The Stack, User Layer—Benjamin H. Bratton

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

The Stack—User Layer

By contrast, the platform sovereignty of the User in The Stack as identified for the Interface and City layers is derived not from some essential dignity of the particular human who “uses,” but from the agency of the User position in relation to the envelopes against which he or she or it is situated. Any sovereignty of the User draws less probably from established legal rights than from the contradictions and slippages between how formal citizens are provided access under control regimes versus how platform envelopes provide access to all Users regardless of formal political standing. One envelope may open up territories in ways the former cannot, and when it does, the position of the User is not just an empty suit, but a point of leverage in reorganizing the political geography of The Stack. Even so, that position never allows someone to enter into it fully formed; it also forms that person (or thing) into shape as it provides them tactics for shifting systems and their apparatuses. In this, the User layer of The Stack is not where the rest of the layers are mastered by some sovereign consciousness; it is merely where their effects are coherently personified.

To and from its location, the User is both an initiator and an outcome of those vertical paths that in the introductory chapter I called columns. But because this is also where actual human beings are most unambiguously situated within The Stack, it is also where political constitutions, end-user agreements, linguistic and cognitive cultures, psychoanalytic conundrums, and so on, together structure how platforms (including states) see Users and how Users model their own interests and actions, as seen in Interfaces large and small.

There are only possible routes among possible routes, and the durable form of one layer might guarantee or prevent variation within another layer that coexists with it in the same context.

What a state sees or what any other Cloud platform sees is what it can see and wants to see through its particular capacities of perception and institutional dispositions of looking as it strategizes its own reflection up the columns toward the User.

The user is looking down at/to the platform?
↓ ↑

The Stack starts from user and ends to/with cloud, instead of seeing the cloud as the upper layer and the user at the bottom.

Origins of the Users

Today persona design and use case modeling is widely taught as a basic design research methodology, and as a result, for better or worse, a plurality of our material artifacts were conceived to suit the nuanced interests of completely fictional people following fictional scenarios. We, the actual consumers, are the shadows of the personified simulations of ourselves.

To be sure, this doesn’t conclude but rather intensifies the interfacial apparatus processes of artificial subjectivization.

“User” is a normative figure of subjective agency for The Stack (...) It also brings with it residual and sometimes discredited concepts of human agency and cognitive transparency.

any entity positioned as a User, however briefly or permanently, brings with it a contextual history that is not reducible to software instructions and can twist the terms of subject delineation for its own purposes.

The open entanglements of multiple apparatuses express different postures and positions, some of which can innovate cultural norms and invent new Users on the scene.
More often, however, at the global scale of The Stack, the User position is reserved for a reductive regularization into customized utilitarianism, and when that is mobilized for planetary-scale interfacial regimes, then its identification with the local reflections of computational mirrors can make it alien even to its own experiences. (...) and in the revelation of the robust subjectivity of other nonhuman but computationally complex Users.

Alienation as a way to get into contact with users of different nature?

Finding the Universal User

the Cloud layer enrolls proto-citizens in global platform totalities, (...) and the Interface layer diagrams reductive images of all of these processes, served up as total or tactical instrumental regimes. All these are put in motion for Users, as Users are put in motion for them.

The more salient design problem seems less to design for Users, as if they were stable forms to be known and served, than to design and redesign the User itself in the image of whatever program might enroll it.

But here, “we,” the persona and use cases of the world, cohere as a polity to the extent that we are all agents of the urban commonwealth of the digitally articulated electron, water molecule, and land use event. The foundation of a User’s proto-citizenship falls within this Stack-scale urban fabric, feeding into and off its provisions of life.

As the User is drawn deeper into urban platforms, drawing resources from them and providing cognitive and physiological value back to them, tensions between entertainment as labor and labor as entertainment move front and center, and the attendant paradoxes of economic privacy and civic transparency grow louder.

Examples please!

Not only are his interactions with The Stack quantified with exacting candor and offered up for critique and comparison, but his intelligent efforts also provide those systems a valuable measure of their interactions with him.

