The Abstraction of Benjamin Bratton
Software, Sovereignty, and Designer Sociology
“For me, what is at stake is not philosophy or physics but the means by which we abstract actual work into intelligence and back again according to ideas of preferred function and outcomes.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
“While some lines and frames are more physically tangible than others, for the political geography of The Stack, it is the physicality of abstraction that is at the center of things.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
Benjamin Bratton is a digital philosopher, sociologist, and design expert whose work largely employs explicit abstraction. In the same vein that I profiled author and work in The Abstraction of Jordan Peterson, I wish to do so for Bratton. Like Peterson, Bratton has an usually high rate of reference to abstraction, and they also both refer to it terms of ‘mapping’, which is a crucial epistemological advance. But there are vast differences in the things they map and conclusions they come to, Peterson representing a failure to abstract society. Abstraction is integral to Bratton’s thesis The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, in which the word ‘abstract’ and its derivatives appears 90 times, including ‘abstraction’ at 45, and ‘abstracted’ at 16. Here is a great review of The Stack by Roger Whitson.
Unlike Peterson, The Stack appears to dovetail with Marxist analysis with its emphasis on the relations of production, noted in another deep review The Stack to Come: On Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack, whereas Peterson disdains Marxism altogether for its postmodern incarnation. This is an important point of departure, as Marxism in the abstract sense is an indispensable approach to resolving the inequities and pathologies of capitalism (contrary to the caricature of socialism being inherently untenable and brutal). I contend Bratton’s approach fits within my definition of meta-Marxism.
Planetary scale computation is remaking the political world order in its own image, dissolving and transcending traditional sovereignty, which enables (and forces) new forms of governance. The book is a call to action to understand what is happening and to take conscious (counter-)measures to humanize the process; to design the stack as it designs us.
Bratton is an intellectual ahead of his time, aptly demonstrated in his incisive TEDx talk What’s Wrong with TED Talks? His writing and speaking aims at a high degree of precision and technicality, so I hope to ‘abstract’ his work somewhat to simplify and highlight the essential insights. By way of introduction, I quote my initial reference to him from the blog post Introduction to Abstraction.
“In a 2016 talk at the European Graduate School, Benjamin Bratton of the Center for Design and Geopolitics referred to abstraction as a function of intelligence for an organism to “map its own surroundings,” particularly with respect to food, friend, or foe. The formalizing of modes of reasoning is but a projection of this “primordial abstraction.” As we evolve more complex forms of intelligence, ‘abstraction as mapping’ is the general principle of that complexification.[source]. The context of Bratton’s talk was the intersection of design, philosophy, and AI, which is the essential aesthetic of TATO (The Abs-Tract Organization). An even more direct precedent for TATO to form can be found in Bratton’s book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, which he concludes is not a manifesto or manual, but rather, “a design brief that invites others to collaborate on the articulation and realization of the renewed modernity described here, with all their deliberate commitment and expert abstraction.”” — Introduction to Abstraction
The open invitation to collaborate on abstraction and renewed modernity is promising for our lines of research, and so I hope my efforts will be taken more seriously, as there is no more direct answer to that call than to study abstraction itself. Whether we work directly or indirectly, we align with the abstract imperatives proposed in Bratton’s design brief. The Stack itself is his ultimate abstraction, a conceptual map of the layered relations between model and reality; between the internet and social structure. Abstraction is at the core of his methodology, as true representation and correspondence between map and territory is the foundational prerequisite for problem solving.
I also draw a parallel between what he refers to as ‘renewed modernity’ and metamodernism. Bratton’s theory is next generation in its own way, and I see it as one of many works that tacitly validate an emerging paradigm of metamodernism. Bratton asks if the renewed modernity will “provide the lightness necessary to organize a restorative, subtractive, resilient modernity, or will its own voracious energy appetite, toxic production footprint, and alienating virtualization finally overwhelm all?” In other words, will we collectively intervene in the right direction (and in time) to build a sane, healthy, and vibrant global society, or will we continue to make catastrophic bullheaded policies that build the stack into a panopticon style matrix? This is the metamodern “choice,” and its a nobrainer.
Abstraction as mapping takes us from ‘primordial abstraction’ of mere sensory input, to the highest cognition of pure symbolic representation in the form of math. The concept of abstraction as cognitive mapping is well articulated by both Bratton and Peterson, but I recently found another exposition that complements their versions well. As the creator Jim Schofield explains in this video (referring to the diagram below), humans find themselves in a murky reality that is perceived through ten levels of abstraction. The lines on the diagram indicate where we go into reality and return into the sphere of abstraction with the new information. The first process is observation, which gives rise to the process of naming (cf. Plato’s Cratylus), which compels us to yet another level of organization in the process of categorization. These all take place in the realm of basic abstraction, as he calls it.
