• Tero Karppi Rutgers University, USA
  • Britt Paris Rutgers University
  • Robert W. Gehl York University
  • Corinne Cath University of Delft
  • Sarah Myers West AI Now Institute




networks, standards, protocols, theory, culture


The contemporary Internet's "network of networks" has become infrastructural to our lives. The Internet is a stack of physical, data link, network, transport, and application layers which all have unique rules and roles. While many see Internet infrastructure as a foregone conclusion, Paris, Cath and Myers West (2023) write “Internet infrastructure is built slowly, over time, protocol by protocol, in response to many different technical, social, political, environmental, and economic imperatives”. Even as the particular model of the Internet we are all accustomed to has become the standard, other attempts proliferated and eventually failed, as did the Soviet Internet (Peters 2016), and as this panel highlights, the Internet is still ever-evolving. The project of this panel is to trace alternative, parallel, and emergent network models, standards and protocols, theorize their impact as they appear in different places, spaces, and contexts, and gesture towards how the Internet might be different. As critical internet studies have since the early 2000s shown, computational standards, protocols, and network diagrams are more than technical details, they have the power to shape and structure the conditions for our socio-cultural lifeworlds (Galloway 2006; Chun 2008; Bratton 2016). As Gehl (2014) puts it: “interfaces, database structures, mechanisms of connection all shape social activities”. Change an element in the stack and a different connectivity, a different future becomes possible. The papers of this panel introduce and discuss five different and potentially revolutionary network technologies that manage and organize our online lives. The first paper represents a media genealogy of ActivityPub – a protocol that enables the Fediverse, a collection of social media sites that can communicate with one another. The author argues that ActivityPub was not produced through an instrumental process, but was the result of accidents and coincidences. The accidental nature of the protocol, coupled with its being authored by self-identified queer and trans developers, has put it on a collision course with both the “standard” approach to standards production as well as mainstream, corporate social media. The second paper focuses on the design of the Interplanetary Internet and the idea of delay-tolerant networking fundamental to operating in outer space. The author maintains that when delays are central to a network model, we are forced to rethink how our connections are maintained and organized in the future. Delay-tolerant networking is thus not only a technical solution for a communications system but a control protocol through which interplanetary life can be managed. The third paper is also focused on the temporality of networks. The third paper examines how time is enacted as a design ideology in the course of the development of a future internet architecture protocol project: named data networking (NDN). This work locates aspects of the sociomateriality of time in the processes of building Internet infrastructure and demonstrates how it binds together cultural, economic, and discursive power. The paper argues that thinking through time as a design ideology can be useful in projects imagining how the Internet might be built to engender and support different values than market ideology. The fourth paper is about the organizational culture of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a key internet standards and protocol organization. The paper argues that the organization is guided by a culturally inflected anti-political engineering ethos, whose depoliticizing tendencies hampers the organization’s functioning and its ability to rise above narrow industry-interest and pursue a public interest internet. The fifth paper looks to the Crypto Wars of the 1990s as a moment where things could have been otherwise; comparing the examples of PGP and RSA encryption software and how they shaped the nature of our networked systems. It argues that a combination of regulatory and commercial interests influenced the development and use of cryptography in ways that facilitated the development of e-commerce, but left private messaging in dubious legal status. Collectively the papers investigate alternative and emergent trends behind the Internet and its network models, standards, and protocols. The protocols and rules for network connection, standards bodies, and modes of governance are critical to maintaining and upkeeping a network. Their impact, however, is not merely technical but potentially world-changing. The papers direct their critical gaze towards the development of these technologies and what their introduction to our world potentially entails. By focusing on projects of past, present, and future and by exploring the Internet’s deepest sociotechnical layers, the panel critically dismantles the commonly-held idea that the Internet is a monolith and illustrates that the history of the Internet is still being written.




How to Cite

Karppi, . T. ., Paris, B., Gehl, R. W., Cath, C., & Myers West, S. (2023). IF NOT, ELSE: STANDARDS, PROTOCOLS, NETWORKS AND HOW THEY MAKE A DIFFERENCE. AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research. https://doi.org/10.5210/spir.v2023i0.13525