If we are going to think lucidly about this topic, we need a more restrictive definition than that presented in the pilot study. From the early guest talks and researcher conversations, it’s already quite clear that treating money systems, religions, and building codes “as protocols” expands the potential range of “protocol” so wide as to be meaningless. Many of the topics under discussion are better thought about in the terms of existing literature on the topic, or in the “naive” industry understandings.
I’d like to present an alternative definition that is largely informed by institutional theory and by technical protocols such as email, TCP/IP, and cryptocurrency mining. Then I’ll explain why I think this theory is better suited to intellectual inquiry than the current approach.
Protocols are a subset of institutions as defined by economist Douglass North. North’s definition of institutions sees them as regulatory bodies which define a field of agency, or in his terms, the choice set.
Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction. Institutions consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct), and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights). Together with the standard constraints of economics they define the choice set and therefore determine transaction and production costs and hence the profitability and feasibility of engaging in economic activity.
Specifically, protocols are a type of formal rule system, although norms may form around their use.
In my mind there are several benefits to this definition.
Firstly, it helps us avoid definitional conflicts with well-established research areas. Religious codes, legal systems, norms and traditions, codes of practice, rites and rituals, architectural schema, organizational behavior, and other formal and informal rule systems have been extensively theorized. Technical protocols are a specifically different institutional regime than these other systems; they are the newest invention of the bunch, and they have not been adequately treated. This is the task at hand. If we continue in the current unprincipled way, we are bound to “discover” features of these other rule systems which have already been discussed in existing literature. Attributing these rediscovered properties to protocols instead of their proper institutional domain will only confuse us more.
Secondly, per Kei’s point, a parsimonious definition also helps us focus on where protocols are already in place or new protocols can be useful. By looking at already-existing protocols, we can evaluate how they perform against other other institutional systems, and understand their unique affordances. (Treating other rule domains as protocols, which I’ve been advocating against, is not the same as discovering protocols which are already in use in those domains). At the same time, we can think about protocols as a design tool for creating a mutually beneficial regime of action. Where could protocolization be helpful in areas where other institutions have failed? We can’t answer these questions unless we exclude other rulemaking systems from our definition.