Crosspost from The Protocolist

The formula usually employed is “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” And if one replies, “Yes, but where is the omelet?”, the answer is likely to be: “Oh well, you can’t expect everything to happen all in a moment.”

- George Orwell

Catastrophic Gradualism’s Error and Erudition

Venkatesh Rao defines Protocol Entrepreneurship as the intersection between reformist fervor, insider expertise, and entrepreneurial imagination & hustle. Progressives who targeted protocols as leverage points for change include John Boyd, Rosa Parks, and Florence Nightingale. These people don’t fit squarely into the mold of an activist or a preacher. Because protocol entrepreneurs (PEs) affect multiple undercurrents – social, economic, and moral – their impacts are much more profound.

One defining characteristic of PEs is that they are not acutely disruptive. Changes they precipitate can be massive, as in the case of Rosa Parks, but take a long time to become widespread. Evolution of strong norms and their mechanisms of enforcement takes a long time, even if revolutionary efforts are violent. As Orwell pointed out in his 1946 essay, Catastrophic Gradualism , the curves of history are composed of emotionally acute points, but are functionally smooth as a whole.

Orwell had this right. The ambitious velocity of progressive movements will always be in tension with the inertia of society’s most stable organizations. When a fast-moving thing hits a heavy, slow-moving thing, sparks fly. It is the sparks that catch our eye, rather than the bodies clashing behind them. Then we make a classic error – mistaking the sparks as the reason for change.

Successful PEs do not get distracted by sparks. Over time the entire discipline has integrated the model of Catastrophic Gradualism and moved into a new meta.

Compliance Theater and the Punk-Protocol Dialectic

Instead, the art of protocol subversion looks more commonly like tai chi, where participants follow protocol, but in a way that better suits their needs. As Galloway proposed, “it is through protocol that one must guide one’s efforts, not against it.”

- Nadia Asparouhova in Dangerous Protocols

Protocols entrepreneurs (PEs) are limited in their ability to directly challenge the status quo of their target for three key reasons:

  1. Protocols are difficult to see, by default. They are behaviors, norms, and constraints that we have automated into the background via engineering or habit formation.
  2. Protocols are typically enforced by powerful, centralized institutions or informal, but equally powerful, peer networks.
  3. Rejecting protocol outright leads to loss of voice – it is the immune system that vets entrants who aspire to positions within a network of influence.

In order to change protocols, PEs must avoid being crushed or excluded. Indirect opposition is the only path forward. This is becoming increasingly true as organizations grow in size and concentration, and as social networks become larger and more tightly connected. The waning effectiveness of violent protest was realized, and a new strategy was adopted.

Protocols, at the end of the day, are followed by average people. This is evidenced by the fact that they often dampen the impact of excellence. Outlier performance, good or bad, is reduced by following protocol. In the words of Seth Killian, former head of gaming at Netflix, it is “…very hard to distinguish between some anti protocol stances and excellence at the margins.”

Punk is the appropriate caliber of opposition to a protocol. To call Rosa Parks and John Boyd (whose students dubbed “The Ghetto Colonel”) punks is kind of outrageous. Not to mention Florence Nightingale. However, the way that they challenged the dogmas of their times was certainly punk. There is a big difference between the four modes of reaction to protocol: protest, punk, exit, and comply (heard through Venkatesh Rao).

For example, at a black tie event – say, the Met Gala – a PE can react to the fashion protocol in the following ways. Comply by respecting the dress code. Protest by wearing Birkenstocks and being ejected by some very large bouncers. Exit by organizing your own party. Punk by wearing a black tie outfit, but dye your hair neon purple and wear a nametag that says “I identify as a Grimace Shake.”

The final option involves only playing the part. Respect of the letter, but not of the spirit, enables the PE to hijack the party. Like Conan on Hot Ones, to flip the script is to win the story. From the perspective of dutiful protocol adherents, this can be violent – but not in the sense that Orwell was implying. It is a calculated act of compliance theater and requires an accurate sense of the zeitgeist, dissatisfaction, and patience.

The New Meta: Message Discipline

As I mentioned earlier, it is average people that follow protocol. That is most people – Mr. and Mrs. Median – they comprise the vast majority of the population (around 80%). For reasons of convenience or habit, Mr. and Mrs. Median generally do not wish to adopt radical stances. The hard lesson of PEs of the past is that acts of violent revolution create counterrevolutionaries.

