Ghost Protocols

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Lexicon

A ghost protocol is a pattern of interactions between two parties wherein one party pretends the other does not exist. A simple example is the “silent treatment” pattern we all learn as kids. In highly entangled family life, the silent treatment is not possible to sustain for very long, but in looser friendship circles, it is both practical and useful to be able to ghost people indefinitely. Arguably, in the hyperconnected and decentered age of social media, the ability to ghost people at an individual level is a practical necessity, and not necessarily cruel. People have enough social optionality and legal protections now that not being recognized by a particular person or group, even a very powerful one, is not as big a deal as it once was.

At the other end of the spectrum of complexity of ghosted states is the condition of officially disavowed spies, as in the eponymous Mission Impossible movie. I don’t know if “ghost protocol” is a real term of art in the intelligence world, but it’s got a nice ring to it, so I’ll take it. One of my favorite shows, Burn Notice, is set within a ghost protocol situation.

If you pretend a person or entire group doesn’t exist, and they’re real, they don’t go away of course. As Philip K. Dick said, reality is that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.

So you need ways of dealing with live people who are dead to you, and preventing them from getting in your way, without acknowledging their existence. When you put some thought and structure around those ways, you’ve got a ghost protocol.

Organizations have an easy time of it. If you delete all the records of a person’s existence, in many ways they don’t exist for all practical purposes. When you see like a state, you can be blind like a state, and that’s a powerful thing. That’s a Gesellschaft ghost protocol. Then there’s softer Gemeinschaft ghost protocols, like the one the housed adopt towards the homeless.

A ghost protocol cannot be announced or otherwise ceremonialized. Cancelation, exile, or excommunication are not forms of ghosting. They are harsher in many material ways, since they explicitly withdraw privileges, but in other ways, being explicitly cast out of society is something of a relief. At least you know where you stand. An outcaste is not a ghost.

A true ghost protocol is when an individual, group, or organization simply stops recognizing your existence without warning or explanation. Unless some kindhearted ally on the other side clues you in on your changed state, you may not even discover you’re being ghosted for a while, until you notice a pattern of failed transactions and recognize what’s happening. When a sufficiently large and nebulous counterparty ghosts you, it might simply feel like your luck has changed for the worse. Sometimes ghost protocols are the default state, and there is never an acknowledgement to begin with. People will studiously avoid ever having to know each other.

The tendency to identify bad luck regimes with ghosted conditions is so strong, I suspect it is one of the reasons humans invented gods and religions. Bad luck is narrativized as god ghosting you. For the religious, there is no ghost protocol worse than being abandoned by god. For the politically hyperconscious, being ghosted by the state is nearly as bad, since they derive a larger part of their identities from the state, and take pride in being legible to it. For theocrats, of course, the two conditions are identical. At this scale, being ghosted is as good as being dead. It can cause enormous PTSD, and people may go past being unable to see a future for themselves to being unable to experience time in a normal way.

But not all ghostings are one-way, coercively imposed by a stronger party, or undesired states. Sometimes two parties will ghost each other at the same time. Sometimes a weaker party will ghost a stronger party and retreat to a situation of significant deprivation to enable it. An example is heretics retreating to lawless frontier regions or ungovernable slums (such retreat is in fact a costly signal of actually being a heretic instead of just pretending to be one).

Sometimes one side may even opt for a ghosted status against the desires of those who would rather not ghost them. Opt-in ghost statuses are rare, but do exist.

One of the most important opt-in ghost protocols is the one between adults who have, or want kids, and adults who neither want, nor have kids. The voluntarily and successfully childless (accidental children are a thing) are an opt-in community of ghosts. They are often subjected to years of persuasion by society until they age out.

I’m not a card-carrying anti-natalist. I have no strong views on whether people should have kids, or on the ethics of creating a life that may or may not want to have been created. I also quite like kids, and enjoy their company, at least in small doses. I just don’t want kids, don’t have any, and married someone who felt the same way. This is the sort of decision you make early in life (I knew I didn’t want kids as a teenager), but fully understand late, at which point you may or may not end up regretting it. I don’t. In my experience, the majority who choose childlessness in modernity don’t end up regretting it.

The ghost protocol between the rest of society and the voluntarily childless doesn’t begin to have consequential impacts until well into middle age. It’s just beginning to hit for me. I’ll be 47 this month, and some of my classmates from college are about to send their eldest kids off to college. Some will become empty-nesters. Others have more kids to launch. The true divergence of life paths becomes evident with adult children around I think.

This is a ghost protocol because once you’re past the divergence point, you realize children are how societies measure the stake older adults have in futures they will not live to see. They are how societies can trust the participation of older adults in any collective decisions with consequences that extend past their own lives.

