A comprehensive political and design theory of planetary-scale computation proposing that The Stack—an accidental megastructure—is both a technological apparatus and a model for a new geopolitical architecture.
What has planetary-scale computation done to our geopolitical realities? It takes different forms at different scales—from energy and mineral sourcing and subterranean cloud infrastructure to urban software and massive universal addressing systems; from interfaces drawn by the augmentation of the hand and eye to users identified by self—quantification and the arrival of legions of sensors, algorithms, and robots. Together, how do these distort and deform modern political geographies and produce new territories in their own image?
In The Stack, Benjamin Bratton proposes that these different genres of 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 called The Stack that is both a computational apparatus and a new governing architecture. We are inside The Stack and it is inside of us.
In an account that is both theoretical and technical, drawing on political philosophy, architectural theory, and software studies, Bratton explores six layers of The Stack: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, User. Each is mapped on its own terms and understood as a component within the larger whole built from hard and soft systems intermingling—not only computational forms but also social, human, and physical forces. This model, informed by the logic of the multilayered structure of protocol “stacks,” in which network technologies operate within a modular and vertical order, offers a comprehensive image of our emerging infrastructure and a platform for its ongoing reinvention.
The Stack is an interdisciplinary design brief for a new geopolitics that works with and for planetary-scale computation. Interweaving the continental, urban, and perceptual scales, it shows how we can better build, dwell within, communicate with, and govern our worlds.
Embassy Network Slack
The Embassy Network calls their Slack “An Accidental Megastructure”, based on this book, and here is their summary:
This is a reference to the amazing and verbose book “The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty”
The thesis of this tome is that today’s computing systems comprise a kind of global megastructure (‘the Stack’). The Stack is comprised of at least six layers or tiers: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, User.
As some generous soul summarizes for us:
- Earth entails the material and energy-harnessing geological demands of computing;
- Cloud names the weird sovereignty of corporatized, global technology services like Google;
- City addresses the lived experience of cloud-computerized daily life;
- Address deals with identification as a form of management and control;
- Interface with coupling users to computers;
- User with the human and nonhuman agents that interact with computational machines.
Bratton’s [the author] fundamental claim is that the Stack is replacing other forms of governance and sovereignty—and with great political consequence.
The Stack is an accidental megastructure. It is both a technological apparatus and a model for a new geopolitical architecture that challenges traditional ideas of nation-state centered sovereignty and develops a theory of geopolitics that accounts for sovereignty in terms of planetary-scale computation at various scales.
Its two core arguments are that planetary-scale computation “distorts and deforms traditional Westphalian logics of political geography” and creates new territories in its own image, and that different scales of computing technology can be understood as forming an “accidental megastructure” that resembles a multi-layer network architecture stack, what Bratton calls “The Stack”.
There was a quote that I found this morning to share in this post, and then immediately lost but it was along the lines of: Geographical borders are come undone. Now algorithms define & separate continents.
This Accidental Megastructure was born today.