Software and Sovereignty
* Book: The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2016. 503 pages
0. Brent Cooper:
"At the nexus of software and sovereignty is the issue of global governance. The Stack is the problem and the solution, as is the case with abstraction. Based on the research Alexander Wendt and others, I contend that a world state is inevitable (and necessary) in some form. It’s going to happen one way or another, and rather than see more failed attempts at conquering the globe (be it imperialism or world war), it is already being designed via The Stack to supplant the existing order. Therefore, we must (re-)design it better." (https://medium.com/the-abs-tract-organization/the-abstraction-of-benjamin-bratton-756c647ab6ec)
“In exploring the active contradictions of sovereignty in relation to emergent planetary-scale computation, we need a diagram of the global Stack that we have as it actually is (e.g., electricity grids, mineral sourcing, strange interfaces, smart and dumb cities, alien users) to give a technical specificity to our speculations on geopolitical and geosocial alternatives, but also to better abstract its scattered technical heterogeneity into a fungible totality.”
— The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty 
2. Brent Cooper:
" If there is one collaborative open-source stack, it will streamline knowledge delivery and coordinate cooperative action in profoundly efficient ways. The imperative to abstract a better and better stack that meets the holistic demands of the system and its users is obvious. Conversely, short of becoming self-aware and destructive like the Terminator’s Skynet, The Stack is beginning to mirror properties and propensities to abstract the human subject out of the equation." (https://medium.com/the-abs-tract-organization/the-abstraction-of-benjamin-bratton-756c647ab6ec)
"Bratton outlines a new theory for the age of global computation and algorithmic governance. He proposes that different genres of planetary scale computation -smart grids, cloud platforms, mobile apps, smart cities, the Internet of Things, automation- can be seen not as so many species evolving on their own, but as forming a coherent whole: an accidental megastructure that is both a computational infrastructure and a new governing architecture. The book plots an expansive interdisciplinary design brief for The Stack-to-Come.” (http://www.bratton.info/)
=Details and Concepts
Seventh layer is the network:
"* Earth; material resources, energy reserves, geographic constraints, planetary civilization
- Cloud; corporate global internet and infrastructure (a la Google, Amazon, Facebook), remapping sovereignty in the process
- City; lived experience of daily life, smart grids, endless surveillance, and monitorized consumption
- Address; identification, location, control, governance, full spectrum mapping
- Interface; coupling users and computers, ideological and politicized interface , AI/ VR/ AR
- User; customers, contributors, participants, human and non — human "
Roger Whitson :
Bratton’s book is organized into the various layers of The Stack, and I’ll briefly describe these in the space that follows. But, again, it is important to not visualize these layers as separate. As Bratton argues “multiple layers co-occupy the same terrestrial location (horizontally) but gather and subdivide their processes vertically into discrete ‘jurisdictions'” (66). Each of the sections on these layers give Bratton an opportunity to write vignettes offering glimpses into various concrete manifestations of platform sovereignties, but the themes also reappear (sometimes in repurposed and reprocessed guises) in other parts of the book.
Bratton’s discussion of the Earth layer is characterized both by the various attempts to visualize the Earth and by theories that the Earth undergoes a constant process of computation. Bratton shows how so-called “discoveries” from Alan Turing’s theory of computable numbers to Freeman Dyson’s speculation that the energy needs of sufficiently advanced civilizations would require them to extract the entire energy output of a star — actually help design, prepare, and construct the Earth to act as a giant computing machine. Some of Bratton’s arguments in the Earth layer parallel Jussi Parikka’s tracing of media from mining to device to obsolescence and waste in A Geology of Media, yet Bratton also draws out the cosmic conclusions of planetary computing in his own uniquely startling ways. The conclusion of the Earth layer is a particularly exemplary tour de force, in which Bratton references Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando to imagine an updated version of the Dyson sphere where a civilization builds themselves around the Earth — transformed into what Stross calls a “Matrioshka brain” whose scale and structure can potentially support the simulation of entire worlds — and such a civilization might use “the raw material of the stellar body itself as a computational substrate, and perhaps (like Galactus) also eventually consuming that planet by its operations” (107). The Fantastic Four fan in me chuckled for quite a while about that last bit, but it also really highlights the synthetic, imaginary, dystopian?, and speculative brilliance of Bratton’s work.
