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HTNM: Benjamin Bratton Revisited

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

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