Summer of Protocols | Projects | Program Calendar |People
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The Summer of Protocols is an 18-week program that will run from May 1 to Aug 31, 2023, and aims to catalyze broad-based and wide-ranging exploration of the rapidly evolving world of protocols. The program has four objectives:
The goal of this program is to help accelerate and broaden the study of protocols by bringing together a diverse group for a summer of collaborative study, speculation, research, design, invention, and creative production around protocols.
The program will be primarily virtual, and run for 18 weeks (May 1 to Aug 31), with a short in-person workshop in August. Applications are invited for Core Researchers (who will develop and pursue an original protocol-themed project over the 18 weeks) and Affiliate Researchers (who will join the second half of the program to help develop and grow the core projects). The application deadline is March 21, 2023, and awards will be announced by March 31.
The idea for this program grew out of a conversation in a corner of the Ethereum community about the inadequacies of current conversations around protocols, which tend to be deeply siloed around particular protocols, and limited to core engineering concerns intelligible only to experts. Similar conversations are unfolding in the traditional technology world as well, and farther afield around protocols for climate action, public health, and innovative forms of governance.
This conversation led to a short pilot study to map the scope and contours of this growing conversation. A preliminary draft of this study,The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols, is available here. A final version, informed by the program, will be published in Fall alongside the output of the program. Some highlights from the pilot study are summarized below, to provide context for this program.
Protocols have historically played a critical but strangely invisible role in all aspects of human life, shaping and regulating everything from political and religious life to commerce and fashion. Over the last two centuries, protocols have also acquired an increasingly technological character. Today, networked, computer-mediated protocols have arguably turned into the most important element of the built environment, underpinning the safe and efficient operation of everything from urban utilities to nuclear reactors and air travel. While low-tech and no-tech human protocols, from greeting and handshake conventions to diplomatic protocols and codes of conduct at events, remain as important as ever, they too are being transformed by their increasingly technological contexts.
Yet, despite their obvious importance, protocols remain a woefully under-studied and under-theorized subject, relative to comparably foundational social realities such as nations, organizations, markets, and legal systems, which are the foci of scholarly disciplines, artistic scenes, and even fiction genres. Even within engineering disciplines, where most modern protocols take shape, they remain the preserve of experienced specialists, and are not prominent in engineering education. Most engineers today earn degrees and enter their professions without ever having read a protocol specification, let alone authored one.
This neglect is arguably a result of the unreasonable historical success of protocols in addressing a vast array of societal needs in a sufficiently comprehensive way that they can be forgotten. This has led to protocols receding into the backgrounds, interstices, and margins of civilization, forming a kind of technological wilderness boundary that is hard to study and easy to ignore. The natural invisibility of protocols is compounded by their relative conceptual illegibility, relative to more charismatic constructs at a similar level of abstraction, such as nations, corporations, and ideologies.
Protocols, therefore, are the very embodiment of A. N. Whitehead’s observation: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”
The cost of this neglect is that critical protocols can grow increasingly complex, fragile and sclerotic, succumb to attacks or capture as they mature, fail at critical moments, and get captured. Beyond the risks, there are also lost opportunities: Vast potential may go untapped due to poor protocol design, insufficient stewardship, and weak defenses.
As we continue to build protocols for ever more complex infrastructures based on increasingly complex technologies, such as blockchains, machine learning, and climate technologies – the cost of such neglect will only increase. And on the flip side, more imaginative and thoughtful development and stewardship of protocols might unlock unprecedented civilizational advances in a world that many pessimistically believe is in terminal stagnation.