Cloud and platform poelis, like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google are emerging to contest state and global sovereignty. To limit the activities of such platforms to market-driven intentions really underestimates their emerging impact on planetary computation. Perhaps the most radical of these described by Bratton is Google, whose stated intention is the “organization of the world’s information,” and often offers their services for free. We must question whether monetization is Google’s only ambition, or whether forms of mapping and organizing information might not only lead to new ways of governing. “Instead of claiming and occupying an exclusive sovereign territory,” Bratton claims, “Google absorbs existing spaces into its purview by capturing and consolidating images of all territory at various scales, from street to satellite and back, and rendering them into the platform’s comprehensive interface of rationalized space” (144). When coupled with emergent technologies like Google’s autonomous car, such capturing and monetizing of information shows that platform sovereignties have a granularity and a specificity that are completely different from how we usually think of political power.
Cities are actively being reconstructed by The Stack in order to emphasize policing and consumption, in the process creating new understandings of proximity. Of particular interest in this layer is Bratton’s argument that contemporary cities act as a form of airport urbanism, or a “critical cohabitation of security and entertainment” where “police deep-scan your person while blending you a delicious smoothie of your choosing, and do so without irony or contradiction of purpose and affect” (156). Smart grids, endless surveillance, and monitorized consumption occupy the Eloi-like bourgeoisie, while invisibly supporting these activities are innumerable Morlocks in Amazon and Apple-warehouses across the world. A comparison of Apple and Amazon’s headquarters ends the chapter, coupled with the “doppelgänger megastructure[s]” they depend upon for support, like giant warehouses being bought up in Southern California — their space “so large that their floors have been laser-leveled against the curvature of the Earth” and their architectures designed purely to be “populated by robotic platforms, shelves, and stockers that can easily lift over a ton of goods at once” (189).
If you can address something, Bratton says, you can govern it. Bratton spends most of the chapter discussing what he calls “deep address,” that acts as a method for scaling forms of digital address. “We’re interested not just in how the essential procedures of addressing do more than tally up the digital world as we see it,” Bratton explains, “but also in how they can allow us (force us) to engage with scales and qualities of communication otherwise inconceivable” (197). By engaging with the massive addressability of text in the digital humanities, Bratton is able to show how such methodologies can spawn new ways of addressing everything from subatomic haecceities to addresses about addresses and addressable meta-metadata. It’s a truly amazing vision of digital curation, one that has the potential to expand the meaning of the work accomplished in the digital humanities.
Interfacial regimes connect human Users to other layers of The Stack, and Bratton’s central concern in this chapter is the Graphic User Interface (GUI). Given recent critiques of Apple interfaces and blackboxing by Lori Emerson, Garnet Hertz, and others, I was initially suspicious about the lack of coverage given to the command line interface. Yet, Bratton’s perspective is more Derridean: there is no connection without an interfacial regime that is also political and ideological. Bratton illustrates this ideological warfare by showing how newer haptic interfaces are complicating and rejecting the GUI model, while talking extensively about the literalist threat posed by emergent forms of augmented reality. “Will mature AR initiate a wave of bizarre new sects, scams, and activist versions of fundamentalist monotheisms and ideologies for which the metaphorical nuance of holy books is collapsed by the direct imprint of virtual worlds onto real things?” (242). Of course, the visual imprinting of fundamentalist images has the potential to create new kinds of fanaticism, and to do so more efficiently than print culture. But I’d argue that print culture also literalized metaphorical displacements, the products of which are figured into the very history of modern-day fundamentalism, and I wonder whether visionary hacks, satirical viruses, and/or other digital modifications of print might not help us “withstand the unambiguous literalism” of AR (243). Where’s the William Blake of AR when we need him?
