The stacks: they are Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. Why are they called stacks? Because they are vertically integrated silos that control just about everything to do with consumer-facing technology to some degree. They are the railroads, the steel industry, the shipping magnates, the telegraph companies, the car manufacturers, the banks–take the metaphor best appreciated from the era of technological advancement that best serves your point, and there are comparisons for the way that these five companies control a vast network of industries, products, and consumer behavior by the sheer weight of their influence. If that is too complex to think about, just think about their economic impact alone. Their trillions of dollars in yearly income dwarfs that of countries.
But while to understand the importance of the stacks one just has to throw a cell phone far enough to hit another cell phone, I’m not sure that the stacks are as important as nation-states–not quite yet. There is a certain sort of influence that we are privileging when we talk about the stacks, and that is a privilege of information. It is a media power, not a thing of direct force. It is a power of panopticons, not a power of police.
It is easy to look at the five stacks and think that they are some of the most powerful entities on the globe. After all, they have done things that were inconceivable only a few years ago. They enable amazing things, that change the way that we relate to each other and the world around us. And yet, the are resolutely limited. What could Google do to fix a bridge, other than throw some of their money at the problem? What does Facebook do the extend the life span of human beings? A stack might be interesting if your entire world is mobile phones, but for the people who don’t feel their world rise and fall with the release of new apps, we might just wait until these companies start producing weapons, because until then, they are just over-sized cable companies.
But a panopticon cannot function without physical prison walls, and a police force cannot function without its badges. The difference between physical weapons and informational weapons is growing more complex, as the power relationships change. What counts as a manufactured weapon is changing, depending on the context. When Apple computers are used by the government, they become a contractor. When Facebook or Amazon’s intelligence gathering algorithms function better than intelligence agencies, all it takes it a contract to make them part of the military industrial complex.
So, is the question as simple as how the stacks use their information tools? Does that control whether or not they become an institution of power worth watching? The trouble with this analysis is that it requires simply waiting. Meanwhile, who knows what sort of relationships are walking through what sort of back doors on the devices in our pockets. It also reduces the weaponization of infrastructure to a question of morality. Does Google actually use their resources for good, and not for evil? This sorts of paralyzing games of justice stall historical analysis, by sending us through an endless labyrinth of definition debates, while drones continue to circle free and clear, above our heads. Drones are hardly the end or the beginning of the question either–it is the less easily definable technologies that really distract attention. Could an ad be a weapon? While we puzzle over this, the ads roll out by the millions.
And this is what a stack is–it’s a mystery. It’s a new label, for something that is similar to the nations, armies, and industries that we have already identified, but yet are quite different. The stack is a type of nation that we haven’t quite figured out yet. They are the entities of future history, and we don’t even know how they work. They might not even know themselves.