Life in the time of dragons

Protocols rule everything around us. In the digital age, that word has a specific meaning: you might imagine the protocols that govern WiFi, or your web browser.

Computer protocols enable interoperation, while facilitating common tasks. They specify how data should be encoded, how to exchange it, how to signal errors. Protocols are specific, running as deep as necessary, even to the physics of radios and radiation when necessary.

At the boundary between every system, protocols negotiate coherence and consistency. A network is a series of successful protocol interactions, cascading in waves.

From these protocols interacting, opportunity emerges. We can unite people who are far apart. We can transport vast quantities of media, on demand, to anyone who wants them. We can bank, we can shop.

This scope of opportunity is valuable. One of today’s dominant social castes is a group who can leverage these protocols to generate wealth and influence.

They know the most dangerous class of protocol there is:

An apparatus and process for turning money into more money.

A business is a protocol

If you give me two dollars and I can use that to make a hundred dollars, I’m rich. I can easily find someone willing to provide two dollars in exchange for five or ten the next day, which I can afford to share.

These are only the beginning of the economics that are possible in the age of globally networked computers on every desk, in every pocket.

So today it is possible to build a protocol:

  • That acquires resources, like investor or customer money
  • Applies those resources to labor, communications, and infrastructure
  • Thereby generating wealth in excess of the cost necessary to run the process again

Airbnb is a protocol for maintaining and arbitraging a short term real estate rental brokerage network. Uber is a protocol for arbitrage of a labor and vehicle network. Facebook arbitrages their graph of human connection, selling interactions to advertisers.

These protocols are everywhere, and one thing that’s scary is that they don’t have great tools for caring about the human impact of their execution.

But we haven’t gotten to the runtime yet

The runtime that executes a business protocol is flaky. Its exception handling is dogshit in many cases.

A business protocol runs entirely on humans, even as it exists almost entirely in the space between them. Businesses want to maximize shareholder value at all costs, so any given human platform executing the protocol is expendable.

Even the originator of the protocol.

That is to say: once the protocol is alive, anyone can be thrown under the bus to keep the money flowing—including, once there are shareholders, the founders of the business. There's endless games the savvy founder can play with the underlying legal structure to protect themselves at that point, but in our current system they still owe fealty to the money pump the moment other people own a piece of the pie.

Runtimes all the way down

Any given business runtime is hosted within a legal runtime. In the United States, there are enforcement mechanisms for shareholder maximization. Everything must be done in the service profit, or the protocol is viewed to be in a failure mode.

Everyone in serious power at a major business has a moral implant on their person at all times. “Fiduciary duty” obliges them to act in support of profit or face the violence of legal and financial repercussions. Fiduciaries are trusted with the highest privileges in executing the protocol, but they pay with responsibility to it.

In effect, the dark art of creating commercial protocols has a protection racket. Immediate enforcers at the top of the org chart, with bosses across the civic landscape enforcing everything from accounting conventions to securities law.

Where this gets scary is that these protocols don’t care what they metabolize, and their runtime is disincentivized from caring on their behalf. So, if pays well, Facebook converts advertiser dollars into hate speech, radicalization, pogroms, disinformation.

“It’s nothing personal. We just have to feed this dragon. It’s, uh, our fiduciary duty.”

Here be dragons

Dragons and their various warlords roam our economic countryside. They… take what they want. We’re not entirely powerless against them, but it’s still a lot of work to live with their predations, and we need more recourse than we have.

This is not the first age to live with the transformational impact of a successful business protocol. A century ago, Henry Ford and his contemporaries discovered powerful strategies, like assembly lines and dealer networks, to change the face of whole continents. An entire chapter of modern industrialization is dominated by the automotive industry, and its processes, proliferating to saturate the planet.

Serious human impact, whether we liked it or not.

Computer networks are a transportation of a different kind, but no less impactful than automobiles road networks. They make it cheaper than ever to bridge the gulf between a business and the customers whose money that business wants to collect.

Within a substrate of entangled legal, social and economic systems, it’s possible to build some truly gnarly war creatures. As long as profit is the only success condition vigorously protected at scale in this social order, we're creating long term selection pressure for massive economic organisms that don't care if they eat  our social fabric or ecology.

That's an exhausting and dangerous future.