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The Black Stack


Planetary-scale computation takes different forms at different scales: energy grids and mineral sourcing; chthonic cloud infrastructure; urban software and public service 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 nonhuman 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 as forming the body of an accidental megastructure. Perhaps these parts 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, perhaps 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.

My interest in the geopolitics of planetary-scale computation focuses less on issues of personal privacy and state surveillance than on how it distorts and deforms traditional Westphalian modes of political geography, jurisdiction, and sovereignty, and produces new territories in its image. It draws from (and against) Carl Schmitt’s later work on The Nomos of the Earth, and from his (albeit) flawed history of the geometries of geopolitical architectures. “Nomos” refers to the dominant and essential logic to the political subdivisions of the earth (of land, seas, and/or air, and now also of the domain that the US military simply calls “cyber”) and to the geopolitical order that stabilizes these subdivisions accordingly. Today, as the nomos that was defined by the horizontal loop geometry of the modern state system creaks and groans, and as “Seeing like a State” takes leave of that initial territorial nest—both with and against the demands of planetary-scale computation—we wrestle with the irregular abstractions of information, time, and territory, and the chaotic de-lamination of (practical) sovereignty from the occupation of place. For this, a nomos of the Cloud would, for example, draw jurisdiction not only according to the horizontal subdivision of physical sites by and for states, but also according to the vertical stacking of interdependent layers on top of one another: two geometries sometimes in cahoots, sometimes completely diagonal and unrecognizable to one another.

The Stack, in short, is that new nomos rendered now as vertically thickened political geography. In my analysis, there are six layers to this Stack: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User. Rather than demonstrating each layer of the Stack as a whole, I’ll focus specifically on the Cloud and the User layers, and articulate some alternative designs for these layers and for the totality (or even better, for the next totality, the nomos to come). The Black Stack, then, is to the Stack what the shadow of the future is to the form of the present. 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. That platform would be defined by the productivity of its accidents, and by the strategy for which whatever may appear at first as the worst option (even evil) may ultimately be where to look for the best way out. It is less a “possible future” than an escape from the present.

The platforms of the Cloud layer of the Stack are structured by dense, plural, and noncontiguous geographies, a hybrid of US super-jurisdiction and Charter Cities, which have carved new partially privatized polities from the whole cloth of de-sovereigned lands. But perhaps there is more there.

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