Next, humans abstract religious and metaphysical models in the realm of myth, which particularly relates to Peterson’s mythical maps of abstraction, first from perception, to action, to play, to ritual, and so on. Moving higher into the realm of science, humans started to analyze things in parts and measure them. It began with very elemental distinctions (earth, fire, air, water), which turned out to be wrong, or at least highly mythical and symbolic, and evolved into more reliable predictive frameworks and analogistic models. The final realm is that of ideality, where mathematical formulae and pure form alone exist. Modern technology is given as an example of one of the ‘farmed domains’ where the purely abstract (math) is appropriated and used in reality, to the point where it just becomes reality.
The purpose of mapping reality this way is so that we can agree on it. With respect to abstraction, we have at least three major reference points now (Peterson, Bratton, Schofield) for how it is a progressive thinking and mapping process, not to mention a whole web of thinkers who laid the foundations for this cartography (Aristotle, Piaget, Whitehead, Locke, etc…). To return to Bratton, The Stack is his provisional map of computational complexity and how it is reshaping global sovereignty and governance.
“In The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2016. 503 pages) Bratton outlines a new theory for the age of global computation and algorithmic governance. He proposes that different genres of planetary scale computation -smart grids, cloud platforms, mobile apps, smart cities, the Internet of Things, automation- can be seen not as so many species evolving on their own, but as forming a coherent whole: an accidental megastructure that is both a computational infrastructure and a new governing architecture. The book plots an expansive interdisciplinary design brief for The Stack-to-Come.” — From Bratton’s autobiographical profile page.
The differentiation of systems into six levels of analysis (seven where ‘network’ is counted) allows greater specialization in each and a holistic understanding of the relation of the parts to the whole. The concept of emergence, which he invokes often, compels us to define how the superstructure arises from the interaction of lower entities. Likewise, the more complex term supervenience (which he does not discuss) defies reductive relationships, in that it is less clear how the upper layers emerge from the lower ones. This prompts us to abstract deeper, as Bratton is doing in The Stack. Below, I only give a brief snapshot as you can find a more detailed breakdown by McKenzie Wark or Roger Whitson, and of course Bratton himself:
- Earth; material resources, energy reserves, geographic constraints, planetary civilization
- Cloud; corporate global internet and infrastructure (a la Google, Amazon, Facebook), remapping sovereignty in the process
- City; lived experience of daily life, smart grids, endless surveillance, and monitorized consumption
- Address; identification, location, control, governance, full spectrum mapping
- Interface; coupling users and computers, ideological and politicized interface , AI/ VR/ AR
- User; customers, contributors, participants, human and non — human
The Stack on Crack
The deep lessons of abstraction and emergence here give rise to Bratton’s conceptualization of “the machine as a state,” not the result of a “master plan” but the “accumulative residue of contradictions.” This parallels my analysis of George Soros’ concept of the “abstract empire” of global capitalism, in that agency has been abstracted into ‘the system’ itself. This is the core of the Marxist critique, which is vaguely implicitly there.
As money and finance represent the liquefaction of capital, this is a key metric of the abstraction of empire, and the consequent agency attributed to such an empire. We are at a potential crossroads for The Stack to either manifest as the “creeping spread of cyber-empire” or a global commons defined and seen “through the slits of a Guy Fawkes mask.” The role of neoliberalism has been instrumental in the drift to the former, but it is avoidable as the quotes below suggests.
