Date sent: Tue, 29 Apr 1997 22:42:16 -0800
From: alex galloway

2 keywords for the digital text: object and protocol

Alexander Galloway

"First commodity, then sign, now object..."

For many years now theorists have preferred to speak of value economies—be they semiotic, marxian or psychoanalytic—in terms of genetic units of value and the general equivalents that regulate their production, exchange and representation. In the digital economy there is a new semiotic classification system: object and protocol.

Our species of textual unit is the object. The object represents a unit of content, an infoid. It is not a digital commodity nor a digital sign. The digital object is any content-unit or content-description: midi data, text, vrml world, image, texture, movement, behavior, transformation. These objects are always derived from a pre-existing copy (loaded) using various kinds of mediative machinery. They are displayed using various kinds of virtuation apparatuses (displays, virtual reality hardware and other interfaces). And finally, objects are always erased.

Platform independent, digital objects are contingent upon the standardization of data formats. They exist at the level of the script, not the machine. Unlike the commodity and the sign, the object is radically independent from context. Being digital, the object is a quantitative entity without being defined by exchange. At the same time, it is produced to be transferred.

Unlike the commodity, the object in internet semiotics is not a product of labor power. Objects do not gain their value from use, nor from exchange. To put it in more traditional terms then, the translation of texts into the digital medium is marked by the invisibility and absence of labor. It is not simply that this form mystifies its history, it’s precisely that "productive history" is no longer a term of engagement. Digital texts read and write themselves. And yes, this absence of labor in object production and consumption is extend to practices of reading too.

Finally, objects are inheritable, extendible, pro-creative. They are always already children. Yet they are not "more real than the real," since "real" is not an ontological term but rather a stylistic one in this context. Also, objects do not have genealogies, since they do not even have mythical chronologies, per se. "History" here is a tabulation of past and possible event-commands.

Protocol is a very special kind of object. It is a universal description language for objects. Protocol is the reason that the internet works, and performs work. But what kind of work?

In the same way that computer fonts regulate the representation of text, or html designates the arrangement of objects, protocol may be defined as a set of instructions for the compilation of contents (objects). Protocol is always a second-order process; it governs the architecture of the representation of texts.

By definition, protocol facilitates similar interfacing of dissimilar objects. Contrary to popular conjecture, the digital network is not a heterogeneity. It is a hegemonic formation. That is to say, digital networks are structured on a negotiated dominance of certain textual forms over other forms—all in accordance with schedules, and hierarchies, and processes. Protocol is chivalrous. Objects are filtered, parsed, concatenated. They are not archived, filed, or perused (these are pre-digital activities). This dynamic constitutes a true textual economy. Ebb and flow are governed by specific protocols. Connectivity is established according to certain hierarchies. And like the logic of traditional political economy all elements conform to formal standardization.

Traditional semiotics has little currency in mapping reading practices over digital networks. Textual protocol "allows objects to read and write themselves" []. And thus, objects are not reader-dependent but rather they perform work without being categorized as "artificial life."

Internet semiotics is still a process of reading. However it is a reading that engages the object as fundamental textual element, and protocol as primary organizational principle for objects. Exit information, sign, representation; enter content, object, protocol.