Crushing the Stack

If in The Code Economy Philip Auerswald managed to give us a succinct history of the algorithm, while leaving us with code that floats like a ghost in the ether lacking any anchor in our very much material, economic and political world. Benjamin Bratton tries to bring us back to earth. Bratton’s recent book, The Stack: On software and sovereignty provides us with a sort of schematic with which we can grasp the political economy of code and thus anchor it to the wider world.

The problem is that Bratton, unlike Auerswald, has given us this schematic in the almost impenetrable language of postmodern theory beyond the grasp of even educated readers. Surely this is important for as Ian Bogost pointed out in his review of The Stack: “The book risks becoming a tome to own and display, rather than a tool to use.” This is a shame because the public certainly is in need of maps through which they can understand and seek to control the computational infrastructure that is now embedded in every aspect of our lives, including, and perhaps especially, in our politics. And the failure to understand and democratically regulate such technology leaves society subject to the whims of the often egomaniacal and anti-democratic nerds who design and run such systems.

In that spirit, I’ll try my best below to simplify The Stack into a map we can actually understand and therefore might be inclined to use.

In The Stack Bratton observers that we have entered the era of what he calls “planetary scale computation.” Our whole global system of processing and exchanging information, from undersea fiber-optic cables, satellites, cell-phone towers, server farms, corporate and personal computers along with our ubiquitous smartphones he see sees as “an accidental megastructure” that we have cobbled together without really understanding what we are building. Bratton’s goal, in a sense, is to map this structure by treating it as a “stack”, dissecting it into what he hopes are clearly discernible “layers.” There are six of these: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface and User.

It is the Earth layer that I find both the most important and the most often missed when it comes to discussions of the political economy of code. Far too often the Stack is represented as something that literally is virtual, disconnected from the biosphere in a way that the other complex artificial systems upon which we have come to depend, such as the food system or the energy system, could never be as a matter of simple common sense. And yet the Stack, just like everything else human beings do, is dependent upon and effects the earth. As Bratton puts it in his Lovecraftian prose:

The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones. After its short career as a little computing brick within a larger megamachine, its fate at the dying end of the electronics component life cycle is just as sad. What is called “electronic waste” inverts the process that pulls entropic reserves of metal and oil from the ground and given form, and instead partially disassembles them and reburies them, sometimes a continent away and sometimes right next door. (p.83)

The rare earth minerals upon which much of modern technology depends come at the cost of environmental degradation and even civil war, as seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Huge areas of the earth are now wastelands festooned with the obsolescent silicon of our discarded computers and cell phones picked over by the world’s poorest for whatever wealth might be salvaged.

The Stack consumes upwards of 10 percent of the world’s energy. It’s an amount that is growing despite the major tech players efforts to diminish its footprint by relocating servers in the arctic, and, perhaps soon, under the sea. Although gains in efficiency have, at least temporarily, slowed the rate of growth in energy use.

The threat to the earth from the Stack, as Bratton sees it, is that its ever growing energy and material requirements will end up destroying the carbon based life that created it. It’s an apocalyptic scenario that is less fanciful than it sounds for the Stack is something like the nervous system for the fossil fuel based civilization we have built. Absent our abandonment of that form of civilization we really will create a world that is only inhabitable by machines and machine-like life forms such as bacteria. Wall-e might have been a prophecy and not just a cartoon.

Yet Bratton also sees the Stack as our potential savior, or at least the only way possible without a massive die off of human beings, to get out of this jam. A company like Exxon Mobil with its dependence on satellites and super-computers is only possible with the leverage of the Stack, but then again so is the IPCC.

For the Stack allows us to see nature, to have the tools to monitor, respond to, and perhaps even interfere with the processes of nature many of which the Stack itself is throwing out of kilter. The Stack might even give us the possibility of finding an alternative source of power and construction for itself. One that is compatible with our own survival along with the rest of  life on earth.

After the Earth layer comes the Cloud layer. It is here that Battron expands upon the ideas of Carl Schmitt. A jurist under the Nazi regime, Schmitt’s ideas about the international order have become popular among many on the left at least since the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003 not as a prescription, but as a disturbingly prescient description of American politics and foreign policy in the wake of 9-11.

In his work The Nomos of the Earth Schmitt critiqued the American dominated international order that had begun with the US entry into WWI and reigned supreme during the Cold War  as a type of order that had, by slipping free the of the anchor of national sovereignty bound to clearly defined territories, set the world on the course of continuous interventions by states into each other’s domestic politics leading to the condition of permanent instability and the threat of total war.

