User Error: A More Beautiful Computer
From Dimes Square to the Network State, new frontiers are in the making. Adina Glickstein attends Urbit Assembly and considers the politics of tech-augmented exit.
“Is that a state machine?” a cargo-shorted sunburn victim asks, gesturing to the neon green numogram on my CCRU t-shirt. “In a certain sense.” “Are you a programmer?” “In a manner of speaking.” My entry wristband reads: “URBIT ASSEMBLY ~ TAKE A WALK ON THE BEACH AND DRAW A HEART IN THE SAND.” Elevator doors part and deliver clusters of entrants to the top floor of a Brutalist block, built in 1968 as the headquarters of SunTrust Bank, later converted into a parking garage by Herzog & de Meuron. Miami Beach, baby. The conference’s address is an angel number: 1111 Lincoln Road. Its tagline is “New World Energy.”
Palm trees have been placed around the lot, nestled up against its concrete support plinths. I’m told there are exactly one thousand oranges pyramided on the tables for snacking purposes, and the key to a “galaxy” – the highest-order tier of address space on Urbit’s network – is hidden within one of their peels. Downstairs, at street level, tourists float between franchised luxury stores, gauche local boutiques, and middling commercial galleries. The coffee shop nearest the venue is a Capital One Café.
This humidity is oppressive, sweat pooling in my pits, dampening the numogram’s contours. “Hey, CCRU!” At least one other attendee is wearing my shirt. He just got back from Honduras, he tells me, where he was electively injected with an experimental life-extension compound unapproved by the US FDA. He gestures at his abdominal zone, somewhere between nodes 8 and 9 on the diagram, where the substance entered his body. The shirt attracts another compliment from a khaki-wearing clean-cut who’s big on Nick Land and a high-five from a lobstery Brit blasting cigs from an Urbit-branded carton. Such is the variety that inhabits this Assembly, this beacon of New World Energy bootstrapped into existence.
It is notoriously difficult to establish, even (or maybe especially?) at an Urbit conference, what Urbit actually is. All the more so for the less-technical among us – present author included – a demographic which made a substantial showing at this year’s Assembly, the second of Urbit’s annual AFK convenings. Stock definitions of Urbit range from “a clean-slate OS” to “an ultra-private p2p VM” to, simply, “a more beautiful computer.” Coindesk calls it “an audacious and idiosyncratic project to rebuild the internet computing stack from top to bottom.” In the most straightforward terms I can muster, Urbit is a personal peer-to-peer cloud computer being built with the lofty goal of replacing the existing centralized client/server model of the internet. Each user owns their own data, freeing them from ad tech and spy tech, from censorship and surveillance.
Urbit is a rejoinder to the status quo of cloud computing, where we use services to manage our services.
Unlike the internet in its present form, where social lives are fragmented across an archipelago of private platforms and siloed user accounts, Urbit prioritizes users’ sovereignty over the software they’re running. If one wishes to leave the network, they can download their data as a .ZIP and zip off to wherever else they choose. It’s a rejoinder to the status quo of cloud computing, where, per Urbit Foundation’s Josh Lehman, “we use services to manage our services.” In brief, as he puts it while standing on the Galaxy Stage for the opening address, “Urbit makes computing personal again.”
Urbit is deeply ambitious. It is also deeply divisive. Its founder – now off the project – was Curtis Yarvin, something like a spiritual advisor to the New American Right. Urbit has been in development, initially in Yarvin’s mind and then as an actually existing thing, for somewhere near twenty years; almost a decade longer than Bitcoin and thus predating the coinage of the term “Web3.” After languishing in obscurity for most of that period, Urbit hit a cultural tipping point sometime last year, afforded by easier onboarding and the rollout of a new user interface.
The recent uptick in name-recognition among nongeeks can equally be attributed to a marketing strategy that put it on the map for a certain subset of the “downtown scene” – which, as everyone knows, is a made-up and geography-agnostic invention astroturfed by the Dimes Square Industrial Complex – culminating in “Urbit NY Week” last May. Walt and Honor of Wet Brain were issued a “star,” christening them the Urbit equivalent of an internet service provider. No Agency had an Urbit party. Yarvin went on Red Scare. I heard that Soph Vanderbilt was handing out business cards, decreeing herself an “Urbit Girl-In-Residence.”
The e-girl in residence for a Dark Enlightenment operating system: could it be the Gen Z equivalent of the millennial artist-in-consultance? Carrie Bradshaw voice: and I couldn’t help but wonder, is that what I’m doing here, too? A certain former columnist for this magazine, recently the subject of a profile in the NYT Styles section, is said to be involved with Urbit’s PR. Red Scare’s Anna Khachiyan was scheduled to appear on a panel at this year’s Assembly, alongside the internet historian @defaultfriend and the filmmaker Alex Lee Moyer. In the end, Anna didn’t show, withdrawing from the panel at the very last minute. Rumors circulate that she declined to attend not because of any particular emergency, or even a sudden-onset ideological grievance, but simply because her flight was delayed and she took it as a bad omen.
Other figures on the speaker lineup were a little more remote from the regular purview of this magazine. Following Lehman’s introductory remarks, I catch a talk by a lawyer who came up in the Reagan-era Justice Department. He describes his work as “removing regulatory burdens” in El Salvador, where Bitcoin is now legal tender. He recently worked with the Salvadoran government to write a law, modeled on the DAO law in Wyoming, to make the country a favorable base for “founders working in crypto.” He requests, at the end of his address, a show of hands, as if he had been pitching timeshares: who’s interested in joining forces once the legislation passes, which could be as soon as October, dev-ing it up in the “developing world?”
