The Stack, Interface Layer—Benjamin H. Bratton

Relevant passages highlighted while reading the Interface Layer chapter of The Stack.

Ultimately it is the arbitrary precision of interfacial diagrams of specific interactions that allows them to delimit in advance what the User can and can- not do with The Stack as a whole. Beyond just the framing of possible actions, the active responsiveness of the interfacial diagram allows its unique mapping of reality to seem not only valid but also functionally real to the User.

This accumulation of incommensurable recursive projections back into direct perceptual reality (however inaccurate, false, stupefying, and illegible they may be) is the first generative accident of the Interface layer.

Design → Solution → Accident

What Interfaces Are

The Interface layer consists of any technical-informational machine, compressed into graphical or objective formats, that links or delinks Users and the Addressed entities up and down columns within the Stack. Its role is to telescope, compress, and expand layers of The Stack, routing User actions both up and down as they go. We need to think of interfaces not only in terms of the GUI (as “buttons with words on them”) but as a more generic structuring of links and boundaries within a given form or field. An interface is any point of contact between two complex systems that governs the conditions of exchange between those systems.

Once an image can be used to control what it represents, it too becomes technology: diagram plus computation equals interface.

it is also an instrument through which a user of this image-interface can effect change back on that network.

We could have one loop working without the other, and often do in fact, but our expansive interfacial modernity depends on a universally usable and effectively compelling alignment between these two correspondences. For interfaces to be systematic, clicks must work and do what they promise.

Only because they reduce and simplify complex systems can they make it possible for people to use those systems at a systematic scale and realize platform value from them.

At the same time, the range of possible interfacial circuits into The Stack may not be identical for every User even for the same machine, and so for the Interface layer, the governance is also the modulation and enforcement of the differential possibilities available through a specific interface and for a specific User. Interfaces slice, cleave, and individuate. Each is open for some and closed to others.

what Deleuze called “control” is based on the computational intensity of interfaces and governs through its differentiation of the capacities of Users to do and make things in accordance with whatever interfaces they can access (and that can act on their behalf).

Both assemble tactical habitats and tradable assets, and are in turn absorbed by them in accordance with how their individuated profiles as Interface Users can be monetized by sacred and secular Cloud capitalizations.

Interfaces at Hand: From Object to Sign to Object

As we negotiate the interfacial density of the urban fabric, our own primate bodies are infused and intersected by its rhythmic extensions, controlling its machinery at a distance and triangulated as subject-Users by that machinery in the course of our movements.

More broadly, any effective tool has some interfacial capacities in that it transforms, encodes, or transmits some worldly dynamic in a specific way.

We could say, at the risk of teleology, that the mastery of a tool, already a kind of embodied internalization of its own effects, entails a specific intelligence regarding the mutual interfaciality of objects in the world. (...) any reflexive knowledge of effects and environments must also include an understanding of the intrinsic and extrinsic interfacialities of available objects.

Instead of manipulating objects as tools, we have learned to manipulate signs that have the same technical effects of tools. A general conversion is at work in this transeference of interfacial knowledge from things to signs for things, from objects to icons.

A picture of a bomb is merely a representation, whereas a button with a picture of a bomb on it that causes remote explosions is weaponized skeuomorphism.

The machinic image is qualified by many little sinkholes between the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real, and at a global scale of billions of Users, the interfacial image is also partially a function of sheer machinic quantity.

the general image apparatus is slowly accumulating a comprehensive simulation of visual experience that will be of enormous value to future artificial intelligences interested in simulating its Anthropocenic origins.

With Walter Benjamin in mind, we see that the image in the age of mechanical reproduction is being pushed toward the assignment of verifying the original and its aura as well.

These expansions of interfaciality through objects return it from the semiotic to the corporeal, and in doing so draw potentially even wider worlds into their computational domains than GUI can. The GUI largely reduced the hand to a fingertip, one that points and selects among a bounded set of options, and so simulated tactile craft as a sequence of discrete menu items, each executing chosen software subroutines in programmed sequences. But with gestural-tangible-haptic interfaces, we can imagine the possibility of a fully mature interface regime that dispenses almost entirely with both the alphanumeric machine of the key- board and the semiotic machine of clickable icon. In contrast, some things might be so thoroughly imbued by that computational solvent that they will contain their own direct interfaciality with the world, not as objective metaphors but as real objects. To interact with an everyday object may involve haunted causality at a distance. To provide interfacial mediation between the mobile primates—that’s us—and the environmentally embedded digital information in which we are situated, such a regime would rely instead on the wisdom of spatial-object navigation accumulated over millennia: waving, poking, dancing, stacking, peeling, squishing, sorting, throwing. Any of these interactions with computational matter could link Users down the layers of The Stack and back up again.