Children are the default form of skin in the game of civilization. To be voluntarily childless is to have no legible stake in the future that society can see. This means you’re untrustworthy until you prove yourself trustworthy (ideally through a child-focused behavior such as being a good aunt or uncle, or a caring teacher or mentor). Certain classes of voluntarily childless types, such as celibate monks and nuns, are granted exemptions from being ghosted. The rest must prove they can be trusted around long-term decisions. This comes as a surprise to many of the voluntarily childless who were either too lazy or too dumb to think it through.

I at least unconsciously anticipated this, and in hindsight have always been fine with it. In fact, I increasingly prefer the ghosted condition and think it’s a good deal. I get all the benefits of having a younger generation around, keeping things going and paying into social security when I’m old, but wouldn’t have had to invest anything in childcare myself, besides paying some taxes.

That intellectual appreciation of the social contract of childlessness is beginning to sink in at a visceral level now. It is starting to feel like that the future of the world is not really mine to think about. This means, as a generally future-oriented thinker, I’m kinda free to think about futures that are personally interesting to me, rather than preferred or valuable ones. Enough people are thinking about important and likely futures their kids might actually live to experience. I can hang out in the interesting corners of the adjacent possible.

While I do have a preference for futures where humans continue to exist over ones where they don’t, it doesn’t really matter to me what people assume about my preferences. That’s one of the perks of living in modernity. You don’t have to care whether others see you as human or approve of your preferences. You just need them to not get in your way, and modernity makes that possible. Being a ghost doesn’t matter in relation to people you don’t care to haunt.

But for many, it is a shock to have their preferences either disregarded or discounted by the childlessness ghost protocol due to lack of kids to stake. This leads to dissonant responses. Apparently, there’s now a lot of people haunting school board meetings in the US to complain about the teaching of critical race theory — and they have no kids in the schools in question (I wonder how many of them have no kids at all, not just at the schools they show up at to speak). I’m not saying the childless shouldn’t have rights. I’m saying it is fine for those rights to be circumscribed by a childlessness ghost protocol. If you have no kids and want a say in matters beyond your own lifetime, you have to earn it in some other way.

There are many powerful ghost protocols around us today, and increasingly, we deploy technology to manage them. Besides the obvious connection between ghost protocols and things like mute and block buttons (and their descendants envisioned on shows like Black Mirror, which I reviewed here), even mundane things like incompatible standards serve as weak ghost protocols. Arguably every language is something like a soft ghost protocol. Especially minority languages in a multilingual society. Anytime I speak Hindi in public in America (rare), I effectively ghost most of the country. This is an example of a ghost protocol deployable by an asymmetrically weaker party, which is one reason it drives linguistic-nationalists everywhere insane.

Ghost protocols are a good thing. Civilization is a complicated thing. Humans are a complicated species. We don’t always get along, and often there are good reasons for that that we don’t come to appreciate until centuries later. In the meantime, in order to live and let live, sometimes it is necessary to pretend others aren’t really there. Such an implicit detente is more humane than warring over totalizing stances on unknowns and unknowables.

Ghost protocols allow us to break civilization up into manageable, mutually incommensurable and non-interoperable chunks. This makes civilization at least a somewhat uncorrelated portfolio of mutually escaped realities. One that can undergo a healthy divergence of futures, and sustain genuine pluralism.

A world where all humans were in one large puddle of mutual recognition and understanding would be a dangerously fragile and unhedged. As Douglas Adams showed in Hitchhiker’s Guide through the device of the babelfish, universal mutual intelligibility is how you get to total war of all against all. The internet has taken us to the brink of that condition. Fortunately, we are beginning to install the right ghost protocols to pull back from the brink.

We are as gods, and part of being good at it is striking down our own towers of babel.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. First, I’m disappointed in the lack of “Proof of Stake” metaphors.

    Second, this article makes me sad. Over the years I’ve come to count on you as somewhat of a compass on what to expect next in the Great Weirding.

    The logical conclusion of this article is that anyone who has such “stake” in the future beyond their own is that we should no longer trust your outlook, or even consider it really.

    Or do you intend to provide (or feel you have already provided), some PoS on that front?

    Are you self-ghosting your readership? or more met: You don’t care that you are self-ghosting your readership? (and we will only later or not at all realize it.)

    • Haha, it’s for everybody else to decide whether or not I’ve provided PoS in the future. I had that metaphor in originally, but decided it was too geeky and took it out.

      Tbh, I’ve never really thought about readers as a party I have any sort of mutual contract with. I do things, and occasionally change what I do, and each time, some people stay with me, others leave, and new people join. I suspect this attitude affects mainstream prospects, and explains why I’ve never gotten to mainstream notoriety in any way, and don’t expect to. The internet is large enough that any marginal random person who publishes enough will acquire *some* audience, but mainstream audiences still require significant PoS in the future of the species.

