The Black Stack

! ! !

Benjamin Bratton
My own interest on the geopolitics of planetary-scale computation - and more specifically, on how it distorts and deforms traditional Westphalian modes of political geography, jurisdiction and sovereignty, and produces new territories in its image -draws from Carl Schmitt’s later work on The nomos of the Earth, and his (albeit) flawed history of the geometries of geopolitical architectures. Nomos, refers to the dominant and essential logic for the political subdivisions of the earth (of land, seas and/or air, and now the domain that the USA military simply calls ‘cyber’) and for the geopolitical order that stabilizes these subdivisions accordingly. Today as the nomos of the horizontal loop geometry of the Modern states creaks and groans, and as ‘Seeing like a State’ takes leave of its initial territorial nest, both with and against the demands of planetary-scale computation.1 We wrestle with the chaotic delamination of (practical) sovereignty from the occupation of place, and the irregular abstractions of information, time, and territory. For this, a nomos of the Cloud would draw jurisdiction not only by the horizontal sub-division of physical sites –by and for States–, but also by the vertical stacking of interdependent layers on top: two geometries sometimes in cahoots, sometimes completely diagonal and unrecognizable to one another. XX
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Planetary-scale computation takes different forms at different scales: energy andmineral sourcing and grids; chthonic cloud infrastructure; urban software and public sservice privatization; massive universal addressing systems; interfaces drawn by the augmentation of the hand, of the eye, or dissolved into objects; users both overdetermined by self-quantification and exploded by the arrival of legions of non-human users, sensors, cars, robots. Instead of seeing the various species of contemporary computational technologies as so many different genres of machines, spinning out on their own, we should instead see them instead as forming the body of an accidental megastructure. Perhaps these align, layer by layer, into something not unlike a vast -if also incomplete-, pervasive -if also irregular-, software and hardware Stack. This model is of a Stack that both does and does not exist as such: it is a machine that serves as a schema, as much as it is a schema of machines. As such, the image of a totality that this conception provides would–as theories of totality have before– make the composition of new governmentalities and new sovereignties both more legible and more effective. ! ! The Stack, in short, is that new nomos of a vertically thickened political geography. There are

or the death metal stack. or the utterly opaque stack. a hyrbrid of USA superjurisdiction and the Charter Cities which would carve new partially privatized polities from the whole cloth of de-sovereigned lands. there is more than a stand-off between the proxies of two State apparatuses. the other a stacking of vertical layers. generalized succession.! The geographies at work are quite weird. one superimposed on top of the other at any point on the map.)The Black Stack. not by transgressing them but by absorbing them into their service offering. as well as by its dire inevitability. and by a strategy where what first appears to be the worst option. may ultimately be the place to look for the way out. It is not the platform we have but the platform that might be. Here. The complexities of jurisdiction suggested by a global Cloud piped in from non-State space are fantastic. Google ghost-writing books for the State Department. For example. rather than demonstrating each layer of The Stack as a whole.” This is a clash between two logics of governance. but they are less exceptional than exemplary of a new normal. the other a para-State. (that plus. plural and non-contiguous geographies. two geometries of territory. then is to The Stack what the shadow of the future is to the form of the present time.! The immediate geographical drama of the Cloud layer is seen perhaps most directly in the ongoing Sino-Google conflicts of 2008-present: China hacking Google. Address. NSA hacking China. defined at this moment by what is not. one a state. Less a “possible future" than an escape from the present. even recommended designs for these layers and for the totality (or better for the next totality. But perhaps there is more there. the nomos to come. Google filed a series of patents on offshore data centers. rather a fundamental conflict over the geometry of political geography itself. A platform defined by the productivity of accidents. to be built in international waters on towers using tidal currents and available water to keep their servers cool. and Google wordlessly circumventing the last instances of state oversight altogether. and more of a computational totality-to-come. NSA hacking Google. never resolving into some consensual cosmopolitanism but continuing to grind against the grain of each other’s plane. City. This characterizes the geopolitics of our moment. I’ll focus specifically on the Cloud and the User layers to articulate some possible futures. Chinese router firmware bides its time. one bound by the territorial integrity of the State and the other by the gossamer threads of the world’s information demanding to be “organized and made useful. Cloud. The Black Stack is less the anarchist stack. Between the People’s Liberation Army and Google. One a sub-division of the horizontal.six layers to this Stack: Earth. by the empty content fields of its framework. dense. Google pulling out of China. Interface and User. Cloud The platforms of the Cloud layer suggest weird. but the two .

