Dr. Brian Robert Callahan

academic, developer, with an eye towards a brighter techno-social life


Where are all the protocols?

The ARRL must be sick of me. Since my first QEX article got accepted, I have submitted yet another article to QEX and an article to QST. It's an output of about one full article a week. That's certainly one way to get noticed by them. Not sure that was my intention, but here we are. Apparently I am loquacious, what a shock. Literally all of my students are rolling their eyes at that one (I will lecture right past the end of class if I'm not constantly checking the time).

But I've been learning that, for as much that has been and is being said and done with amateur radio, there is an infinite amount of things that have not. Really, this is the same feeling I have with OpenBSD and why all these years later I still enjoy creating new ports and maintaining existing ones—there is always something new to discover!

I've been increasingly puzzled by a seeming dearth of protocol proliferation in amateur radio. We are allowed to create our own protocols (see 97.309(a)(4)) so why isn't there this mass proliferation—a venerable "Wild West"—of interesting protocols for us to hop around and communicate on? Why are many of the interesting protocols also seemingly proprietary? Do other hams simply think that protocol development is outside their abilities (hint: it's not) or worse—do other think it is an uninteresting endeavor?

Come with me as I talk to myself about my dreams for my radio career and, if I could shape the direction of the radio arts in some minor way, my aspirations for the future of radio.

But first, you do you

It goes without saying that one of the really nice things about the radio world is that there is something for everyone. I know there are some operators out there for whom amateur radio is getting on your local 2m/70cm repeater and having a good time with your local friends, and have no interest in any other aspect of radio. And if that's you, I think that's awesome and I want you to keep doing you. But that's not me. In fact, nearly all of my radio work so far has been developing theory. And I want to keep doing that.

What my students don't get to hear

I will get at my idea of the radio "Wild West" via wandering into my professional career. I am fortunate at $DAYJOB to teach all the majors and minors in our little alcove at RPI. I teach the Sophomore-level courses on full-stack web development. There is so much we cover—from the languages of the web to theory to design and entrepreneurship and even some data science for good measure.

At some point, I'll be able to teach some new courses of my design. I want to teach a technical and social history course on the web and pre-web Internet. That's the part we don't have time to cover in the web development courses. And yes, I enjoy web development. Don't get me wrong. And I really enjoy getting to know all the students in our major (and minor!). I someday want to supplement those development courses with this future course on technosocial history. Perhaps not-so-secretly, this future course also says a lot about me.

Stop me if this story sounds familiar. It's the 1990s. The World Wide Web and the Internet are moving into the home. No longer the domain of the universities and the military, ordinary people are beginning to experience a type of interconnectedness not previously known to any civilization past or present. Yes, we are using dial-up modems. Yes, lots of people are using the "walled garden" of America Online (and millions more are building up their coaster collection!).

We were promised something. At least, I seem to remember being promised something. We were promised that this new technology would be the "Great Equalizer" so famously immortalized by Peter Steiner's cartoon about Internet anonymity. Of course, as Kaamran Hafeez so eloqently drew the sequel, the dogs, now much older, reminisce about the time when, on the Internet, no one knew who you were.

I was young in the 1990s, but I was not so young that I did not know what was going on. What I remember was a world trying to grapple with these promises, to say nothing about trying to grapple with these technologies. Promises I know now were always empty, if not an outright lie. I bought into these promises. They shaped my dreams. They still shape my dreams.

It all felt so wonderous and magical and liberatory. Until one day the dream was shattered. I don't know when that day arrived. I can't seem to remember that part.

Of course, I now understand all our technologies as far more nuanced and socially constructed. I would be lying about my own graduate work if I didn't tell you about how I know that the Arab Spring was aided in part from the Internet, how indigenous societies are harnessing our global interconnectedness to preserve cultural traditions and find new ways to fight for the rights they deserve. I would be lying if I pretended that parts of the dream didn't come true for at least some people, at least some of the time.

But that future course I want to teach? It's a love letter to those of us who bought into that dream. An ephemeral space where, if only for a fleeting moment, we can reify that dream—or at least dream about what reification would mean and how our world would be different, good and bad.

Dreaming our dream in radio waves

And so I return to amateur radio. Part of my dream was the explosion of decentralization. Who else remembers the age of the homepage? Of web-rings? Yes, there is always tension between centralization and decentralization. I fall on the decentralization side of that fence.

I see protocol proliferation as one aspect of the amateur radio equivalent of that decentralization.

While Wikipedia is not a source of Truth, it does have an article listing all the amateur radio modes it knows about. The list is, in a word, short. And not particularly open, either. This is not the best we can do.

In defense of crappy protocols

We could all sit around and wait for FreeDV to take over and call it a day. At least that would be completely open, though we would suffer from centralization. I still dream of that "Wild West" sometimes.

What would happen if we all made a whole lot of crappy protocols? This is not a joke, though it is slightly hyperbolic. What if we designed, documented, and implemented protocols without regard for their perfection? That is quite literally what my QEX article achieves: I wanted a data protocol to use over CW so I made a data protocol over CW. Is it perfect? No. I will make improvements over time. But I did not find an existing protocol so I made my own. Even if one, or many, had already existed, I still would have made my protocol. What is the harm in having one more possibility for connection?

Oh, but I can hear the chorus of my detractors: if we are all using different protocols, then we are voluntarily segmenting ourselves into little cloisters instead of broadening our possibilities. My choir, though pleasingly harmonious in voice could not be more discordant in thought.

This is not a competition; imagining that one would select a single protocol to use for the entirety of one's radio career makes little sense. We should be hopping around using our protocols some of the time, other peoples' protocols the majority of the time. It is about exploring the infinite of possibilities and advancing the radio arts that excites me. In my dream, the magic and wonder of exploring the myriads of methods for making connections will bring us together. Protocols are not a competition; they are a symphony.

I want to be able to pick up my radio and communicate with you using your crappy protocol. And I want you to want to communicate with me using my crappy protocol. We know that our words matter: look at all the languages and dialects and vernaculars we humans have devised. Why is that beautiful cacophony only applied to our words but not our mediums of transmission?

Let's go make crappy protocols. Lots of them. More than anyone could possibly hope to use in one lifetime. We can always make them better. But we cannot improve what doesn't exist. Let's get them existing first. Then we can iterate and improve to our hearts' content.

Where are all the protocols?

I live in the messiness. I design for the messiness. I see the "Great Equalizer" in that messiness. And that's how my dream was shattered: we will never have a single "Great Equalizer." Instead, it is up to us to have many "great equalizers." Through them all, we will approach our "Great Equalizer."

Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Heart!, if you will, if you get the reference. Each individually holding the potential to equalize, but together summons an Equalizer far greater than the sum of its parts.

Join me, will ya? I'm going to need a bit of help if my dream of creating that beautiful mess is to come to pass while I'm still around to enjoy the fruits of our labor.