Overton whales and pragmatic antagonism
From netizen stories to network states
Balaji Srinivasan often talks about cloud cartography being very different from what we would expect in the physical world. Imagine a big island suddenly emerging from the sea and becoming your neighbor. This is akin to Ethereum network seeing Solana enter the scene recently, says Balaji. Countries do expand or contract their borders throughout their histories, but in the cloud, networks can emerge, merge, go vertical or vanish abruptly.
Balaji Srinivasan connects the concept of the Overton window with the orderbook and a V-shaped depth chart that shows how prices are born. We can call a person or a team that moves the market of ideas an Overton whale.
Overton whale emerges on the surface of the noosphere and makes a big slash.
Overton whales bootstrap network states
There are price givers and price takers in the market. But a large whale is a price mover. And a whale with a certain degree of a monopolistic power is a price maker. These two are separate. To shift the market, one can move the price or make the price. The first strategy is mimetic/reflexive and the other is zero-to-one innovation – creating a wholly new market or smart regulation.
Balaji mentions Apple with their iPhone as an example of a price maker, setting their own prices, because they have a differentiated offering, not a commodity.
Similarly, if you have a strong and differentiated country brand, you can set your own regulation. And this is also reflexive, if you set your own (smart) regulation, and don’t just adopt regulations imposed by global harmonization, you will boost your country branding.
Steve Jobs was laser-focused on UX. Technology is important, but one has to start from the user to succeed in the market place. Netflix started in 1997, way sooner than streaming was viable. I think, that founders of network states need to take similar approach.
Balaji mentions that modern Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew had a similar UX-first focus – investors and tourists coming from the airport to the city needed to have the best experience possible.
Overton whales should be well-behaved (have a good UX) but break the proverbial Overton window and create new beliefs and new backlinks. We can distinguish beliefs, behaviors and backlinks – and we need to be gradually building and improving in all three dimensions.
Balaji has a concept of a venture journalist or an angel influencer – an effective fusion between a writer/creator (wordcel) and a numerate/technical person (numcel). An Overton whale is a successful venture journalist that can move the Overton window on existing ideas, create new ideas, and eventually move/create not just markets but also smart regulations.
The goal is to have more availability entrepreneurs, and create more availability cascades, than the doomers and decels.
From iPhone moment to Nokia moment
Yesterday’s magic is today’s technology and tomorrow’s commodity. Hence, we need meme magic to bootstrap the desired technologically-progressive future of network states.
iPhone’s innovation was abandoning the QWERTY keyboard of smart phone competitors – users enjoyed a bigger screen, and less obviously, no keyboard meant easier app development.
Alan Kay said, that people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware. Similarly, people who are really serious about new ideas (mental software), like network states, should create new media and parallel experiments in parallel societies.
Wardley Mapping is useful here – it combines a value chain on the vertical axis with four stages of innovation on the horizontal axis: 1. Concept, 2. Custom-built, 3. Product/Service, 4. Commodity/Utility. The goal is to move as quickly as possible from Concept to Commodity and then repeat the cycle by becoming a platform/stack provider for yet new innovations. Wardley Mapping is conceptually similar to what Balaji calls a helical theory of history. Balaji mentions often tech trees as a way to map the frontier and relations of various technologies.
Mobile made us more mobile, says Balaji. Mobile phones disrupted indirectly also the car – they accelerated the progress in batteries and this resulted in the EV revolution we see today, with the slow demise of legacy automakers. Crypto, with its key value proposition of “every user is a root user”, will disrupt the legacy countries.
An iPhone moment revolutionized smart phones. And a Nokia moment came soon after that. We might see an iPhone moment for web3 and crypto countries – while legacy fiat countries especially in the West might see quite some unbundling.
Root cosmopolitans and root netizens
Balaji talks about the need for what he calls dual citizens – rooted in the network (cloud community) as well as in their local communities in a specific country, like Palau.
Dual citizens are key in proposing model legislation to their local politicians and authorities – because they have the cultural capital and are locals sensitive to local context. This way we can avoid failure modes of past attempts where foreign entrepreneurs came to a specific country and demanded change of legislation to suit their needs.