I wouldn’t take that bet. etc. on attention. too dumb. the terms of participation are not mandatory and because of this their terms are more extractive. infrastructure. The Cloud Polis draws revenue from the cognitive capital of its Users. on movement. but one that raises the question of where to even start to locate the site of governance as such. in the long run. for good and ill.are interrelated). equals the State. we observe that new forms of governmentality arise through new capacities to tax flows (at ports. In the long-run that may still be the outcome. with modern liberal states. on carbon. on electrons. as it seems today. turning into para-State platforms and demonstrating new spatial and temporal models of politics and publics. and flagbrand loyalties. until nothing was left but a well-armed health insurance scheme with its own world cup team. or how deeply what we may now recognize as the surveillance state (USA. on property. For these platfroms. it’s clear that we don't have anything like a proper geopolitical theory of these transformations. component by component.) It is not at all clear whether. and where else should governance —meant as the most plastic and necessary sense of deliberate . which is better designed to tax the interfaces of everyday life? A false choice to be sure. more plain. What would we mean by “the public” if not that which is constituted by those interfaces.) will become a universal solvent of compulsory transparency and/or a cosmically-opaque megastructure of absolute paranoia. the Market and the Platform. at gates. taking their place next to ceremonial monarchs. it was thought by many that the Cloud was a place where States had no ultimate competence or maybe even a role to play: too slow. whether States will continue to evolve into Cloud platforms absorbing the displaced functions back into themselves. too easily outwitted by using the right browser. legal identity and standing. China. Before. not necessarily replaced but displaced and misplaced to one side. Despite all. whether both will split or rotate diagonally to one another. more was added to the intricate bargains of Leviathan: energy. equally brittle conclusion: that the Cloud is only the State. States would be cored out. potential) is intrinsically totalitarian. if not also replacing the traditional core function of States. the full-ambition of the USA security apparatus was. Looking toward The Black Stack. Bit by bit. or both. But now we hear the opposite. on income. Cloud platforms will overwhelm State control on other flows. Over the course of modernization. Between the State. etc. ! From here we see that contemporary Cloud platforms are displacing. and in turn it provides each of them with an active discrete online identity and the license to use its infrastructure. simply more useful and effective for daily life. not necessarily as formal replacement for the State versions but like Google ID. each of these and more are now provided by Cloud platforms. Archaic states drew authority from the regular provision of food. who trade attention and microeconomic compliance in exchange for global infrastructural services. credible currencies. That said. stripped of all but symbolic authority. on clicks. its totality (figural. objective and comprehensive maps.

and this is why QSelf is so popular with those enamored by an X-Men reading of Atlas Shrugged. the maximal state and the minimal state. Red Plenty and Google Gosplan. ! ! User One of the useful paradoxes of the User’s position as a political subject is the contradictory impulse directed simultaneously towards her artificial over-individuation and her ultimate pluralization. Platforms are a third form. but instead in the immanent. drawing the interfaces of everyday life into one another. and so on–the quality of everything that is ‘not him’ comes to overcode and overwhelm any notion of . the intensity and granularity of a new information mirror image convinces the User of his individuated coherency and stability as a subject.— live if not there? Not in some obtuse chain of parliamentary representation. At first. immediate. nor in some delusional monadic individual unit. the Quantified Self movement (in California more a medical theology) is haunted by this contradiction. He is flattered by the singular beauty of his reflection. nor in some sad little community consensus powered by moral hectoring. if not necessarily its form and formality. but positioned as Users within the platform. Where should sovereignty reside if not in what binds us and cleaves us. and to the outside’s impact on his person–the health of the microbial biome in his gut. subjects and mediations. it’s critical to underscore that Cloud platforms (including sometimes State apparatuses) are exactly that: platforms. ! As I see it. not derived from each of us individually but drawn by what is in-between us. immediate and long term environmental conditions. But as more data is added to the diagram that quantifies his interactions with the outside world. Not merely a short-hand for Cloud Feudalism (nor for the network politics of the multitude) but for the organization of durable alter-totalities commanding the force of law. In the platform-as-totality. the work of political theory (and of Design and Geopolitics) is to develop a proper history. if also disconcertingly omniscient grace. From this our own subjective enrollment is less as citizens of polis nor as homo economicus.composition of durable systems and conditions. For this. coordinating through fixed terms. and scattering freerange Users watched over in loving. For example. At once. Next to States and Markets. start to look weirdly similar. just as they decentralize (like markets) coordinating economies not through the superimposition of fixed plans but through interoperable interaction. his various epidemiological contexts. but also an institutional form. they centralize (like states) scaffolding the terms of participation according to rigid but universal protocols. etc. It is important as well to underscore that “platforms” are not only a technical architecture. with both participating differently in the geopolitics of transparency. exactly present interfaces that cleave and bind us. typology and program for platforms.