Most interesting, however, is not Griffith’s individual apologetics but the shift from the unit of the individual User of The Stack to a profile derived from the total sum of all Users, gauged as one enormous meta-User. Perhaps this shift in scale provides some hope that deliberate redesign of governance is possible. The political identities of Users are produced through interfacial regimes, and the public profile and legitimacy of those regimes appear in the composite mosaic of the Users that it generates. The whole makes parts, which make wholes: the apparatus individuates User, and the totality of Users comes to define the scope and quality of the apparatus as infrastructure for their lives.

Quantified Self and Its Mirror

(...) “death of the user.” By this, I mean the expiration of a specific kind of user, and the displacement its soft humanism from the conceptual center of design strategy by the proliferation and predominance of both nonhuman and nonindividuated actors within the expanded field of ubiquitous computation.

As discrete human individuals believe themselves in charge of their tools, they nevertheless represent an increasingly particular, even marginalized type of User-agent within a diverse throng of alternatives. At the same time, this same dispersion and diversification of User-agency into the wider landscape of the world provokes a belligerent overdetermination and overappearance of the individuated human as the base unit through which that world is measured.

the part is determined by the whole, which achieves its identity through the coherence of its parts (even when the whole is one User and the parts his partial component characteristics). But inside the economy of the User position, profile components cohere into the temporary resolution, but they do so without belonging exclusively to it. They travel into external places and positions, leaving behind the afterimage of the resolved User into which so many people invest their own identities.

The experiment draws on a simple and ambitious question: What if everything you ever saw, heard, and felt, every object you ever touched, every location you ever shadowed—every externally trackable experience—could be recorded at some incredible lossless resolution and fidelity, fed into practically infinite storage, and available to recall and replay at any time?

See Black Mirror’s episode?

The phenomenology of metadata would be overwhelming. (...) wouldn’t the absolute User at some point lose (or let go) the ability to differentiate present experience from past memory and from future wish?

Kairos time (wiki), in contrast to the linear understanding of time that is chronos?

A kind of transcendental infantilization or enlightened disindividuation? Would memories of memory become unwound such that the consciousness of a situated subject is forever unwound as well, leaving little piles of neurofabric throbbing in the feedback of its own disassembly? If so, then can those be rewoven into different, less individuated User-subjects, after the fact?


(For this, intensity refers to the scope, scale, and computational capacity of a diagram to capture an event or life; granularity refers to the detail it can capture; and reflexivity refers to how much the diagram can be meaningfully acted on, either as a GUI that controls a feedback loop or social connections providing surveillance, and a stage to show off the self-events under the social microscope.) Where exactly the threshold point between solution and dissolution sits, we can only hypothesize, but we can anticipate, and not without optimism, the crumbling of the psychologized single-serving human User as the generic universal User position in relation to The Stack, and consider instead the soupy ingredients for alternatives that are left behind.

The better question is: What kind of User can be designed instead?

By tracking external forces (e.g., environmental, microbial, economic) and their role in the formation of the User-subject’s state and performance, the boundaries between internal and external systems are perforated and blurred.

This is one site from which alternative User positions can be invented.

