Arts & DesignLetters

The Stack to Come

On Benjamin Bratton's The Stack

What I like most about Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2015) is firstly its close attention to what I would call the forces and relations of production. We really need to know how the world is made right now if it is ever to be remade. Secondly, I appreciate his playful use of language as a way of freeing us from the prison-house of dead concepts. It is no longer enough to talk of neoliberalism, precarity or biopower. What were once concepts that allowed access to new information have become habits. Thirdly, while no friend to bourgeois romantic anti-tech humanism, Bratton has far more sense of the reality of the Anthropocene than today’s accelerationist thinkers. Bratton: “We experience a crisis of ‘ongoingness’ that is both the cause and effect of our species’ inability to pay its ecological and financial debts.” (303)

The category of thing that Bratton studies looks a bit like what others call the forces and relations of production, or infrastructure, but is better thought of as platforms. They are standards-based technical and social systems with distributed interfaces that enable remote coordination of information and action. They are both organizational and technical forms that allow complexity to emerge. They are hybrids not well suited to sociology or computer science. They support markets, but can or could enable non-market forms as well. They are also about governance, and as such resemble states. They enable a range of actions and are to some extent reprogrammable to enable still more.

Platforms offer a kind of generic universality, open to human and non-human users. They generate user identities whether the users want them or not. They link actors, information, events across times and spaces, across scales and temporalities. They also have a distinctive political economy: they exist to the extent that they generate a platform surplus, where the value of the user information for the platform is greater than the cost of providing the platform to those users. Not everything is treated as a commodity. Platforms treat some, often a lot, of information as free, and can rely on gift as much as commodity economies.

Bratton’s particular interest is in stack platforms. The metaphor of the stack comes from computation, where it has several meanings. For example, a solution stack is a set of software components layered on top of each other to form a platform for the running of particular software applications without any additional components. All stacks are platforms, but not all platforms are stacks. A stack platform has relatively autonomous layers, each of which has its own organizational form. In a stack, a user might make a query or command, which will tunnel down from layer to layer within the stack, and then the result will pass back up through the layers to the user.

Bratton expands this metaphor of the stack to planetary scale. The world we live in appears as an “accidental megastructure” made up of competing and colluding stacks. (5) Computation is planetary-scale infrastructure that transforms what governance might mean. “The continuing emergence of planetary-scale computation as meta-infrastructure and of information as an historical agent of economic and geographic command together suggest that something fundamental has shifted off-center.” (3)

The stack generates its own kind of geopolitics, one less about competing territorialities and more about competing totalities. One made up of enclaves and diasporas. It both perforates and hardens borders. It may even enable “alien cosmopolitanisms.” (5) It’s a “crisis of the Westphalian geographic design.” (7) “It is not the ‘state as a machine’ (Weber) or the ‘state machine’ (Althusser) or really even (only) the technologies of governance (Foucault) as much as it is the machine as the state.” (8)

Bratton follows Paul Virilio in imagining that any technology produces its own novel kind of accident. A thought he makes reversible: accidents produce technologies too. Take, for example, the First Sino-Google War of 2009, when two kinds of stack spatial form collided: Google’s transnational stack and the Great Firewall of China. This accident then set of a host of technical strategy on both sides to maintain geopolitical power. Perhaps the stack has a new kind of sovereignty, one that delaminates geography, governances and territory.