Greg Thomas has a concept of a rooted cosmopolitanism that is similar to Balaji’s concept of dual citizens – cloud netizens of a crypto country and citizens of a legacy fiat country. Alexander Bard talks about “everywheres“ (rooted cosmopolitans) as opposed to the duality of “anywheres” (rootless cosmopolitans) vs “somewheres” (nationalists).
I think we can give a pro-crypto flavor to this notion by coming up with a new term – root cosmopolitanism – like the key value proposition of crypto: “every user is a root user”.
In the case of network states I think the value proposition can be – every netizen is a root netizen – they can delegate authority as a member of the network union to the founder – but their community resume is portable and computable – they can choose exit to another network state or establish their own. Importantly, they are also a cryptographically verified human by the community.
This is what Balaji calls exit to world – as a reply to Vitalik’s criticism of the need for founders of network states. Balaji posits exit to world (open sourcing your moral and technological innovation) as an alternative to Vitalik’s exit to community.
Root cosmopolitans don’t need to ask permission to interact across the globe. I can send even a small amount, like 10 euros, to my Kenyan friends, using Bitcoin Lightning. The transfer is cheap and almost instant. With a traditional bank transfer this is unviable. And it is a big improvement compared to Transferwise – where a KYC occasionally might delay the transfer for two days.
Root netizens don’t need to ask for permission to build high trust communities and engage in collective action.
Pseudonymous economy and web3 have opened the idea maze for high-skill tasking, says Balaji. Business process outsourcing (BPO) that was focused on low-skill and medium-skill labor can be disintermediated with crypto bounties. Replit’s bounties is an early version inspired by crypto tasks at 1729.
Balaji explains that in the network states we don’t want communists, nazis, wokes and bitcoin maximalists – all four are extremes of the political compass with four quadrants of socialists, nationalists, internationalists and capitalists. He is advocating for a recentralized center.
It is also important to note that behavior is orthogonal to ideology – people with rather moderate ideological vector can still have terrible behavior and vice versa.
Moreover there are many dimensions that are orthogonal to the political compass and can be reconciled in effective Hegelian syntheses. As Balaji notes, tech conservatives vs tech progressives is an orthogonal axis to the traditional political compass with left-right and authoritarian-libertarian axes.
Longevity by itself is another orthogonal axis. Because there are various tech-progressive and tech-conservative (e.g. in the Talebian sense) approaches and diets, that can be combined to support longevity. Fitness trackers and nootropics can be combined with paleo diet, fasting and digital sabbath.
Balaji calls himself a pragmatist, because he believes we need to make many trade-offs, detours and compromises to get through the idea maze, one of his core concepts, when vectoring towards goals like longevity. He believes in the importance of the crypto-to-fiat bridge, like bitcoin being listed on the Bloomberg Terminal, or crypto exchanges accepting fiat. His idea of diplomatic recognition for network states is also an example of a crypto-to-fiat bridge.
Alexander Bard has a concept of antagonistic cooperation – people across various memetic tribes can cooperate on some axes and still be antagonistic on other axes. One can engage in well-behaved and civil discussion with opponents and use nuggets of wisdom from their memetic tribes.
And one cannot simply avoid a valley of tears when looking for new local optima. We need to engage in valley-crossing, before we can do the hill-climbing to a new higher local optima. Therefore, we are looking for pragmatists, who are counter-elites at the same time – they are not “statusquo-ists” but believe in brokenism.
There are various attempts to find a frame for a new kind of centrism – like radical centrism and a newer framing of what Balaji calls a recentralized center – referring to his alternative to a near future sci-fi scenario of American Anarchy vs Chinese Control.
Pragmatic antagonism can be a useful frame to stress Balaji’s concept of optimalism - that we will not compromise on behaviors and some core beliefs (crypto is good, longevity is good), but we can cooperate with many memetic tribes and subcultures while avoiding maximalists in both senses of extreme ideology and extreme behaviors.
