Now Available: “The Network State”

On 2022-07-04, The Network State by Balaji S. Srinivasan, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz and former Chief Technical Officer at Coinbase, was published. The book may be purchased in a Kindle edition from Amazon via the link above or may be read on-line at The Network State Web site, or downloaded in PDF form for free from that site.

Here, from the “Quickstart” chapter, is “The Network State in One Sentence”. Informally,

A network state is a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states.

or, more exhaustively at the cost of additional words and commas:

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.

For the visually inclined, here is The Network State in One Image, illustrating a mature network state organised around a shared principle, with population, income, and territory controlled (in a global archipelago of bits and pieces) that rank it among many classic Westphalian-model nation states in existence today.

Here is how it might grow in the first few steps from a single founder and Working Paper.

I only started reading this 460 page book yesterday during a particularly hideous day of “trains, planes, and automobiles”, and I’m only a quarter of the way through, but so far I have found it superbly written (not to mention beautiful—it was produced in LaTeX), insightful, and bristling with links to original sources, many of which I was unaware.

The author argues that human social organisation on scales larger than hunter-gatherer bands seems to require a shared belief in a force greater than the individual, for which he uses the term “Leviathan”. For much of history, Leviathan was God, with the belief that behaviour which damaged the social fabric would be punished either by direct divine intervention or in an afterlife. The reason people wanted their masters and leaders to be “God fearing” was literal—that a ruler who feared that God will damn him to eternal torment in Hell could be trusted to behave morally and rule wisely even when nobody was looking or had the ability to counter his actions.

As religious belief weakened after the Enlightenment in the West and comparable transitions in other cultures and societies, Nietzsche famously proclaimed “God is dead”, which the author interprets as meaning that belief in God no longer constrained the actions of individuals, especially those in power. With this, and increasing centralisation, a new Leviathan, the State, emerged, with many people replacing their belief in an omnipotent God with fealty to an omnipotent State. While this was explicit under totalitarian regimes which actively suppressed religion as a competing Leviathan, it is increasingly common in nominally “free” societies where a State which is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (albeit incompetent and inefficient) is accepted as an invariant part of the natural order by billions of people.

But, starting in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there’s a new Leviathan in town, the Network, and it is beginning to disrupt the institutions built around the two incumbent Leviathans. “The Internet never forgets” has become a commonplace observation and has led to the downfall of many who assumed media complicity would allow them to change the past to their advantage. The advent of blockchain technology in 2009 has provided a combination of technological and social organisation which provides an unalterable historical record (a “log file” if you will, complete with trusted time stamps) which can serve as an oracle of what really happened, as opposed to what Church and State would prefer to have you believe.

At the same time, the Network both allows affinity groups to self-organise without the constraints of geographical borders while using cryptography and verifiable reputation and trust systems to erect their own borders to protect themselves from infiltration and subversion.

Over all of human history, we have had only two widely successful and distributed Leviathans so far: God and State. We may be living through a period where a viable competitor is emerging which will allow new spontaneous forms of self-organisation that compete with legacy institutions, just at the time when those institutions are visibly failing in many regards and are losing legitimacy among those subject to their power.

Ours are interesting times, and this book appears to offer valuable insights on what is happening and what may come next.

8 Likes

It is now on my list of things to read. Perhaps I am misreading the short sections in the post, but it sounds like the author is describing … the Davoise! And they are here & networked already.

A network is a means, not an end. A loyalty to a select transnational group could easily become a means to a bad end. See Davoise.

3 Likes

Even searching Brave did not help clue me in.

1 Like

Or, as I would say, a form or organisation. A network state is a means of creating a propositional society, but it is neutral as to what the proposition is. In the same same, a theocracy (God leviathan) is neutral to what the religion is, and a Westphalian nation-state (State leviathan) can include states as diverse as Switzerland, Nazi Germany, Red China, Canada, and Brazil. Similarly, a network state (Network leviathan) might include distributed communities organised around anarcho-capitalism, radical Islam, voluntary human extinction, space migration, re-establishment of the traditional family, meritocracy through gaming, or any other proposition that can attract enough people to commit to it.