In place of Carl Schmitt’s nomos of the earth, Bratton proposes a nomos of the cloud, as in cloud computation, which as we shall see is a crucial layer of the stack. Nomos here means a primary rule or division of territory, from which others stem. Unlike in Brown and other theorists of neoliberalism, Bratton thinks sovereignty has not moved from state to market but to the stack. Schmitt championed a politics of land, people and idea versus liberal internationalism, an idea revived in a more critical vein by Mouffe. But perhaps where sovereignty now lies is in a form that is really neither and on which both depend, a stack platform sovereignty and its “automation of the exception.” (33)

One could read Bratton as a very contemporary approach to the old Marxist methodology of paying close attention to the forces of production. “…an understanding of the ongoing emergence of planetary-scale computing cannot be understood as a secondary technological expression of capitalist economics. The economic history of the second half of the twentieth century is largely unthinkable without computational infrastructure and superstructure…. Instead of locating global computation as a manifestation of an economic condition, the inverse may be equally valid. From this perspective, so much of what is referred to as neoliberalism are interlocking political-economic conditions within the encompassing armature of planetary computation.” (56)

The stack could have been the form for the global commons, but instead became an “an invasive machinic species.” (35) “Sovereignty is not just made about infrastructural lines; it is made by infrastructural lines.” (35) Code becomes a kind of law. “This is its bargain: no more innocent outside, now only theoretically recombinant inside…. The state takes on the armature of a machine because the machine, The Stack, has already taken on the roles and register of the state.” (38, 40)

Bratton: “Will the platform efficiencies of The Stack provide the lightness necessary for a new subtractive modernity, an engine of a sustainable counter-industrialization, or will its appetite finally suck everything into its collapsing cores of data centers buried under mountains: the last race, the climate itself the last enemy?” (12) However, “It may be that our predicament is that we cannot design the next political geography or planetary computation until it is more fully designs us in its own image or, in other words, that the critical dependence of the future’s futurity is that we are not yet available for it!” (15)

Bratton’s conceptual object is not just the actually existing stack, but all of its possible variants, including highly speculative ones such as Constant’s New Babylon, and actual but failed or curtailed ones, such as Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn, Ken Sakamura’s TRON, the Soviet Internet and Soviet cybernetics. The actual stack includes such successful technical developments as TCP/IP. This protocol was the basis for a modular and distributed stack that could accommodate unplanned development. It was about packets of information rather than circuits of transmission; about smart edges around a dumb network. TCP/IP was authored as a scalable set of standards.

Bratton thinks infrastructure as a stack platform with six layers, treated in this order: earth, cloud, city, address, interface, user. I think of it more as the four middle layers, which produce the appearance of the user and the earth at either end. I will also reverse the order of Bratton’s treatment, and start with the phenomenology of the user, which is where we all actually come to experience ourselves in relation to the stack.

User layer:  A user is a category of agent, a position within a system that gives it a role. We like to think we are in charge, but we might be more like the Apollo astronauts, “human hood ornaments.” (251) Its an illusion of control. The more the human is disassembled into what Lazzarato and Raunig and others think of as dividual drives, the more special humans want to feel. “In this, the User layer of The Stack is not where the rest of the layers are mastered by some sovereign consciousness; it is merely where their effects are coherently personified.” (252)

For a long time, design thought about the user as a stylized persona. As Melissa Gregg and others have showed, the scientific measurement of labor produced normative and ideal personas of the human body and subjectivity. The same could be said for audience studies. Fordism was an era of the design of labor process and leisure-time media for fictional people. But these personas are no longer needed. As Azuma shows, the stack does not need narrative fictions of and for ideal users but database fictions that aggregate empirical ones.

The stack not only gives but takes data from its users. “User is a position not only through which we see The Stack, but also through which The Stack sees us.” (256) This is the cause of considerable discomfort among users who reactively redraw the boundaries around a certain idea of the human. Bratton is not sympathetic: “… anthropocentric humanism is not a natural reality into which we must awake from the slumber of machinic alienation; rather it is itself a symptomatic structure powered by – among other things – a gnostic mistrust of matter, narcissistic self-dramatization, and indefensibly pre-Copernican programs for design.” (256)

Bratton is more interested in users who go the other way, such as the quantified-self people, who want self-mastery through increasingly detailed self-monitoring of the body by the machine. In Lazzarato’s terms, they are a people who desire their own machinic enslavement. Bratton thinks it is a bit more nuanced than that. There may still be a tension between the cosmopolitan utopias of users and their molding into data-nodes of consumption and labor. The user “To be sure, the bio-geo-politics of all this are ambiguous, amazing, paradoxical, and weird.” (269)