Bratton updates Schmitt’s ideas for our era in which the control of infrastructure has superseded the occupation of territory as the route to power. Control over the nodes of  global networks, where assets are no longer measured in square miles, but in underwater cables, wireless towers, and satellites demands a distributed form of power, and hence helps explain the rise of multinational corporations to their current state of importance.

In terms of the Stack, these are the corporations that make up Bratton’s Cloud Layer, which include not only platforms such as Google and FaceBook, but the ISPs controlling much of the infrastructure upon which these companies (despite their best efforts to build such infrastructure themselves), continue to depend.

Bratton appears to see current geopolitics as a contest between two very different ideas regarding the future of the Cloud. There is the globalist vision found in Silicon Valley companies that aims to abandon the territorial limits of the nation-state and the Chinese model, which seeks to align the Cloud to the interests of the state. The first skirmish of this war Bratton notes was what he calls the Sino-Google War of 2009 in which Google under pressure from the Chinese government to censor its search results eventually withdrew from the country.

Unfortunately for Silicon Valley, along with those hoping we were witnessing the last gasp of the nation-state, not only did Google lose this war, it has recently moved to codify the terms of its surrender, while at the same time we have witnessed both a global resurgence of nationalism and the continuing role of the “deep-state” forcing the Cloud to conform to its interests.

Bratton also sees in the platform capitalism enabled by the Cloud the shape of a possible socialist future- a fulfillment of the dreams of rational, society-wide economic planning that was anticipated with the USSR’s Gosplan, and Project Cybersyn in pre-Pinochet Chile. The Stack isn’t the only book covering this increasingly important and interesting beat.

After the Cloud layer comes the City layer. It is in cities where the density of human population allows the technologies of the Stack to be most apparent. Cities, after all, are thick agglomerations of people and goods in motion all of which are looking for the most efficient path from point A to point B. Cities are composed privatized space made of innumerable walls that dictate entry and exit. They are the perfect laboratory for the logic and tools of the Stack. As Bratton puts it:

We recognize the city he describes as filled with suspicious responsive environments, from ATM PINs, to key cards and parking permits, e-tickets to branded entertainment, personalized recommendations from others who have purchased similar items, mobile social network transparencies, GPS-enabled monitoring of parolees, and customer phone tracking for retail layout optimization.  (p. 157)

Following the City layer we find the Address. In the Stack (or at least in the version of it dreamed up by salesmen for the Internet of Things), everything must have a location in the network, a link to which it can be connected to other persons and things. Something that lacks an address in some sense doesn’t exist for the Stack. An unconnected object or person fails to be a repository for information on which the Stack itself feeds.

We’ve only just entered the era in which our everyday objects speak to one another and in the process can reveal information we might have otherwise hidden about ourselves. What Bratton finds astounding is that in the Address layer we can see that the purpose of our communications infrastructure has become not for humans to communicate with other humans via machines, but for machines to communicate with other machines.

The next layer is that of the Interface. It is the world of programs and apps through which for most of us is the closest we get to code. Bratton says it better:

What are Apps? On the one hand, Apps are software applications and so operate within something like an application layer of a specific device-to-Cloud economy. However, because most of the real information processing is going on in the Cloud, and not in the device in your hand, the App is really more an interface to the real applications hidden away in data centers. As an interface, the App connects the remote device to oceans of data and brings those data to bear on the User’s immediate interests; as a data-gathering tool, the App sends data back to the central horde in response to how the User makes use of it. The App is also an interface between the User and his environment and the things within it, by aiding in looking, writing, subtitling, capturing, sorting, hearing, and linking things and events. (p.142)

The problem with apps is that they offer up an extremely narrow window on the world. Bratton is concerned about the political and social effects of such reality compression, a much darker version of Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble”, where the world itself is refracted into a shape that conforms to the individual’s particular fetishes, shattering a once shared social world.

The rise of filter bubbles are the first sign of a reality crisis Bratton thinks will only get worse with the perfection of augmented reality-there are already AR tours of the Grand Canyon that seek to prove creationism is true.

The Stack’s final layer is that of the User. Bratton here seems mainly concerned with expanding the definition of who or what constitutes one. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the use of bots since the 2016 election. California has even passed legislation to limit their use. Admittedly, these short, relatively easy to make programs that allow automated posts or calls are a major problem. Hell, over 90% of the phone calls I receive are now unsolicited robocalls, and given that I know I am not alone in this, such spam might just kill the phone call as a means of human communication. Ironically, the very reason we have cellphones in the first place.