“Abstracted calculation supporting the strategic financialization of assets, both real and speculative, takes on new importance, and so at least in this regard, the historical emergence planetary-scale computation and neoliberalism are intertwined. However, as we examine in some detail with regard to platform sovereignty, that pairing is neither requisite nor inevitable.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
“One effect of planetary computation on economic geography is the virtualization of sovereign currencies into n-dimensional abstractions and the consequent disturbance in the force of money to represent the exchange value of commodities, assets, work, and debt. What does money point to? The ultimate reference of a currency is always mythic (“Gold? Seriously?”), but when it is reduced to absolute pulses of light, the link between a currency, the value that it contains, and the thing or process that is exchanged for that currency becomes even more unwound.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
Bratton is at least saying that the speculative aspect of finance can be decoupled from The Stack, so as evolve it relatively free from market distortions. This is not to completely undermine current processes in an extreme Marxist fashion, but at minimum to seriously re-evaluate valuation. In other words, we need to hedge economic abstraction (mystification, fetishization) with more social design abstraction (schematization, modelling). Money has become so disproportionately abstracted (reallocated and expropriated) that it becomes less a currency than a coagulant. In fact, it gets abstracted even further, to being about information control, hence the notion of epistemic justice. McKenzie Wark had a very insightful comment to this effect:
“Despite their variety, to me these clouds are all shaped by the desires of what I call the vectorialist class, which is to extract what Bratton calls “platform surplus value.” (137) But perhaps they are built less on extracting rent or profit so much as asymmetries of information. They attempt in different ways to control the whole value chain through control of information. Finance as liquidity preference may be a subset of the vectoralist class as information preference, or power exercised through the most abstract form of relation, and baked into the cloud no matter what its particular form.” —McKenzie Wark, The Stack to Come: On Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack
This monetization of everything, and the monitorization of consumption are unsurprising trends in globalization, but that doesn’t mean we should take it as given or necessary. The idea that new technologies create new problems has become more of a punchline than a cautionary tale. We need to get ahead of the problem, rather than keep hobbling forward on precarious crutches of control and greed. Intellectual abstraction is the only way to do that.
Upgrading Our Mental Software Stack
“Our capacity for figural abstraction is one outcome the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago or so roughly, and it enabled the eventual establishment of Neolithic economies. With that, what Wittgenstein called the ritual animal learned to index, invoke, calculate, demonstrate, incant, perform, and prototype various future conditions into becoming. In doing so we also learn to confuse those means and ends. Confuse the symbolization with what is symbolized.” — Benjamin Bratton. Remarks on the Hole of Representation in Computer ‘Vision’. 2017
We should think of our own mind and worldview as the software running on the hardware of our bodies. Many have made this analogy, but with an increasingly clear picture of computational abstraction and its relation to cognition, we can and do theorize on how to think better (and how to know better). Even without this complex understanding, basic abstraction (reflective abstraction, abductive inference, generalization, going up the abstraction ladder, asking ‘why?’, critical thinking, etc…) is in indispensible in both early and adult education.
Meanwhile, humans are creating computer software (AI) that is approaching its own sentience, and the sociological imagination and public discourse have waned starkly. The Dunning-Kruger Effect already observes that people over-estimate their intelligence, and this is especially true the dumber you are. But now there is resurgence of anti-intellectualism in American life, which is like throwing fuel on the dumpster fire that is the political status-quo.
Our vulnerability to confusion is because abstraction is a double-edged sword. So we need to upgrade our operating systems. Most of us are running outdated software, full of bugs, on weak mainframes to boot, metaphorically speaking. We need to learn, study, and practice abstraction on a daily basis, as well as continue to develop its complex esoteric forms in AI. But they need to keep pace with each other. Bratton articulates this shrewdly:
“[w]e don’t actually think the way we think that we think. The inability to represent those schema as such makes our own faculties of abstraction that much more crucial. For AI, if we do not have access to our own schema… how could we possibly teach them to machines or make sense of what the machines are deciding accordingly without introducing so much error and structure into this that the machines are helpless…” — Benjamin Bratton. Remarks on the Hole of Representation in Computer ‘Vision’. 2017
Bratton spends a few minutes elaborating this line of thinking in the video. This is precisely the point I was trying to get at in the post How to Humanize AI with Abstraction. Fundamentally we don’t know what we are teaching AI — it’s in a black box — and worse still, we don’t understand our own thought processes well enough to make basic value judgements or communicate truth, hence the chaos of politics.
Bratton discusses many disturbing anomalies of machine learning that are cause for concern. We really need to lead by example, and prove to our awakening robot overlords that we are not evil, but so long as we are ignorant, we will act out evil. “The system” is the emergent entity stacked on all our subroutines, protocols, beliefs, pathologies, and abstractions. Abstraction is the key to unlocking our individual wisdom, as well as social systemization and justice.