The stack does not care if a user like you is human or not. Bratton is keen to oppose the anthropomorphizing of the machine: “we must save the nonhumans from being merely humans” (274) Making the inhuman of the machine too like the merely human shuts out the great outdoors of the nonhuman world beyond.  “We need to ensure that AI agents quickly evolve beyond the current status of sycophantic insects, because seeing and handling the world through that menial lens makes us, in turn, even more senseless.” (278) As one learns from Mbembe, commandment that does not confront an other with its own autonomous will quickly loses itself in ever more hyperbolic attempts to construct a sense of agency, will and desire.

Debate about user ‘rights’ has been limited to the human, and limited to a view of the human merely as endowed with property and privacy rights. Rather like Lefebvre’s right to the city, one needs a right to the stack that includes those without property. One could even question the need to think about information and its infrastructures in property terms at all. Bratton is not keen on the discourse of oedipal fears about the bad stepfather spying on us, resulting in users wanting no part in the public, but to live a private life of self-mastery, paranoia and narcissism.  “The real nightmare, worse than the one in which the Big Machine wants to kills you, is the one in which it sees you as irrelevant, or not even a discrete thing to know.” (364) Maybe the user could be more rather than less than the neoliberal subject. The stack need not see us as users. To some extent it is an accommodation to cultural habits rather than a technical necessity.

Interface layer: If one took the long view, one could say that the human hand is already an interface shaped over millennia by tools. That ancient interface now touches very new ones. The interface layer mediates between users and the technical layers below. Interface connects and disconnects; telescopes, compresses or expands layers – routing user actions through columns that burrow up and down through the stack. The Stack turns tech into images and images into tech. “Once an image can be used to control what it represents, it too becomes technology: diagram plus computation equals interface.” (220)

Interfaces are persuasive and rhetorical, nodes among the urban flow. “What is open for me may be closed for you, and so our vectors are made divergent.” (222) Interfaces offer a kind of protocol, or generic threshold. We probe our interfacial condition, being trained through repetition. From the point of view of the interfae layer, users are peripheral units of stacks. Or user: one could think the Apple stack, for example, as creating a single distributed user for the “Apple experience.”

Kittler thought media as looping the subject into three separate interfaces: cinema (the imaginary), typewriter (the symbolic) and phonograph (the real). Bratton thinks the interface as producing a more schizoid landscape. “The machinic image is qualified by many little sinkholes between the symbolic, the imaginary and the real, and at a global scale of billions of Users…” (225)

Interfaces change not only the form of the subject but the form of labor. “Today, at the withering end of post-Fordism… we observe logistics shifting from the spatially contiguous assembly line to the radically dis-contiguous assemblage line linked internally through a specific interfacial chain. Contemporary logistics dis-embeds production of things from particular sites and scatters it according to the synchronization and global variance in labor price and resource access….” (231)

Interfaces also become more powerful forms of governance over the flows they represent. They have to appear as the remedy for the chaotic flows they themselves cause. Their reductive maps become true through use. They may also be the icons of weird forms of experimental religion, or ways of binding. They can notate the world with friend/enemy borders. The example here is the popular game Ingress, with its ludic Manicheanism, in which users are trained to attack and defend non-existent territories. Fanon once noted that when French colonial power jammed the radio broadcasts of the resistance, Algerians would leave the radio dial on the jammed signal, the noise standing in for it. Bratton wonders how one might update the gesture. Like Gilroy and Karatani in their different ways, Bratton wonders what kinds of universality could emerge, in this case as a kind of abstraction from of interfacial particularities and their “synthetic diagrammatic total images.” (297)