The baseline design brief for the User layer of The Stack may go something like this: In the image of planetary-scale information infrastructure, comprising trillions of addressable haecceities, the resolved scale of the platform need not be for one User at a time, drifting into and out of narcissistic virtual reality, but for pluralities of partial users, quasi-users, human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic, intermingling in intersubjective alliances, sharing perceptions, memory, algorithms and techniques, visualization rhetorics situated among the semantic graphs of aggregate User experiences predicated not just on autobiographical interoperability, but on direct physical and cognitive promiscuity. Imagine one sort of User logging the totality of her perceptions and interactions not as an atomic iota lost in her own manifestations (like Bell’s MyLifeBits QS persona) but as a population of 10 billion absolute Users, all generating content and all feeding off one another’s issuances. Plural systems provide plural images, which provide plural Users—two of us, ten of us, a hundred of us, an entire city of us—literally seeing through each other’s eyes, remembering through one another’s experiences, walking in one another’s shadows. Imagine Jakob von Uexküll’s foray through the garden of Umwelten, where he encountered the interweaving but exclusive lifeworlds of plants, animals, flowers, and insects, but in our biosemiotic field, everything can now swap points of view. Tomorrow, may I have your yesterday? Unexpected alliances, continental organizations, linguistic traditions, and politico-theological communions ensue, any one User moving into and out of several of them, just as they move into and out of him. The profile reflected back is not of a resolved individual but of empathetic assemblages across multiple spatial and rhythmic scales. Furthermore, as nonhuman users (sensors, animals, artificial intelligence, what-have-you) are enrolled into these collaborative perceptual-interfacial affiliations and plat- forms, the contingent hierarchies between physical subjects and objects are put once again into play. So instead of the Shanghai Expo’s universal User scenario, where the cosmopolitan apparatus of The Stack would interpolate each human as an interoperable atomic profile, however comparable and equalized they might appear, can it instead come to provide and even demand far more alien subjectification en masse? These would perhaps be unaccountable, even invisible to, the dynamics of individuation versus collectivization, physicalization versus virtualization, localization versus globalization—neither solution nor dissolution, only strange columns up and down The Stack, and from strange columns new geographies and geopolitics for a post-Anthropocenic User.


Trace and Frame

The image of totality that any fully formed interfacial regime provides as part of a platform is not only the composite pattern made by crisscrossing atomic grains in flux, drifting, charging, and discharging with one another; rather, those interactions are situated within cartographies produced not only by the traces of their instantaneous encounters accumulated over time, but also in relation to slow macrologic images of the territory as a whole.

In one of Exit’s panoramas about the future of transcontinental migration, “every person is represented by one pixel.”

This interfacial recursion—the identification and measurement of Users that already organize themselves with the very mechanisms that are used to do the measuring—underscores that planetary data infrastructure, now general-purpose equipment, are means not only to scan a world but to compose one as well. Data visualization is, for good or ill, more than world-mapping; it is also world-making.

Maximum User

Inside the shell of one’s skin, there is far more DNA that is nonhuman than DNA that is human. You, the skin bag, are all too less human than human. Even to the extent that your individual corporeal machine is to be taken as the base unit of medical analysis and political subjectivity, it is already a multispecies arrangement (...) metabiopolitics (...) The tracing of pathologies across multiple biological scales, over time and over multiple populations at such comprehensive scope and granular detail, would surely also reform basic concepts of “disease,” from one recognizing swatches of individuated symptoms toward one governing nuanced economies of symbiotic infection, transfer, and immunization across multiple host sites, and smart enough to see some contamination as enabling health, not preventing it.

If so, where, if anywhere, do we finally pin down the stable sovereign of the User (or the individual person) as a systemic agent?

Can we imagine an inversion, then, for which the sovereign interface to the platform is tethered to the structured information simulacrum instead of to the discrete entity from which it slips?

we need to more forcefully activate the back-and-forth between the profile and the individuated humanist subject so that the simulation’s work as the expression of multiple geopolitical and biopolitical intersections can do more and say more.

Odysseys of self-quantification (such as Smarr’s) might confirm that disappearance must be preceded by an appearance of the cybernetic User-subject and of a world made through his embodied biology and disembodied profile.

To the extent that the composition of the User as a biopolitical subject also includes vectors of data—genomic, microbial, microeconomic, metaecological—into the living diagram of interpolation, then the site of the subject is experienced as fully infused and overcome with extrinsic flows such that the coherence, stability, and confidence previously invested in the visual fade away.

Death of the User

While he goes on to say that the appropriate response is not one of simple refusal or acclimation, it does not seem for him that the landscape of apparatus might make worlds (and User-subjects) through encounters with things other than what he would qualify as (human) “living beings.”

Not only do animals and machines have no place inside this User position, they are, he observes, foremost subservient apparatuses through which humans inject, invest, and sublimate their own desires for reconnection (through disconnection).

Economies of prostheticization are in fact important to understanding the posthuman User position, but their shape is not that of a one-way concentric radiation, from human into apparatus. It is, rather, a crisscrossing field in which humans themselves are just as likely to be the prostheses, and the apparatus is just as likely to be the User that prostheticizes the human, as the other way around.

