By Nick Lee, April 2021
Entrepreneur, investor, and self-proclaimed technologist, optimist, and pragmatist, Balaji S. Srinivasan published an article on his “1729”[i] newsletter titled “How to Start a New Country” in which he explores the potential of establishing a new virtual nation. This being the first article in a presumed series under the tag “The Network State,” Srinivasan addresses three seemingly simple but incredibly complicated questions:
- Why start a new country?
- How to start a new country?
- What counts as a new country?
“We want to be able to peacefully start a new country for the same reason we want a bare plot of earth, a blank sheet of paper, an empty text buffer, a fresh startup, or a clean slate. Because we want to build something new without historical constraint.” (Srinivasan, “How to Start a New Country”)
Leave Left and Right at Home
The section of the essay explaining why someone would want to start a new country is fairly uninspiring. My assumption is this is a result of Srinivasan wanting to avoid politics. In fact, there’s really not a single traditionally political statement throughout the entire piece.[ii] Which, for an article about exploring a new type of nation, is pretty impressive and requires the avoidance of numerous land mines. There’s no discussion of legacy states being oppressive, or fueling inequality, or being undemocratic, and so on. I appreciate the effort to remain neutral so as not to alienate anyone of any political leaning. The exploration of the building of a new type of nation should transcend the traditional left/right political paradigm. It requires it. Though, unfortunately, it makes for some uninspiring reading at certain points. The first section of the article really provides nothing substantive and doesn’t even really function as an introduction to the rest of the article. However, let this serve as a reminder that as we embark on this journey to redefine nationhood, the political paradigm will also be redefined. We would all do well to abandon “left” and “right” and proceed with an open mind.
Srinivasan essentially argues that we want to start a new country “because we want to build something new without historical constraint.” It’s not really worth debating whether or not that’s particularly why ‘we’ want to start a new country. It’s largely irrelevant to the project overall and the people interested in the project will want to create a new country for a variety of reasons. My critique is that starting a new country without any historical constraint is impossible both materially and ideologically.
The Challenge: Overcoming Material and Ideological Constraints
Technical Debt and Constraints
Materially, as Srinivasan describes, most of the technology already exists to facilitate the creation of a virtual nation, “the cloud country concept “just” requires stacking together many existing technologies, rather than inventing new ones.” This technological combinatorial evolution of the nation-state is just that, a combination and evolution of existing technologies in novel and perhaps unique ways which give rise to the potentiality (and, in theory, actuality) of the virtual nation. Though, this is hardly building something new without historical constraint. Software developers are well-aware of the costs of technical debt and a developing virtual nation must maintain an awareness of this as it develops and evolves. Through the assuming of the technical debt embedded in the existing technologies, the virtual nation will hardly be starting anew without any historical constraints (perhaps the constraints mentioned here are technological rather than historical but that’s semantics—more below). This is a variable which must be seriously considered.
In addition to the technical debt mentioned above, there are inevitable constraints which will accompany the use of already-existing technologies to create the new virtual nation because these technologies were created within the confines of the existing nation state model. This is qualitatively different from the above-mentioned technical debt (e.g., “bad code”). Since (most) already-existing technology has been created with very specific goals in mind, goals which presumably do not align with the virtual nation, for example the pursuit of profit, opaqueness, centralization, control, data-gathering, and so on, I question Srinivasan’s claim that “the cloud country concept “just” requires stacking together many existing technologies, rather than inventing new ones.” I suspect some technical pieces of the cloud country will require the development of entirely new technologies. For example, I can’t think of a single existing social network technology that would completely “fit the bill” for the cloud country.
Now, I don’t think this is an insurmountable obstacle. Engineering a new social network from scratch is a relatively insignificant problem given enough resources.[iii] But, we must be wary of the constraints inherent in technology designed from the ground up to function within, if not outright support, the current nation-state model.
For a relevant example in this arena, think of the numerous games which were developed on the Ethereum blockchain and are now completely inoperable due to high gas fees. These were pioneers in their space and should be applauded. And, my inability to cost-effectively breed my CryptoKitties is fairly inconsequential in my daily life. However, similar unintended outcomes could mean the complete failure of the virtual nation which would have very serious consequences. The Ethereum games hold a special place in history, have revealed the obstacles of blockchain-based gaming, and have inspired exciting new projects (the Flow blockchain as one example). But the Ethereum blockchain was designed for a completely different function other than gaming. Unless the virtual nation is destined for ‘the dustbin of history,’ it must consider the potential consequences of technical debt and constraints of already-existing technology which was not designed to facilitate the creation and operation of a cloud country (at worst it was designed to perpetuate the modern nation-state).
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and almost simultaneously Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon, developed the concept of historical “sediment.” Our thoughts, behaviors, desires, and so on are the result of our past experiences.