However, as Bratton realizes, “We fear a militarization of cognition itself… Enrollment and motivation according to the interfacial closures of a political theological totality might work by ludic sequences for human Users or by competitive algorithmic ecologies for nonhuman Users.” (297) Both human and nonhuman cognition could be assimilated to stack war machines. Or perhaps, one could remake both human and inhuman users into a new kind of polity, in part through interfaces of a different design. “A strong interfacial regime prefigures a platform architecture built of total interfacial images and does so through the repetition of use that coheres a durable polity in resemblance to the model.” (339)

Address layer: Address is a formal system, independent of what it addresses, that denotates singular things through bifurcators such as names or numbers, that can be resolved by a table for routing. Addressing creates generic subjectivity, so why not then also generic citizenship? Address can however give rise to something like fetishism. In Bratton’s novel reading of Marx, capitalism obfuscates the address of labor, treating it as a thing and addressing things in labor’s place as if those things had magical properties.

If we are all users (we humans and inhumans) then a right to the stack is also a right to address, as only that which has an address can be the subject of rights in the “virtual geographic order” of a stack geopolitics. (191) Address is no longer just a matter of discrete locations in a topography. As I put it in Gamer Theory, space is now a topology, which can be folded, stretched and twisted. As Galloway has already shown, the distributed network of TTP/IP is doubled by the centralized of DNS, which records who or what is at which address.

Bratton’s interest is in what he calls deep address, modeled on the intertextuality or détournement one sees in the archive of texts, or the architectural thought of Christopher Alexander for whom building was about containers and conveyors for information. Address designates a place for things and enables relations between things; deep address designates also the relations, and then the relations among those relations. Deep address is to address as a derivative is to a contract. Its endless metadata: about objects, then metadata about the metadata about those objects, and so on.

The financialization of addressability may also be a kind of fetishism, mistaking the metadata about a relation for a relation. Deep address as currently implemented makes everything appear to a user configured as a uniquely addressed subject who calls up the earth through the stack as if it were only a field of addressable resources. Hence, “not only is the totality of The Stack itself deeply unstable, it’s not clear that its abyssal scope of addressability and its platform for the proliferation of near-infinite signifiers within a mutable finite space are actually correspondent with the current version of Anthropocenic capitalism.” (213)

However, deep address has become an inhuman affair. Not only are most users not subjects, so too most of what is addressed may not even be objects. Deep address generates its own accidents. Maybe it is headed toward heat death, or maybe toward some third nature – deep address may outlive the stack. Bratton: “we have no idea how to govern in this context.” (213)

City layer: Beneath the address layer is still the old-fashioned topography it once addressed – the city. Only the city now looks more like Archizoom’s No-Stop City than the static geometries of Le Corbusier. In the city layer absorbed into the stack, mobilization is prior to settlement, and the city is a platform for sorting users in transit. As Virilio noted some time ago, the airport is not only the interface but also the model of the overexposed city.

Like something out of a Ballard story, the city layer is one continuous planetary city. It has a doubled structure. For every shiny metropolis there’s an anti-city of warehouses and waste dumps. The stack subsumes cities into a common platform for labor, energy and information. Proximity still has value, and the economy of the city layer depends on extracting rents from it. Here one might add that the oldest form of ruling class – the rentier class – has found a future not (or not just) in monopolizing that land which yields energy (from farms and mines) but also that which yields information – the city.

Cities are platforms for users rather than polities for citizens. And as Easterling might concur, their form is shaped more by McKinsey or Haliburton than by architects or planners. Architecture becomes at best interface design, where cement meets computation. It is now a laminating discipline, creating means of stabilizing networks, managing access, styling interfaces, mixing envelopes. Cities are to be accessed via mobile phone, which afford parameters of access, improvisation, syncopation.