  2. Crypto ultimate Klaus Schwab snowclone:

    You will all be ghosts and be happy

  3. Mikhail Selivanov says

    Saw a tweet about someone appreciating their filter bubble for its ability to remove unwanted information about their outgroup. Reminds me of deliberate self-ghosting.

  4. Bronisław Malinowski says

    First a question: does the treatment of madogiwa zoku in Japan qualify as a ghost protocol?

    Second, a comment: it seems that analyzing phatic speech in the context of ghost protocols could prove fruitful. It occurred to me in your example of how we treat the unhoused (and how they treat us, which is via a highly ritualized phatic speech transaction, the only path they have to any recognition).

  5. Ultimate elephant in the room topic is the vaxxed vs unvaxxed; impressed you managed to dodge it. It seems to me the two groups are near ready to go all in on ghosting each other, each gambling their group will be ultimately favored by Darwin (or God, the meta-Darwin). The fact that it prevents a tower of Babel is an extremely refreshing and optimistic take on what otherwise looks like an ugly divide. Great writing as always V.

  6. Ravi Daithankar says

    This was an awesome read! I am in an almost identical boat personally so I felt like my thoughts were echoed really clearly here!

    There is a somewhat orthogonal, perhaps unrelated, but nevertheless interesting idea that I have to mention here. The idea of weighting an individual’s social standing in direct proportion to their skin in the game or proof of civilizational stake. That most obvious proof is progeny, of course, but there are other indirect indicators too. Age being the most intuitive of those. It is a fairly radical idea at this point but if you really think about it, it is kinda BS that a 90-year old and an 19-year old enjoy the same weight in any civilization-unfolding discussion. Events like Brexit sort of brought this idea within the Overton window a little bit, but it is bizarre that a 90-year old gets to have the same say on what the future should look like when they don’t really have to live with the consequences of their choices. So absent all the accompanying fracas that the idea would inevitably bring, it would make sense that as you cross say 60, your skin in the game starts to progressively count at 0.9x, 0.8x all the way up 0x by default. Unless you can demonstrably argue why not, by exception.

    I know that’s a bit of a tangent here, but I do think it is an idea that is going to find more acceptance in our lifetimes going forward, not less, so maybe there’s a there there?

    • What if i told you this is already happening in credit agencies and insurance companies?

      • Ravi Daithankar says

        It has always happened with anything that has a transactional nature and a time-decay consideration, which is what credit and insurance are all about. The point I was making is that there is a lot to be said about using the same lens to look at more seemingly infinite games where we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that time-decay isn’t a big enough factor.

    • Well Ravi, speaking as a 57 years old who is closer to the end than the beginning, my argument would be that a 90 year old is wise where as a 19 year old is dumb. The extra 71 years the old guy has experienced on this rock allow him a point of vue which is, according to Alan Kay, worth 85 IQ points.

      The question remains, does skin in the game beats wisdom in making better choices?

      • Ravi Daithankar says

        There’s definitely that consideration, Karl. The point is not to dismiss the value of experience and wisdom, but to rather weight it so that it is applied contextually against a time scale. By the same token, it may even make sense to weight a person’s opinion at say 0.5x at age 16/17/18 to account for any alleged lack of wisdom that comes with a young age and progressively increase it to a full 1x by 22/23/24.

        The point is that at one end of the spectrum you have a ton of skin in the game but accompanied with alleged handicaps like lack of experience, irrational exuberance, and other blindspots while at the other end while you have more experience and wisdom it’s value is somewhat suspect because of a lack of skin in the game, other baggage and miscellaneous life inflicted trauma etc. Neither of those combinations are particularly helpful in advancing civilizational conversations, in my opinion, and have a very high noise-to-signal ratio.

  7. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned China Mieville yet, so I will. Lots of his work covers this sort of thing, but of course The City and The City is entirely built around a Ghost Protocol as you put it.

  8. dionysius the areopagite says

    “You don’t have to care whether others see you as human or approve of your preferences. You just need them to not get in your way, and modernity makes that possible.”

    The whole premise of this article is unethical. And these kind of beliefs are what makes society degenerate into nihilism and despair. It’s good to just ignore people if they get in your way? That’s somehow ok to do because modernity? Yes, you cannot please everyone nor should you try. You cannot respond to everybody. But the internet does not change basic human dignity and treating people with decency. It doesn’t change the fact that we are required to love.

  9. If members of the public, who are paying school taxes, but have no children currently enrolled in that school system, are to be excluded from any say in how that school district is run; than logically all school administrators should have children currently enrolled in their school district.