(...) the universal—once again human and nonhuman, living and nonliving—User-subject among these.

putting nonhumans into that User position should be seen as a temporary station at best, but perhaps a means to invent different kinds of agencies, not just mimicking this degraded human. We must save the nonhumans from being merely humans, so that they could show us a different way for us to be both human and not.

In its place we imagine a re-wilded landscape of inhumanist intentions, mapped by multipolar points of control, composing a more polysynchronic and less chauvinistic system of systems.

Animal User

(...) robot dogs, robot fish, robot birds, robot insects, and so on (...) what those animals might make of their robotic cousins is another matter.

AI User

They do this on the direct behalf of a human User, and they do this with or without human supervision, such that the human is in a way Siri’s co-User as much as the other way around.

In time, similar alternative personality assistant Apps may demand absolute fidelity and suffer virtual death when it is revoked, like a passive-aggressive Tomagotchi.

The fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders may prove essential reading for programmers of the next decades full of Siris.

Something else needs to sideline the vestigial, embarrassing anthropocentrism that brings the false flattery of passive (or passive-aggressive) assistants. In fact, the stage management of the human User as somehow commanding the work of the App is already, we may conclude, an unnecessary alibi protecting the essential opposite effect (that the mammal User is only a provisional mechanism for dragging gigaflop tracking devices through the avenues of cities and for remonetizing these routes as the spatial career of algorithmic capital and its successors).

We see not AIs appearing as if they were human, but humans appearing as if they were AIs (...) this may signal less a mechanistic subsumption than a wider berth for incentive mutual identification between co-Users.

Machine User

Sitting in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, I am reminded of Joan Didion’s revelation that this trap is the most authentic Angeleno social experience. We are not going to any place, all lined up behind our windshields, we are all already there. Today, bumper to bumper, we are now all also talking to ourselves, taking meetings, texting, emailing, Googling, checking on this and that, editing essays on our phones. This is the home and office. We do not always need to arrive, because we are already there: if this was your home, you would live here by now. ...The freeways as boulevards of “fast parking” are a grid that segments and enables an inertial sort of mobility. Ensconced in our furtive provisional networks, the car is no longer the primary technology of mobility, even in LA. The car has gone the way of the building: too slow. ... By the time Reyner Banham arrived, the car had eaten LA, but now the smartphone is eating the car. The “‘mobile” first appeared in 1970’s as a “car phone” but now the terms are reversed. In The Transformers movie, the alien robot became a car and the phone became a robot. Here now, the car becomes a phone (as the car, in turn, becomes a robot). ... As the economy of mobility slides from mechanical to informational the car is augmented by hands-free telephony, Bluetooth networks, in-dash GPS navigation systems offering visualised or spoken directions, audio jacks, big screens counting down the drops of fuel while talking to you in weird accents, and emergency concierge communications by built-in satellite intercom. The handset does all this too, steering us in different directions by maps, recommendations, search results, tags and so forth. The phone and car find ways to subcontract each other’s functions, one to the other and back again. ... In ways that would have made no sense in Banham’s Los Angeles, the car’s interfaciality is an important criterion of performance as a personal vehicle. The most visible change to the car in recent years is in the display electronics within its primary interface, the dashboard/cockpit. If the grille on the outside used to be the car’s face—its look—now the face comes with the voice and is seen (worn?) now from the inside, in the driver’s seat. That most brandable experience is not the profile of the car seen passing through the world, but rather how the world looks gazing out through the lens of the car. ... The car phone hybrid is a mass medium, a mobile cinema micro-urbanism for one driver/user, a habitat organised and narrated by data networks. But in the end, they are not equal; the handset is the ascendant vehicle, and the car is the architecture in slow disappearance.


It seems quite natural that someone with an interest in the engineering of global platforms would either begin or end up with transportation, but whether one sees the Internet as a “superhighway” or the hundreds of millions of cars in motion at any one time as very large “data packets” makes all the difference in how the issue is problematized and formulated.

(see previous quote)

But when in motion and hurtling next to other cars, the encapsulated actor may temporarily be seen as one User.