Yet bots have also become the source of what many of us would consider not merely permissible, but desirable speech. It might upset me that countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia are vociferous users of bots to foster their interests among English speaking publics, or scammers using bots to pick people’s pockets, but I actually like the increasing use of bots by NGOs whose missions I support.

Bratton thus isn’t crazy for suggesting we give the bots some space in the form of “rights”. Things might move even further in this direction as bots become increasingly more sophisticated and personalized. Few would go so far as Jamie Susskind in his recent book Future Politics in suggesting we might replace representative government by a system of liquid democracy mediated by bots; one in which bots make political decisions for individuals based on the citizen’s preferences. But, here again, the proposal isn’t as ridiculous or reactionary as it might sound.

Given some issue to decide upon my bot could scan the position on the same by organizations and individuals I trust in regards to that issue. “My” votes on environmental policy could reflect some weighted measure between the views of the World Wildlife Fund, Bill Mckibben and the like, meaning I’d be more likely to make an informed vote than if I had pulled the lever on my own. This is not to say that I agree with this form of politics, or even believe it to be workable. Rather, I merely think that Bratton might be on to something here. That a key question in the User layer will be the place of bots- for good and ill.

The Stack, as Bratton has described it, is not without its problems and thus he ends his book with proposals for how we might build a better Stack. We could turn the Stack into a tool for the observation and management of the global environment. We could give Users design control over the interfaces that now dictate their lives, including the choice to enter and exit when we choose, a right that should be extended to the movement between states as well. We could use the power of platforms to revive something like centrally planned economies and their dream of eliminating waste and scarcity. We could harness the capacity of the Interface layer to build a world of plural utopias, extend and articulate the rights and responsibilities of users in a world full of bots.

Is Bratton right? Is this the world we are in, or at least headed towards. For my money, I think he gets some things spectacularly right, such as his explanation of the view of climate change within the political right:

“For those who would prefer neo-Feudalism and/or tooth-and-nail libertarianism, inaction on climate change is not denialism, rather it is action on behalf of a different strategic conclusion.” (p.306)

Yet, elsewhere I think his views are not only wrong, but sometimes contradictory. I think he largely misses how the Stack is in large part a product of American empire. He, therefore, misinterprets the 2009 spat between Google and China as a battle between two models of future politics, rather than seeing the current splintering of the internet for what it is: the emergence of peer competitors in the arena of information over which the US has for so long been a hegemon.

Bratton is also dismissive of privacy and enraptured by the Internet of Things in a way that can sometimes appear pollyannaish. After all, privacy isn’t just some antiquated right, but one of the few ways to keep hackable systems secure. That he views the IoT as something inevitable and almost metaphysical, rather than the mere marketing it so often is, leads me to believe he really hasn’t thought through what it means to surround ourselves with computers- that is to make everything in our environment hackable. Rather than being destined to plug everything into everything else, we may someday discover that this is not only unnecessary and dangerous, but denotes a serious misunderstanding of what computation is actually for.

Herein lies my main problem with the Stack: though radically different than Yuval Harari, Bratton too seems to have drank the Silicon Valley Kool Aid.  The Stack takes as its assumption that the apps flowing out of the likes of FaceBook and Google and the infrastructure behind them are not merely of world-historical, but of cosmic import. Matter is rearranging itself into a globe spanning intelligence with unlikely seeds like a Harvard nerd who wanted a website to rate hot-chicks. I just don’t buy it.

What I do buy is that the Stack as a concept, or something like it, will be a necessary tool for negotiating our era, where the borders between politics and technology have become completely blurred. One can imagine a much less loquacious and more reality-based version of Bratton’s book that used his layers to give us a better grasp of this situation. In the Earth layer we’d see the imperialism behind the rare-earth minerals underlying our technology, we’d see massive Chinese factories like those of FoxConn, the way in which earth destroying coal continues to be the primary energy source for the Stack.

In the Cloud layer we’d gain insight into server farms and monopolistic ISPs such as Comcast, and come to understand the fight over Net Neutrality. We’d be shown the contours of the global communications infrastructure and the way in which these are plugged into and policed by government actors such as the NSA.

In the City layer we’d interrogate idea of smart cities, along with the automation of inequality and digitization of citizenship along with exploring the role of computation in global finance. In the Address layer we’d uncover the scope of logistics and  find out how platforms such as Amazon work their magic, and ask whether it really was magic or just parasitism, and how we might use these insights for the public good, whether that meant nationalizing the platforms or breaking them into pieces.

