Homo Protocolis

The Emperor's New Ooze

Economics has always existed, but it didn’t always have a name. Humans negotiated trades, chased efficiency, and stockpiled long before terms like markets, economies of scale, and surpluses were used. The invention of this terminology has ushered discussions about the economy to center stage. The language of the dismal science facilitates decision-making from the level of household management up to foreign policy.

Many people, justifiably, bemoan this. Our transition from homo sapiens to homo economicus coincides with the rise of many problems. Inequality, environmental degradation, financial crises, pollution, cultural destruction, to name a few. The periodic table of an economist is simple – life boils down to just two constituent elements: costs and benefits. 

Despite its lack of personality, the thesaurus of economics does give people a language to get things done. This way of thinking may have allowed greed to reach new heights, but it also gives altruists a means to scale their efforts. But I think it’s good to criticize the high church of economics. Not everything can or should be financialized. And, as a system of coordination, it lends itself to establishing large, alien organizations that might be too powerful. 

Some signs point toward a more hopeful future. Web technologies provide a new infrastructure for producers to coordinate more easily with consumers and with each other. It’s possible that the efficiencies unlocked via economies of scale could survive, even while the hierarchies that sustained them are flattened out by forces of oozification. I see no fundamental reason why protocols of commerce cannot emerge at a lower level. 

The well-documented rise of the gig economy suggests this is happening already. This new economy is being facilitated by task-based labor marketplaces, platforms like Uber and SkipTheDishes, and forms of casual employment contracts. How consumers, producers, investors, legislators, and business administrators interact is changing – information technology has resulted in the human equivalent of an algae bloom. The density of synapses in society and the economy went exponential with the invention of the web.

Every human interaction is governed by protocols. There are constraints on what information we share, what physical actions we take, timing, who we interact with, etc. I think developing a rich protocol terminology is an important tool for sense-making in the 21st century. A platform like Uber Eats, for example, functions as a clearinghouse for deliverypersons and hungry anons. It can be seen as a bundle of protocols. The platform strongly enforces some, such as safe food handling, but others are more flexible, like tipping or vehicle choice. 

A few protocologic terms and prompts that I find useful for sense-making:

  • Path Dependence: The order of the steps of the protocol.

  • Follower(s): Person(s) learning, interpreting, or acting out a protocol.

  • Feedback: How quickly the result of (not) following protocol is observed.

  • Bandwidth: The number of protocols that can be held by a person or network.

  • Optionality: The range of choices available to a person. Following protocol typically reduces optionality locally, but increases optionality at another place and time.

  • Rigidity: How strictly a protocol is enforced and/or how difficult a protocol is to change.

  • Mode of Transmission: How a protocol is coded into a follower’s behavior (e.g. education, mimicry, social pressure, trial by error).

To overload a cliche, we may be becoming homo protocolis. Hopefully, that doesn’t mean we will all turn into TSA agents. I don’t think we will. 

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

- Gustave Flaubert

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