There are many more times the number of machine users on the internet than there are human users. Consequently, the User layer provides what is the most thorough consideration of these non-human users I’ve seen. In addition to machine and AI users, Bratton looks at animal users of digital technology — like those featured in Garnet Hertz’s cockroach mobile robot pilot and Natalie Jeremijenko’s OOZ. As Bratton says, “[a]nimals are no longer prosthetic channels and metabolic reserves but collaborative co-Users” (277). But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this chapter is the shift Bratton sketches from User-Centered Design to the design of the User. User-Centered design typifies many of the discussions not only about the design of consumer electronics but of “property rights” and “privacy” online that has contributed to a number of legal and philosophical problems. For instance, Bratton mentions a potential legal controversy in which a service provider of smart biomedical equipment might want to shut down devices enabling deaf persons to hear or even heart patients to live. We need a more robust understanding of subjectivity with regard to The Stack, and Bratton proposes locating this agency not within a human being — but within the very positionality of the User initiating columns within The Stack. “Particular agents may step into or out of composite User assemblages (as tangible as a Google Car or as intangible as a trace over time), and their interests do not remain stable as they do so.” Focusing on the positionality rather than the humanity of the User causes Bratton to consider some very strange traces as Users: from fifth-order nested parasitic biostrata to Siri-like assistant apps designed with passive-aggressive algorithms."
Platform Surplus Value
“Despite their variety, to me these clouds are all shaped by the desires of what I call the vectorialist class, which is to extract what Bratton calls “platform surplus value.” But perhaps they are built less on extracting rent or profit so much as asymmetries of information. They attempt in different ways to control the whole value chain through control of information. Finance as liquidity preference may be a subset of the vectoralist class as information preference, or power exercised through the most abstract form of relation, and baked into the cloud no matter what its particular form.”
— The Stack to Come: On Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack 
“Our capacity for figural abstraction is one outcome the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago or so roughly, and it enabled the eventual establishment of Neolithic economies. With that, what Wittgenstein called the ritual animal learned to index, invoke, calculate, demonstrate, incant, perform, and prototype various future conditions into becoming. In doing so we also learn to confuse those means and ends. Confuse the symbolization with what is symbolized.”
— Benjamin Bratton. Remarks on the Hole of Representation in Computer ‘Vision’. 2017 
" Over and over again, Bratton shows us how the typical knee-jerk reaction in the humanities against technology as a material form of instrumental reason or as a byword for the military industrial complex is “inadequate, immature, and sociopathic” (449). As technological criticism achieves little more than voicing nostalgic rants for analogue life into the void, Bratton shows us how new computational forms of sovereignty are emerging and potentially disregarding us altogether. With a materialist specificity that even Friedrich Kittler’s media archaeological work never achieved, The Stack illustrates the danger of failing to engage with these new human and non-human actors as they redesign governmentality.
A book focusing on what it describes as an “accidental megastructure” formed out of planetary-scale computing. Differing significantly from Westphalian forms of sovereignty, where governmentality is conceived in terms of state-actors, the Stack is modeled more on the “multilayered structure of software protocol stacks in which network technologies operate within a modular and interdependent order” (xviii).