In the User layer we’d take a hard look at the addictive psychology behind software, the owners and logic behind well-known companies such as FaceBook along with less well known such as MindGeek. Such an alternative version of the Stack, would not only better inform us as to what the Stack is, but suggest what we might actually do to build ourselves a better one.  

 

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Why liberals might kill free speech

We’ve got a huge problem on our hands which the 2016 election, along with Brexit, has not so much created as fully exposed. What we’ve witnessed is a kind of short-circuit between the three pillars that have defined our particular form of democratic liberalism over the last century. Democratic liberalism over the 20th and into the 21st century consisted of a kind of balance between the public at large, mass media, and policy elites with the link between the three being political representatives of one of the major parties. As idealized by public philosophers such as Walter Lippmann, the role of politicians was to choose among the policy options presented by experts and “sell” those policies to the public using the tools of mass communication to ensure their legitimacy.

The fact that such a balance became the ideal in the first place, let alone its inevitable failure, can only be grasped fully when one becomes familiar with its history.

Non-print based mass media only became available during the course of the First World War and it was here that the potential of media such as film, radio, posters and billboards to create a truly emotionally and ideologically unified public became apparent- although the US had come close to this discovery a little over in a decade earlier in the form of mass circulation newspapers which were instrumental in getting the American public behind the Spanish- American War and that itself gave rise to real standards of objectivity in journalism.

During WWI it was the Americans and British who mastered the art of war propaganda transforming their enemies the Germans into savage “huns” and engendering a kind of will to sacrifice for what (at least for the Americans) was a distant and abstract cause. Lippmann himself was on the Creel Committee which launched this then new form of political propaganda. Hitler would write enviously of British and American propaganda in Mein Kampf, and both the Nazis and the Soviet would use the new media and the proof of concept offered by allied powers in the war, to form the basis of the totalitarian state. Those systems ultimately failed but their rise and attraction reveal the extent to which democracy, less than a century from our own time, was seen to be failing. Not just the victory of the Soviets in the war, but the way they were able to rapidly transform the Russian Empire from an agrarian backwater to an industrial and scientific powerhouse seemed to show that the future belonged to the system that most fully empowered its technocrats.

The Great Depression and Second World War would prove to be the golden age of experts in the West as well. In the US it was technocrats who crafted the response to the economic crisis, who managed the American economy during the war, who were responsible for technological breakthroughs such as atomic weapons, rockets capable of reaching space, and the first computers. It was policy experts who crafted novel responses to unprecedented political events such as the Marshall Plan and Containment.

Where the Western and Soviet view of the role of experts differed had less to do with their prominence and more to do with their plurality or lack of it. Whereas in the Soviet Union all experts were united under the umbrella of the Party, Western countries left the plurality of experts intact so that the bureaucrats who ran big business were distinct from the bureaucrats who ran government agencies and neither had any clear relationship to the parties that remained the source of mass political mobilization while the press remained free (if not free of elite assumptions and pressures) to forge the public’s interpretation of events as it liked.

Lippmann had hoped the revolutionary medium of his time- television- would finally provide a way for the technocrats he thought necessary to rule a society that had become too complex for the form of representative democracy that had preceded allowing experts to directly communicate with the public and in so doing forge consensus for elite policies. What dashed his hopes was a rigged game show.

The Quiz show scandal that broke in the 1950’s (it was made into an excellent movie in the 90’s) proved to Lippmann that American style television with its commercial pressures could not be the medium he had hoped for. In his essay, Television: whose creature, whose servant?   Lippmann called for the creation of an American version of the BBC. (PBS would be created in 1970, as would NPR). Indeed, the scandal did drive the three major US television networks- especially CBS- towards the coverage of serious news and critical reporting. Such reporting helped erode political support for the Vietnam war, though not, as it’s often believed, by turning public opinion against the war, but as pointed out back in the 1980’s by Michael Mandelbaum in his essay Vietnam: The Television War  by helping to mobilize such a vast number of opponents as to polarize the American public in a way that made sustaining the post-war consensus unsustainable. Vietnam was the first large scale failure of the technocrats- it would not be their last.

