Colonising the Clouds

Infrastructure Territory and The Geopolitics of The Stacks

Slides and Notes from a presentation given at Theorising the Web #TTW14 NYC April 2014 with updated/expanded comments.

You can read the abstract/submission for this talk here. I embedded a video of the full panel and the Q&A from #TTW14 at the bottom of this post if you prefer.

:: Note to mobile and tablet users :: I was playing with Medium’s fancy parallax scrolling and the visual pacing that it affords, so it looks best on desktop (or request the desktop site). Just keep scrolling down… you’ll get the idea.

The main motivation for writing this talk was an attempt to answer a fairly simple question:

“Why does this guy”

“Get to call this guy”

“About stuff this guy released?”
“Why does Mark Zuckerberg get to call up the President of the United States?”

…it’s because things are pretty weird right now:

At Webstock 2013 Bruce Sterling defined what he calls ‘The Stacks’. A new type of corporation that uses lock-tight integration of hardware and software in order to form a branded ecosystem. They are post web 2.0 and post crisis organisations.

He defines Stacks as having some of the following attributes:

  1. They are Huge — they are full of people, both in terms of employees and users
  2. They are vertically integrated global software structures used by millions
  3. Stacks have new things corporations haven’t had before: Proprietary OS’s AND devices AND ginormous server farms - etc
  4. They are wireless
  5. The internet of old had users, the stacks have livestock
  6. Stacks have dedicated cultural portals
  7. Advertising as a revenue model depends on knowing a whole lot about you
  8. Stacks have social networks
  9. They have their own money
  10. They live in the cloud
  11. But they are not new
To put this in to context; let’s talk about some of the other interesting things that are happening right now…..

So … this exists
which only three years ago would have seemed like a dystopian future…

This happened three years ago…
and IS a dystopian future

Corporations are buying drone manufactures

Google just bought Nest

A company that “reinvents unloved but important home products, like the thermostat and the smoke alarm. We focus on simple, beautiful and thoughtful hardware and services.”

Nest is actually a deep strata sensing device you can put in your home which will passively sense and gather data about you. Other examples of these autonomous deep sensing devices are air pollution sensors, wearable tech devices, and basically all of the internet of things.

this is interesting because until now — Stacks have required you to enter information about yourself that they can then collect and monetise
whereas now — they are putting passive sensing devices into your home to collect new types of data

why Nest made that particular design decision I don’t know

This is an image from Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect
this is what is ‘sees’
they now have 3D scans/models of people’s living rooms from across the world
so they ‘probably’ aren’t doing it yet. But if they’re not profiling you by what kind of couch you can afford to serve you targeted ads… I’m pretty sure they will be soon

this is one of my favourite photoshops of the last couple of months, it’s got everything you could possible want: Sergey, TED, Snowden and BigDog

In May 2013 Mckenzie Wark wrote a piece for The Guardian which has in the sub heading ‘Google becomes the new state’
Of course Google doesn’t want to pay its taxes to the British crown, like a loyal corporate subject. In Google’s mind it secretly thinks that it is now something like a state, and we are all its subjects.
Who dares to dodge Google’s information tax?
Which is really interesting and maybe worrying when you think about it

I should also note I’m not singling Mckenzie Wark out here. It’s just the first article of this kind I’ve seen. The Telegraph recently had an article called “Google: the unelected superpower” — The idea that ‘Stacks are becoming States’ is beginning to become more & more visible in the sphere of public discourse.

One of the things that corporations and states both share is ‘Institutional Memory’ or ‘Corporate Memory’ as it’s known in corporate knowledge management theory

Wikipedia :: Corporate Memory is the accumulated body of data, information, and knowledge created in the course of an individual organisation’s existence. Falling under the wider disciplinary umbrella of knowledge management, it has two repositories: an organization’s archives, including its electronic data bases; and individuals’ memories.

So corporate memory passes down tacit knowledge between generations of employees as they come and go.

