Network states are protopian projects
Optimalism vs EA & Effective Accelerationism
Democracy is a delicate dance between chaos and tyranny. Balaji Srinivasan, in his book The Network State, proposes a novel way for digitally-native nation building – “Cloud first, land last, but not land never”. His goal is to unlock innovation in atoms through innovation in bits and to preserve the Western values in a volatile world in a possible future scenario, that he calls American Anarchy vs Chinese Control.
New cloud countries can be built around memetic tribes in the noosphere. They can be launched as startup societies around a particular moral innovation (The One Commandment) and turned into highly-aligned network unions capable of collective action, and later “printed out” as network archipelagos with globally distributed properties and verifiable on-chain census of population, real-estate footprint and wealth.
With enough traction, provable through cryptohistory, the network archipelago will eventually gain diplomatic recognition and become a network state.
You need to write history in order to be a winner, says Balaji. You need to have a strong moral justification for your startup society and show where the current establishment failed throughout history and why your moral innovation is vital.
Network states makes communities computable
Nassim Taleb in Scala Politica presents his concept of fractal localism as an alternative to the absorbing monolithic nationalism and abstract Kantian universalism that both underpin today’s nation states. His main idea is that politics isn’t scale-free – you can be, at the same time, a libertarian on the federal level, a Republican on the state level, a Democrat on the county level, a socialist on the town level and a communist in your extended family.
Charter cities, seasteading and micronations, as recent attempts at innovations in nation-building, can become a subroutine of a highly-aligned cloud community, a network union, which needs to prove sufficient traction online, before “printing” itself onto the land. In other words, starting a country land-first is a mistake, says Balaji. Because people will ask: “You and what army?”. There needs to be a highly united and vocal community before there can be a country.
Balaji says that the internet increases variance and retribalizes the world. It can create reverse diasporas. He is also a poly-statist, polytheist (he believes that many religions can coexist like in Singapore) and a polynumist (he is not a bitcoin maximalist). His network states are fractal and nuke-proof. They are also underpinned by cryptohistory and make communities computable and composable – like DeFi and DeSci.
The decentralized versions of AI, Crypto and Social tech can make many ancient ideas and ideals feasible. They can help creating team dashboards and provide cryptographically verifiable on-chain metrics of how the network union progresses in terms of truth, health and wealth.
The idea of collective utilitarianism from ancient Chinese Mohism becomes feasible with new decentralized tech, as communities become computable. Collective utilitarianism is quite different from individual utilitarianism and abstract universalism that underpin movements like Effective Altruism in particular, and the current old establishment in general.
Individual utilitarianism leads to addiction, abstract universalism leads to monoculture. Collective utilitarianism at the scale of memetic tribes is antifragile.
Optimalism is protopian
Effective Altruism received various blows recently - from the FTX/SBF fiasco, it got wokeified (while the downstream media still blame it for not being woke enough) and Peter Thiel thinks that EA has turned dystopian. He thinks that efforts to control, centralize and stall tech progress pose higher risk than AGI. He calls our time the zombie zeitgeist where universities are proud of stopping scientific progress and see catastrophic risks everywhere.
There is new counter-movement to the recent tech-conservative turn of EA, called the Effective Accelerationism (e/acc). It advocates increasing variance in order to speed evolution of AI in particular, and tech progress in general. The founding text has a footnote explaining that e/acc is excited about network states and network archipelagos. As these special innovations zones increase variance – they are parallel small-scale experiments in building parallel societies. But the text also mentions how acceleration is inevitable – and this in my opinion is a utopian failure mode.
If EA has turned dystopian, not just tech-conservative, but also being partially responsible for supporting ideas and people that release criminals back to streets of cities like SF, we can say that e/acc is utopian.
EA presents the Klaus Schwab-WEF-SBF-woke version of transhumanism. And e/acc presents the Ray Kurzweil-Nick Land-Singularity post-human version of transhumanism. We can say that EA bends towards tyranny (promotes centralization), while e/acc is ok with chaos (promotes decentralization).