The question is, which form of organisation is more effective in accomplishing the goals of those who adopt it? If legacy ideologues (for example, those who attend Davos) are wedded to the nation-state as their means of implementation, they may find themselves out-maneuvered by the more agile and adaptable network alternative, just as centralised top-down theocracy run from Rome was unable to cope with alternatives springing up all over and making their own rules during the Reformation.

3 Likes

Davos Man: the minions of the World Economic Forum, who holds the annual slaver and Bond villain conclave in Davos, Switzerland.

7 Likes

All I got is this… tempting

3 Likes

Intriguing … looking forward to reading it.

Main reflection so far is a state is somewhat static over time, and a Network State as alluded seems like it could be very ephemeral.

John Robb’s network swarm (link) is intuitively more appealing for what I think at first glance is a very similar idea.

Swarms all around us

Unbeknownst to most people, we’ve already had lots of experience with network swarms. Over the last few decades, network swarms have emerged in warfare, protests, and politics:

  • Guerrillas . We saw them first used to effect by the Iraqi insurgency (I documented this in my book Brave New War). Direct action groups like Anonymous (reportedly modeled on the description found in my book), Antifa, etc., are also network swarms.
  • Protest movements . From the Arab Spring protests to Ricky Renuncia in Puerto Rico to No Mas FARC in Colombia to Black Lives Matter to the Canadian Trucker Protests to the Occupy/Tea Party movements.
  • Politics . A networked political swarm put Trump in the White House, and one disconnected him from social networking in January 2021. They are also commonly used to attack everyone, from Supreme Court nominees to corrupt corporate executives.
3 Likes

If you have the time and want to dig deeper into these issues, here is a three hour and twenty minute interview of Balaji Srinivasan by Tim Ferriss just posted on 2022-07-07.

Here is an index of topics discussed in the interview with their cue points.

00:00:00 Start
00:01:37 The current state of crypto and overall markets
00:09:58 Market depth and the Overton window
00:16:29 The challenges of identifying possible trends
00:20:09 Does transhumanism need rebranding?
00:22:55 Augmented reality glasses: the next big thing?
00:32:44 Rethinking Icarus from a transhumanist, pro-innovation perspective
00:54:29 DALL-E 2 as a compact programming language
00:57:12 Peter Turchin and cliodynamics
00:58:48 What is a network state?
01:13:35 Humans like to fight over borders — even when they’re invisible
01:22:17 American anarchy
01:43:58 Bitcoin vs. gold as an inflation hedge
01:50:12 What needs to happen for Bitcoin to behave in the way Bitcoin holders would like it to behave?
02:23:10 Society as a service: how the establishment of a network state could succeed — without devolving into a cult
02:49:30 Chinese control
02:59:03 Missionary over mercenary; innovation over top-down control
03:01:26 India’s upward trends
03:06:50 Establishment disdain for tech interlopers (and the feeling is mutual)
03:12:46 Parting thoughts

3 Likes

That definition should be the first hit on an internet search and WEF Junior Leadership program (or whatever they call it) should be defined as a sequel to the Hitler Youth program.

1 Like

I still have not read the book, so the issue of physical reality might be addressed there somewhere. Reality is that we humans are physical beings – to live, we need a supply of water, wastewater treatment, electric power, gas, roads, and a whole lot more. The denizens of a Networked State (like today’s Davoise) might owe their allegiance to their fellow Networked State colleagues – but they rely on conventional states to build the roads that take them to the airport and to provide the Air Traffic Control that lets them fly safely to their next hideout.

It looks as if Networked States are either going to be mere clubs of the like-minded or are going to have to impose physical borders which incorporate the essential production of water & power (and the financial provisions to pay for them). Maybe a return to the ancient league of city states would be more realistic than a move to a league of diffuse Networked States?

2 Likes

Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, has just posted a long (7700 word) commentary on “What do I think about network states?”, which is also a good summary of the ideas in the book. The article is rich in links for further exploration, including this useful late 2020 look from Business Insider at the current state of economic citizenship programmes around the world, “9 countries where you can easily buy citizenship and how to do it”.