The new meta is a strategy of message discipline ; making regular, consistent nudges on the Overton window by delivering a message that is tested with focus groups. Having message discipline means choosing an appropriate dose of violence (beef). Pissing off people just enough for them to perk up, but not jerk into backlash mode. Calibrating like this requires all three traits proposed by Rao: Reformist fervor, insider knowledge, and entrepreneurial hustle. PEs must know enough to say appropriately radical stuff, have the energy to continue saying it, and the passion necessary to maintain your patience.

Message discipline has enjoyed a long period of success and has been used by corporations, political parties, and advertising agencies alike to methodologically change minds. However, it’s far easier for an organization to have that capability than it is for an individual. Plus org-level protocol ops have a lot more to do with entrenching beneficial protocols rather than shifting them into a qualitatively different state (e.g. more benevolent, less wasteful, etc.).

The secret of a protocol entrepreneur is effectively owning a corporate-grade social engineering weapon, with sufficient agency to use it. License to punk.

Case Study: The Labelcene

We have over eighty proposed names for our era. You’ve probably heard of the Anthroprocene or perhaps the Capitalocene, Cthulucene, Technocene, Pyrocene, or Homogenocene. We are obsessed with coming up with a label that defines what it means to be alive today. In a way, we’ve collectively adopted the posture of Narcissus, endlessly attending to our own reflection.

Efforts to label and relabel the Holocene (the scientific term for the present geological period, extending back ~10,000 radiocarbon years) are punk. None of the almost 100 alternatives reject the _____cene format. Each new title is constructed within the nomenclature protocol, not outside of it, but attempts to take over the show with a new narrative. They follow the letter, but reject the idea that it is primarily organic, geological factors which define this era.

Renaming things isn’t necessarily punk. If you start calling cats oranges, that’s too aggressive. Haraway, who coined the term “Cthulucene” was critical of the terms Holocene, Anthroprocene, and Capitalocene. These labels were obstacles to her mission – they drew attention away from what she deemed important. However, rather than exiting the constraints, she worked within them. Punk contains an unlikely element of stoic wisdom.

“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

  • Marcus Aurelius in Meditations

Being pliable in the face of a problem means that your solution will look a lot like that problem. There is a strong “Yes, and…” style of solution-seeking associated with Punk, which is its winning advantage over protest and exit strategies, which are too heavy-handed in their opposition. The former gets crushed and the latter loses its voice. Evidently the stoics were kind of punk.


Another good case study would be the Malandro that @nathalias mentioned in the TG channel, or a “here’s what happens when there’s no punks” case study like @tomcoates suggested, or an account of the IIW vs. statist organizations from @IdentityWoman

Would be great to pull together a wider canon. Then map them to @JohnGrant’s protopunk 2x2

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Also noticed that @ceciliyazi shared some thoughts about viruses and counterprotocol inspired by A. Galloway (good pick)

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This really helped tie things together for me! Thanks for the effective summaries and fun writing :slight_smile:

Where a ‘canon’ is concerned (even if such a notion as canon may be un-punk??), if I may throw a possible additional example into the ring–these degrees of adaptability in windows and entrepreneurial approaches to protocol gradualism has me thinking about the various functions and ‘strengths’ of avant-gardes. Specifically, this brought to mind the approaches, attitudes, and receptions of Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus as art movements.

Each of these movements, from a current-day perspective, seems to have achieved some level of success in their message discipline, going by the increasing amount of retrospectives and acquisition of works in institutional settings they once targeted beef at. The amounts of letter and spirit of the law ‘disrespect’ to the protocol of “”“Art”“”" vary in amount and quality, but present in all of them were attempts at establishing a rigorous counter-philosophy through the various publications, exhibitions, and even membership-like associations complete with some folks trying to gain power like the things that rejected them (or that they rejected).

To me, it highlights the importance of finding or understanding the in-between of protocols and counter-procotols if I was reading Cecilia’s Telegram message correctly. Like movements were working on the constraints from the outside until they became inside again. Or, as some art historians put it (especially Paul Mann with his Theory-Death Of The Avant-Garde), the protocol is no longer about individual style, content, or setting but a meta-protocol of discourse that even the punks have a role in (or specifically WANT to be punks in).

Longwinded example but maybe useful?


I like this storyline of artists joining → leaving → changing → rejoining a certain group. Very hero’s journey. Maybe that’s the dynamic which attracts punks to participate in the dialectic – they get a chance to be a hero in a way that simply dropping out wouldn’t provide.

Thinking now that there’s probably two kinds of punks: ones that are mad at a mechanism of a protocol, and ones that are mad at part or all of the protocol’s impact

E.g. am i punking the met gala dresscode because I disagree with being controlled? Or am I doing it because the group photos look too boring?