The Interface as Layer

The Stack might deterritorialize (and apparently decentralize) modern institutional inputs and outputs at the same time that it installs another even more regularized network on the same landscape (effectively recentralizing it in its own image at the Cloud layer).

In that this drawing is also a kind of machine, the GUI synthesizes cognition (and aspiration, affect, drama) into its syntax; it grids both the image machine itself and the space in which the image machine can act.

The interface takes what is linked by distributed computational systems but impossible to directly perceive because it is happening across the planet at once, and in turn gives it a portrait. (...) totality machines, both describing linkages and making projective claims over them.

The power (and danger) of the Interface layer is this remaking of the world through instrumentalized images of totality; it is what gives any interfacial regime even a politico-theological coherency and appeal.

Third is how the direct blending of a graphical interfacial overlay on a User’s direct perception poses unique complications for design and interface geopolitics.

Interfaces in The Stack 1: The Aesthetics of Logistics

Because interfacial grids within The Stack compose lines that both subdivide and gather, even at the same time, and because these framings localize interactions within a global platform, they can control the distribution of bits, objects, and affects according to those curves.

Interfaces work as machines, and machines work as interfaces, and so in the wider interfacial landscape, many specific technologies are not isolated mechanisms put to work for isolated goals; they are also technologies for the production of other technologies.

For The Stack, increasingly intense computational intelligence is designed into specific nodes in this chain, and sometimes without knowledge or control of other interfaces that may directly or indirectly link to it. (...) we should then define interface design not only as the specification of one given node (such as the GUI for an App) but also as the design of the succession of relays through an intended pathway of connections. (...) This is first-order interface design: the design of chains of interfacial effect by means of physical and virtual relay networks

As real logistical channels link the unlikely arcs of things from here to there and from there to here, they then also enroll the User not only into an aesthetic of logistics but also logistics itself as an aesthetic ideal.

The orthodox post-Fordist plot for “the network society” recounts a storied evolution from fixed, contiguous institutional interfaces into decentralized serial nodes and couplings. (...) But logistical modernity is defined as much by the concentration around meganodes and global platforms and protocols as it is by decentralization and dispersion (e.g., Google, the shipping container, the TCP/ IP protocol, US dollars).

FLOPS (floating-point operations).

Any increase in the computational capacity of any given interface, as both conduit and producer of information, allows that interface to concentrate and give structure to greater quantities and more complex qualities of informational-logistical flow. In turn, as computational power and networked software become faster and cheaper, each node is newly empowered as a medium of governance over what those flows represent, and so the intensification of capacity also shines political attention onto them.

This makes any question as to how to design an interfacial regime that much more fraught and important, and especially so when its nodes are programmed and articulated through the Cloud layer (...) as this can also induce overflow of the jurisdictional bounds of any single designer’s own control or her client’s.

From the perspective of the User, as the intensification of computational power of each interfacial node and of the aggregate networks that link them gathers momentum along its accelerating axis and provides for more intense logistical linkages across even more nonlinear routes, then the temporal integrity and cognitive coherency of the worlds mediated by them are correspondingly dissolved in equal measure.

So, as a therapeutic response, Interfaces are asked to soothe the stress that they have caused by presenting their remedy images of orderly resolution as data visualizations, as GUI, as mind maps, as tools and trackers.

Because the increase in computational intensity of each node in an opaque global network and of the network’s circulatory capacity as a whole helps to produce the radically diminished contiguity of the interfacial landscape, and less transparency of far-flung assemblage lines, a tremendous demand is then placed back on its own images, especially interfacial images, which can represent the totality of these nodes into coherent wholes.