Pragmatic antagonism should be against extremists of all kinds, as well as absorbing monolithic nationalism and abstract Kantian universalism. It can combine Taleb’s fractal localism with crypto-internationalism and optimalism.
From win-and-let-win stories to network states
Balaji wants to create a metapolitical pro-tech platform that avoids the failure modes of traditional politics and doesn’t run candidates for office, but works with already elected politicians and is international in nature. Learning from predecessors like the Pirate Party, but avoiding the pitfalls of traditional politics.
Something like think/do tank that doesn’t just write model legislation (see Cicero Institute), but can create also parallel experiments in parallel societies and gradual bottom-up nation building. We can get good at writing user stories for network state netizens and implementing them. We can call these netizen stories and we need many netizen stories like these.
I argue that network states are protopian projects - distinct from dystopias of tech-conservative doomers and decels, like what EA has become, as well as abstract utopian pondering of e/acc. Both dystopias and utopias are for Platonic dualists. We need a concrete netizen stories to help us with agile project management - a vector theory of change. Meaning “more positive (pro-tech) stories like these, and less negative (dystopian) stories like those”.
Balaji says that the voter fraud is quite normalized today – in the sense that a traditional politician promises something, but they don’t deliver on it once elected. Therefore, it makes greater sense to work with already elected politicians and boost their social capital on social networks. We can up-vote a politician from a foreign country on twitter, even though we can’t vote for him or her directly, says Balaji.
The idea is to go from a paper/podcast to party to polity. The paper/podcast delivers the pillar content and the TNS community repurposes it into lots of micro-content. And with lots of micro-tasks and micro-content for tailor-made for various platforms and local jurisdictions we can create the snowball effect over time that will lead from win-and-let-win stories to network states.
The key idea is that we are win-and-let-win people. Balajian win-and-let-win ideology that is close to concepts of antagonistic cooperation and pragmatic antagonism. Balaji recognizes that it is important to win in the market first, but then it is vital to cooperate and give back. It is also connected to his notion of exit-to-world (open sourcing your tech and moral innovations).
Balaji describes failure modes of dominant political ideologies: progressives are zero-sum in their mentality – they want to redistribute wealth and status. Conservatives are often too risk-averse and just want to grill in their backyards with their extended families. Libertarians are too focused on individual sovereignty and this leads to inefficiencies and solipsism. Balaji posits his brand of pragmatism, optimalism and tech progressivism against these three ideologies – it is positive sum (win-and-let-win ideology), pro-tech and pro-capitalism, but focused on a sovereign collective.
Balaji wants to create pop-up network states for 1-2 months. “We can 10x that and we have a network state for the whole year round”, he jokes. He wants to make new breakthroughs in cloud communities that meet IRL - in terms of both the quantity of people, who met first in the cloud and then on the land, and duration of their interactions.
In 2013 Balaji wrote an essay for the Wired magazine called Software is reorganizing the world. And after 10 years we might see new cloud formations taking shape and being printed on the land.
Noopolitics for network states
Noopolitics is about whose story wins. I argue that noopolitics should be about whose story is the most regenerative to our global commons over long term. The proximate goal of technology is to reduce scarcity, and the ultimate purpose of technology is life extension, says Balaji. More generally, this means not just regeneration of our bodies, but also of our global commons.
Overton whales should be well-behaved (have a pleasant UX) while breaking the Overton windows. They should deliver quality content in a great form while moving the Overton window towards pro-tech and pro-longevity positions.
We can do it by playing four-dimensional chess on the four levels of Baudrillard’s simulacra at the same time:
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
This means delivering quality facts on L1– what Balaji calls the truly reproducible research. On L2 it means bootstrapping the desired future of tech-progressivism by creating art using AI to create thousands of netizen stories and movies like Dallas Buyers Club or Limitless movie/series. On L3 it means building high-trust communities and parallel societies like network unions and network archipelagos. And on L4 it means engaging in metapolitics and pro-tech advocacy.
To summarize my article in one sentence: Overton whales resurface the noosphere to make a big splash and move the market of ideas towards network states with their pragmatic antagonism, win-and-let-win netizen stories and root-cosmopolitan solutions.