In his closing remarks to “Vision 65: World Congress on New Challenges to Human Communication,” R. Buckminster Fuller challenged listeners with the ultimate design brief: “All politics are obsolete as fundamental problem-solvers. Politics are only adequate for secondary housekeeping. Mankind must take the universal initiative in effecting the design revolution.”1 Fifty years later, Benjamin H. Bratton introduces a similar challenge; only this time, the call is fully aware of the instrumental role of politics. To this end, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty “proposes a specific model for the design of political geography tuned to this era of planetary-scale computation” (3). Bratton defines “The Stack” as “a portrait of the system we have but perhaps do not recognize, and an antecedent of a future territory” (5), and he uses this as a conceptual device for understanding contemporary geopolitics. Framed as a design brief and a book about design theory, The Stack is organized in three sections. “The Models” outlines the conceptual framework and historical relevance, “The Layers” details the composition of each strata, and “The Projects” speculates on the future of The Stack.
The Stack consists of six layers (Figure 1). The Earth layer provides the material substrate for The Stack. In addition to highlighting the “deeply physical” (12) characteristics of supercomputing, the Earth foregrounds “the geopolitics of mineral and resource flows of extraction, consumption, and discarding” (70). The Cloud layer consists of the infrastructure that constitutes The Stack. This includes the “server farms, massive databases, energy sources, optical cables, wireless transmission media, and distributed applications” (70) germane to supercomputing. The City layer describes the urban fabric of The Stack. More specifically, the City is “the environment of discontinuous megacities and meganetworks that situate human settlement and mobility in the combination of physical and virtual envelopes” (70). The Address layer involves the imperative for naming actors within The Stack. Once named, “computation then becomes a potential property of addressed objects, places, and events, and a medium through which any of these can directly interact with any other” (70). The Interface layer includes the devices used for communication in The Stack. Put simply, the Interface “provide[s] imagistic and linguistic mediation” (71). The User layer comprises the actors involved in initiating communication in The Stack. Capable of describing both humans and nonhumans, the User is “not where the rest of the layers are mastered by some sovereign consciousness; it is merely where their effects are coherently personified” (252). The Stack is activated through what Bratton calls columns, which describe a feedback loop that begins and ends with the User.
As a book of design theory, The Stack invites several questions. In The Stack, each layer is capable of being redesigned, and in the process of redesigning the layers, Bratton emphasizes the value of accidents, inverting Paul Virilio’s axiom to read, “the accident also produces a new technology” (17).2 If The Stack is a model for understanding contemporary geopolitics and each layer is capable of being redesigned, then who is the target audience of the book? Designers with geopolitical interests or political geographers seeking design inspiration? If The Stack is a “totality that is resistant to totalitarianism” (69) and the effects incurred by redesign are likely to be accidental, then how are we to understand the proliferation of accidents among multiple totalities? Where is the theory of accidents that clarifies these collisions? (Figure 3)
As a design brief, The Stack invites additional questions. To what extent can designers imagine a geopolitics of supercomputing? To what end? For that matter, to what extent can political geographers design alternative politics? Supplemented with related work in design and political geography, the design brief of The Stack becomes clearer. Conceived as a similar alignment of technologies as observed in The Stack, Stephen Graham’s work on the politics of verticality in urban environments offers a detailed account of how aerial surveillance and militarized bunkers affect the built environment.3 Paired with Liam Young and Kate Davies’s ongoing work in Unknown Fields Division, Bratton’s Earth layer is animated by speculative design projects that trace global supply chains.4 Read alongside Louise Amoore’s analysis of “cloud geographies,” the Cloud layer finds a rigorous empirical counterpart that highlights the politics of supercomputing,5 and understood in what Keller Easterling calls “infrastructure space,” the City layer becomes more recognizable as a spatial artifact.6 Recalling Marshall McLuhan’s influential theory on the “extensions of man” situates the Interface layer within a long history of media studies,7 and appreciating the role of nonhuman actors in the User layer recalls Jane Bennett’s “thing-power.”8 Returning to the role of designers in imagining future geopolitics, recent questions posed by Theatrum Mundi deserve meditation. They ask, “What are the limits of design in addressing the political and/or when has design not been enough?”9 With a library of supplemental material to help clarify the target of design, The Stack serves as a useful guide. (Figure 4)
The principal value of The Stack is in its theoretical contributions, and it is a useful addition to a growing literature on the effects of supercomputing in geopolitics. While insufficient in empirical data to serve as a robust design brief, The Stack excels in diagramming the complexity of contemporary technologies, and it deserves to be adopted in both design studio discussions and history and theory seminars. Departing from Fuller’s grandiose “design revolution,” Bratton approaches what Donna Haraway calls “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.”11 As a model for redesigning geopolitics, The Stack introduces a totality to be combined with other totalities, challenging readers to grapple with the exponential pluralism enabled by supercomputing.