The User demands visual resolution with descriptions, diagnoses, and coherent projections of how important interfaces are dispersed and their impact on our lives. This is the essential comfort of information visualization, especially dashboards, because instead of being elusive and rare, data arrive in bewildering excess. This complicates its assignment to clarify things for us, as any query of the world results in so much raw information coming back to the User in response that another question must be asked of the first answer in the form of a reductive visualization, and inside the bounding frame of that diagram, pattern recognition begins to take over for interpretation.

♥︎ No order, no final conciliatory balance, no reassuring ecosystem.

This conceptual gather- ing refers instead to how a massively discontiguous assemblage line, bound together by exceedingly complex interfacial relays linking continents, must be understood and represented as if it were a single pattern or machine. (...) It draws the discontiguous assemblage line into that resolved diagram, but to do so, it must, like all diagrams, necessarily reduce and conceal the complexity of the processes it represents (and as indicated above, that reduction is also necessary to its ability to function as a broadly useful social tool). Further, as interfaces are reductive in how they compress information—in their foregrounding of certain things and not others—they are also inevitably “ideological.” Their reduction toward resolution is doctrinal.

Once more, unlike static diagrams, such interfaces can directly affect what they rep- resent; as the chain of signification runs both from the event up through a chain of representation to the image represents it, it also runs back down to the event, and so the User-manipulated image of the thing becomes the medium through which the thing can also be manipulated.


An image of totality, which when acted on configures cause and effect in the literal terms of its own totalization, makes its reductive map incrementally truer each time it is used.

The political volatility of a future interfacial regime is not only in the drawing of an imaginary resolution directly overlapped onto the real and available landscape, but also its technical ability to affect those realities by User action.

In that such futural projective images of utopian totalities are, like all such graphical interfacial tools, not only simulations but also fantastic instruments aimed directly toward The Stack’s megastructure, this is perhaps, for better or worse, the most essential productive accident of the Interface layer.

Interfaces in The Stack 2: Apps and Programming the Space at Hand

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.

Does an immanent and tactile sign demand a more exact duty from the believing reader?

The App is a thin membrane on top of a vast machine, but one that nevertheless allows its User to pilot and be piloted by that machine with the slightest gesture. (...) an App condenses the Interface layer within the larger Stack, pitched between User and the Addresses that link the User to the Cloud, City, or environmentally embedded software. (...) there is then a kind of programmatic blending between the urban situation through which a User moves and the interactions he may be having with a specific App and Cloud service. (A mall becomes a game board, a sidewalk becomes a banking center, a restaurant becomes the scene of a crime in a crowd-sourced recommendation engine, birds are angry and enemies are identified, and the experience of these may be very different for different people and purposes.)

The App is therefore not just the interface through which the User works on the world; it is also the aperture through which the Cloud (and The Stack) redraws the City and its Users. (...) the App also transforms the ubiquitous device into a modulation of the hand, and so over time, it will also dissipate the hand as machines settle into another kind of User agency.

Some cars might be bound to an Android or iOS platform lock-in, or new manufacturer-specific operating systems might support neither or both, but cars already contain multiple software and hardware systems, and by extending these to control how cars navigate streets and how passengers interact with the world and one another, it’s not difficult to see how the redefinition of “a car” as a high-velocity computing platform, enveloping the user inside, initiates new genres of in-motion Apps.

But here the anthropocentric bias of construing the User as necessary like a human, who extends his primate hand into the world, reaches an impasse. Cars with Apps, medical devices with Apps, or any machine with Apps also suggest design assignments for modular forms of bottom-up artificial intelligence.

The most important, viable, and effective Apps and App market platforms may serve the nonhuman Users that interface across scales and systems—manufacturing, logistics, healthcare, transportation, agriculture, retail service—by linking and delinking modular functions of component machines working in interoperable concert.

As any piece of equipment, regardless of its shape or mammal origin, can be augmented by downloading a needed App function, it too can now serve any number of unexpected niches.

Interfaces in the Stack 3: Theo-Interfaciality

These are techniques of anamnesis and the invested memorialization of the divine into sites and objects.

Anamnesis (from the Attic Greek word ἀνάμνησις meaning "reminiscence" and/or "memorial sacrifice”):

  • in Christianity, is a liturgical statement in which the Church refers to the memorial character of the Eucharist and/or to the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.
  • In philosophy, anamnesis is a concept in Plato's epistemological and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and alludes to in his Phaedrus. It is the idea that humans possess knowledge from past incarnations and that learning consists of rediscovering that knowledge within us.

