Protocols are engineered hardness, and in that, they’re similar to other hard, enduring things, ranging from diamonds and monuments to high-inertia institutions and constitutions.
But modern protocols are more than that. They’re not just engineered hardness, they are programmable, intangible hardness. They are dynamic and evolvable. And we hope they are systematically ossifiable for durability. They are the built environment of digital modernity.
So what is hardness? Hardness is to protocols as information is to computing, or intelligence to AI. I’ll quote Josh Stark’s original take (specific to blockchains, but applicable to all kinds of protocols) here:
Although humans have been creating and using information technologies like writing, printing, and telegrams for hundreds or thousands of years, it was only in the last century that we articulated clearly what all of these things have in common, and realized that they can be understood as a category.
In the decades since, the idea of information has spread into mass culture. Today, it is intuitive to most people that speech, images, films, writing, DNA, and software are all just different kinds of information.
I believe that a similar situation exists today with respect to blockchains. A new technology has forced us to reconsider things we thought we understood. But instead of books, telephones, and voices, this time it is money, law, and government. We can sense the outline of a category that unites these seemingly disparate things.
Perhaps there is an analog to information hidden in the foundations of our civilization. An abstract property that once revealed, might help remake our understanding of the world, and help us answer plainly what problem blockchains are supposed to solve.
Call this property hardness.
Human civilization depends in part on our ability to make the future more certain in specific ways.
Fixed, hard points across time that let us make the world more predictable.
We need these hard points because it is impossible to coordinate at scale without them. Money doesn’t work unless there is a degree of certainty it will still be valuable in the future. Trade is very risky if there isn’t confidence that parties will follow their commitments.
The bonds of social and family ties can only reach so far through space and time, and so we have found other means of creating certainty and stability in relationships stretching far across the social graph. Throughout history we have found ways to make the future more certain, creating constants that are stable enough to rely upon.
It’s all hardness engineering, and the solution is always protocols that put the right amounts of hardness in the right places at the right times. And it’s almost always enlightening and useful to explicitly think of problems that way. … My favorite protocol in recent weeks has been the one implemented in ATMs that forces you to take your card back before dispensing cash. A simple re-ordering of actions to create a spot of hardness where there was previously an annoying softness (remembering to take your card).
I’ve been nursing this thought that AI and crypto are like the First and Second Foundations of our technological future, together building a pathway out of the desolation of the collapsing industrial age. I just came up with another metaphor for the relationship that I like: AI cuts, crypto chooses. It’s the balance-of-power protocol that will govern the planet in the coming decades.
In practically any domain, I find, thinking in terms of protocols and explicitly searching for hardness to work with is an immensely generative thing to do. It helps get immediate problems unstuck, and it helps you see creative and expansive options.
The world of protocols is a strangely hidden one. Even though there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who explicitly organize their work and thinking around protocols of various sorts, the language of protocols is not a familiar one. It is easier to look through protocols than at them. It is easier to act through protocols than on them.
The language of protocols is an esoteric one for navigating a hidden (and at the risk of sounding cliched, liminal) world that prefers to stay hidden, in part because it deals in the civilizational techno-unconscious. The invisibility of protocols is a core feature. There’s a reason A. N. Whitehead’s famous line, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them” became the de facto motto of the Summer of Protocols. Thinking about protocols, you get a sense of a landscape of invisible, inviolable hardness all around us, that shapes our behaviors without our being quite aware of it. A landscape you can learn to see, shape, and violate if you learn the language.