“We want to not only think of machine vision as a new way to make images, we want to think of it as a way as well to visualize and concede AI’s owns capacity for provisional abstraction, and not only visual abstraction but procedural and epistemic abstraction, if those are even the right words and it may not be the right words.” — Benjamin Bratton. Remarks on the Hole of Representation in Computer ‘Vision’. 2017
I think they are the right words, and I agree: AI needs to be humble in its capacity for abstraction, and have a deep ability to compartmentalize different contexts and human concerns. To achieve this, we need to pursue abstraction at full bore, which is the primary mandate of The Abs-Tract Organization. A brief reminder that this abstraction is also a gateway to our other research streams of metamodernism, evolutionary globalization, public sociology, epistemic justice, and systemic-conspiracy. As the next quote suggests, humanizing AI (and ourselves) is very subtle process that must be expanded and mapped out in order to challenge the history of abuse by abstraction.
“More polemically, an active engagement to define normative AI… is required, and it’s one that may mobilize our most nuanced techniques further towards numinous self disenchantment, a setting loose of abstraction, of the processes abstraction, as a physical and political process, not abstraction as the preservation of its traditional authority as the metaphysics of ceremony.” — Benjamin Bratton. Remarks on the Hole of Representation in Computer ‘Vision’. 2017
‘Designer sociology’ plays on the fact that Bratton has a design background but also is meant as a counterpoint to the concept of designer babies (cf. Designer babies: an ethical horror waiting to happen?). Rather than try to design the ultimate human, we should design the ultimate society for all humans. Rather than practice eugenics, we should practice eudaemonics and design a social system that is conducive to human flourishing and happiness. Our systems’ resources are disproportionately focused on the wrong things, perennially attending to the symptoms and not the root problems. Bratton smashes this point home in a 2011 interview:
“I think that we are in a very precarious position, and I mean we the earthlings, we the citizens of some as-yet-to-be-identified cosmopolitan condition, and I think that we are not only grasping at the wrong answers, but grasping at the wrong problems.” — Activate NYC interview with Benjamin Bratton
I contend that we are also at the beginning of a new era of scientific socialism via metamodern sociology. To panic at such a statement is an allergic reaction that is not warranted. We are hung up on the historical context of many words, and capitalism itself is not the least of them, but we need to get over this. Everything is a matter of definition, and perhaps ‘designer sociology’ can master a codex of definitions, so it can synthesize the semantics, and abstract elegant social systems. Capitalism and socialism must achieve a synthesis of sorts; whether we call it social capitalism, concious capitalism, or eco-capitalism, it should invariably be socialist in philosophical principle — by having society and not capital as the organizing principle.
‘People over profits’ is the basic idea. Again, if you feel a tingle in your nose at these statements, look up the words ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ and realize that your stereotypical ‘vicious abstraction’ of them is not at all an operational definition, but a gross simplification. One way we should practice designer sociology is to be defining an ideal and normative social system from the ground up to meet ‘commercial sociology’ half-way.
“Gabriel Tarde’s nineteenth-century dream, for a sociology based on diagramming society bit by bit from every microencounter until emergent patterns come into view, is suggested, if not also partially realized, by social network platforms such as [Google, Facebook].” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
While Google and other conglomerated tech giants are running The Stack, we need to resist the psychopathic corporate ethos that hampers their sociological imagination, and do it ourselves. The Stack — and more importantly “The Stack to Come” — demonstrates the need for a more abstract representation of the earth, its resources, its interacting systems, its knowledge base, and its constituents. Imagine an advanced social systems simulator consisting of an abstract wireframe fusion of Google Earth, Wikipedia, Sim City, with realtime analytics and a wise AI facilitator, experienced via VR and Augmented Reality (AR), and you have a platform TATO is dreaming up.
“In exploring the active contradictions of sovereignty in relation to emergent planetary-scale computation, we need a diagram of the global Stack that we have as it actually is (e.g., electricity grids, mineral sourcing, strange interfaces, smart and dumb cities, alien users) to give a technical specificity to our speculations on geopolitical and geosocial alternatives, but also to better abstract its scattered technical heterogeneity into a fungible totality.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
“For The Stack, the OSI model serves as a literal and technical prototype for how network architectures operate between very small and large scales and, as the primary abstraction, or universal diagram, for how its heterogeneous participants can arrange communication in a vertical assemblage, now at a megastructural scale.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
Referring back to the ‘abstraction principle’ from computer programming, it is the dictum that aims to reduce redundancy and duplication in the system. If there is one collaborative open-source stack, it will streamline knowledge delivery and coordinate cooperative action in profoundly efficient ways. The imperative to abstract a better and better stack that meets the holistic demands of the system and its users is obvious. Conversely, short of becoming self-aware and destructive like the Terminator’s Skynet, The Stack is beginning to mirror properties and propensities to abstract the human subject out of the equation.
