The idea of ‘the network state’ was coined by entrepreneur and investor Bilaji Srinivasen. His self-published book of the same name defines the idea like this: “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.” (Srinivasen 2022, 9)
That is a whole bunch of ideas clumped together that I’m not going to outline in depth here. If you want to learn more, the book is available here. Suffice to say, it is taking certain corners of the blockchain community by storm, so much so that Vitalik Buterin – founder of Ethereum – wrote a long blog post about his thoughts on the concept. Buterin is excited about the idea, but also already points to some important issues regarding wealth inequality and the effects of ‘exitocracy’ on wider society. But where it really gets interesting is in the efforts of Joshua Dávila, a.k.a. The Blockchain Socialist, and Primavera de Filippi, director of the ERC Blockchaingov research project, who have taken it upon themselves to develop more thorough criticism in their podcast series Overthrowing The Network State.
Enough background. Here are some of my quick thoughts after the conference, which really was just a long series of business pitches without reflections or discussions.
Reviving the virtual community through libertarian exit
I got a strong sense that Howard Rheingold’s 1993 vision of a virtual utopia got an upgrade to the blockchain-age, but not for the better if you ask me. There was something friendly and makeshift about Rheingold’s original vision back in the 90s. It imagined a group of oddball virtual friends “exchange pleasantries and argue, engage in intellectual discourse, conduct commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games, flirt, create a little high art and a lot if idle talk”, in short, live life in all its messiness together online (Rheingold 1993, 4). Over the years, Rheingold’s vision has been thoroughly critiqued, especially with regards to his utopian idea of the separation between the virtual and IRL, which the algorithmic discriminations of social media, insurance premiums, and predictive policing through contemporary digital systems prove belongs to the realm of dreams.
At the conference, I stopped counting the amount of times I heard a version of a rehash of the global village / virtual community / homesteading. Instead of the separation between IRL and cyberspace, The Network State (TNS) realises that people still have to live somewhere physically, and incorporates this into its strategy by accumulating all manner of tropical island and beach resorts. A quick look at my notes reminds me of TNS properties and zones in: Roatán (Honduras), Puerto Rico, Norman’s Cay (The Bahamas), Costa Rica, Palau, and special economic zones in Nigeria and Senegal. Especially Roatán was a favorite of many pitchers.
The idea is that these companies / DAOs acquire these beautiful and cheap locations to set up co-living / co-working properties that host digital nomads who can beat the loneliness that often accompanies this increasingly popular lifestyle by finding likeminded individuals in these membership-only resorts. The price of such memberships remained vague during the conference. Going by the luxury finishes and general exclusive vibe of the architectural renderings, I’m guessing it’s mostly ‘a particular kind of person’ that will be to find their way into the community: Western and wealthy.
Often these visions fall under the header of ‘charter cities’ in which a new city is developed with the financial help of non-local initiatives and granted a special jurisdiction in order to boost economic development, usually in Global South countries. Dubai is a famous older example. The legislation in these special economic zones usually favour international mobility for the tech sector and low taxation policies. TNS-based developments add to this the establishment of blockchain-based passports handed out to those who invest enough money. (I saw many pictures of shiny credit card-like blockchain IDs in the pitches). Indeed, ‘citizenship by investment’ was a recurring theme. Another term I don’t want to forget is “sovereignty stack”, by which a speaker meant that you should think strategically about which passports you own, where your companies are based, etc, as if it is a bunch of professional tools you just buy (which is of course only a reality for a small and wealthy minority). ‘The city as a start-up’ was also mentioned repeatedly, and I got the sense of a place in which property rights govern everything. Glaringly missing here of course are any discussions of the wealth inequality that Buterin already pointed to in his blog post a year ago. TNS that is envisioned here is populated by – if I’m going by the many pictures and renderings – wealthy, mostly white, Westerners. Oh and if I have to go by the gender balance on stage and in the audience, it will also be overwhelmingly male.
As they build their businesses in the Global South, they will likely push out the people that are local to the places they occupy through land acquisitions and rising prices. This all can be understood as ‘blockchain colonialism,’ a phenomenon that researchers like Jillian Crandall, Pete Howson, and Olivier Jutel have worked to exposed in recent years. If you want to read more about this, see for example: Blockchain and the ‘chains of empire’, Climate crises and crypto-colonialism, Blockchain imperialism in the Pacific. Also read about the idea of a ‘libertarian exit’ from society to a free market utopia in Adventure Capitalism by Raymond Craib.
Escaping the FDA for longevity research
Another theme that is worth noting was mentioned in the programme as ‘Parallel Biomedicine’, but really was about longevity. For those that are not familiar, longevity is code for life-extension and ultimately immortality, and many self-organised research institutes are popping up to battle the ‘pandemic of the fatal disease of aging’. It is a fringe idea that has connections with cryogenics and extropianism, and that raises important ethical questions, e.g. about the inequality of who will have access to these technologies and the general morality of longevity as an aim. Recently, blockchain proponents are increasingly visible in longevity discourse. Balaji’s Twitter / X bio for example reads “Immutable money, infinite frontier, eternal life. #Bitcoin,” while Buterin tweeted that “Aging is a humanitarian disaster that kills as many people as WW2 every two years and even before killing debilitates people and burdens social systems and families. Let’s end it” and founded Zuzalu, a pop-up longevity city.
The reason why TNS and longevity are such a good match is that the special jurisdictions that the start-up cities and digital nomad paradises make use of often feature medical regulations that are much more lax than in the USA or the EU. Using the freedoms of these localities, longevity research can bypass the slow FDA processes to get medical approval and move ahead outside of their purview. Besides Zuzalu, other examples of TNS longevity projects that were mentioned are Vitalia and VitaDAO.
Friends and family
Finally, a comment about some of the major names on the programme. The whole day seemed to consist of (friends-of-)friends-of-Balaji and it seemed to all be about creating an in-crowd of likeminded globally dispersed people to exit society with together. However, some of the bigger names were surprisingly disappointing in their contributions. Vitalik Buterin (prerecorded video contribution) seemed to just want to share that he had a nice jog and a good party with some internet friends at Zuzalu in Montenegro. Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (prerecorded video) basically just said they don’t like regulation because it cost so much money to have a sufficiently capable legal department. And Glenn Greenwald, who presented in person, started discussing his work for the NSA leaks in 2013, before unequivocally pitching the value of Rumble (and his own show on it) – a video platform that “is immune to cancel culture” and (although it features stricter content regulation policies than other alternative social media platforms) has connections to the (far-)right radical free speech and conspiracy communities, for example through its partnership with Truth Social and the preference of individuals like Russell Brand and Andrew Tate for the platform.
In conclusion, a day of free market utopianism, blockchain colonialism, life-extension, and libertarian exits. Projects on the programme list influential people like Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel among their funders, and should be seen as anything but niche or inconsequential. Exposing the ideologies that form the foundations of TNS is fundamental. I look forward to hear more from Joshua Dávila soon, as he will participate at MoneyLab #13 in Cyprus (3-4 November 2023), and I hope it is the beginning of much more work in this direction.
Srinivasen, Bilaji. 2022 The Network State. (self-published). https://book.thenetworkstate.com/tns.pdf
Rheingold, H. 2000. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.