The Stack

The appearance of digital technology can be deceiving. It often seems like we interact with a single device, but in reality we are dealing with a great number of technologies at once. At FreedomLab, we use our framework the Stack to understand the anatomy of digital systems and to unfold the complex nature of contemporary digital societies. It presents digital technology as a layered structure of technological and non-technological components, explained in more detail in the resources below. The Stack was originally developed by philosopher Benjamin Bratton, which we have reinterpreted and adapted into a tool for analysis and strategic decision-making (e.g. comparative analyses and business plans).
Click or tap on the individual layers to learn more.
Resources encompasses all of the materials needed to create digital products, services and systems, e.g. silicon, copper, and gold. It also covers the energy and physical space needed to sustain these products, services and systems. All digital phenomena, like smartphones, databases or social media networks, rely on these fundamental resources.

Related questions:
– Does the digital product, service or system require scarce resources?
– Are the energy requirements proportionate to the purpose?
Hard infrastructure encompasses all of the hardware needed for digital storage (e.g. hard drives), computing power (e.g. central processing units), transmission (e.g. fiber-optic cables) and sensing (e.g. microphones).

Related questions:
– What hard infrastructure does the digital product or service make use of?
– What happens when the hard infrastructure fails?What security measures are in place?
Soft infrastructure refers to the middleware, networking protocols and operating systems that support any digital network. This layer defines how computers and other devices communicate with each other and how different stakeholders can cooperate.

Related questions:
– To what extent are digital products or services dependent on a broader network of hardware or services?
– If so, how do these interdependencies affect power structures between stakeholders?
Data covers the storage, processing, and presentation of information. A digital system may work with contextual data (like location and time) and personal data (like human behavior and emotions). The volume, variety, and quality of these data are important factors to consider when assessing this layer. They also have a significant impact on the quality of smart algorithms. 

Related questions:
– What types of data are needed to run the digital product or service?
– Where is data stored and who has access to the data?
Intelligence deals with the application of knowledge and skills, such as predictive algorithms making use of vast amounts of data. Such algorithms can recognize and understand, for instance, images, voice and speech that can subsequently be used to offer smart functions to an end user, e.g. a voice assistant. 

Related questions: 
– How accurate is a model and how can we assess the accuracy?
– Do the algorithms produce fair outcomes, without privileging one group of users over another?
Applications cover services and platforms accessible to a user. Applications make use of (raw) data and intelligence, often in cooperation with other services or stakeholders. Examples include digital communication, commerce and entertainment.

Related questions:
– What does the technology offer to the end user? 
– What service providers are active within the particular industry?
– What will happen when the application fails?
User interfaces covers the way in which users interact with a digital application. The interface layer consists of many different technologies and interaction may occur along different modalities, like vision (e.g. screens), speech (e.g. voice assistants), audio (e.g. wireless earphones), and gestures (e.g. 3D cameras). The interface provides a two-way interaction; it presents digital information and experiences to the user, but it also collects data from users and their environment.

Related questions:
– How does the technology communicate with its users? 
– Is the technology suitable for the target market?
– What does the interface show? What does the interface keep hidden?
Smart habitat deals with the increasingly smart environment in which we live. Our smart habitat is sustained by sophisticated and substantially automated digital systems. Because of this, it is increasingly dynamic and responsive and able to generate valuable data. Our digital lifeworld can also provide us with services and information through an interface. 

Related questions:
– How do digital platforms change people’s demands with regard to the product or service?
– What is the economic impact of digital technology? 
– How does digital technology transform our built environment?
Neo-collectives are the new cultural and organizational structures that emerge within the digital society. Examples include new social and political movements, but also groups of private investors or fans of a particular artist or sports team.

Related questions:
– How do new groups of virtual cultures originate and organize themselves?
– How can specific voices express and spread their ideas through digital means?
– How does internet culture affect daily life?
Neo-governance encompasses new institutional structures arising from the digitalization of society. Examples include new digital forms of participation, decision-making and enforcement. These new structures have a direct impact on all layers of the Stack. 

Related questions:
– Can we translate legislation and laws into computer code? 
– Do we need antitrust laws to break open the market power of app stores?
– How does digital technology change our idea of organizations and companies?
Resources encompasses all of the materials needed to create digital products, services and systems, e.g. silicon, copper, and gold. It also covers the energy and physical space needed to sustain these products, services and systems. All digital phenomena, like smartphones, databases or social media networks, rely on these fundamental resources.