Bratton projects the possibility of building a “Matrioshka brain” (cf. Stross’s novel Accelerando) around the earth, akin to Galactus from the Marvel universe, which caused Whitson to note the “synthetic, imaginary, dystopian?, and speculative brilliance of Bratton’s work.” Well said.
“The Stack is an engine for thinking and building. The architectural metaphor may suggest an exclusive design for one given site, but it should direct us instead toward a geometry in which different things occupy the same site at the same time and cohere into a stable system because of this co-overlapping. The Stack is built of real things, but how we conceptualize its totality depends on powers of aesthetic abstraction.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
As Bratton says, there are stacks everywhere if you know how to see them. He cites the old 70s IBM short “Powers of Ten” as revealing the ubiquity of ordinary stacks. The Earth itself is a stack and we evolved exclusively on the thin border between its surface and the atmosphere above it. The level of analysis always matters. Stacks are abstractions, which are also everywhere, and it’s about time we started noticing.
For its emphasis on design, diagrams, and aesthetics, The Stack leaves much to be desired in the way of visualizations. Notwithstanding the invaluable Stack metaphor and model itself, Bratton’s imaginative prose does a lot to help us ‘see’ The Stack, but how do we go about designing it? That is truly the hard work of abstraction ahead of us. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve illustrated the power of Bratton’s abstraction and its utility to move us forward.
Concluding Remarks, or a Remarkable Conclusion(?)
“The etymology of platform refers to a “plan of action, scheme, design” and, from the Middle French, platte form, or, literally, a plateau or raised level surface. As Benedict Singleton writes, this conjoined with the plot, which itself first implies a plot of land. Once situated on the platform of the stage, the “plot” becomes a more abstract structure that situates characters into the forgone conclusion of its unfolding, even as they suffer the choices that aren’t really theirs to make.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
(I might also add that tract can also refer to a plot of land, and thus an ‘abstract platform’ is doubly meta-.)
Bratton’s design brief is open-ended, but it has a teleological air about it, and this is not a bad thing. There is a certain inevitability to the future, with particular trajectories, path dependencies, and punctuated equilibria. Many people can in fact predict the future, because they are active in creating it. A problem is that many special interests are creating negative externalities that fuck everyone over. So to know what’s coming and prepare for it is not enough; we must change our destiny collectively, and make sure The Stack is not stacked against us.
“What I call platform logics refers first to the abstracted systems logic of platforms (their diagrammatics, economics, geography, and epistemology of transaction) and second to the tendency on the part of some systems and social processes to transform themselves according to the needs of the platforms that might serve and support them, both in advance of their participation with that platform and as a result of that participation.” — The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty
The Stack is also reflexive and responsive, but mostly to the needs of the powerful, unless we can help it. At the nexus of software and sovereignty is the issue of global governance. The Stack is the problem and the solution, as is the case with abstraction. Based on the research Alexander Wendt and others, I contend that a world state is inevitable (and necessary) in some form. It’s going to happen one way or another, and rather than see more failed attempts at conquering the globe (be it imperialism or world war), it is already being designed via The Stack to supplant the existing order. Therefore, we must (re-)design it better.
The abstraction of Benjamin Bratton and his Stack are highly metamodern for its embrace of reconstruction and its high level of awareness of developmental logic and megastructures, to say the least. There is a certain omniscience of ‘knowing what we have to do’ although there are still many unknowns. One thing that is for sure is the nous world order must be predicated on consent and the provision of resources and rights, nothing to do with a monopoly on violence. May the best plan win.
“With machine vision as both a point of contact between AI and its worlds and is a trace reserved for us to imagine and even present what AI is, we discovered that the most realistic depiction may be bracingly abstract just as what is depicted is itself a process of abstraction. Abstraction as realism. Abstraction in this sense… we could define as the reduction of a condition to a form… through which one may also re-represent conditions other than that from which the figure is drawn. It’s the second part of the shuttling of the schema that’s important here. The glossary as described — this hypothetical glossary that would name all this stuff then it’s not a horseless carriage metaphor — would place certain machine vision AI processes and their effects into interpretive categories. This is not only a set theory problem, it’s also a functional dimensional reduction, and for all reductions from data compression to abstract expressionism, raw information may be lost, by the end an interpretal(?) clarity of pattern is gained.” — Benjamin Bratton. Remarks on the Hole of Representation in Computer ‘Vision’. 2017
The Abs-Tract Organization (TATO) is a boutique research and media think tank, centered around the broad concept of “abstraction” and five other vital research streams.
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