Protocol Fiction, Desire, and Belief

19.41, Friday 19 May 2023

I was invited to speak to the cohort of the Summer of Protocols research program, and took the opportunity to build on last year’s essay about protocol fiction and think about adoption and the links with design fiction.

(Summer of Protocols is an 18 week program to explore, catalyse, and broaden the discourse around protocols. Here’s the cohort.)

The session was a talk, workshop, then afterparty discussion.

The essay version of my talk follows. I’ve added some notes from the discussion at the end.

Protocol fiction: recap

How could you end up with new infrastructure, such as a national drone delivery network, or an ecosystem of biannual health checks based on MRI and AI – without being a government or a giant corporation?

One answer is to grow like the internet.

First you imagine a future network of actors with aligned incentives.

Then you define a protocol that explains how to work together, even when the network is tiny, with incentives for non-actors to join the actor network. (When ARPANET launched it had 4 nodes.)

(A certain kind of protocol is a technology of cooperation, and I’ll use it in that sense here.)

A couple potential benefits of a protocol are

  • permissionless innovation – anyone can get involved, and anyone can create new ways to get involved
  • new commons – where there’s interop, mutual cooperation, and wide participation, everyone benefits without the gatekeeping of value.

But the challenge is getting started.

So last year I wrote about protocol fiction for speculative infrastructure, and the point of that fiction is to articulate

  • belief - by way of showing a plausible path to a reference implementation of the minimum viable network
  • desire - a compelling visualisation of this future.

Today I want to talk about belief and desire.

Stop-energy lurks like a parasite within the organisation

I was taken with this cybernetic description of an aircraft factory from sci-fi author Bob Shaw (in his collection Tomorrow Lies in Anguish).

An aircraft factory is a machine for producing aeroplanes and it may be disastrous to attempt to improve production by piecemeal tinkering with individual departments - one must seek out in all its ramifications, and destroy, the machine for stopping the production of aeroplanes, which lurks like a parasite within the organisation.

It shifted my pov. I can now imagine that a system - a factory, an organisation, an ecosystem - is autonomous, its own entity, and I am there to facilitate and to garden.

In the protocol world, one of the best practitioners of ruthlessly rooting out stop-energy is Dave Winer, creator of both RSS and podcasting – which wasn’t just protocol design but also community/network bootstrapping.

Winer distilled his lessons into this typically straightforward, classic essay: Rules for standards-makers (2017).

There are 18 rules. I’ll pick out 8.

  • Rule #1: Interop is all that matters
  • Software matters more than formats (much)
  • Users matter even more than software
  • One way is better than two
  • If practice deviates from the spec, change the spec
  • Freeze the spec
  • Developers are busy
  • Praise developers who make it easy to interop

It’s worth a close read. The first rules are about creating belief: working code, social proof, etc.

Then the later ones are about reducing friction.

What I think Winer doesn’t say (because he’s so good at it, and therefore takes it for granted) is that you also have to create desire and a kind of gregarious desire – people have to easily see the value and want to get involved! And they have to tell their friends!

The final rule, praise developers, is a nod to that: positive feedback and imitation is part of human nature.

So how should we think about desire with specs and protocols?

Design fiction creates both belief and desire

The practice of Design Fiction (as established by Julian Bleeker) is responsible for all kinds of very public, charismatic visions of the future.

Design fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.

Kickstarter videos: they follow the aesthetic tropes of design fiction. (My favourite is Disco Dog from 2015 – once you see the dog in the context of the street, it’s so real, it’s so compelling…)

There’s something about a gorgeously shot prop in its context of use that makes you trust and want enough to open your wallet.

Of course that’s not all design fiction is. To unpack how it works as a practice and its wider effects, I recommend Matt Ward’s essay Design Fiction as Pedagogic Practice (2013). (I first encountered the deliberate use of fiction in design because of Ward, back in 2006.)

To highlight just some of his points:

  • All design is ideological
  • Fiction as a testing ground for reality
  • Normalise to persuade. And: Prototyping banality allows for the imaginative leap it takes to place one self in a future context.
  • Think through making
  • Things live in their interaction with their context

What I take from this is

  • a reminder that the use of narrative is part of the design/development loop
  • the ability to persuade - to create desire - is a intentional selector in this evolution.

Design operates in the market. The ability of artifacts to persuade is what we want.

A protocol network, same same!

Hence protocol fiction.

