How do you Larp a country into existence? Balaji Srinivasan, the former chief technology officer of Coinbase, asks in his hotly awaited book The Network State.
The book, which was provocatively published on July 4th, makes the case for a new type of digital statehood that is run and managed in the cloud. According to his definition, a network state is essentially a group of individuals who decide to found a nation after meeting online. According to Srinivasan, a nation can be born with laws, social services, and all with the help of a social network to connect people, a strong leader to bring them together, and a cryptocurrency to safeguard their assets. Similar to businesses, cryptocurrencies, or decentralized autonomous organizations, a network state is a nation that “anyone can start from your computer, starting by building a following” (DAOs). Srinivasan wonders if such a state could gain UN recognition in a world where billionaires can control corporations bigger than nations.
This utopian vision, like all utopian visions, is diagnostic and offers a solution to a growing number of “wicked” social issues, including surveillance capitalism, economic stagnation, political polarization, and rivalry between superpowers. Balaji contends that leaders are failing just when we need them to solve our problems, and the reason isn’t just corruption or incompetence—technological. it’s Simply put, because the world for which central government was intended has changed, it is no longer able to meet our needs.
For instance, the internet has diminished the significance of geography, making national boundaries seem increasingly arbitrary. And the success of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin has shown that anything worth trillions of dollars can be created if enough people think it’s valuable. A few engineers are now able to outcompete entire countries thanks to software (think hacker groups and startups). Additionally, in the era of social networks, huge numbers of unidentified individuals can form cohesive groups that act and communicate as a whole; just take a look at r/wallstreetbets and Gamestop.
In a recent lecture describing the book, Srinivasan noted that “very few institutions that predated the internet will survive the internet.” So, he contends, creating an institution based on it is the answer. The way it would operate is as follows: Someone on Twitter decides to found a nation, so they pitch the idea to their friends and start recruiting. People soon start joining and telling their friends after they create a vision statement and a list of values. It begins by resembling a social network.
The neighborhood starts to create social services and its own mini-culture by pooling resources and sharing skills, offering things like healthcare, insurance, passports, and drug parties. They could communicate, exchange ideas, and cast ballots using something that resembled a cross between Twitter and Discord (think up- and down-voting on your favorite legislation). Additionally, they could manage their own money supply and safeguard their assets from invading governments by using a currency like bitcoin. They would first purchase small pieces of land, perhaps a national Soho house, and then they would start to move into specific cities, probably to benevolent jurisdictions like Miami, which, according to Srinivasan, will compete to attract these fearless new digital citizens.
No wars must be waged, and no laws must be broken, for it to take place. With rockstar leaders to pave the way and negotiate on the global stage, these new states would gradually win recognition and rights before finally seceding from their parent nations. It will eventually become a template for the contemporary equivalent of Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, according to Srinivasan, if it succeeds. After Brexit and other movements like Wexit, is there now a new romantic notion of escape for techies called “Texit”?
This week’s release of The Network State is expected to elicit a number of vehement responses. Others, most likely those on the libertarian right, will refer to The Network State’s ideas as visionary and scholarly while some, complaining about rightwing Silicon Valley figures like Peter Thiel and Curtis Yarvin, will call it fascist and tyrannical. They may claim that Srinivasan is a soothsayer and a truth-teller. But underneath all of the bluster, there will be a nagging doubt: Is any of this even feasible?
Although the idea might challenge our conception of nationality, many of its forerunners already exist. Consider Dudeism, a religion with 450,000 Dudeist priests, based on a character from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film. Or even the state of Israel, which brought together a people dispersed throughout the world and organized them around a shared ideal, as Srinivasan points out. According to Srinivasan, many countries with UN recognition have populations of five to ten million people and economies that are much smaller than what an equivalent number of tech workers might produce. It doesn’t seem too unlikely that a group of crypto bros would gamble their future on a strange leader. And the technology is already available.
And Srinivasan might just be the man to do it with over 650,000 Twitter followers—an army of young, tech-savvy, and politically credulous acolytes. There is a saying about him that occasionally appears on Twitter: “Balaji was right” is the most terrifying phrase in the English language. This book will be positioned as a north star among the crypto-rich and the billionaire class, levying to support the age-old argument that technologists can better manage society than bureaucrats. And Srinivasan has now provided them with the means to demonstrate it through this book.
Little things like death, aging, and illness don’t quite fit into Srinivasan’s vision. How will a network state address poverty? The future will pit nationalists against technologists, he declared in 2015. a passionate, envious defender of national boundaries, languages, and cultures. Or an urban nomad with a laptop who is determined to cause callous disruption. Sure, it’s romantic, but what about those who simply want a steady job?
Naturally, Srinivasan isn’t the first technologist to provide a tarot reading of our future with technology as a medium. Another well-known theory, this one coming from the left, explaining how robots will make us all rich was written by the theorist Aaron Bastani in 2019. His book Fully Automated Luxury Communism begins with the same broad diagnoses: that the third industrial revolution is upon us, that this is an epochal time in human history, and that technology has rendered our systems antiquated. However, as implied by the title, his conclusion is that we require more centralization rather than less. The book makes the case that we should let robots do our labor while we reap the benefits. Hunger, illness, energy shortages, and a lack of employment will all be relics of a pre-abundant, precarious past. Bastani contends that the nanny state of the future will be superior.
These visions suggest a growing cleavage within the odd group of individuals who identify as futurists. On the one hand, there are those who picture a centralized world with super-blocs and widespread wealth redistribution. On the other hand, some contend that today’s world already resembles earlier feudal systems. Fragmentation is anticipated in this kind of vision, like the one put forth by Balaji Srinivasan, and tough individualism is the guiding principle. And this book, or better yet, this playbook, is merely the start of an officialization process.