When I chat with a friend whom I know well, each of his remarks and each of mine contains, in addition to the meaning it carries for everybody else, a host of references to the main dimensions of his character and mine, without our needing to recall previous conversations with each other…there is a ‘world of thoughts’, or a sediment left by our mental processes, which enables us to rely on our concepts and acquired judgements as we might on things there in front of us, presented globally, without there being any need for us to resynthesize them.[iv]
Even if the virtual nation was made possible by entirely novel technology with zero technical deb tor constraints, each individual carries with them this sediment, essentially ‘historical ideological debt.’ Aside from the technological problem of creating a new (type of) country, there are considerable ideological obstacles as well. The acceptance of virtual nations even by those individuals with the technical, economic, philosophical, and political perspectives which would predispose them to be initial citizens will still require an incredible shift in thinking due to the significant ideological historical debt each of us carries within us.
When describing the general steps for developing the cloud country Srinivasan explains, “we build the embryonic state as an open source project, we organize our internal economy around remote work, we cultivate in-person levels of civility, we simulate architecture in VR…” and finally, “…we create art and literature that reflects our values.” He also says we must “[build] a culture online.” This is all of course true but he’s focusing only (and only briefly) on the importance of the culture and values of and within the virtual nation itself. Beyond this, we absolutely must begin to discuss how to overcome the ideological debt of the modern nation state we all carry which will require changing the culture and values of global society as well.
Just as one example, I teach an upper-division undergraduate university course titled “State and Society.” The first assignment is for students to define a “state” in no more than two sentences. Without fail, the students mention physical territory as a requisite of a state. This is ideological debt/sediment which results from the fact that every current nation does have physical borders, so our awareness, acceptance, and definition of nations involves physical borders. If the virtual nation project is to be successful, we must convince others to expand the definition of a nation to include entities without physical borders. This is just one of many examples of how ideological debt must be addressed by the project. Srinivasan does not address this at all. He claims, “because the brand new is unthinkable, we fight over the old.” It is a significant challenge to make the brand new thinkable and acceptable. This is not purely a technological problem. It requires ideological work as well.
A classic caricature of the Silicon Valley mentality is “if you build it, they will come.” Essentially meaning, “I’ll just build something so amazing that everyone will see how superior it is compared to the traditional ‘thing’ and everyone will flock to my product.” Admittedly, there is some merit to this attitude. Hardly anyone carries a pager anymore (many people don’t even know they existed). SMS messaging was clearly a more usable and convenient technology.[v] However, there are two potential pitfalls for the virtual nation project through the adoption of this perspective.[vi]
First, technological shift without a coordinated accompanying ideological shift extends the timeframe for adoption. More ideological effort (think “marketing” if it helps) is required the further down the adoption curve we travel. Clearly innovators and early-adopters require very little convincing. But the late majority and the laggards do. This is uniquely important for the virtual nation because the timeline to adoption has serious consequences. The traditional nation-state model will eventually fail. Without ‘intervention,’ i.e., the introduction and adoption of a new model as quickly as possible, that failure could take centuries and will potentially cost millions of lives.[vii]
Second, Srinivasan states the eventual goal of the virtual nation project is its recognition as “a new member of the United Nations, one that is internationally recognized by other countries as a legitimate polity capable of self-determination.”[viii] The legitimacy of the virtual nation in this capacity requires a seismic shift in thinking on the behalf of large governments and their leaders. These groups are historically the last to adopt new technology and even more so if the new technology jeopardizes their own legitimacy which the virtual nation project certainly will.
It is not enough for the virtual nation project to pursue overcoming its technological obstacles. It must, from the outset, take into consideration the significant ‘sediment of the nation-state’ as well, both in its potential citizens and in those who will be responsible for legitimizing it on a global scale.
If the cloud country project has any hope of success, we mustn’t frame it as starting anew but must pragmatically consider the material and ideological (and historical) constraints of our times and work together to find solutions to overcome them.
[ii] I’d argue that any article about starting a new nation is itself a political statement but that’s a different topic.
[iii] It’s not trivial but it is relatively insignificant given the scope of what we’re discussing here.
[iv] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge (London, 2002), 149–50.
[v] Though not as bulletproof. I understand that many healthcare providers and first responders still use pagers—before someone in the comments points this out. I get it. That actually serves to prove my point.
[vi] Srinivasan does not explicitly adopt this perspective in his article. I don’t want to be accused of putting words in his mouth. But it is implied in much of his discourse and his omission of the ideological aspect of the project in this article speaks volumes.
[vii] Not to mention climate disaster and so many other consequences.
[viii] I do question United Nations recognition as the goal for the cloud country project. In my opinion, while achievable, the project is enough of a ‘moon shot’ that we might as well think beyond the United Nations as well. Especially while the ‘big five’ control the Security Council.