I’d like to add something:

Material artifacts have an ability to enroll and align different tribes in a way that text doesn’t. The goal is to make “boundary objects” - artifacts that self-translate for all kinds of different tribes, and allow these actors to communicate with one another, even when they’re speaking different languages.

Think of the magical role of self-evident prototypes to align engineering, designers, users, MBAs, and so on. Like that, but projected into the future.

Gabriel Tarde’s belief and desire

I should give the origin of these terms I keep using.

At the bottom of internal phenomena, whatever they are, the analysis pushed to the limit will never discover more than three irreducible notions: belief, desire, and their point of pure application, pure sense.

– Gabriel Tarde, La croyance et le desire (1880)

I haven’t forgotten them since I first heard them.

Steven Shaviro has written about the sociology of Gabriel Tarde (2003).

Tarde denies the existence of higher-level entities … There is no such thing as social laws and regulations, social norms, social impositions. There are only power relations among individuals. Certain individuals impose on others; certain individuals are imitated by others. Social coherence is merely the result of imitation on a mass scale, together with raw power impositions.


By a similar argument, it cannot possibly be the case that all hydrogen atoms are uniform and interchangeable. The only explanation for the apparent uniformity of nature is that one particular hydrogen atom dominated the others, forced them to obey it, or induced them to imitate it.


The ultimate motivating forces that move all of the world, whether human beings in society, thoughts in a single brain, or hydrogen atoms in a gas, are according to Tarde belief and desire. There’s nothing else. Rocks and stars, indeed atoms themselves, believe and desire just as we do. At the other extreme, things like ideologies and customs and social classes and bureaucracies can be explained merely as statistical aggregations of particular beliefs and desires, amplified by mass imitation.

(Also quoted here.)

I find this such a brutal and mind-opening lens.

Beyond thinking through making, this is what protocol fiction must achieve.

So I want to show three levels for building belief and desire, at different scales.

1. Microscopically, there was Stripe

The story of Stripe, the internet payments platform, was told in Businessweek: How Two Brothers Turned Seven Lines of Code Into a $9.2 Billion Startup (2017). The reported valuation today is $50bn.

I remember those lines: all a startup had to do was add seven lines of code to its site to handle payments – it was neat!

The more jaw-dropping moment, for me, was when they were still called “/dev/payments”, and half of their page was given over to this:

curl https: // \
-d method=execute_charge card \
-d 'card[number]=4242424242424242*' \
-d 'card[exp_month]=10' \
-d 'card[exp_year]=2011' \
-d amount=300 \
-d currency=usd \
-d identifier='hello world' \
-d key=rNY2NaOyVo75otcS0M72NjscobfRMM

You pasted it into your Terminal… and immediately received a token for (test) cash in your account.


  • Belief – you could see how to integrate this; and
  • Desire – dollar signs in your eyes. All kinds of futures appearing in-front of you.

So what’s the smallest way to have that kind of experience?

2. With our macroscope we can see the Consensus Cosmogony and other future histories

Back in the 1950s that was a belief - or rather a common and unstated understanding - about humanity’s future in space.

To me, there’s a big role for sci-fi’s established future history, the Consensus Cosmogony, summarised here:

  1. The initial exploration, colonization, and exploitation of the solar system
  2. The first flights to the stars
  3. The rise of a Galactic Empire (aliens optional)
  4. The Galactic Empire at its height
  5. The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire
  6. The Galactic Dark Ages
  7. The Galactic Renaissance
  8. The Challenge To God (by transcending matter and morphing into beings of pure energy, the end of time, and the investigation of the beginnings of new universes)

When people were sent into orbit, and then landed on the Moon, this was confirmation that we were on the path - if step 1, then steps 2 through 9, right? And it’s exciting! We want it to happen. That was the role of the sci-fi stories: propaganda creating desire.

Activities become easy when they align with a social consensus. Once established, you don’t get stop-energy from doing something that matches this future.

Then given the Brownian motion of society, we collectively tend towards that future.

(Think of Moore’s Law as another Schelling point in action.)

There are other social consensus futures: nuclear apocalypse, climate change… (I wrote in 2022 about the story becoming destiny.)

It’s interesting that, as wild as the Consensus Cosmogony is, what makes it work is that there’s a pathway and the Space Race gave it plausibility. Belief as well as desire. It’s not enough to just imagine and articulate a future, you have to show there-from-here, at least so evangelists can hand-wave it.

So: how do you give people a picture of the future? And how do you provide a plausible pathway there – with your protocol (or whatever) becoming a both required and inevitable step #1?

