Rhetoric, Activity, and Protocol

A photo of a Magic game 'battlefield' on which two players' cards are deployed. Visible cards include representations of creatures, mana-producing lands, and various enchantments and artifacts.
The board state of a game of Magic after several turns, with each player having on the battlefield several creatures, artifacts, and lands. | Photo by Lauri Rantala. Used via CC BY 2.0 license.

Protocol as a term encompasses the assembled web of affordances, constraints, probabilities, and potentiality relating to a particular system and relevant set of situation(s) requiring evaluation and resolution. Procedure describes the set of steps executed in order to express a particular resolution, generally made possible through a body of protocological parameters. While these explanations might suggest a hierarchical relationship between the two concepts, it is important to note that procedures are not necessarily evolved from or built on existing protocols, but rather protocols are often constructed in order to facilitate certain types of procedures and thus achieve particular goals.

The term activity network (whose origins and whose debated uses among actor-network and activity theorists are discussed in depth by Clay Spinuzzi, 2008) describes the system(s) of subjects, communities, tools, rules, and labor that interact in order to accomplish particular objects or outcomes, whether explicitly or implicitly shared by all involved parties. Often, these systems are incredibly complex, with numerous components working in myriad ways to influence one another in relation to one or more objects. That is, there is the overarching activity that has an overarching goal or purpose, like a paragraph used to convey activity theory in a brief and accessible way. In order accomplish this, we perform several actions, such as writing sentences that each have their own goal of furthering the argument of the sentence preceding and previewing the sentence that follows. Taken together, these actions then contribute to the overall goal of the activity. However, within each of these actions are other "operations" that are so tacitly performed that we don’t often think of ourselves as doing them at all, such as applying the rules of proper spelling for words and the generically and contextually appropriate grammatical structures when composing a complete sentence.

Furthermore, these systems are themselves embedded with and embedded within other activity networks of varying scales, even while often emerging via ad hoc bases; such a relationship makes contingent the descriptive quality of this theory on a clear focus and establishment of tentative boundaries around the activity in question. For example, while correct spelling and grammar might be operations for teachers of writing, beginning writing students might have to approach them as actions requiring explicit effort, and only later do students operationalize grammatical decisions as they move up to more complex actions, like drafting multiple sentences, paragraphs, and so on. However, even this work is itself a particular subordinate action (procedure) within the larger-scale activity of writing an article. These three levels—activity, action, and operation—describe relational identities, not essential ones, making the activity network an incredibly versatile theory with which to examine complex systems. It provides a useful heuristic for scrutinizing activities as they are realized across a number of networks via relevant and integral protocols; the challenges and benefits of this frame are that it can move from the molecular up to the global ecology.

Electronic technologies have extended the capabilities of protocol to determine, often much more quickly and efficiently, how to pursue activations of complex activity systems comprised of human and nonhuman agents. The ability for computer networks to determine an appropriate response to a given set of input data has allowed for protocol to be developed in far more detail than might otherwise be possible for involved agents to negotiate and reach decisions on. However, the constraints of such technologies have also made it difficult for protocological considerations to be made flexibly to the degree that most humans would desire, given the highly situated factors that influence the emergence of a particular situation and its exigence(s).

As a result, a concept related to protocol and computation is the exploit, which Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker (2007) established in a general sense as "a resonant flaw designed to resist, threaten, and ultimately desert the dominant political paradigm" (p. 21). In a protocological system, exploits are "holes in existent technologies and [the projection of] potential change through those holes" (p. 81). In other words, exploits do not break a system so much as they co-opt the possibilities available within that system in order to achieve goals that often run counter to those endorsed or intended by the dominant power within the system (e.g., software programmers, legal rulings, public health procedures).

In game studies, the concept of the exploit has sometimes been described as "degenerate strategy," which Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (2004) defined as "a way of playing a game that takes advantage of a weakness in the game design, so that the play strategy guarantees success" (p. 271). While degenerate strategies fall within the definitional scope of exploits, the connotation associated with degeneracy is far more potent, suggesting that gamers—or at least game scholars and critics—view gameplay-related exploits in an explicitly negative light. In part, this may be due to rules exploits as little-known information, meaning that a player "better educated" about the nuances of a game has an inherent advantage over a player who does not possess that same knowledge. Salen and Zimmerman (2004) clarified their argument by stating, "Using an exploit is a way of playing that violates the spirit of the game" although it may not technically be considered cheating by the game’s community of players (p. 272).

For rhetoricians, exploits arguably serve as rhetorical interventions that disrupt a status quo, if one is to perceive an exploitable loophole as an exigence that a skilled rhetor engages. James J. Brown, Jr. (2015) considered exploits in regards to ethical concerns, an approach that, to an extent, reflects Salen and Zimmerman’s (2004) "degenerate strategy" definition; for Brown, ethics and ethical decisions grow more difficult to understand in increasingly complex, networked situations and environments (2015, n.p.). The concept of the exploit as a valuable rhetorical strategy to employ is especially interesting when considering its use in procedural and protocological systems, similar to how Casey Boyle (2015) described the glitch as a complication of how we conventionally approach mediation (and, thus, rhetorical communication). At what point, precisely, do a rhetor’s actions exploit a given system, whether purposefully or not? How might, or do, multiple individuals interpret one’s actions as exploiting (or not exploiting) that system? How much agency is available for any individual to resist potential exploits from affecting the system (e.g., a particular game of Magic)? How are potential exploits (whether recognized as such or not) resolved by all involved in the use of one or more as part of a specific rhetorical act?

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