Developers of uProxy believe that it would take two simultaneous and synchronized man-in-the-middle attacks to hack the link. of Others. a sensor and a bot. At first. In principle any one of these sub-components not only could be part of multiple conjoined / positions.” because those Users. (Metadata. one can see how Google Ideas (Jared Cohen’s group) might take special interest in baking this into Chrome. but might not know or need to always know which meta-User they contribute to. are themselves. in theory some plural User subject. a whatever and a whatever. Consider. conjoined by a proxy link or other means. to send information unencumbered through the position of another User in another location (enjoying the Good Internets). between humans and non-humans. of States. proxy users. can sometimes also serve a psychological internalization of a now ascendant general economy of succession. including its oppositional modes.himself as a withdrawn and self-contained agent. The Oedipal discourse of privacy and transparency in relation to the evil eye of the uninvited step-father is a necessary process toward an alter-globalism . a human and a robot and a sensor. of self-immunization from any compulsory appearance in front of publics. the subject position of the User over-produces individual identity. The geopolitics of the User we have now is inadequate. Spoofing with honeypot identities. even if Google is not technically “in China. could be composed of two humans in different countries.) More disconcerting perhaps is that such a framework could just as easily be used to withdraw data from a paired site (a paired “user”) that for excellent reasons should be left alone. or both. For Sino-Google geopolitics. as we know. is perhaps another matter. a browser modification that lets users easily pair across distances to allow someone in one location (trapped in the Bad Internets). acting through and as foreign proxies. or a human and a sensor. and at population scale that should prove difficult even for the best Stateactors. Like Theseus’ Paradox. Now. but it has real limits worth spelling out. for example. the platform could theoretically be available at a billion user scale to those who live in China. the User is confronted with the existential lesson that at any point he is only the intersection of many streams. both in and not in China. any more than the microbial biome in your gut needs to know your name. castration anxiety-whatever—resulting in the pre-paranoia of withdrawal into an atomic and anomic dream of self-mastery that elsewhere we call the “neo-liberal subject. where after every component of a thing has been replaced nothing original remains but a metaphysical husk. but in the continuance of the same mechanisms. uProxy is a project supported by Google Ideas. Recalling the proxy servers set up during Arab Spring. A geopolitics of computation predicated at its core upon on the biopolitics of privacy. of platforms. for now. as far as the Internet geography is concerned. occupies a much larger horizon than one defined by these kinds of individuation. it then succeeds in exploding it.” The space where there discursive formation of the subject meets well as the technical constitution of the User as a singular or plural agent. is projected against the theoretical address .