The ruin our civilization is leaving does not look like the pyramids. It’s a planet wrapped in fiber optic. But perhaps it could be otherwise. “Our planet itself is already the mega-structural totality in which the program of total design might work. The real design problem then is not foremost the authorship of a new envelope visible from space, but the redesign of the program that reorganizes the total apparatus of the built interior into which we are already thrown together.” (182)

Ironically, today’s pharaohs are building headquarters that simulate old forms, be it Google’s campus, Amazon’s downtown or Apple’s weird spaceship. They all deny their spatial doubles, whether its Foxconn where Apple’s phones are made or Amazon’s “logistics plantations.” (185) But it is hard to know what a critical practice might be that can intervene now that cities are layers of stacks platforms, where each layer has its own architectural form. “Is Situationist cut-and-paste psychogeography reborn or smashed to bits by Minecraft?” (180) Bratton doesn’t say, but it at least nicely frame the kind of question one might now need to ask.

Cloud layer: Low in the stack, below the city layer, is the cloud. It could be dated form the development of Unix time-sharing protocols in the 1970s, from which stems the idea of users at remote terminals sharing access to the same computational power. The cloud may indeed be a kind of power. “As the governing nexus of The Stack, this order identifies, produces and polices the information that can move up and down, layer to layer, fixing internal and external borders and designating passages to and from.” (111)

It may also be a layer that gives rise to unique kinds of conflict, like the First Sino-Google War of 2009, where two stacks, built on different kinds of cloud with different logics of territory and different imagined communities of user collided. That may be a signal moment in an emerging kind of geopolitics that happens when stacks turn the old topography into a topology.  “The rights and conditions of citizenship that were to whatever degree guaranteed by the linking of information, jurisdiction and physical location, all within the interior view of the state, now give way perhaps to the riskier prospects of a Google Grossraum, in which and for which the terms of ultimate political constitution are anything but understood.” (114)

The cloud layer is a kind of terraforming project – here on earth. Clouds are built onto, or bypass, internet. They form a single big discontinuous computer. They take over functions of the state, cartography being just one example. There are many kinds of clouds, however, built into quite different models of the stack, each with their own protocols of interaction with other layers. Google, Apple and Amazon are stacks with distinctive cloud layers, but so too are WalMart, UPS and the Pentagon.

Some cloud types: Facebook, which runs on the captured user graph. It is a rentier of affective life offering a semi-random newspaper and cinema, strung together on unpaid nonlabor, recognition and social debit. Then there’s Apple, who took over closed experience design from Disney, and offer brand as content. As a theology, Apple is an enclave aesthetic about self-realization in a centralized market. It’s a rentier of the last millimeter of interface to its walled garden.

On the other hand, Amazon is an agora of objects rather than subjects, featuring supply chain compression, running on its own addressing system, with algorithmic pricing and micro-targeting. But even Amazon lacks Google’s universal ambition and cosmopolitan mission, as if the company merely channeled an inevitable quant reason. It is a corporation founded on an algorithm, fed by universal information liquidity, which presents itself as neutral platform for humans and inhumans, offering ‘free’ cloud services in exchange for information. “Google Großraum delaminates polity from territory and reglues it into various unblendable sublayers, weaving decentralized supercomputing through increasingly proprietary networks to hundreds of billions of device end-points.” (295)

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.” (137) 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.

Bratton: “The Cloud polis draws revenue from the cognitive capital of its Users, who trade attention and micro-economic compliance in exchange for global infrastructural services, and it in turn provides each of them with an active, discrete online identity and the license to use that infrastructure.” (295) Maybe this is “algorithmic capitalism” – or maybe (as I argue) it’s not capitalism any more, but something worse. (81) Something Bratton’s innovations in conceptual language help us perceive, but which could be pushed still further.

The current cloud powers all built out accidental advantages or contingent decisions. Not without a lot of help from human users, whose unpaid non-labor provides the feedback for their constant optimization. We are all guinea pigs in an experiment of the cloud’s design. But Bratton is resistant to any dystopian or teleological read on this. The cloud layer was the product of accident as much as design; conflict as much as collaboration. Still, there’s something unsettling about the prospect of the nomos of the cloud. Bratton: “The camp and the bunker, detention and enclave, are inversions of the same architecture.” (368) The nomos of the cloud can switch between. It is yet to be seen what other topological forms it might enable.