One of the other things that they also share in common are ‘Values’ :: The operating philosophies or principles that guide an organization’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with its customers, partners, and shareholders.

Between them these are examples of mechanisms that orgs use to ensure they continue to learn from their mistakes and keep a common culture in a organisation that’s 50 -> 100 years old (for example).

Exxon Mobil’s guiding principles are based around:
the environment is strangely absent :/

Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

Companies use their values to orient their employees when making decisions. On a day-to-day level this usually cuts out bureaucracy, as instead of asking their boss about ‘that thing’, they can just ask themselves ‘Does this thing fit the values?’ and make the decision themselves.

This is why you end up with situations where an engineer can write a piece of software that would pull data from the unsecured wi-fi networks the (street view) car encountered as it drove through towns and cities.

Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected
Facebook is also on Facebook — that’s a bit weird

Like States, Corporations also do things like map out comprehensive accountability, departmental and reporting structures
They use them to help them understand: what they are, how they function, who they are, and what parts are doing what

So we cant possibly talk about the web and its relationship with the physical world without talking about digital dualism
A key question then is:
“How do Corporations and States see the web?”

As I understand it — the term ‘The Cloud’ was invented by lazy software engineers using Microsoft Viso in 90's to explain the internet to their bosses.

What’s interesting is that the marketing and language around ‘the cloud’ is changing from
The Cloud’
A Cloud’

The conceptualisation of The Cloud then, is shifting from the ‘amorphous conceptual shared space’ of the cloud, to a phrasing that evokes enclosed, boundried, owned, and territorialised space contained within a single cloud.

Check out the current ‘A cloud of your own’ campaign from Western Digital

This idea of controlling informational ‘territory’ is especially prevalent in the information security space where vendors and experts talk about owning and securing territory
Security experts are literally in frequent meetings with corporate bosses talking about securing their territory — eventually over time, this parlance as a concept begins to stick in the corporate memory

Check out this talk by two dudes from FBI + Booz Allen Hamilton at ‘The Next Billion’ conference in 2013.

They use the terms like territory all the way through in this context.

Corporations and States do differ on this notion of informational ‘territory’ I’ve been talking about
Government cyber commands seem to hold a non digital-dualist view. They would claim that cyber is a theatre, not a territory. This is demonstrated in their understandings of servers on sovereign territory, and the legalities of cyber-espionage

This is presumably due to States having land, sovereignty, and territory as a primary concern since the peace of Westphalia.

That said: network power and influence can be wielded beyond a nation states borders resulting in what could be called a ‘Super-Jurisdiction’
“Sovereign control over the cloud, in contrast to authoritarian power-mongering, is a sophisticated affair. One might draw a very different map here: the global spread of the US cloud, for example, results in a kind of “super-jurisdiction” enjoyed by its host country.
Super-jurisdiction can be seen in action in the 2012 seizure of by the US Department of Justice (DOJ)”
Super-jurisdiction means that the law of one country can, through various forms of cooperation and association implied by server locations and network connections, be extended into and enacted in another. The US, as a result of its unique position in managing the internet’s core, also has jurisdiction over all so-called top level domains, no matter where they are hosted and by whom
Metahaven Captives of the Cloud: Part I

Before we go any further it’s important point out the distinction between how an organisation may view the web and how the people that make up the same organisation may see it
Has the discourse of digital dualism been overly focussed on the individual, or is it that only now are the implications of this dualism in the geopolitical sphere?
The views, values and beliefs (eg informational territory) held by an organisation is beginning to become extremely relevant to how they interact with the wider world. See the recent Hobby Lobby ruling for an emerging example of this

“What happens if the Stacks DO start thinking and acting like States?”
“What happens if the Stacks’ users also start to agree?”

A short break to recommend some contextual reading:

Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State by Jo Guldi tells the story of how Britain built the first nation connected by infrastructure, how a libertarian revolution destroyed a national economy, and how technology caused strangers to stop speaking.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott looks at how the State interprets the world, and why that matters. The abstraction and rationalization that occurs through things like standard weights and measurements, property rights, scientific forest management, mapping, etc. leads inevitably to action which is abstracted from reality.

