The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
Making time this week for Benjamin Bratton’s new book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, where he tells us “…this book starts with the technologies themselves, abstracting from them a formal model that is general and comprehensive, but not complete or fixed. The model does not put technology “inside” a “society,” but sees a technological totality as the armature of the social itself. It does not focus on computation in the service of governance, or in resistance to governance, but rather on computation as governance.” He continues:
“…this book proposes a specific model for the design of political geography tuned to this era of planetary-scale computation. It works from the inside out, from technology to governing systems. As we link infrastructure at the continental scale, pervasive computing at the urban scale, and ambient interfaces at the perceptual scale, we will explore how these interweave and how we might build, dwell within, communicate between, and govern our worlds.”1
Looking forward to reading a chapter a day this week…
Already I’m a little bit skeptical with Bratton’s project. Why? He speaks of the Stack as “forming a coherent and interdependent whole”.1 Are we back to holism and totalistic systems of governance? Is Foucault behind the scenes, here? Megastructures, planetary-scale computing infrastructure – larger incipient global institutions and social systems? I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt? But this seems to be the sort of notion that could very well be coopted by Neoliberal Business and Global Governance systems just as easily as radical thought? Or, is that his intention? He hint’s in the prologue of policy influencing?
Here’s the excerpt:
Planetary-scale computation takes different forms at different scales—energy and mineral sourcing and grids; subterranean cloud infrastructure; urban software and public service privatization; massive universal addressing systems; interfaces drawn by the augmentation of the hand, of the eye, or dissolved into objects; users both over-outlined by self-quantification and also exploded by the arrival of legions of sensors, algorithms, and robots. Instead of seeing all of these as a hodgepodge of different species of computing, spinning out on their own at different scales and tempos, we should see them as forming a coherent and interdependent whole.
As the shape of political geography and the architecture of planetary-scale computation as a whole, The Stack is an accidental megastructure, one that we are building both deliberately and unwittingly and is in turn building us in its own image. While it names the organization of a planetary-scale computing infrastructure, my purpose is to leverage it toward a broader program for platform design. In the depiction of this incipient megastructure, we can see not just new machines but also still-embryonic geopolitical institutions and social systems as well.
In some ways Bratton’s work is building a new geocomputational architecture for mapping how globalism is fracturing the older forms of Sovereignty, and redesigning new forms to meet both the flow of information and peoples, work and play, etc. All the while developing a technics of ‘platform sovereignty’ situtated outside the older systems of Nation State, etc. Design as GeoComputational:
“The Stack model suggests both the means and ends of a specific kind of platform sovereignty. It demands that we understand the designability of geography in relation to the designability of computation and to see the state (and other sovereign institutions) in relation to both at once.”
Ok, I was correct, Foucault popped his head up as Bratton compares the platform geocomputational model with Foucault’s notions of “governmenatility”:
“Michel Foucault located “governmentality” more directly as the immanent discourses, techniques, and architectures that constitute the objectivity of the modern subject. For Foucault, the state, as such, is only one site of governance among many others and by no means the most central for understanding economies of power. Platforms are similar in this regard.”1
Similar, but different? Analogue? We continue… so in this way the Subject is external to the relations; not the older liberal subject, but rather the collective subject caught in the governing network of external relations of discourse, technics, and power, etc. Many have been questioning Foucault’s notions of Subject of late… I’ll need to trace this down and compare…
Bratton on the Platform Machine as State:
“The emergence of The Stack may represent this historical logic taken to an extreme new maturity. 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. Its agglomeration of computing machines into platform systems not only reflects, manages, and enforces forms of sovereignty; it also generates them in the first place.”1
This notion of the technical object as produce and producing in turn the very forms of governance as the oscillation between technics, poiesis, and the Stack as a GeoProcessing Information Platform of Governance. Equation of the Machine = State becomes the completed task of the earth as fully dominated by an information processing machinic entity or system. He uses the term ‘whole’, but this is sounding more like a totalized system of domination and tyranny.
Bratton sees the geocomputational device that is the World-as-Machine as a self-organizing entity for the production of intelligence, and not necessarily for the benefit of humans, but more likely has an agenda all its own and alien to the designs of human systems:
… unlike for Foucault’s archaeology, its [Machine] primary means and interests are not human discourse and human bodies but, rather, the calculation of all the world’s information and of the world itself as information. We, the humans, while included in this mix, are not necessarily its essential agents, and our well-being is not its primary goal. After billions of years of evolution, complicated heaps of carbon-based molecules (that includes us) have figured out some ways to subcontract intelligence to complicated heaps of silicon-based molecules (that includes our computers).1
I keep asking myself if he’s suddenly imposing a technological determinism and telos upon this Stack as Machine as GeoComputing Device? Is this nothing other than a totalizing system of governance across both human and non-human systems? What is Bratton constructing with this notion? And, I’ve only reached the end of the first section…
1. Benjamin H. Bratton. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Software Studies) (Kindle Locations 320-323). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.