Monday, April 17, 2017

Is "The Stack" the way to understand everything?

When the Apple II computer arrived in 1977, I eagerly took its BASIC language tutorials and began writing simple programs to work with my laboratory’s data. When Apple Pascal, based on the UCSD Pascal system, arrived in 1979 I plunged in and wrote a number of data analysis programs. Pascal is a structured programming language, and I soon found myself structuring my mental life around its metaphors. Thus Herrman’s recent article on “the stack” has a particular resonance with me. Some clips:
…the explanatory metaphors of a given era incorporate the devices and the spectacles of the day…technology that Greeks and Romans developed for pumping water, for instance, underpinned their theories of the four humors and the pneumatic soul. Later, during the Enlightenment, clockwork mechanisms left their imprint on materialist arguments that man was only a sophisticated machine. And as of 1990, it was concepts from computing that explained us to ourselves..
We don’t just talk intuitively about the ways in which people are “programmed” — we talk about our emotional “bandwidth” and look for clever ways to “hack” our daily routines. These metaphors have developed right alongside the technology from which they’re derived…Now we’ve arrived at a tempting concept that promises to contain all of this: the stack. These days, corporate managers talk about their solution stacks and idealize “full stack” companies; athletes share their recovery stacks and muscle-building stacks; devotees of so-called smart drugs obsessively modify their brain-enhancement stacks to address a seemingly infinite range of flaws and desires.
“Stack,” in technological terms, can mean a few different things, but the most relevant usage grew from the start-up world: A stack is a collection of different pieces of software that are being used together to accomplish a task.
An individual application’s stack might include the programming languages used to build it, the services used to connect it to other apps or the service that hosts it online; a “full stack” developer would be someone proficient at working with each layer of that system, from bottom to top. The stack isn’t just a handy concept for visualizing how technology works. For many companies, the organizing logic of the software stack becomes inseparable from the logic of the business itself. The system that powers Snapchat, for instance, sits on top of App Engine, a service owned by Google; to the extent that Snapchat even exists as a service, it is as a stack of different elements. …A healthy stack, or a clever one, is tantamount (the thinking goes) to a well-structured company…On StackShare, Airbnb lists over 50 services in its stack, including items as fundamental as the Ruby programming language and as complex and familiar as Google Docs.
Other attempts to elaborate on the stack have been more rigorous and comprehensive, less personal and more global. In a 2016 book, “The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty,” the professor and design theorist Benjamin Bratton sets out to, in his words, propose a “specific model for the design of political geography tuned to this era of planetary-scale computation,” by drawing on the “multilayered structure of software, hardware and network ‘stacks’ that arrange different technologies vertically within a modular, interdependent order.” In other words, Bratton sees the world around us as one big emerging technological stack. In his telling, the six-layer stack we inhabit is complex, fluid and vertigo-inducing: Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface and User. It is also, he suggests, extremely powerful, with the potential to undermine and replace our current conceptions of, among other things, the sovereign state — ushering us into a world blown apart and reassembled by software. This might sound extreme, but such is the intoxicating logic of the stack.
As theory, the stack remains mostly a speculative exercise: What if we imagined the whole world as software? And as a popular term, it risks becoming an empty buzzword, used to refer to any collection, pile or system of different things. (What’s your dental care stack? Your spiritual stack?) But if tech start-ups continue to broaden their ambitions and challenge new industries — if, as the venture-capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz likes to say, “software is eating the world” — then the logic of the stack can’t be trailing far behind, ready to remake more and more of our economy and our culture in its image. It will also, of course, be subject to the warning with which Daugman ended his 1990 essay. “We should remember,” he wrote, “that the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each ‘new era’ can become, like their predecessors, as much the prison house of thought as they first appeared to represent its liberation.”


  1. Auguste Comte invented the stack in the 19th Century ;-)

  2. In computing, a stack is a last-in first-out data structure into which data is pushed (onto the top of the stack) and out of which it is popped (off the top). The use of the word 'stack' to denote the set of technologies your company uses to supply their products or services is much, much more recent than this, and doesn't really have much to do with what Herrman is talking about here.

  3. (Not unlike a stack of pancakes.)

  4. You are absolutely right, as I remember from my early programming days! The meaning of stack is 'evolving', or being corrupted, whichever you prefer.