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In his work, Benjamin Bratton has developed the concept of “The Stack” as a way of understanding the layers of infrastructure that make up contemporary digital networks and systems. The stack refers to the various layers of hardware, software, protocols, and standards that make up these systems, and how they are interconnected and interdependent.

According to Bratton, the stack is a way of organizing and understanding the complex and often hidden systems that shape our lives. It includes both physical and virtual elements, and it is constantly evolving and changing as new technologies and innovations are developed.

The stack is not a neutral or objective system, but rather one that is shaped by the cultural, political, and economic forces that influence its development and use. As such, Bratton argues that it is important to examine and understand the stack in order to better understand the world that it shapes. Overall, the stack is a useful framework for thinking about the ways in which technology and infrastructure influence our lives and the world around us.

Bratton invites designers to approach the implications of the stack in their work by considering the complex interrelationships between technology, society, and the environment. With the stack he offers a new lens through which to view the world, one that emphasises the systemic nature of our digital infrastructure and the planetary-scale computation that underlies it.

Designers should also be mindful of the programmed world, which emphasizes the increasing automation and algorithmic decision-making that shape our daily lives. In short, designers must understand that their work is deeply implicated in the stack, and that it has a critical role to play in shaping the future of our digital infrastructure and the world at large. They must approach their work with a sense of responsibility and humility, recognising the complex and interdependent nature of our technological systems and the challenges they present.

A capitalist lenses into The Stack

Capitalist Infrastructure in the Stack: Within the Stack, capitalist infrastructure encompasses the layers of hardware, software, protocols and standards that facilitate the functioning of global systems. This infrastructure is deeply intertwined with political, economic and social systems, creating a complex web of interdependencies. The capitalist infrastructure, driven by profit-seeking motives, shapes the way information, resources, and power flow through the Stack, reinforcing capitalist dynamics and interests. It enables the concentration of wealth, facilitates the extraction of value from labor and resources and perpetuates social and economic inequalities.

Global Governance and Institutions in the Stack: The Stack operates within a framework of global governance and institutions that often reflect and serve the interests of powerful capitalist actors. These institutions, including international organizations, trade agreements and financial systems, play a crucial role in shaping and regulating global economic activities. However, they tend to reinforce the existing capitalist order, limiting the space for alternative economic models and approaches. Capitalist influence in these institutions creates a barrier for transformative change, as they prioritize profit-seeking and capitalist norms over social and environmental considerations.

Technological Dominance in the Stack: Capitalism leverages and shapes technological advancements within the Stack, leading to the dominance of certain technological platforms and systems. These technologies, controlled by powerful corporations, facilitate surveillance, data extraction, and market dominance. The integration of these technologies into various aspects of our lives strengthens capitalist structures by intensifying commodification, increasing productivity and facilitating the extraction of value. The dominance of capitalist-driven technologies within the Stack reinforces existing power structures, exacerbates inequalities and creates new forms of dependency.

Economic Interdependencies in the Stack: Capitalism generates intricate economic interdependencies that span across nations and regions within the Stack. These interdependencies are driven by capitalist logic, where the pursuit of profit and market exchange shapes global economic relationships. As countries become integrated into global supply chains and financial networks, they become increasingly reliant on capitalist systems and face challenges in deviating from established norms. Disruptions to trade, investments, or access to resources can have far-reaching consequences, reinforcing the interconnectedness and interdependence of capitalist economies.

Taking a critical and materialist perspective on these aspects of capitalism within the Stack allows us to question and challenge the underlying power structures and dynamics that perpetuate exploitation, inequality and environmental degradation. Understanding the influence of capitalist infrastructure, global governance, technological dominance, and economic interdependencies, helps us explore alternative models that prioritize social and environmental well-being over profit-seeking. This critical lens enables us to imagine and work towards a future where the Stack is reimagined and redesigned to serve the collective good rather than perpetuate capitalist interests.

Stack concepts for designers

  1. Planetary-scale computation: This concept highlights that digital technologies are no longer limited by geography or physical boundaries, but rather operate on a planetary scale. This means that they can have significant impacts on society and culture globally, and designers must consider these implications when creating digital products and experiences.
  2. The black stack: The black stack refers to the idea that the governance and regulation of the internet and its infrastructure are vertical rather than horizontal. This means that they are structured hierarchically and can be difficult to understand or influence for individuals and communities. Designers must be aware of the power dynamics within this system and consider how their work may impact them.
  3. The Programmed World: This concept highlights the increasing influence of digital technologies on society and culture. As more aspects of our lives become digitized, designers must consider the ethical implications of their work and how it may shape the world around us.
  4. The Vertical Interface: The vertical interface describes the way in which digital technologies are organized hierarchically, with different layers of software and hardware that interact to create complex systems. Designers must understand these layers and how they interact to create the digital experiences they design.
  5. The Deep Stack: This concept refers to the way in which digital technologies are becoming increasingly embedded in our daily lives, from smart homes to wearable technology. Designers must consider the ethical implications of these technologies and their potential impact on society and culture.
  6. The Planetary Computer: The planetary computer refers to the interconnected network of digital devices and systems that have the potential to function as a collective intelligence to govern the planet. Designers must consider how their work fits into this network and how it may impact the collective intelligence of the system.
  7. The Post-Anthropocene: This concept highlights the idea that digital technologies are creating new forms of life and intelligence that are beyond human control. Designers must consider the potential impact of their work on these new forms of life and intelligence, and how they may shape the future of humanity.