Related questions:
– Which (scarce) physical resources does the digital product/service or system require?
– Are the energy requirements proportionate to the purpose?

Hard infrastructure encompasses all of the hardware needed for digital storage (e.g. hard drives), computing power (e.g. central processing units), transmission (e.g. fiber-optic cables) and sensing (e.g. microphones).

Related questions:
– What hard infrastructure does the digital product or service make use of?
– What happens when the hard infrastructure fails?
– What security measures are in place?

Soft infrastructure refers to the middleware, networking protocols and operating systems that support any digital network. This layer defines how computers and other devices communicate with each other and how different stakeholders can cooperate.

Related questions:
– To what extent are digital products or services dependent on a broader network of hardware or services?
– If so, how do these interdependencies affect power structures between stakeholders?

Data covers the storage, processing, and presentation of information. A digital system may work with contextual data (like location and time) and personal data (like human behavior and emotions). The volume, variety, and quality of these data are important factors to consider when assessing this layer. They also have a significant impact on the quality of smart algorithms. 

Related questions:
– What types of data are needed to run the digital product or service?
– Where is data stored and who has access to the data?

Intelligence deals with the application of knowledge and skills, such as predictive algorithms making use of vast amounts of data. Such algorithms can recognize and understand, for instance, images, voice and speech, which can subsequently be used to offer smart functions to an end user, e.g. a voice assistant. 

Related questions: 
– How accurate is a model and how can we assess the accuracy?
– Do the algorithms produce fair outcomes, without privileging one group of users over another?

Applications cover services and platforms accessible to a user. Applications make use of (raw) data and intelligence, often in cooperation with other services or stakeholders. Examples include digital communication, commerce and entertainment.

Related questions:
– What does the technology offer to the end user?
– What service providers are active within the particular industry?
– What will happen when the application fails?

User interfaces covers the way in which users interact with a digital application. The interface layer consists of many different technologies and interaction may occur along different modalities, like vision (e.g. screens), speech (e.g. voice assistants), audio (e.g. wireless earphones), and gestures (e.g. 3D cameras). The interface provides a two-way interaction; it presents digital information and experiences to the user, but it also collects data from users and their environment.

Related questions:
– How does the technology communicate with its users? 
– Is the technology suitable for the target market?
– What does the interface show? What does the interface keep hidden?

Smart habitat deals with the increasingly smart environment in which we live. Our smart habitat is sustained by sophisticated and substantially automated digital systems. Because of this, it is increasingly dynamic and responsive and able to generate valuable data. Our digital lifeworld can also provide us with services and information through an interface. 

Related questions:
– How do digital platforms change people’s demands with regard to the product or service?
– What is the economic impact of digital technology? 
– How does digital technology transform our built environment?

Neo-collectives are the new cultural and organizational structures that emerge within the digital society. Examples include new social and political movements, but also groups of private investors or fans of a particular artist or sports team.

Related questions:
– How do new groups of virtual cultures originate and organize themselves?
– How can specific voices express and spread their ideas through digital means?
– How does internet culture affect daily life?

Neo-governance encompasses new institutional structures arising from the digitalization of society. Examples include new digital forms of participation, decision-making and enforcement. These new structures have a direct impact on all layers of the Stack. 

Related questions:
– Can we translate legislation and laws into computer code? 
– Do we need antitrust laws to break open the market power of app stores?
– How does digital technology change our idea of organizations and companies?
An introduction to the Stack
Sebastiaan Crul explains the meaning of each layer of the Stack, and how the framework helps us analyze the digital systems of nations, industries, and companies.
Long-form article · 11-minute read
Outlook Digitalisation 2030
Through the use of the Stack, our researchers have outlined the history of our digital society and put forward considered predictions about its future.
Report · 110 pages
FreedomLab presents Outlook Digitalisation 2030 at Nederland Digitaal 2021
Arief Hühn, Sjoerd Bakker and Sebastiaan Crul explain the Stack, and how it can help us better understand digital technology and anticipate digital innovation.
Online presentation · 58 minutes
Language: Dutch
“As the shape of political geography and the architecture of planetary-scale computation as a whole, the Stack is an accidental megastructure, one that we are building both deliberately and unwittingly and is in turn building us in its own image.”

— Benjamin Bratton, author of The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty

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