From the 1970’s until today this polarization was mined by a new entry on the media landscape- cable news- starting with Ted Turner and CNN. As Tim Wu lays out in his book The Master Switch, the rise of cable was in part enabled by Nixon’s mistrust of what was then “mainstream news” (Nixon helped deregulate cable). This rise (more accurately return) of partisan media occurred at the same time Noam Chomsky (owl of Minerva like) in his book Manufacturing Consent was arguing that the press was much less free and independent than it pretended to be. Instead it was wholly subservient to commercial influence and the groupthink of those posing to be experts. And hadn’t, after all, George Kennan, the brilliant mind behind containment and an unapologetic elitists compared American democracy to a monster with a brain the size of a pin?

Chomsky’s point held even in the era of cable news for there was a great deal of political diversity that fell outside the range between Fox News and CNN. Manufactured consent would fail, however, with the rise of the internet which would allow the cheap production and distribution of political speech in a way that had never been seen before, though there had been glimpses. Political speech was democratized at almost the exact same time trust in policy elites had collapsed. The reasons for such a collapse in trust aren’t hard to find.

American policy elites have embraced an economic agenda that has left working class income stagnant for over a generation. The globalization and de-unionization they promoted has played a large (though not the only) role in the decline of the middle class on which stable democracy depends. The Clinton machine bears a large responsibility for the left’s foolish embrace of this neoliberal agenda, which abandoned blue collar workers to transform the Democratic party into a vehicle for white collar professionals and identity groups.

Foreign policy elites along with an uncritical mainstream media led us into at least one disastrous and wholly unnecessary war in Iraq, a war whose consequences continue to be felt and which was exacerbated by yet more failure by these same elites. Our economic high-priests brought us the 2008 financial crisis the response to which has been a coup by the owning classes at the cost of trillions of dollars. As Trump’s “populist” revolt of Goldman Sachs alums demonstrates, the oligarchs now thoroughly control American government.

And it’s not only social science experts, politicians and journalist who have earned the public’s lack of trust. Science itself is in a crisis of gaming where it seems “results” matter much more than the truth. Corporations engage in deliberate disinformation, what Robert Proctor calls agnotology.

The three legs of Lippmann’s stool- policy experts, the media, and the public have collapsed as expertise has become corporatized and politicians have become beholden to those corporate interest, while at the same time political speech has escaped from anyone’s overt control. Trump seems to be the first political figure to have capitalized on this breakdown- a fact that does not bode well for democracy’s future.

Perhaps we should just call a spade a spade and abandon political representation and policy experts for government via electronic referendum. Yet, however much I love the idea of direct democracy, it seems highly unlikely that the sort of highly complex society we currently possess could survive absent the heavy input of experts– even in light of their very obvious flaws.

It’s just as possible that China where technocrats rule and political speech and activity is tightly controlled by leveraging the centralized nature of internet could be the real shape of the future. The current structure of internet which is controlled by only a handful of companies certainly makes the path to such a plutocratic censorship regime possible.

Returning to the work of Tim Wu, we can see the way in which communications empires have risen and fell over the course of the last century: we’ve had the telephone, film, radio, television and now the computer. In all cases with the noted exception of television new media have arisen in a decentralized fashion, merged into gigantic corporations such as Bell telephone, and then are later broken up or lose dominance to upstarts who have adopted new means of transmission or whole new types of media itself.

What perhaps makes our era different in a way Wu doesn’t explore is that for the first time diversity of content is occurring under conditions of concentrated ownership. Were only a handful of companies such as FaceBook and Google to pursue the task in earnest they could exercise nearly complete control over political speech and thus end the current era. Such rule need not be rapacious but instead represent a kind of despotic-liberalism that mobilizes public opinion behind policies many of us care about such as stemming global warming. It’s the kind of highly rational nightmare Malka Older imagined in her sci-fi thriller Infomacracy and Dave Eggers gave a darker hue in his book The Circle.

Hopefully liberalism itself in the form of constitutional protections of free speech will prevent us from going so far down this route. (Although the Courts appear to think that Google et. al’s  right to police their platforms’ content is itself protected under the First Amendment.) How our long standing constitutional protections adapt to a world where “speech” can come in the form of bots which outnumber humans and foreign governments insert themselves into our elections is anybody’s guess.

The best alternative to either despotic-liberalism or chaos is to restore trust in policy elites by finding ways to make such elites more accountable and therefore trustworthy. We need to come up with new ways to combine the necessary input of real experts with the revolution in communications that has turned every citizen into a source of media. For failing to find a way to rebalance expertise and democratic governance would mean we either lose our democracy to flawed experts (as Plato would have wanted) or surrender to the chaos of an equally flawed and fickle, and now seemingly permanently Balkanized, public opinion.