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.
Concepts from The Stack guiding designers
- Planetary-scale computation: This concept underscores that digital technologies transcend geographical and physical limitations, functioning on a global scale. This global reach means that the societal and cultural impacts of these technologies are widespread. Designers need to consider these far-reaching implications when developing digital products and experiences, recognizing their potential global influence.
- The black stack: This term refers to the complex, hierarchical structure of internet governance and its infrastructure. It implies that the control and regulation of the internet are not spread evenly but are instead concentrated in a vertical, layered hierarchy. This structure can be opaque and challenging for individuals and communities to navigate or influence. Designers should be mindful of these power dynamics and how their creations might interact with or affect them.
- The programmed world: This highlights the growing influence of digital technology on society and culture. As digitalization permeates more aspects of our lives, designers are tasked with considering the ethical dimensions of their work and its role in shaping the digital world.
- The vertical interface: This concept illustrates the hierarchical organization of digital technologies, characterized by various layers of software and hardware that interact within complex systems. Understanding these layers and their interplay is crucial for designers in crafting coherent and functional digital experiences.
- The deep stack: This idea delves into the increasing integration of digital technologies into everyday life, such as in smart homes and wearable tech. Designers need to contemplate the long-term ethical implications and societal impacts of these deeply embedded technologies.
- The planetary computer: This refers to the vast, interconnected network of digital devices and systems, collectively capable of functioning as a sort of global brain or collective intelligence. Designers should consider how their work contributes to this network and its potential effects on this collective intelligence and global governance.
- The post-Anthropocene: This concept suggests that digital technologies are ushering in new forms of life and intelligence that might elude human control or understanding. Designers must ponder the ramifications of their work on these emerging forms of intelligence and life, and how they might influence the future trajectory of humanity and technology.