Benjamin H. Bratton – The Stack, On Software and Sovereignty


The Mit Press, ISBN-13: 978-0262029575, English, 502 pages, 2016, USA

In the book The Stack, On Software and Sovereignty Benjamin Bratton (professor of Visual Arts and the Director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego) elaborates an inspiring and original program to render a vibrant image of our contemporary world. In a serious attempt to answer questions raised by the implementation of computational infrastructures in a scale not dreamed even a few decades ago, the author interrogates the entangled physical and digital dimensions of our reality. The Stack describes in detail the different modules of an accidental megastructure that composes the core of the actuality in the material and virtual levels; this is important because the megastructure mentioned above is re-shaping from geopolitics to governability, from sovereignty to linguistics. The publication takes its name from the flexible hardware architecture organized like a pile in the vertical axis, the stack. This structure of parallel equipment that operates synchronically is proposed as a powerful metaphor to develop an intricate blueprint of the present. As the stack is described as formed in six layers, the book dedicates one chapter to delineate in detail each one. Bratton zooms in from the larger formations, the Earth, and the Cloud, to more familiar geographical concepts, the City and the Address, to finally focus on the ones that need more resolution to be described accurately, the Interface and the User. Ontological questions and ethical problems coming from contemporary theory in diverse fields are carefully melted in a pot in an attempt to find explanations why what governments govern changes and what writers write mutates. There are four fronts on how the text operates at the conceptual level. The book could be seen as a Political Philosophy manifesto as it is profoundly concerned with the socio-political reconfiguration of our contemporary life. It could be considered as a book on Software Studies as far as it is committed to understanding the implications of planetary-scale computation. It can also be read as a book about Architecture Theory as far as it starts asking the question of what is the architecture for this new world; and most intriguing the book is also about Design, in that the book relocates the role of the reader, the books’ user for short, stating a design brief inviting the user to propose potential solutions to such design scenarios. Bratton’s elaborate writing, sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent, is in general terms creative and provocative. It is an impressive effort by a scholar who accepts the challenge of fine-tuning various intellectual discourses articulating complex ideas and proposing his own concepts. My advice for the reader: as far as many of the ideas in the book could be new because are either neologisms or because they are re-signified from the traditional meaning, starting by reading the Glossary chapter is a very useful guide to navigating the book. Andres Burbano