As discussed in the Interfaces chapter, as the “car” becomes a Cloud platform, it becomes available to an Apps economy, and to the extent that the Google Car is just a very large Android device with a very large, next generation Google Glass display, there is much for designers to work with.

Within two or three decades the difference between automated driving and human driving will be so great you may not be legally allowed to drive your own car, and even if you are allowed, it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.” Be that as it may, and despite the systemic benefits to humans, there will be teeth-gnashing animosity to the call for humans to abdicate so much of the User position to the apparatus.

That said, there is no doubt that a technological assemblage such as this (...) will also innovate massive new genres of catastrophe.

They mirror the vulnerabilities of The Stack as a whole, vulnerabilities of centralization and standardization, of universalization and interconnectedness, of energy breaches and code failures.

From User-Centered Design to the Design of the User

the incorporation of many different types of actors (human, machinic, bots, animals, infrastructures) into recombinant User assemblages, all with differing regular morphologies and temporalities, means that inside the User position itself, rather different kinds of platform logics between individuated actors can occur.

the Cloud Polis we will constitute with them will have to include other durable, enforceable political positions for human and posthuman Users alike.

the longer-term geopolitical design problem is the design of the User itself—its limits, vulnerabilities, velocities.

To date, much of the discussion about the political “rights” of the User have conflated the “property rights” (and privacy rights) of a computer’s owner with the interests of a User who may or may not own his or her apparatuses.

the focus on individual privacy and autonomy from systems does not help frame how Users that do not own the computational systems with which they interface (...) can assert their interests.

While there may be versions of The Stack megastructure that could withstand and even enforce that kind of totalitarian mono-logic, to do so would likely go against the catalytic platform logic for which end Users in the network regularize autonomy so as to introduce information, modify it, and reprogram the whole according to local and instantaneous needs.

An alternative is to address every single User-Stack relation and every column initiated as a discrete haecceity and as the instantaneous mutual property of all the actors contributing to its realization. However, this leaves the simplistic notion of sovereignty derived from property unimproved, and as a design solution, it merely translates the opposed interests of some owner-Users and some tenant-Users into the legacy vocabularies of a property conflict and all the structural inadequacies that entails. It does nothing to adjudicate their claims, or enforce the mutual interests of good actors, or protect them from the cost of bad actors, and more.


Counterintuitive as it may seem, the design decision should not be to locate sovereignty in the encapsulated person who steps into the User position but instead into the position itself.

From The Stack’s perspective, the User is (...) defined by what it connects to, not by who or what it “is.”

While the semantic content of what a message says is obviously of some interest to the analyst, in order to knit the haystack in which needles hide, he collages metadata to reconstruct its patterns. In the terms of The Stack, this is more directly a policing of columns than it is of individual persons who are Users.

But instead of watching from some sterilized perch, even the User of the Palantir software is participating in the tracing of the column. (...) Everything a user does in Palantir creates a trail that can be audited. (...) This meta-metadata recursivity is a key aspect for how such systems function. (...) The query becomes the quarry. (...) The policing of columns, their metadata, all the way down into the abyss strongly suggests that tolerance for vertigo is an important attribute for designers of Stack governance.

the ongoing geopolitical surfacing of the posthuman User will be a far more complicated political and anthropological event than is a technological one.

the more radical and prudent line of sight is toward carving defensible space around the nonhuman User in order to explore the literatures by which human beings can become part of their set.

Benedict Singleton has developed a design theory (...) for which design is the instigation of traps. (...) for humans the institutionalization of these traps is where design and governmentality intersect. (...) user inside user inside user. (...) This symbiotic recursion could be called a microplatform, but it’s more than that; it is not just the negotiation among actors within the User position; it is a durable interpenetration of actors, mutually embedded one within the other.

This dissolution of the private human User comes not through the white noise of absolute quantification or mathematically guaranteed withdrawal from appearance, but through the plodding evolution toward alternative phenotypes in relation to manic apparatuses, both internal and external. (...) the synthetic User-subjects (...) These come from the division, segmentation, and multiplication of partial and compound Users into diagonal organs, both bigger and smaller than any one body or person.