sound of running water. Beavers then, follow a very sophisticated "dam-building protocol" rooted in an unconscious commitment to the belief that the sound of running water is correlated with actual running water. This can of course be used to play somewhat cruel but cute jokes on beavers, but is also valuable in redirecting beaver instincts safely so humans aren't forced to kill them to get rid of unwanted dams (ht Gordon Brander and Jennifer RM on Bluesky for sharing the links).

In highly protocolized environments, we humans are like beavers ourselves, engaging in simple and powerfully leveraged behaviors that make our lives better. But these also rest on stacks of unconscious assumptions. Assumptions that can become wrong when conditions change. Assumptions that can be exploited by more observant individuals to take advantage of others.

This discussion should underline why protocol humor is so important. Not only does protocol humor serve debugging and false-belief-elimination functions as the Hurley et al quote above suggests, it also creates defenses against malicious attacks and helps keep up with environmental change. It keeps us aware of the powerful but dangerous automaticity in our environment, and keeps us tuned in to our own unconscious beliefs. To add to the list of sufficiencies in our pilot study, The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols, good protocols are sufficiently funny. If you can't find ways to make fun of a protocol, you should probably not use it.

And best of all, protocol humor serves this valuable maintenance function while providing a great deal of entertainment. Not only are protocols a first-class concept for making sense of the world, they provide first-class setups for making fun of the world.

So share your protocol jokes, and help us build out a better understanding of protocol humor. If all goes well, we will hopefully end the summer with a much bigger collection of protocol jokes than we have now, and maybe even inspire some of the aspiring comedians among you to create stand-up routines fueled by protocol humor.

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