3. Vonnegut’s mind-opening team

Another way of looking at this is that you need different types of activity, and not everyone is specialised at doing all of them.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, the character Paul Slazinger writes a book: “The Only Way to Have a Successful Revolution in Any Field of Human Activity.”

Slazinger/Vonnegut puts forward that you need a mind-opening team of three sorts of specialists:

  1. An authentic genius: a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. ‘A genius working alone,’ he says, ‘is invariably ignored as a lunatic.’
  2. An intelligent person in good standing, who testifies that the genius is far from mad. ‘A person working like that alone,’ says Slazinger, ‘can only yearn out loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.’
  3. An explainer. ‘He will say almost anything in order to be interesting or exciting,’ says Slazinger. ‘Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.’

Full transcript here.

It’s not as obviously belief and desire but, I think, it’s a similar light on these different functions that are required.

Design fiction and propaganda from Zurich Insurance in 2006

Propaganda sounds like a dirty word, as does “advertising” to some people, but my favourite piece of persuasive design fiction probably ever is this Zurich tv spot from – well I don’t know exactly but it was uploaded to YouTube 17 years ago.

WATCH: Because Change Happens, Zurich TV ad from 2006 (Youtube, 1 min).

It’s a collection of short scenarios made mundane by being shown incidentally in an entirely believable near future:

  • a commuter on prosthetic cyborg legs
  • auto-routing cars at a busy junction with no traffic lights
  • a transforming shop/cafe

(Just as wild, in the minds of the advertisers, is the idea of old people snowboarding. Only 17 years ago!)

Here’s a second ad with vignettes including auto-inflating fall protection jackets for construction workers, and people in suits caring about mental well-being.

And I do wonder: would there have been any other way to get salespeople, management, analysts, and partners thinking about algorithmic insurance for robot cars (which is now a thing) in the early years of the 2000s?

This is belief, desire, and material artifact as boundary object, all wrapped up in one. (Though I think we kinda have a growing immunity to video nowadays. Working code is better.)

Provocations for protocol design and protocol designers

So if I could list some challenges for the designers of protocols, it would be to sit and imagine how to do the following - in ascending level of scale:

  1. Creating belief and desire for your protocol. Beyond a reference design, what are some practical activities and potential artifacts as immediate next steps?
  2. What’s the protocol playbook? Looking across these artifacts and activities to create belief and desire, the startup world knows how to do this: there’s the lore of landing pages and the ability to measure and iterate of funnel analytics and A/B testing. What are the analogous tools in the protocol world?
  3. Manifesting a protocol-focused consensus mindset. Right now, society believes that building the future is the province of (in descending order of effectiveness) corporations, the state, and - possibility - viral movements. These are all technologies of cooperation. That wasn’t always the case: we used to reach for protocols too. What’s the best first intervention to get society to think about protocols again?

Today let’s think about the first challenge only.

Maybe, as an exercise:

  • Consider a specific new protocol
  • Briefly describe the future world
  • Come up with 3 different activities/artifacts to build and propogandise belief and desire, with the purpose being to enrol new actors.

Whiteboard these using tldraw (go to the menu in the top left and hit File > New shared project. Then everyone can work on the same URL). And we’ll come back to discuss in 15 minutes.

Notes from the workshop: topping up your gmail, and an annual holiday for archiving the dead

I’m not going to do a full write-up of the workshop here, except to note a two ideas that stuck in my head:

  • On a protocol for attaching escrow cash to email (to prevent spam): “Topping up your gmail” is a great way to frame a future behaviour and makes it entirely believable; and it is a great motivation to point out that people will no longer need to be scared of putting their contact details in public, because we’ve become so accustomed to being scared right now that we’ve forgotten.
  • On a protocol for grieving loved ones with digital technology: having a specific annual holiday for the ritual of “archiving” is beautiful, and running the first annual day ahead of the end of the program means that the ritual is already a reality before next year comes around.

Well done to all four groups!

And from the discussion:

Not all design is the same. Some design is about meeting a need or a user goal. But some design is normative. It is design for the world as it should be, not as it is. Design fiction fits in the world of normative design.

Protocol fiction too.

To riff on Ward’s framing, the Summer of Protocols is inherently ideological and protocols, as a technology of cooperation, if they are intended to grow, are evangelical.

So unpacking desire and belief, and then manifesting it, will be, I believe, part of the story of this summer program, if the researcher cohort is to achieve its goals.

Thank you for inviting me.

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