Everyday interactions replay the Turing Test over and over: is there a person behind this. .space of IPv6. sense of autonomy. as –like Darwin’s tortoises finding their way to different Galapagos islands– the Cambrian explosion in robotics sees speciation occur in the wild. but given the schizophrenic economy of the User. and for another it defends against those demands on behalf of the illusory integrity of a self-identity fracturing around its existential core. From the perspective of the platform. even addressable mass-less relations between things. and the postulation of human (or even carbon-based life) as the threshold measure of intelligence and as the qualifying gauge of a political ethics. as Users. or some other massive universal addressing scheme. first over-individuated and then multiplied and de-differentiated. as Quantified Selves. the mask works to pluralize identity according to the subjective demands of the User position as composite alloy. etc. ! So while The Stack (and the Black Stack) stage The Death of User in one sense–the eclipse of a certain resolute Humanism. as SysAdmins of their own psyche. The neo-liberal subject position makes absurd demands on people. any of which could be a sub-User in this Internet of Haeccities. or because public identification threatens individual self-mastery. It is however fragile and inadequate. social unaccountability.they do so because they also bring the multiplication and proliferation of other kinds of non-human Users: sensors. two functions of the same mask. locations. financial algorithms. Is that User ‘Anonymous’ because he is dissolved into the multitude. and all of which one of us might enter into some relationship with as one part of a composite User. and with ‘us’ on their inside not on their outsides. participate in these pluralities includes real and fictional addressable persons. this really isn’t an unexpected or neurotic reaction at all. and if so how much? In time. paranoia and narcissism are two symptoms of the same disposition. As robotics and Cloud hardware of all scales blend into the same category of things. and from this. The quantity and range of “things” that could. For one function.? The former and the latter are two very different politics at work making use of the same masks. the answer will matter less. not just in the lab. This is where the recent shift by major Cloud platforms into robotics may prove especially vital. in principle. replaced by less anthropocentric frames of reference. partially autonomous or completely human-piloted synthetic intelligence. what looks like one is really many and what looks like many may only be one. Elaborate schizophrenias already take hold in our early negotiation of these composite User positions. ! ! ! The position of the User then maps only very incompletely onto any one individual body. objects. may seem like tasteless vestigial racism. it will be unclear in Human-Robotic Interaction whether one is encountering a fully autonomous. same software suite. robots from nanometric to landscape scale.

We may find.” they will say.and when is it not? Anytime that it generates information is it a User? If so. then the inverse Panopticon effect is one in which you know you are being watched but act as if you aren’t. If the panopticon effect is where you don’t know if you are being watched or not and so you behave as if you are. congealing into different networks demanding very different kinds of platform sovereignty. nor on parliamentary liberalism. withdrawn from coercion. there is no identity to deduce other than the pattern of interaction between partial actors.! . we also require a redefinition of the “political subject” in relation to the operations of the User.In the construction of Users. however pleasant in its cosmopolitan optimism. Exhibitionism in bad faith. now weaponized against us. versus the Google Caliphate. why not? If this throne is reserved for one species–humans– when is any one animal of that species being a User. but also its content. for example. reform and resist the Stack as it is currently configuring itself. This is today’s surveillance culture. becomes a much more complicated. ! In addition to a fortification of the User as a geopolitical subject.” “at least it is accountable in principle to some parliamentary limits. ! ! The Black Stacks I will conclude with some thoughts on The Stack-that-we-have and on the Black Stack–or generic figure for its alternative totalities. Instead . that the User position of the Stack actually has far less in common with the neo-liberal form that some of the oppositionalist formats for political subjectivity that hope (quite rightly) to challenge. rather than merely stockholder avarice and flimsy user agreements. Are all proxy composite users one User? Is anything with an IP address a User? If not. one that is based not on homo economicus . and for that reason alone may be a good place to start. The Stack we have is defined not only by its form: its layers and platforms and their interpolations. The emergence of stack platforms doesn’t promise any solution or even distinctions between friend and enemy. that policy would in practice criss-cross and trespass some of our most basic concepts of the Political. the NSA may even come to be seen —by some— as the “public option. this definition should focus on composing and elevating sites of governance from the immediate suturing interfacial material between subjects. nor on the will to secede into the moral safety of individual privacy. At some dark day in the future. Something like a Digital Bill of Rights for Users. As is now painfully clear its content is also the content of our daily communications. as the aggregation of metadata that both is and is not specific to any one entity. fragile and limited solution when the discrete identification of a User is both so heterogeneous and so fluid. in the stitches and the traces and the folds of interaction between bodies and things at a distance. perhaps ironically.

