The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty

The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty

Reviews: Books

Benjamin H. Bratton:

The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty

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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.

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Figure 2. Diagram of The Stack designed by Metahaven (66).
Figure 3. Slide from a National Security Administration presentation outlining a program called Treasure Map.
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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)

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Few of the above references, however, are found in The Stack. The book contains no bibliography, and the endnotes often cite articles and books without describing their specific theoretical or empirical import. The companion Web site does not deliver the “many images and illustrations accompanying each chapter” (xix) promised in the text, and some of the links to online references are broken. Because it is organized alphabetically, the glossary does little to clarify the meaning and interrelation of terms, but the body of the text is sufficiently articulate to make these connections clear.10 Capitalization and italicization of everyday words to denote specific meaning causes some confusion, but at 528 pages, the book is long enough to establish its own vernacular. That said, the prose of The Stack is delightful, and the structure is clear. (Figure 5)
Figure 4. Diagram from the International Organization for Standardization of Open Systems Interconnection.
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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.

Figure 5. Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Stack: Design and Geopolitics in the Age of Planetary-Scale Computing,” Simon Fraser University, Institute for the Humanities, October 29, 2014, (accessed November 8, 2016).
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  1. R. Buckminster Fuller, “Vision 65 Summary Lecture,” American Scholar 35, no. 2 (Spring 1966): 206–18, quote on 218.
  2. Bratton summarizes Virilio’s axiom as, “the invention of any new kind of technology is also simultaneously the invention of a new kind of accident” (13). Paul Virilio, “The Museum of Accidents,” trans. Chris Turner, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 3, no. 2 (2006).
  3. Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (New York: Verso, 2016).
  4. The mission of the Unknown Fields Division reads, “The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions into the shadows cast by the contemporary city, to uncover the alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness set in motion by the powerful push and pull of the city’s desires. These dislocated landscapes—the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine—are connected to our everyday lives in surprising and complicated ways. They are embedded in global systems that form a vast network of elusive tendrils, twisting threadlike over everything around us, crisscrossing the planet, connecting the mundane to the extraordinary.” Liam Young and Kate Davies, “Unknown Fields Division” (accessed November 8, 2016).
  5. Using twentieth-century particle physics experiments in cloud chambers as an analogy, Amoore argues, “As algorithms written for casino or credit card fraud travel to border control, to security threat analysis, I propose that cloud computing similarly confers on algorithms the power to confer on the analyst the power to speak in their name: Here are the people and things with a link to terrorism; here are the possible fraudulent asylum claims; here are the optimal targets for the next drone strike; here are the civil uprisings which will threaten the state next week.” Louise Amoore, “Cloud Geographies: Computing, Data, Sovereignty,” Progress in Human Geography (2016), doi: 10.1177/0309132516662147; see also Amoore, The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
  6. Articulating what Bratton alludes to in the City layer, Easterling argues, “Infrastructure space has become a medium of information. The information resides in invisible, powerful activities that determine how objects and content are organized and circulated. Infrastructure space, with the power and currency of software, is an operating system for shaping the city.” Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (New York: Verso, 2014), 13.
  7. Prescient of the contemporary aspirations of supercomputing, McLuhan writes, “Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.” Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Signet, 1964), 19.
  8. Bennett argues for a more thorough understanding of politics by recognizing the power of objects, writing, “The story will highlight the extent to which human being and thinghood overlap, the extent to which the us and the it slip-slide into each other. One moral of the story is that we are also nonhuman and that things, too, are vital players in the world.” Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 4.
  9. Adam Kaasa, John Bingham-Hill, and Elisabetta Pietrostefani, “Designing Politics: The Limits of Design,” Theatrum Mundi, (accessed November 8, 2016).
  10. The glossary entry for “Geoscapes” begins, “Maps on top of maps create the map of maps” (372).
  11. Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism as a Site of Discourse on the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575–99, quote on 589.
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"The Stack: Design and Geopolitics in the Age of Planetary-Scale Computing"

"The Stack: Design and Geopolitics in the Age of Planetary-Scale Computing"
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