Scott says that States in order to go about their business, require people to be made legible
One of the most common ways they do this is to collect categorised datasets about its citizens that take the form of a census

Let’s compare the previous census image with this dossier taken from an EU-FOI request made by a single user from Facebook
The Stacks know vastly more categorised information about you than the state has ever done. Following Scott’s “Seeing Like A State”, perhaps their is now a need to “See Like A Stack” in order for us to better understand the approaches of these entities towards data collection (Nest,#IOT, etc), knowledge creation, and territorial definition

So.. DO Stacks have territory?

In the document Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps — a Creative Commons licensed mapping and analysis tool for evaluating personal and social resilience (that’s simple enough to learn during a crisis).

The document describes 5 characteristics of a Nation State :

1. Jurisdiction
The state should provide an effective system of law and law enforcement.
2. Citizens
Certain individuals are citizens of the state, while others are visitors. The state should know.
3. Territory
There must be an agreed area in which the state has control.
4. Effective Organizations
These arms of the state collectively define its effectiveness.
5. International Recognition
Required for full sovereignty and entry to international bodies.
Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps

The big 5 Stacks all satisfy these 5 definition points IF you believe their territory exists in informational space, and is not actually simply made up of discreet and distinct sheds of computers distributed across multiple global jurisdictions in physical space

If you can swallow the idea that Google has territory — then yes — it does very much begin to look State like.

I was talking with Mike Rugnetta about this after the conference and he made an interesting point. I paraphrase:

‘So the idea that Facebook has territory, is like imagining that when I log in to Facebook, I cross some kind of psychogeographical border and am now on Facebook’s turf’

So if you can swallow the idea of a ‘State-like-Stack’ existing in a new type of geopolitical strata, then Zuckerberg is responsible for over one billion people
Which is probably why he gets to call the president of the United States

Technology as Territory

Tobias Revell, a Critical Designer & Futurist has been working on a project called Designed Conflict Territories. He writes:

To re-word a great Dylan Moran gag: While we were talking, Google very, very gradually built a future around us. (Please replace Google with whatever or whoever you like to satisfy your own biases.) The point stands that the entities constructing and steering our futures, or what they often like to call the future — with all the baggage of powerlessness and inevitability that that wording brings — aren’t states, and they work on a completely different geopolitical strata: There is no town square for Google.
Designed Conflict Territories
In light of the Snowden revelations or Facebook’s mood manipulation tests,
How do we register our disaffection?
What new types political contestation can (and will) emerge in these new environments?

“The geopolitics of the Cloud, as an example, it is partially defined by the ‘accidental’ de-lamination of traditional Westphalian geographies of sovereignty through the realization of other topologies” — B.Bratton

Benjamin Bratton is Director of The Center for Design and Geopolitics and is one of the pre-eminent thinkers on the interplay between the thick digital spaces that overlap existing geographies, including the nation-state and its borders and what political changes my occur at the scale of planetary computation. In this interview with the design studio Metahaven he said the following:

“Here we have the vertical superimposition of two possibly incommensurate logics of geography and governance. One, a globally distributed, cognitive capitalist, NSA-protected polis predicated on data rationalization, and two, a geographically circumscribed central command which sees the Cloud as an extension of the body of the State. The topological difference between the two makes them incommensurate, and the friction caused by the grinding of these two “layers,” each demanding acquiescence of the other, will characterize the geopolitics of the coming decades.”
The Cloud, the State, and the Stack: Metahaven in Conversation with Benjamin Bratton
which is right on point
because things are really weird already, and it’s only going to get stranger.

\o/<(YAY YOU MADE IT!! — Thank you for scrolling down!)

Here’s the full talk. Panel

Tim Hwang Spoke on “An Urban Geography of the Web Industry”

Mathias Crawford spoke on ‘procedural cities’

I spoke on the above.

Joanne McNeil chaired and had excellent questions