In his essay “Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction” (and his book Google: Words Beyond Grammar), Boris Groys laments the eclipse of anamnesis by software regimes that do the work of memory and memorialization on the User’s behalf. (...) He shakes his head in pity at his wannabe-extremist students for whom it’s enough to possess copies of incendiary, uncompromising (unread) PDFs on their laptops in order for the act of identification to stick, or so they think; radicals not even radicalized, merely fanboy collectors. Groys laments that without the necessary and difficult investment of interpretation and an exacting self-transformation into the position of faith through the physical training of repetition and memorialization, however arbitrary it may be, then the rebinding (and the religion itself) is empty.

it is, rather, religion evacuated of religio. Even if so, it does not mean that such interfaces cannot also motivate extraordinary acts of motivated devotion and violence.

the layer of interfacial icons and indexes on a given perceptual field transforms it by subtitling objects and events, offering navigational tools, overlaying GUI menus on real-world systems, cinematic insertions, and elisions, and other artificial sensations by which the ambiguities of local signification and significance are eliminated for the User. The ultimate effect of this programming may be to transform semiotic techniques into direct ideological, even theological, articulations of the world.

AR is an aggressive subtitling of the phenomenal world now rendered as interactive narrative. (...) The job of the software is to explain what is seen and to automate active sorting of how it should be encountered, valued, and qualified—with reverence, indifference, or violence. As religio, or for the Schmitt App, AR draws lines and differentiates friend and foe, automat- ing even intentional belief, subcontracting the neocortex’s manipulation of metaphor, offloading it to the algorithms strapped to your face. (...) AR Apps, in all their baroque banality, augment the world more than they augment vision. (...) AR is where the microtargeting business models of cognitive capitalism melt into the choreography of the mobile User-subject.

Interfacial regimes such as these are more than visual technologies; they are indeed cosmograms (Umberto Eco’s 1984 essay arguing that Mac is Catholic and DOS is Protestant isn’t obsolete; it’s prophetic).

Utopian political theology becomes projective interfacial geography, and vice versa in some cases. This is borne out by observing that any closed self-referential platform is also a belief circle.

Geoscapes: Interfaces Drawing Worlds

In effect, the Algerian public came to order in thinking that there was a strong, effective military resistance in early battles with the French when there was not, largely because the radio Users, already literate in the fantastic narrative, conceived there to be one.

Any given site in the City may be overcome by multiple competing perceptual totalities, systems, or sovereign geographies, but for any of these, what are the terms of encounter with the alien software platform and belief circle?

each interfacial regime, total or not, articulates its specific reductive version of the world in which its own geography is sovereign, and through these diagrams, the User composes actions through The Stack that enforce and reinforce that same totalizing worldview. But that any single User may be interpolated not by one but by many such interfacial regimes at once, any one site is defined not by purification but by the alloy of multiple totalities at once (even if each totality would explicitly exclude the others in principle). The User must then manage more than one exclusive totality at once, and the multiple identities and agencies that each regime provides to the User position.

This projective geographic image is one means by which specific interfacial regimes govern the mediation of their Users, The Stack, and the parts of the world they can access. The Interface, as an image of this territory, becomes a means by which territory is written and managed, and finally the medium through which other territories are challenged and the whole apparatus is contested.

At the same time, images of interfaces come to connote futuristic speculative design.

The real complexity of discontiguous assemblage lines and interfacial chains requires that fictional resolution of the interfacial diagram in order for Users to comprehend and participate within them, and the utopian projection of fictional alternatives to these uncertain social and technical conditions onto surfaces of real technologies of interfaces is how they articulate those wishes. (...) This is unavoidable, and so let’s not avoid it.

As The Stack has elevated interfacial diagrams to the status of planetary infrastructure, linking event to image with the ambient interfaces and habitats of the City layer, it coheres Users around generic experiences of social confusion that may still germinate new forms of political universality. This productive dissensus will remain open as long as the political architectures of The Stack can situate multiple jurisdictional claims and generate new jurisdictional strata where none existed, such that no single combination can finally resolve into a consensus sovereignty of last instance (or last resort).