Balaji has his own brand of transhumanism he calls optimalism and contrasts it with maximalism– a combination of tech optimism and optimizing for an objective function.
Balaji says he is for recentralization – after quite some unbundling in the West, we will rebundle into something better than American Anarchy or Chinese Control – highly-aligned communities and high-trust societies, that he wants to help build through network states.
We can go full Jordan Peterson and call EA too feminine, leading paradoxically to woke digital authoritarianism, and e/acc too masculine, leading to decentralized digital anarchy. But hey – “Find a mate in the network state!”.
Democracy is a delicate dance between chaos and tyranny. And one non-obvious reason why both EA and e/acc suffer dystopian or utopian failure modes is that their members are not just very online people in the cloud, but also people living in big cities. Go to countryside to start a country. Remote work and Starlink ftw.
Drawing on work of Alexander Bard and discussions with him, I think Balaji’s Optimalism is a protopian idea. Balaji, as a netocrat, is focused on a project in the adjacent possible (to build network states gradually and bottom-up), not on a dystopian subject (how we all will burn in XRisk hell) or a utopian object (Singularity is near).
One should be able to crowdfund a brunch before crowdfunding a building, says Balaji. He has a powerful mental model of founding vs inheriting – where the key insight is that founders acquire backlinks gradually and have both legitimacy and competence and they can make radical edits. Crowdfund a coffee before crowdfunding a country.
Optimalism is also about optimal go-to-society strategy for network states. It’s a project and a protopia. Value-signaling and news you can use on-chain, instead of virtue-signaling or vice-signaling online.
Noopolitics for the network age
The failure mode of EA was not strict enough filtering and overall focus on people who are statusquo-ists – believers in the old establishment institutions. You end up with rural Nigerians being defrauded on FTX and the money ends up used as salaries for some Oxford-affiliated people studying XRisk and advocating for tech conservativism and centralization of AI.
Instead of sending money West through FTX we need decentralized AI and DEX.
To build network states, you want people who believe in, what Alana Newhouse calls, brokenism – and what Balaji describes as “no institution founded before the internet will survive the internet”.
I wrote that the meta-One Commandment for the network state should be “exit is good”. The ease of exit is what makes communities ethical. You can get your portable community resume and leave a network union for another one. But this doesn’t mean that entering startup societies should be easy.
Strict filtering of members is a key aspect of parallel societies. Alexander Bard calls it membranics and uses a metaphor of a night club with a strict bouncer. Money should not be enough to get a membership.
We can summarize that prospective network state members should have TNS-aligned beliefs, behaviors and backlinks. You are looking for current and future counter-elites. People who are good at valley-crossing and don’t engage only in hill-climbing towards the current local optima of legacy institutions.
Balaji says that the internet began in 2020 – we became digital-first with remote work and zoom conferences. The physical version became a luxury good. We also live most of our lives in the noosphere with cloud cartography and high variance – SBF can go from establishment hero to zero in a few weeks.
Noopolitics is doing M&A between memetic tribes. It is prospecting for gold in the noosphere – looking for golden nuggets of wisdom among various memetic tribes and value-signaling to them in order to unite them. It’s playing on four levels of Baudrillard’s simulacra at the same time.
I combined Baudrillard with Kegan to create a framework for noopolitics:
L1. I can perceive reality
L2. I can manipulate reality
L3. I belong to a tribe
L4. I can manipulate tribes
L5. I can skillfully match my (mental) state to the L1-L4 task at hand
Building network states is a delicate dance between chaos and tyranny. It’s a delicate dance between dystopia and utopia. It is a project and a protopia.
It’s about playing in the complex domain, as opposed to chaotic one or the clear one, using the Cynefin Framework terminology.
Protopians of the world, unite! You have nothing but your blockchains to let loose!