HTNM Lecture — Benjamin Bratton, “Design, Geopolitics, and Planetary-Scale Computing”



Written by Kate Mattingly (TDPS), GSR for the History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series


Benjamin Bratton’s lecture at U.C. Berkeley on November 16 began with an image of the once utopian and now long abandoned Sanzhi Pod City in Taipei, which was recently found, according to Bratton’s account, to be the home of a community of hitherto unknown species of mantis, an alien, inter-species society with its own complex divisions of labor and communication formed largely unseen in the rubble of man. For Bratton, the ‘anthropocene’—the epoch during which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment—is merely a brief period of geologic time, when “humans will be vanishing even as our aggregate biomass continues to swell” and we become “the robots for future insects.” This ‘parable,’ as Bratton called it, serves as an effective allegory for the complex weave of issues that drive his work: deeply immersed in the study of geopolitics, design, and interfaces, Bratton’s ideas are intervening in a complex nexus of politics and aesthetics, and they make his work relevant to scholars in Architecture, Programming, Sociology, and New Media.


Indeed, Bratton has been described as an “American sociologist, architectural and design theorist, known for a mix of philosophical and aesthetic research, organizational planning and strategy, and for his writing on the cultural implications of computing and globalization,” and by Berkeley Professor and Chair of Rhetoric’s David Bates as a theorist who “works on the edge of art, design and philosophy.” Throughout his talk two themes that emerged were Bratton’s caution against making “a priority of human experience of human experience,” and for prioritizing the complex ways humans are tools wielded by others. The core of his thesis, “The Stack” was thus appropriately intersectional: the stack is a mega-structure that is “vast, incomplete, pervasive, and irregular,” consisting of six layers: User, Interface, Address, City, Cloud, and Earth. Focusing on the City layer, Bratton defined cities as a kind of “computational hardware,” and that interfaces of cities automate what is inside and out. In Bratton’s words, “computation” was not invented, but rather discovered, and computation is how matter achieves intelligence.


Given these topics of computation, intelligence, and users, Bratton’s talk spanned a range a range of ideas and references, from the classic science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) and its foregrounding of empathy in processes of identification and differentiation, to the Turing Test, Walter Benjamin, and Google AI imaging techniques. Ultimately, Bratton is using these examples to reconsider how platforms and users have been historicized and theorized, and to encourage a rethinking of platforms as lacking neutrality, and a reframing of users as both human and nonhuman. In Bratton words, a user is an “open position,” and one that “maps only very incompletely onto any one individual body.”


Check out the photos from his lecture below!

2015 HTNM Bratton


—————————————-ORIGINAL POST———————————-




On A.I. and Cities:
Platform Design, Algorithmic Perception, and
Urban Geopolitics


“Intelligence” is one way that matter organizes itself into durable complexity. A special form of that complexity is the city: a settled accumulation of a material intelligence, both human and inhuman. As Artificial Intelligence becomes more sophisticated what will be its urban design project? What should it be?


Computation has evolved into a planetary-scale megastructure. It is both a vast envelope that frames cities and an elemental substance that helps define every object; we are both inside of it and it is inside of us. Some designers (architects) may see software as something added onto space. They see the idea of smart cities as stupid because it assumes that cities are not already intelligent. They are right. Some designers (programmers) may see cities as modules of hardware that fit together, one at a time into that megastructural matrix. They too are right, and so one mode of design is nested in the other. Seen together, the Smart City is inside the Internet of Things just as the Internet of Things is inside the Smart City.


In this wide-ranging new lecture, Design Theorist, Benjamin H. Bratton, maps the city layer of The Stack, the computational megastructure we have, and outlines how cities may evolve in relation to computationally-rich algorithmic perception, sensation, cognition and physical automation. From deep infrastructure to immediate affects, what we today gather under the name “artificial intelligence” will shift not only what counts as “thinking” but also what counts as architecture, design, politics and programming.


The implications of A.I. platforms for our geopolitics are profound, and extend from the biochemistries of climates and ecosystems to the rhetorical conventions of citizenship and sovereignty. Bratton argues that the Anthropocene should be understood as the geologic expression of a Humanist illusion that cannot survive an honest encounter with the philosophical and practical implications of pervasive artificial intelligence. Along the faultlines of that encounter, the work of Design begins.


finalbrattonport -200Benjamin H. Bratton is an author whose work spans Philosophy, Computing and Design. He is Associate Professor of Visual Arts, Director of The Center for Design and Geopolitics, and founder of the Speculative Design undergraduate major at the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla. He is also Professor of Digital Design at The European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, and Visiting Professor of Critical Studies at SCI_Arc The Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.


He has two new books. In The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2015) Bratton develops a comprehensive political and design theory of planetary-scale computation. He proposes that The Stack –an accidental information technology megastructure– is both a computational apparatus and a model for a new geopolitical architecture. Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution (e-flux/ Sternberg Press, 2015) is a collection of architectural fictions.


Bratton’s current book projects develops a critical design philosophy for robotics and synthetic intelligence. Other design and consulting projects focus on intersections of computation from molecular to ecological scale, machine vision/ sensing/ intelligence, and new sovereignties and platforms better suited to our Anthropogenic predicament.


Twitter: @bratton. Email:


The History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series brings to campus leading humanities scholars working on issues of media transition and technological emergence. The series promotes new, interdisciplinary approaches to questions about the uses, meanings, causes, and effects of rapid or dramatic shifts in techno-infrastructure, information management, and forms of mediated expression. Presented by the Berkeley Center for New Media, these events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit: