Cloud City from Bioshock Infinite
Balaji Srivansan, a prominent figure in the blockchain space and one of the few to correctly predict (unfortunately) the sheer size and results of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been talking about the Network State for quite some time.
A few days ago, he published a post on 1729, about kickstarting a new Country, first on the cloud and then in the physical work. A fascinating concept, even more so because it doesn’t require any alien or very avant-garde technology, it just brings together existing technologies, synthesizing them in a new way. In the world of technology, we could say that he is proposing a new stack, like the LAMP stack for web servers, but for starting a country. Sounds like fun, a refreshing take in a thousand years old issue, but from the perspective of a technologist, an engineer.
The promise of a new country is rather simple, a clean slate. A chance for old grievances to wither and die in the promise of a new world. Although Balaji doesn’t get into much detail on why we would want something like that, why we would want a new slate in the context of a country.
From my perspective, the promise is to unite people who feel that the national identity no longer serves them. Not in the utilitarian sense, but rather that it doesn’t appropriately describe their identity in a meaningful way. There is a larger issue at hand here since cultural conditioning is far more powerful than we like to admit. It’s extremely hard to pill off assumptions and ideas that we think of as our own but in reality, they were given to us through our upbringing in a particular society and time.
That being said, online communities have shown that people can meaningfully come together and create considerable value, while sharing a few of the attributes that are usually the crux of a country, such as a language, religion, and geographic location. The Internet has paved the way for a truly global village. It’s interesting to think about notions such as self-determination, in the context of an online community that shares certain characteristics.
There are a couple of ways to start a new country, according to Balaji, from the usual suspects (e.g election, revolution, war) to more wacky ones (e.g space exploration). Cloud Countries is an interesting new concept, which takes the notion of an online community and adds a couple of missing layers to create the country stack. Although it starts online, the goal is to finally arrive at a point where that cloud country has application in the physical realm. A number of geographical areas where people abide by the rules imposed by this cloud country.
Let’s see the stack:
The system is akin to the open source for software development. That means that is publicly auditable and anyone can raise issues or propose changes and improvements. We can think of it as the framework of a city-state in Ancient Greece, where almost everyone (excluding women and immigrants from other cities) participated in the commons. I like it.
Centered around remote work. For now, that limits us to knowledge workers professions, but robotics could pioneer in translating the remote-work into physical existence. Although I am a huge proponent of remote work, working remotely all my professional life, Ι have my reservations about this. This would mean, essentially, that building a robot with remote manual controls is considerably easier than creating the AI required to control such a robot. I can foresee construction workers in the form of robots, but I am not sure if the AI will take that much to catch up so that it makes sense to work as a remote construction worker. Again, I have exactly zero experience in robotics and I haven’t really followed the space, so I might be completely off here.
Online, VR, and digital art. This I am buying. Seeing the meteoric rise and power of “memes” in pop culture, I can completely see a society where “Pepe” and the rest of the gang are as popular as BQQ on Sundays and dad jokes.
A number of enclaves, sanctuary places that can range from apartments to whole buildings and acres of land. That again seems plausible, since embassies enjoy such privilege, but I can see sovereign countries fighting that, and why wouldn’t they. Imagine if anyone, at any point, could unilaterally say that their home is a sovereign entity and that slavery is OK in there. So, should anyone happen to be located there, the can’t be rescued by police or the army. If we are going to assume that every enclave, will also follow the laws and responsibilities of the nation state that it is located, I am not sure if we can really call it a sovereign entity. Sure, we can LARP all we want, but unless we can self-determine in that physical space, there is no substance, other than that anyone who is part of the cloud country can couch-surf in my apartment because it’s part of that country. Balaji here mentions Bitcoin, but I think this analogy can be improved. Bitcoin can’t be assaulted by men with gun. An apartment can. Intrinsically they are not the same, so other countries must agree not to use force to exert power of that piece of land. Hell, nation states are being kept in balance due to a constant arms race around the world. Greece and Turkey is a good example, where a literally bankrupt country (Greece) with rampant corruption, is “forced” to spend a lot of money on defence, not only because of special interests but because of a real threat against it’s sovereignty.
How to define a Country
Then, the article proceeds to talk about the definition of a country, where it talks about numerical definitions (land, population) and societal (UN recognition). In my view, a nation is nothing more than a group of people who have agreed to cooperate and function as a unit. That means that they agree to a set of rules that they assume will help them live better lives, with a subgroup of people responsible for enforcing those rules. Although again, I am no expert, I see the different countries (city-state, empires, nation-state) as the same entity that just agrees to cluster around different shared attributes and at different states. In the end, it’s just how a group of people acknowledge themselves as part of something bigger, being that Athens, Thebes, the Russian Empire, or the European Union. Of course, the self-determination of a particular group is only a part of the story, by changing the definition, you can also change the power structure and which class (subgroup) of people enjoy what benefits. As far as the subject at hand is concerned, I think that if enough people say that donkeys fly, then for all that it matters, they fly. As George Orwell put it in 1984: 2 + 2 = 5. What I mean by that, is that if enough people want to LARP in a cloud country, that could totally work, but that country would mostly resemble an order like the Masons, rather a country, as people’s main identity and obligation will be towards a sovereign country state.
If we want an organization, let’s call it a country, where it’s the main source of responsibilities and benefits of certain people, that’s another story. I am not sure how online syndication can be translated into the physical world without the requirement of military defense against those who will want to exert force. Perhaps a powerful entity that can safeguard its sovereignty by threatening to return fire in the form of hacking could make sense. Simply put, if you harm or force my people on my ground, you get severely hacked to the point that essential infrastructure may not work. In other words, I can’t imagine nation-states respecting this sovereignty without fearing the repercussions of their actions.
It will be very interesting to see the actual proto-implementation of this idea, an online community that will be clustered around the goal of bootstrapping a country. Given the novelty of the Internet and technologies like blockchain, I think that it’s important to push our imagination beyond assumptions and the status quo of the last century.
Why not envision a new kind of country? A new way of organizing ourselves, a new way of finding our tribe. In a world, where religion, geographic location, and language are not the center-pieces of our identity. Having a minimal identity (in relation to that of the last century) could indeed be improve society as a whole, through improve decision-making and public discourse.
A last point, on ethics
I am a strong believer in “Ubuntu”, or rather that if the whole of society is doing better, then everyone is better. In other words, there is merit in having a strong social net and subside the basic education and healthcare of everyone. Of course that means that those who earn more will pay more in order to subsidize those who don’t earn as much. I would be afraid of a future where the economic elite will cluster in communities, like Elysium without caring to help those around them. The increased “winner takes all” effects of the future is indeed frightening, a global community of extremely rich, extremely poor and little in between.
History has shown, I think, that less deviation from the average produces a more high-quality standard of living for the community as a whole.
Finally, the nation-state, let’s say Greece, has invested considerably in me in various ways. From the most obvious, as having “free” education and “free” healthcare, to the non-obvious, by providing a safe and organized society, parks to play on, roads to drive in, etc. I am not sure how ethical it would be of me, to simply say that since I don’t identify that much as Greek, but rather a citizen of the world, I will stop paying my fair due to the state and simply move on. In other words, I am not sure if I have paid back all the things that modern Greek society and it’s organized form, the Government, has offered me thus far.
If you want to read more about this concept, here are a couple of resources: