Would you die for the DAO?
On new nations, social groups, and everything else
Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a thrall1.
Recently, I experienced a social novelty.
Anna Gát, founder of a roving social club and literary salon named Interintellect, very graciously invited me to one of her events. A dozen or so of us, some known to me but most not, gathered in the backyard of a tastefully restored San Francisco Victorian and drank and ate and discussed various topics of the day. It was a convivial and enjoyable affair, that crackling mix of novelty and familiarity among like-minded strangers and acquaintances that’s virtually impossible to find in coastal cities, outside the confines of the workplace at least.
As I walked home down the steep slope of Fulton Street afterward, I thought: This is like a synagogue, but without Jews or Judaism2. Like many things nowadays, the seculars have reinvented a religious concept to cope with the very barrenness that secularism bequeathed us.
Synagogues aren’t the only legacy institutions with attempts at secular reboots: We’re on to nation-states as well. Noted entrepreneur and online provocateur Balaji Srinivasan recently published his intriguing tome, The Network State (available online in very readable format here). The first sections are an introduction to the World According to Balaji, which will seem familiar to anyone who’s followed the very opinionated poaster for any length of time. And for those who haven’t, and are perhaps unfamiliar with the canon of references inhabiting Balaji’s fervid mind, the text is absolutely jammed with esoteric references and links to outside sources. At times the book feels less like a book and more like a Wikipedia page; it’s not clear to me how you’d even read it in printed form, which is perhaps why there isn’t one (Kindle and online only).
The most interesting section is the one currently relegated to the end on the titular concept itself, the network state. It is not, as Balaji is quick to point out, some metaverse concept visitable only with virtual reality headsets. No, it’s an actual patch of land (or several of them) with a physical border and representation in the United Nations. As Balaji defines it:
A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.
The most radical (and underrated) change wrought by technology has been the decoupling of information from physical movement, the flight of bits liberated from the slow lurch of atoms. This dislodges human life from a geographic setting, making what you see, think, and experience independent of the colored shape on the map labeled “San Francisco, California, USA” (or whatever). It’s what the early media theorists like Marshall McLuhan puzzled over, the global wiring-together of the human nervous system. His “global village” however was one warmed by the blue tones of an old-timey television receiving signals from a centralized transmitter in a still geographically and politically unified state.
This network state idea could be dismissed as just another unworkable fantasy from crypto bros. Except that they’re not proposing some unlikely future, but rather describing a de facto reality that only accelerated with the post-COVID crackup.
What the early luminaries missed, prescient though they were, was the unique many-to-many property of mobile computing; left to self-sort ideologically and aesthetically, consumers in a globalized society bereft of meaningful religious or cultural ties would organize themselves into patchwork quilts of belonging no longer limited by political borders. In the case of affluent elites, their self-organized state would look like an urban archipelago in a more rural and regional sea. (In the United States, the political color codings here are obvious.)
This network state idea could be dismissed as just another unworkable fantasy from crypto bros. Except that they’re not proposing some unlikely future, but rather describing a de facto reality that’s only accelerated with the post-COVID crackup. The network-staters are already here, we just don’t refer to them as such. It’s not like the long-term viability of normie liberal democratic nation-states has lots of champions these days. Over half of Americans think a civil war is possible in the next few years. Well, why don’t we find a more peaceable rupture? asks Balaji, who makes it very clear he is not fantasizing about some violent civil war.
Balaji Srinivasan, The Network State (p. 362)