Planetary Computing


I am meeting with some fellows this week and we are discussing Benjamin Bratton’s Black Stack article in eflux.  So what the heck is going on here.

I’ll give you my (mis)interpretation.

We are transforming from being influenced (or controlled) or shaped by the Stack to the Black Stack.

In my analysis, there are six layers to this Stack: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User….The Black Stack, then, is to the Stack what the shadow of the future is to the form of the present.

Where traditional nation states had physical domains of control (the sea, the air), cyberspace does not divide into these topologies.  Cyberspace, the realm of the stack is vertical, with interchangeable pieces for each layer. This is what Bratton probably means when he calls the stack a schema.

But along with the stack, there comes another entity – the black stack. These are the unintended consequences of the stack. Perhaps it could refer to the unintended consequences of all dynamic system. But for now lets just say it is the stack. What is the unintended consequence of the nation state? Probably the state of exception.  That would be the black state, where the citizen is reduced to bare life.

What is the black stack? In Jungian psychology we talk about the shadow.  This refers to  all the issues that an individual’s ego has not integrated into their conscious mind.

The Black Stack is less the anarchist stack, or the death-metal stack, or the utterly opaque stack, than the computational totality-to-come, defined at this moment by what it is not, by the empty content fields of its framework, and by its dire inevitability. It is not the platform we have, but the platform that might be.

So at first we had to deal with the direct implications of the stack, and now we have to deal with the black stack, consequences of the stack that we did not plan and perhaps cannot understand and debug.

For the stack we have the cloud and the user – these are just two layers of the stack. And like the thought of Ken Wilber, one contains the other in some respect.  The cloud is related to the nation state (or laws), the user, to the citizen. When I was in college there was a class called – I think – the human being and the citizen. It was part of a humanities requirement. Perhaps they have since renamed the class: “the human being, the citizen and the user”, or perhaps “the citizen and the user”, or “the human being and the user”. We can play this game all the day.

The cloud demarcates access. It is the realm of the virtual firewall not the physical great wall (or wall that Trump wants to build on the US/Mexico border).  Services provided by the cloud (like google login), is as useful (if not more useful) as services provided by states (like garbage collection).

In the long run, that may still be the outcome, with modern liberal states taking their place next to ceremonial monarchs and stripped of all but symbolic authority, not necessarily replaced but displaced and misplaced to one side…Between the state, the market, and the platform, which is better designed to tax the interfaces of everyday life and draw sovereignty thereby? …Looking toward the Black Stack, we observe that new forms of governmentality arise through new capacities to tax flows

This is an interesting analogy and an interesting interpretation of sovereignty.  What is the role of the traditional state in concert with this new type of access control.  A social contract no longer creates (or protects) our freedoms, rather it is the protocols of the cloud – the legislative layer of the stack.  How do we engage in price discovery when there is no place called the market but only bots (vectors) constantly testing price resistance?

The user is analogous to the citizen. Similar to bare life it is stripped of certain things, although what the user is stripped of is nuance, whereby the citizen is stripped of protection. The user is reduced to only those things that can be quantifiable or discrete. That can be interfaces with the stack – that can interface with other layers of the stack.  The human dies to be replaced by users (sensors, bots, or aggregates of other users, or avatars/digizens). The black stack has unplanned requirements for user interaction that dictate the way we interact in a way that is beyond the protocol or api requirements for how users interact in the first place. This is why we are talking about the black stack. The hidden requirements of interactions among layers of the stack and within a layer of the stack.

We come from the age of enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Our governments are experiments. And even if they fail, their unplanned consequences (the darkness), is easy to interpret. The unplanned consequences of the black stack may be unintelligible to human reason.

Instead of tabula rasa, this tabula plenus allows for creativity and figuration only by subtraction, like scratching paint from a canvas—only by carving away, by death, by replacement.

It is the ultimate resistance to hermeneutics – we cannot interpret it, we can only see its actions and consequences.

Bratton ends with:

The Black Stack may also be black because we cannot see our own reflection in it. In the last instance, its accelerationist geopolitics is less eschatological than chemical, because its grounding of time is based less on the promise of historical dialectics than on the rot of isotope decay. It is drawn, I believe, by an inhuman and inhumanist molecular form-finding: pre-Cambrian flora changed into peat oil changed into children’s toys, dinosaurs changed into birds changed into ceremonial headdresses, computation itself converted into whatever meta-machine comes next, and Stack into Black Stack.

I think this is interesting – eschatological vs chemical as the grounding of time. What does this mean? There is no history to the stack since history means a point of view or a journey. The stack only gathers information and connects,  a sort of metastasis instead of a chemical reaction.  Perhaps the stack is biological and not chemical – although it is biological organs without bodies.