As such, Bratton’s work loosely follows that of Hardt’s student, Alexander Galloway, and his discussion of protocological forms of sovereignty on TC/IP internet relays, as well as Gilles Deleuze’s proclamation of the computational and mathematical apparatuses of control. Yet Bratton departs significantly from Galloway and Deleuze in the complexity, modularity, and scale with which he describes The Stack. Control isn’t simply numerical in style or a just form of (human) management, rather these methods and practices are transformed dramatically as they move through and are processed by The Stack’s various layers. Key to understanding The Stack is the notion of reversibility, in which any partition, any interior, and any geography can be flip-flopped: not only does the outside become the inside, but such movements are normalized and can even be automated. Lines and spaces, moreover, are not the central concerns of sovereignty. “It is neither that the spaces of The Stack are enrolled into established systems or simply stamped with a new governing system of addresses all at one;” Bratton argues, “rather, an accumulation of interactions between layers in an emergent structure is producing the scale, dimension, and contours of this supercomputational geography in the first place” (27). Like computation itself, which is fundamentally concerned with looping, branching, and processing the algorithmic values entered into an interface, sovereign processes in The Stack are figured in interactions between layers, the accumulation of these interactions leading to more comprehensive structures, and the aggregation and sorting of such structures into newer and more abstract forms.
It is hard to overstate the importance or the difficulty of the scale of thinking proposed in The Stack. Bratton’s work is a pretty intimidating gauntlet thrown at the feet of design theorists, political scientists, digital humanists, media scholars, and really anyone concerned with honestly considering the consequences of computation and the strange new worlds and terrifying threats it has revealed. The typical conservative response to such challenges, at least for those of us in the humanities, has all-too-often been figured in reactionary attempts to reify a Vitruvian corpse who is clearly no longer the measure of all things. At worst, we’ve become cowards, frightened of the shadows of our own thinking. But as Bratton urges us in the book, we need to abandon this metaphysical nostalgia and design for what comes next. How do we survive in an emerging mechanosphere that clearly needs us much less than we need it? Questions like these posed in The Stack quickly accumulate, become bewildering and vertigo-inducing, and lead to further questions with no clear answers in sight. “[T]olerance for vertigo is an important attribute for designers of Stack governance,” Bratton says, and we should gather our courage, intellect, and balance to face the challenge." (http://www.rogerwhitson.net/?p=3501)
"Bratton starts by calling for new vocabulary, saying we lack the critical names for the situation of “planetary-scale computing,” an “accidental megastructure” we have built and which is in turn “building us in its image.” Throughout the book, Bratton reserves a derisive yet analytical tone for those who do not accept what he elsewhere calls “the new normal.” Because we have designed The Stack — the sum of the parts of the megastructure — we have no choice but to treat it as a question of “platform design.” The only way to grasp and intervene in the situation is to meet it conceptually and pragmatically at scale. What results is the most synoptic view of this topic I’m aware of.
It was Sterling who suggested the term “stack,” saying in an online forum in 2013 that it made less sense to talk about “the internet,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” than “to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft,” these “big five American vertically organized silos” which were “re-making the world in their image.” Stacks are the looming end of the emancipatory promise of cyberspace. Why these companies don’t just “buy the Republican Party” puzzled Sterling. Bratton has an answer: platforms are neither businesses nor governments, but instead a “third institutional form, along with states and markets.” Cyber-politics can’t be traced in the old forms of laying down law and state lines. (Bratton spends a lot of time rearranging Carl Schmitt’s theory of the nomos to this end.) For Sterling, stacks were replacing the smooth space of the internet. For Bratton, naming the whole thing The Stack is a way of seeing the totality in spite of the fragmentation. “Software” is almost too small a metaphor to capture the ambition of his book, although it is one of the most compelling contributions to the still young field of “software studies.” The Stack is a cosmology of platform capitalism.
The cosmology has six layers: Earth, Cloud, Address, City, Interface, and User. The six sections of the book that treat these entities are a masterful summary of recent media studies of all kinds, often with original insights added. The six layers build on one another progressively, describing the world of global platforms. The earth layer treats the planetary scale of information-processing and natural resources. Information and energy connect the networked earth with the digital cloud, and Bratton argues that computation is now threatening to destabilize energy resources at unprecedented scales. The asymmetry between information and energy consumption both allows the cloud to exist in the first place and also threatens to disperse it by destroying its earthy infrastructure. Analyzing the sixth version of the Internet Protocol (IPv6) and RFID, Bratton treats the “universal” addressability spreading through the world of things. “Deep address,” as he calls it, coincides with the industrial internet and bleeds back into what we used to see as “offline.” Bratton’s analysis is at its best here. The study of what things are (ontology) shifts with the rise of planetary-scale categorization. “Addresses” penetrate through the cloud back to the earth.