a library of the real. each of us rising back centuries from now. while the rest of the layers remain as a viable armature for global infrastructure. even from the deep recombinancy at and below the Earth layer. replacing . like scratching paint from the canvas. even if we could? Would we need signs around it like those designed for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site warning off unknowable future excavations? Those of us “lucky” enough to be alive during this 15 year span would enjoy a certain illegible immortality. curious to whatever meta-cognitive entity pieces us back together by our online activities. ! Its geophilosophical profile. For example. such that if we delete one. overwritten and overdetermined. that to add more is just so much ink onto the ocean. It could imply that from the ruined fragments of this history another coherent totality can be carved against the grain. but unlike replacing copper wire with fiber optics in the transmission layer of TCP/IP. The Stack is designed to be remade. The structural logic of The Stack allows for the replacement of whatever occupies one layer with something else. Would we bury it. Can it be destroyed? Is it possible to delete this simulation. encapsulation and digestion campaign. both public and private. City. Cloud. overflows the traditional politics of software. the Black Stack could come to mean very different things. by replacement. by carving away. could be replaced –including the masochistic hysterical fiction of the individual User. That is its technical form. the identical double of the simulation. the other will be forever haunting history until it is rediscovered by future AI archaeologists interested in their own paleolithic origins. On the one hand it would imply that this simulation is opaque and unmappable. Europe are sure to come to light in time) then we could imagine the real entirety of network communication for the last decade —the Big Haul— as a single deep and wide digital simulation of the world (or a significant section of it). Address. even as parallel projects from China. In light of this. not disappeared but that the whole thing is ultimately redacted. neo-liberal and neo-otherthings–. And it’s existence as the purloined property of a State. It is an archive. surely there must be a back-up as well. (one that we are only now beginning to comprehend. is almost occult. and for the rest of the architecture to continue to function without pause. by death. each of us a little Ozymandius of cat videos and Pornhub. Earth. the content of any one layer. Its fate is as well. Russia and yes. User. just as a physical fact. from the energy necessary to preserve it to its governing instrumentality understood both as a text (a very large text) and as a machine with various utilities. Its blackness is the surface of a world that can no longer be composed by addition because it is so absolutely full. Instead of tabula rasa this tabula plenus. allows for creativity and figuration only by subtraction. Its story is much more Borges than Lawrence Lessig.If we take 9/11 and the roll-out of the Patriot Act as Year Zero for the USA’s massive data gathering. Almost. proud and furtive. is it desirable to do so? Is there a trashcan big enough for the Big Delete? Even if the plug could be pulled on all future data hauls. Interface.

I will find. Stack into Black Stack. Here I mean to tie one thread to Scott’s connotation (how States see everything available to their schemes) and to a more Foucauldian sense of the actual optical technologies that conjure forms of governance in their own image. We should however. For some dramas.one kind of User with another is more difficult. but hopefully not for the fabrication of The Stack-to-come. Worse than being seen as an enemy is not being seen at all. allow also for more comprehensive displacements. ! 1 2 ! Citation from somewhere. The demand always made is that the sentient AI must care deeply about humanity. Global Catastrophic Risk. the carbon and energy appetite of this embryonic ecology will starve its host. as the subject and object of its knowing and its desire. ‘Being like a State’ (citation) for example. The nightmare. Black or otherwise. as described above. but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else. Its Accelerationist Geopolitics is. Today those privileges are also enjoyed by the hardware/software platforms which manufacture such optics and leverage them as the basis of their own exo-State governmental innovations. see also Latour’s lecture to the Queen of Netherlands. “the AI does not hate you. In time. drawn by this inhuman and inhumanist molecular cosmopolitanism: pre-cambrian flora changed into peat oil changed into children’s toys. (As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it.”)2 One of the integral accidents of The Stack may an anthrocidal trauma that shifts us from a design career as the authors of the Anthropocene to the role of supporting actors in the arrival of the Post-Anthropocene. a certain humanism and humanity still presumes its place in the center of the frame. but making way for genuinely posthuman and ahuman positions. nor does it love you. dinosaurs changed into birds changed into ceremonial headdresses. computation itself inverted into whatever meta-machine comes next. perhaps at the eclipse of the Anthropocene. I believe. us specifically. worse than that the big machine wants to kill you. is that it sees you as irrelevant or not even as a discrete thing to know about at all. the historical phase of “Google Gosplan” will give way to State-less platforms for multiple strata of synthetic intelligence and biocommunication to settle into new continents of cyborg symbiosis. The Black Stack may also be black because we cannot see our own reflection in it. . if nothing else. Or perhaps instead. " The reference is to James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (citation) but the term seems to have expanded and migrated beyond his anti-governmental thesis. not just by elevating things to the status of political subjects or technical agents. Today we are doing it by adding more and more different kinds of things into the User position. I think.