In The Network State, a buzzy new book by Balaji Srinivasan, the former chief technology officer of Coinbase, poses a devious question: how do you Larp a country into existence?
Released provocatively this 4 July, the book presents Srinivasan’s case for a new model of digital statehood run and managed in the cloud. A network state, as I describe it, is basically a group of people who get together on the internet and decide that they’re going to start a country. With a social network to connect them, a leader to unite them, and a cryptocurrency to protect their assets, Srinivasan says a country can be born with laws, social services and all. A network state is a country that “anyone can start from your computer, beginning by building a following” – not unlike companies, cryptocurrencies, or decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). In a world where billionaires can run companies larger than countries, Srinivasan asks, could such a state achieve recognition from the United Nations?
Like all utopian visions, this one, too, is diagnostic – an answer to a growing list of “wicked” social problems like surveillance capitalism, economic stagnation, political polarization, and conflict among great powers. Just when we need leaders to solve our problems, Balaji argues, they are failing, and the reason isn’t just corruption or incompetence – the reason is technological. Central government is simply no longer capable of addressing our needs because the world for which it was designed has changed.
The internet, for example, has made place less important, so national borders seem increasingly arbitrary. And cryptocurrencies like bitcoin have proven that if enough people believe in the value of an idea you can create something worth trillions of dollars. Software has made it so that a few engineers can outcompete nations (think hacker groups and startups). And, in the age of social networks, millions of anonymous people can fit into groups that act and coordinate together; just look at r/wallstreetbets and Gamestop.
“Very few institutions that predated the internet will survive the internet,” Srinivasan said recently, in a lecture describing the book. So the solution, I argue, is to build an institution based on it. Here’s how it would work: a person on Twitter decides to start a country so they float the idea to their friends and begin to gather recruits. They put together a vision statement and a list of values, and soon enough people begin to join and tell their friends. It starts off like a social network.
By pooling their money and lending their skills, the community begins to develop social services and spawn its own mini-culture, providing things, in theory, like healthcare and insurance and passports and dope parties. With something like a hybrid of Twitter and Discord, they could connect, share ideas, and vote (think up- and down-voting on your favorite legislation). And with a currency like bitcoin, they could control their own money supply and protect their funds from encroaching governments. First they would buy small plots of land, like a national Soho house, and eventually, they would begin to migrate into chosen cities – probably to sympathetic jurisdictions like Miami, which, Srinivasan says, will compete to acquire these brave new digital citizens.
To make it happen, no wars need to be fought and no laws need to be violated. With rockstar leaders to blaze their path and negotiate on the international stage, these new states would slowly but surely obtain rights and recognition, eventually breaking off from their home countries once and for all. When it works, Srinivasan writes, “it will eventually become a template … the modern version of Jefferson’s natural aristocracy.” First, there was Brexit; then other movements like Wexit; now, a few years later, there’s a new romantic vision of escape for techies – “Textile”?
When The Network State drops this week it is likely to solicit a number of heated reactions. Some, grumbling about rightwing Silicon Valley figures like Peter Thiel and Curtis Yarvin, will call the ideas of The Network State fascist and tyrannical, and others, likely those on the libertarian right, will call it visionary and scholarly. Srinivasan, you might hear from them, is a soothsayer – a truth-teller. But beneath the posturing there will be a lingering question: is any of this actually possible?
While the concept might bend our idea of nationality, the fact remains that a lot of precursors already exist. Consider Dudeism, a religion based on a character from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film, with a reported population of 450,000 Dudeist priests. Or even, as Srinivasan points out, the state of Israel, which brought together a people scattered around the world and organized them around a common ideal. Many countries, Srinivasan says, that are recognized by the UN have populations around five to 10 million people with economies much smaller than what an equal size of tech workers might produce. That a bunch of crypto bros might test their fate on an eccentric leader doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Plus, the tech already exists.
And with over 650,000 Twitter followers – an army of young, tech-savvy and politically credulous acolytes – Srinivasan might just be the man to do it. There’s an expression that circulates on Twitter about him every so often: that “Balaji was right” is the most terrifying phrase in the English language. Among the crypto-rich and the billionaire class this book will be positioned as a north star, levied to support the long-running claim that technologists can run society better than the bureaucrats. And now, with this book, Srinivasan has given them the framework to prove it.
What doesn’t fit so neatly into Srinivasan’s vision are little things like death and aging and sickness. How will poverty be dealt with in a network state? “The future,” I wrote in 2015, “is nationalists vs technologists. A full-throated, jealous defender of borders, language, and culture. Or a rootless cosmopolitan with a laptop, bent on callous disruption.” It’s romantic, sure, but one could ask: what about people who just want a stable job?
Of course, Srinivasan isn’t the first technologist to offer a tarot reading of our tech-mediated future. In 2019, the theorist Aaron Bastani wrote another popular formulation, this one from the left, explaining how robots will make us all rich. His book Fully Automated Luxury Communism starts with the same general diagnoses: that we’re going into the third industrial revolution, that we’re at an epochal moment of human history, that technology has rendered our systems obsolete. But his conclusion, as the title suggests, is that we need more centralization, not less. Let the robots do our work, the book argues, and let us enjoy the spoils. Hunger, disease, energy crises, jobs – these will all be relics of a scarce and squalid past that came before the age of abundance. The future is the nanny state, Bastani suggests – only better.
What these visions point to is a growing cleavage among the strange cohort of people who call themselves futurists. On the one hand, there are those who imagine a world of centralization, marked by super-blocs and mass redistribution of wealth. And on the other, there are those who claim that the world already mirrors the feudal systems of yore. In this sort of vision, like the one offered by Balaji Srinivasan, fragmentation is on the docket and rugged individualism is the outstanding moral code. And this book, or better yet, this playbook, is just the first attempt to make it official.