What is strange and new is also infrastructurally uneven. The city layer collects the computational stacks of the previous layers and centralizes them geographically. But this geography is at least half digital, as we see with the rise of putative “smart cities,” which retrofit the mess of the metropolis to the smooth facilitation of the platform. This hybrid urban space is made possible by the interface layer. Bratton expands the interface beyond the screen, casting it as a regime of images that coordinates “agents” in The Stack. The interface allows the address layer to govern the final layer, the user. But the user is not necessarily human. Instead, it is any agent that can initiate a “column” of computation in The Stack. These columns of pullulating data connect the layers, since their semantic content is complemented by metadata and “meta-metadata,” allowing a column to be isolated and visualized at the level of each layer. Bratton has successfully described a totality of computation, from click to globe. The Stack is a kind of meta-platform made up of other platforms. These platforms, he concludes, synthesize exchanges of every kind and package it as searchable data. It is this synthesis that forms a third (digital) estate with state and market. Google’s PageRank algorithm is anything but a tool or an information source: it is instead its own set of columns in The Stack producing a form that alters market and government alike. Facebook’s political irresponsibility fits this model perfectly. Cambridge Analytica may be an alt-right project, but we shouldn’t reduce it to old categories, because it isn’t clear, even if our legal systems punish the perpetrators, how we could stop another breach, which might not come in the same form. It’s not clear how we can pull out of The Stack, and for Bratton, it’s clear that we can’t.
The Stack threatens to become Cloud Feudalism, Bratton writes, singling out the post-failure state of cities like Detroit and Fresno. The Republican Party that Sterling’s Stacks haven’t bought out is pushing in this direction, Bratton argues. By leaving climate change untreated and untreatable, for example, they are actively creating conditions in which neo-feudalism can stabilize itself. To combat the various senile medievalisms currently ascending, Bratton suggests the left should avoid the “unfortunate knee-jerk antidigital technology politics.” The planetary design project he imagines (without, however, filling in much detail) must accept that information is not just “about” the world but in the world. Critique that tries to roll back two generations of digital creep is always already obsolete. This point is somewhat buried in a very long and extremely dense book, but it deserves to be highlighted. Bratton is among the few who are attempting to redescribe the “new normal” theoretically.
Because The Stack is “incipient,” as he puts it, its form is not yet crystallized, which means that this theory is semi-fictional — a form of science fiction or theory fiction. This tends to leave the ambition of the book in a strange middle space, attempting a description of something it doesn’t quite claim as real, something the book wants to redesign out of existence before it can become real. It’s as though the ambition to design at planetary scale prevents Bratton from fully committing to his parallel ambition to write the theory of the emerging future. What results is a fascinating but uncertain cosmos, filled with computational whorls and layered nodes, but lacking a principle that guides the vision. The Stack’s cosmology presents a picture without a law, a pre-Newtonian physics of the digital. But it remains singular as an attempt to write a theory for the present. It leaves the reader — intentionally, I think — in a no man’s land between present and future, forcing us to confront the concrete results of the planetary struggle between computation and atavistic categories like (non-Stack) “earth” or “human.” Bratton’s approach avoids either bemoaning or celebrating the demise of the old categories. The vision of the whole that results hovers between a theory and a policy recommendation. Its virtue is to suggest that these must be aligned, that no recommendation to regulate or collectivize or return to a previous style of selfhood or media governance will do. Bratton leaves us with an impossible but necessary task." (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/delete-your-account-on-the-theory-of-platform-capitalism/#!)
- bio page, http://www.bratton.info/