Pharmakotocols: The Dual Nature of Things

I recently watched the Formulating a Protocol Pill presentation, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it yet. The talk triggered a few thoughts, particularly about the “I have protocols” versus “I am my protocols” distinction. These elements resonated with a concept I’ve been thinking about while exploring weak and strong protocols.

The concept in question is pharmakon, an ambiguous term signifying a remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Pharmakon is used to describe writing as a dual-natured tool, both enabling and hindering independent thought and dialogue. In political theory, pharmakon is viewed as a symbolic scapegoat, representing both poison and remedy in social contexts. In medical philosophy, pharmakon’s ambivalent nature is emphasised, with drugs seen as having the capacity to be both beneficial and detrimental simultaneously.

In this context, digital technology acts as a pharmakon affecting attention, presenting a dual-edged nature: it has the potential to enhance and disrupt our cognitive processes simultaneously. This raises profound questions about the emergence of new attentional forms. How our engagement with digital environments is influencing not just our current cognitive and attentional capacities, but also how it might be paving the way for the evolution of new forms of attention. The therapeutic response to this pharmakon, therefore, becomes a matter of balancing its beneficial and detrimental effects, understanding its complex nature, and adapting to the emergent forms of attention that it fosters.

At the start of this year, I consciously decided to adopt a weak protocol by endeavouring to clarify my thought processes through mapping and counter-mapping. To that end, I’ll attempt to make connections using the following 2x2 matrix. This matrix is designed to serve as a framework for categorising protocols, considering their societal effects (ranging from personal to macroscale), technological aspects, scalability, and their potential positive or negative impacts, while drawing parallels to the concept of pharmakon.


Horizontal Axis: Protocol Impact

Left: Positive Impact - Remedy

Protocols positively influencing society, culture, and technology, acting as enablers, facilitators, or solutions. This may be enhanced by technological or AI mediation.

Right: Negative Impact - Poison

The potential detrimental effects of protocols, such as bureaucratic proceduralism, cognitive biases, or technological dominance. These may be exacerbated by technological or AI mediation.

Vertical Axis: Protocol Flexibility

Top: Weak Protocols - Localised Influence, Microscale

Flexible, adaptable protocols requiring active societal engagement, with effects felt on a smaller, more personal scale.

Bottom: Strong Protocols - Widespread Influence, Macroscale

Rigid, standardised protocols with broader societal implications, impacting larger systems or communities.


The Whispering Garden

Top Left: Weak Protocols with Positive Impact (Localised, Microscale Remedy)

Adaptable, community-driven protocols that positively impact small groups or individuals, fostering innovation and personal growth.

In this quadrant, weak protocols are fluid and improvisational, like a jazz band where each musician contributes uniquely within adaptive social structures. They represent the idea of pharmakon as remedies, enhancing democracy by allowing for diverse voices and personal agency. This aligns with the “I have protocols” perspective, emphasising active engagement over passive adherence. Here, weak protocols act as guides rather than imposing rigid constraints, fostering innovation and individuality while avoiding the trap of the tyranny of structurelessness.

The Raucous Bazaar

Top Right: Weak Protocols with Negative Impact (Localised, Microscale Poison)

Such protocols, while flexible, might lead to confusion, inconsistency, or ineffectiveness on a small scale.

In this quadrant, weak protocols, while flexible, may become a poison, leading to chaos and disorganisation. Here, the lack of structure may lead to dysfunctional democracy or anarchy, where the absence of clear guidelines results in confusion and inefficiency. This scenario reflects the negative aspects of pharmakon, where the freedom provided by weak protocols can turn into a lack of coherence and direction. The “I have protocols” orientation prevails, where protocols are seen as external tools, often leading to fragmented and inconsistent application, which can result in a lack of purpose. This quadrant warns of the dangers associated with excessive flexibility, reflecting the darker side of deprotocolisation.

The Panopticon

Bottom Right: Strong Protocols with Negative Impact (Widespread, Macroscale Poison)

Rigid protocols that are likely to lead to inflexibility, stifling innovation, or broad societal issues like over-regulation or technological overdependence.

This quadrant illustrates the dystopian aspect of strong protocols as poison. It’s akin to being trapped in Skinner’s Box or under the surveillance of the panopticon, where protocols become oppressive and stifling. This reflects the negative side of pharmakon, where what is meant to cure becomes a form of control and domination. The rigidity of these protocols leads to a loss of individual freedom and creativity, echoing the fears of a hypertechnological epoch where technology becomes a controlling force. Here, the “I have protocols” orientation is detrimental, as people become subservient to the protocols, losing their autonomy and the ability to innovate or adapt. This quadrant serves as a warning of the perils of over-reliance on rigid structures, reminding us of the need for balance between order and freedom.

The Clockwork Citadel

Bottom Left: Strong Protocols with Positive Impact (Widespread, Macroscale Remedy)

Robust, widely-accepted protocols that provide structure and clarity on a large scale, enhancing societal organisation and technological integration.

Strong protocols in this quadrant act as a remedy, providing structure, security and stability. This represents the positive aspect of pharmakon, where the rigidity of protocols brings order and predictability, essential for large-scale societal organisation. It resonates with the “There are only two ways to advance civilization” philosophy, illustrating how well-defined, strong protocols can lead to progress and development. The metaphorical hardness of these protocols, as discussed in the presentation, implies their robustness and resilience, essential for maintaining order in complex systems.


The 2x2 offers one perspective on the complexity and dual nature inherent in the systems that govern our lives. In the domain of the Whispering Garden, the potential of protocols to act as catalysts for positive change, nurturing creativity, and fostering democratic engagement is evident. Yet, as we shift to the Raucous Bazaar, we should be cautious of a critical risk: the evolution or emergence of protocols that are inherently too weak to be effective. This weakness in protocols can lead to a state of disarray, where the lack of guidelines or rules results in chaos and disorganisation. Such weak protocols, while perhaps well-intentioned, fail to provide the necessary structure or clarity required for functional communities. The dystopian aspect of the Panopticon serves as a cautionary tale, illustrating how overly strict protocols can potentially create an oppressive, sterile, and inhumane environment.

The 2x2 is not merely a tool for categorisation. It urges us to consciously design and engage with protocols, recognising their power as both remedy and poison. The distinction between “I have protocols” and “I am my protocols” is a reflection of our interaction within the systems that define our world. The concept of protocol hardness challenges us to consider not only the flexibility of protocols but their impact on human behaviour and societal structure.

Finally, this 2x2 hopefully encourages us to seek a nuanced understanding of protocolisation and deprotocolisation as crucial processes in advancing civilisation. Furthermore, it is important to consider the implications of the dual nature of protocols, balancing their positive powers (the remedies) with the need to mitigate their potential harms (the poison).

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The 2x2 looks kinda similar to the one we had in the yak collective governance primer :smiley:

An aspect I need to explore further is protocol layering. Lower in the stack, the Clockwork Citadel and possibly the Panopticon can be desirable if not necessary. Higher in the stack, closer to human interactions, weak protocols grow increasingly important.