Review of Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty

The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Benjamin Bratton. MIT Press, 2016. 528 pgs. $38 ISBN: 978-0-2620-2957-5

There’s a tone of urgency, a comprehensiveness, and a visionary quality to Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty that I haven’t read in contemporary media or political theory since Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s publication of Empire in 2000. Bratton’s work reads like a technological corrective to Hardt and Negri’s manifesto in ways that reveal how truly marginal humanities-centered political analysis has become in the subsequent 16 years. Yet, The Stack is not at all a response to Empire. Indeed, the work is never mentioned — though Hardt’s mentor, Friedric Jameson, appears several times. 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.

The Stack is ostensibly about design, although I admit that I had the most trouble understanding this part of the book. As someone who writes about media studies and the digital humanities — venturing only so far into design to understand works like Julian Bleeker’s “design fiction” and Donald Norman’s “reflective design — I have little context for understanding how Bratton’s background in design figures into the larger arguments of the book. Catch-terms for design abound in the more enthusiastic parts of my field: so called “design thinking” claims that we should apply the cognitive insights of design to our scholarship and our teaching; while scholars in rhetoric and composition show how visual design is just as rhetorical and just as political as other modalities of communication. I mention these touchstones to show how much Bratton’s work complicates their assumptions about the role of design in critical inquiry. Who or what designs The Stack? To what degree can design intervene in the computational processes that are resituating human beings into a much larger and more complex political system? Is this book describing a process or is it designing that process? Or is it doing something else completely? I never fully received answers to these questions, and perhaps that is Bratton’s point. “All that is solid doesn’t melt so much as it becomes fuzzy and spastic,” Bratton says, and there’s a necessarily abstract and provisional part of the book that sometimes made me confused for pages at a time (210).

Still, that’s to be expected of 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.

Layers of Bratton's StackLayers of Bratton’s Stack.

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.

Earth: 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: 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.

City: 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).

Address: 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.

Interface: 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?

User: 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.

Google Car PrototypeGoogle Car Prototype

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 (287).

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