Buterin concludes:

I want to see startup societies along these kinds of visions exist. I want to see immersive lifestyle experiments around healthy living. I want to see crazy governance experiments where public goods are funded by quadratic funding, and all zoning laws are replaced by a system where every building’s property tax floats between zero and five percent per year based on what percentage of nearby residents express approval or disapproval in a real-time blockchain and ZKP-based voting system. And I want to see more technological experiments that accept higher levels of risk, if the people taking those risks consent to it. And I think blockchain-based tokens, identity and reputation systems and DAOs could be a great fit.

At the same time, I worry that the network state vision in its current form risks only satisfying these needs for those wealthy enough to move and desirable enough to attract, and many people lower down the socioeconomic ladder will be left in the dust. What can be said in network states’ favor is their internationalism: we even have the Africa-focused Afropolitan. Inequalities between countries are responsible for two thirds of global inequality and inequalities within countries are only one third. But that still leaves a lot of people in all countries that this vision doesn’t do much for. So we need something else too - for the global poor, for Ukrainians that want to keep their country and not just squeeze into Poland for a decade until Poland gets invaded too, and everyone else that’s not in a position to move to a network state tomorrow or get accepted by one.

Network states, with some modifications that push for more democratic governance and positive relationships with the communities that surround them, plus some other way to help everyone else? That is a vision that I can get behind.

3 Likes

Balaji was on the Knowledge Project podcast with Shane Parrish back in early April. Shane may be known to some of us for running the Farnam Street project (link)

00:00 - Intro
01:08 - What Balaji has changed his mind about
07:30 - The most boring story - The Canadian Initiative
10:07 - Predicting COVID
15:38 - On personal COVID vaccines and immunity
22:33 - Government binary groupings
26:10 - Variations of “Science” and how it’s hurt our world
30:40 - How crypto is changing the information supply chain
55:20 - Russia and Ukraine impact on crypto
1:00:47 - Nepotism, the New York Times, and Journalism
1:09:43 - Ascending world vs. Descending world
1:13:09 - Censorship, free speech, and distribution
1:22:48 - How Balaji would have handled the trucker’s in Canada
1:30:10 - Stalin’s war
1:34:39 - The Social War: Digital capture the flag
1:44:03 - “Web3 will be Waterloo for wokeness”
1:54:10 - What advantages & disadvantages do established democracies have?
02:04:05 - The impact of the housing market
02:10:40 - Balaji on legacy wealth
02:13:27 - What’s the biggest problem with our educational system?
02:21:49 - How do you recognize talent and hire?
02:24:27 - What’s your take on Twitter banning a sitting president?
02:30:59 - What country is going to win the future?
02:57:52 - Most overrated & underrated tech companies
03:06:20 - What one book would Balaji read over and over again?

3 Likes

A couple of interesting quotes from Buterin’s article:

What is common about all of these examples is the value of having a physical region, at least of a few hectares, where the network state’s unique rules are enforced.” [emphasis added]

“.… rich crypto guys who moved to countries like Singapore or territories like Puerto Rico still depended crucially on the infrastructure and institutions of highly functional states.” [emphasis added]

What Balaji is describing is not an on-line virtual network; rather it is the city state – or initially, the self-governing homeowners association, and ultimately the self-governing County, with the implicit proviso that human beings are free to move from the jurisdiction they are in to another one with which they have more in common. In essence, that is close to the original United States with its strong State government and highly limited Federal government and freedom of movement between States. Or perhaps it is close to today’s Switzerland with its Cantonal structure.

It seems like the “Network” is not germane to the central idea. Perhaps “Network” is simply the new buzz word, just as “Nano” used to be.

3 Likes

Balaji Srinivasan fas created a directory of network states in organisation on his “The Network State” Web site. He writes:

How do we get the first network state with diplomatic recognition? We’ll need a pipeline of hundreds, perhaps thousands of startup societies.

Fortunately, there are already 20+ such societies today. So we set up a little dashboard to track them: The Network State Dashboard.

2 Likes

Should Scanalyst apply to the list?

1 Like