Earth layer: Was computation discovered or invented? Now that the stack produces us as users who see the earth through the stack, we are inclined to substitute from our experience of working and playing with the stack onto the earth itself. It starts to look like a computer, maybe a first computer, from which the second one of the stack is derived. But while earth and stack may look formally similar they are not ontological identical. Or, as I speculated in A Hacker Manifesto, the forces of production as they now stand both reveal and create an ontology of information that is both historical and yet ontologically real.

Bratton: “The Stack is a hungry machine…” (82) It sucks in vast amounts of earth in many forms. Everyone has some Africa in their pocket now – even many Africans, although one should not ignore asymmetries in where extractions from the earth happen and where the users who get to do the extracting happen. Bratton: “… there is no Stack without a vast immolation and involution of the Earth’s mineral cavities. The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones…. How unfamiliar could its flux and churn be from what it is now? At the radical end of contingency, what is the ultimate recomposability of such materials? The answer may depend on how well we can collaborate with synthetic algorithmic intelligence to model the world differently…” (83)

The stack terraforms the earth, according to a seemingly logical but haphazard geodesign – rather like the aesthetics of Superstudio. “As a landscaping machine, The Stack combs and twists settled areas into freshly churned ground, enumerating input and output points and re-rendering them as glassy planes of pure logistics. It wraps the globe in wires, making it into a knotty, incomplete ball of glass and copper twine, and also activating the electro-magnetic spectrum overhead as another drawing medium, making it visible and interactive, limning the sky with colorful blinking aeroglyphs.” (87)

Particularly where the earth is concerned, “Computation is training governance to see the world like it does and to be blind like it is.” (90) But the stack lacks a bio-informational skin that might connect ecological observation to the questioning of resource management. Running the stack now puts more carbon into the atmosphere that the airline industry. If it as a state it would be the fifth largest energy suck on the planet.  “Even if all goes well, the emergent mega-infrastructure of The Stack is, as a whole, perhaps the hungriest thing in the world, and the consequences of its realization may destroy its own foundation.” (94)

Hence the big question for Bratton becomes:  “Can The Stack be built fast enough to save us from the costs of building The Stack?” (96) Can it host computational governance of ecologies? “Sensing begets sovereignty,” as I showed in Molecular Red in the case of weather and climate. (97) But could it result in new jurisdictions for action? Hence, “we must be honest in seeing that accommodating emergency is also how a perhaps illegitimate state of exception is stabilized and over time normalized.” (103)  Because so far “there is no one governance format for climates and electrons that the space for design is open at all.” (104)

Bratton is reluctant to invite everything into Bruno Latour’s parliament of things, as this to him is a coercing of the nonhuman and inhuman into mimicking old-fashioned liberalism. But making the planet an enemy won’t end well for most of its inhabitants. Which brings us to the problem of the stack to come, and Bratton’s novel attempt to write in the blur between what is here but not named and what is named but not really here. Bratton: “Reactionary analog aesthetics and patriotisms, Emersonian withdrawal, and deconstructionist political theology buy us less time and far less wiggle room than they promise….” (81)

What provides the interesting angle of view in Bratton is thinking geopolitics as a design problem. “We need a geopolitics of design that is comfortable not only with computation but also with vertical systems of designation and decision.” (xix) But this is not your usual design problem thinking. “The more difficult assignment for design is to compose relations within a framework that exceeds both the conventional appearance of forms and the provisional human context at hand, and so pursuing instead less the materialization of abstract ideas into real things than the redirection of real relations through a new diagram.” (210)

Designing the stack to come, like any good design studio, does try to start with what is at hand. “Part of the design question then has to do with interpreting the status of the image of the world that is created by that second computer, as well as that mechanism’s own image of itself, and the way that it governs the planet by governing its model of that planet.” (301)

This is not a program of cybernetic closure, but rather of “enabling the world to declare itself as data tectonics…. Can the ‘second planetary computer’ create worlds and images of worlds that take on the force of law (if not its formality) and effectively exclude worse alternatives?” (302) It might start with “a smearing of the planet’s surface with an objective computational film that would construct a stream of information about the performance of our shared socio-natural spaces…” (301)

Contra Latour, but also Haraway and Tsing, for Bratton there is no local, only the global. We’re users stuck with a stack that resulted from “inadvertent geoengineering.” (306) But the design prospect is not to perfect or complete it, but to refashion it to endure its own accidents and support a range of experiments in rebuilding: “the geo-design I would endorse doesn’t see dissensus as an exception.” (306)

It’s not a romantic vision of a return to an earth before the stack. Bratton: “… the design of food platforms as less about preserving the experiential simulation of preindustrial farming and eating… and more like molecular gastronomy at landscape scale.” (306) But it is not a naïve techno-utopianism either. While I don’t think it’s a good name, Bratton is well aware of what he calls cloud feudalism, which uses the stack to distribute power and vale upwards. And it is fully aware that the “militarized luxury urbanism” of today’s vectorialist class depends on super-exploitation of labor and resources. (311) At least one novel observation here however is that the stack can have different governance forms at each level. The stack is not one infrastructure, but a laminating of relatively autonomous layers.

Here one might look sideways in a media archaeology vein at other forms of stack that fell by the wayside, from Bogdanov to the attempt to computerize the Soviet Gosplan – which as Bratton notes does not look completely unlike what Google actually achieved. Hayek may have been right in his time that state planning could not manage information better than a market. But maybe neither could manage information as well as a properly designed stack platform. Perhaps, as some Marxists once held, the capitalist ruling class (and then the vectoralist ruling class), perfected the forces of production that make them obsolete. Perhaps in the liminal space of the stack to come one can perceive technical-social forms that get past both the socialist and capitalist pricing problems.

Bratton: “We allow, to the pronounced consternation of both socialist and capitalist realists, that some polypaternal supercomputational descendant of Google Gosplan might provide a mechanism of projection, response, optimization, automation, not to mention valuation and accounting beholden neither to market idiocracy nor dim bureaucratic inertia, but to the appetite and expression of a curated algorithmic phyla and its motivated Users.” (333) Perhaps there’s a way planning could work again, using deep address, but from the edges rather than the center.

This might mean however an exit from a certain residual humanism: “the world may become an increasingly alien environment in which the privileged position of everyday human intelligence is shifted off-center.” (338) perhaps it’s not relevant whether artificial cognition could pass a Turing test, and is more interesting when it doesn’t. Here Bratton gestures towards the post-human accelerationism of Negarastani and Brassier, but with far more sense of the constraints now involved. “The Anthropocene should represent a shift in our worldview, one fatal to many of the humanities’ internal monologues.” (353)

Bratton: “The Stack becomes our dakhma.” (354) Perhaps a dakhma like the raised platform built by the Zoroastrians for excarnation, where the dead are exposed to the birds. To build stack to come we have to imagine it in ruins: “design for the next Stack… must work with both the positive assembly of matter in the void, on the plane and in the world, and also with the negative maneuver of information as the world, from its form and through its air.” (358)

To think about, and design, the stack to come, means thinking within the space of what Bratton calls the black stack, which is a “generic profile of its alternative totalities” (363) It might look more like something out of Borges than out of the oracular pronouncements of Peter Theil or Elon Musk. Bratton: “Could this aggregate ‘city’ wrapping the planet serve as the condition, the grounded legitimate referent, form which another, more plasmic, universal suffrage can be derived and designed?” (10) Let’s find out.


McKenzie Wark

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