“New World Energy” sounds like cute esoterica, and is something of a double-entendre. A theme recurs throughout the weekend: the formation of new frontiers, echoing the ostensibly apolitical escapism long preached by the scions of Silicon Valley. During a lull in the program, a twentysomething VC asks if I want to come see his home on Próspera, an island charter city and special economic zone off the coast of Honduras.
In the Network State, not unlike the imaginary topographic zone of the “downtown scene,” digitally enabled social formations and shared worldviews supersede geography.
The keynote is to be given, later in the weekend, by Balaji Srinivasan, former CTO of Coinbase, on the subject of his book The Network State, self-published on the Fourth of July this year. His philosophy is one of “exit” – of a future free from our extant modes of governance, replaced by newly conjured tech-augmented political forms. In the Network State, not unlike the imaginary topographic zone of the “downtown scene,” digitally enabled social formations and shared worldviews supersede geography. Politics take place when citizens vote with their feet – “no voice, but exit” – in a similar manner to Urbit’s network structure, which is decentralized but not democratic, leaving users free to express their dissent by migrating from one hosting provider to another. Take that apparently reasonable proposition to its logical extreme, graft it from the internet onto lived space, and you’re left with Yarvin’s ideal form of governance: a patchwork of “benevolent monarchies,” city-states governed by CEOs.
Similar speculations are sketched out by a handful of speakers. Many cast themselves in the language of “the frontier” – of pilgrims and secession, cities on (virtual) hills. Justin Murphy, a renegade liberal arts professor turned podcaster, convenes a panel called “Forking the American Codebase,” the upshot of which is that the country is irreparably broken, its democratic system more suited to disposal than repair. Charlotte Fang, the figure behind the controversial Milady Maker NFT, is the panel’s surprise guest, but walks off halfway through, flanked by consigliere. For ideological reasons? We’ll never know. I lie down on a large fluffy platform, staring at the concrete ceiling. A cocktail waitress materializes, margarita in outstretched hand.
As the panel winds down, Soryu Forall, a Buddhist teacher who has read Yarvin’s writings extensively, cautions: do we, the denizens of this parking garage, have the requisite wisdom to design new ideologies, new forms of governance, from scratch? Just as much as we need programmers to build New World infrastructure, he insists, we need spiritual leadership – a necessity that risks being forsaken in our hasty assent to the principle that code is law. He’s about to say something else but then Murphy, glistening with Floridian humidity and Californian ideology, cuts him off with some remarks about the Founding Fathers’ admirable courage, getting shot at in the streets by British soldiers, and how our continuation of their mission, equally courageous, lies in building cool shit with our friends on the network. Even having been denied the last word, it’s clear that Forall has a point. Later, he and I chat on the phone, and he reiterates: technological acceleration is trending towards extraction and control, towards a world in which beings of all kinds are rendered as data to be processed. One of the most compelling details of Urbit’s value-proposition is that it seeks to be a “thousand-year computer.” But who will be around that long to use it – in what future, and to what end?
Later, in a karaoke bar called The Beach (or is it The Ocean?), I unwind from the day with some core devs, a self-described “pretty based” magazine writer (that makes two of us?), and a drum and bass label boss who introduces me to his theory of “fat/acc” – “it’s not right-accelerationism or left-accelerationism, just a philosophy where you eat a lot.” All of us fall silent as a vacationer performs a moving rendition of “Piano Man.” Riding high on the rare Charlotte Fang sighting, I can’t help but hear the chorus as: “we’re all in the mood for a Milady, and you’ve got us feeling alright.”
The media historian Fred Turner tracks the reinvention of the Bay Area hippie Left following its political efforts unraveling after the Summer of Love. Factions of the acid-dropping, mantra-chanting New Communalists stuck around San Francisco where, under the influence of Stewart Brand, they imagined that computers might one day occupy the role they had once assigned to LSD: as tools for the transformation of consciousness. The region came to be known as Silicon Valley, pushed along by rhetoric and funding from the Kennedy administration, propelled by visions of a New Frontier. “The New Communalists,” writes Turner, “believed that the micro-world was where politics happened. If we could just build a better micro-world, we could live by example to create a better world for the whole.” Evaluating that endeavor, he reflects: “I think that’s wrong. Our challenge is to build a world that takes responsibility for people not like ourselves.”
It is possible to build real things – good things – on Urbit, and people do: publishing tools, microblogging platforms, imageboards, bible-verse-a-day apps. There is an Urbit-native literary magazine, The Mars Review of Books, edited by Noah Kumin, who is also publishing a social history of computing, released chapter-by-chapter directly on the network. In the history he is crafting, Urbit seems to be the telos – “diamond-perfect,” as Yarvin’s writings would have it – of network technology’s fraught trajectory. That, I think, is how I ended up here: come for the deep, hardened skepticism towards Web2 surveillance capitalism; stay for the popping alt-lit scene. The first issue of the Mars Review featured Christian Lorentzen, who was once a serious literary critic, being verbose about right-wing Twitter icon Bronze Age Pervert; the second, which dropped just in time for Assembly, has Tao Lin detailing his auto-experiments in naturally healing autism and, of course, a review of Srinivasan’s The Network State.
A cocktail party unfolds in some Miami mansion. I’m told its owner goes by Bacchus, though in a world of pseudonymity, it’s unclear whether by birth or by choice. I talk to Milady holders and back-to-the-landers, guys who back charter cities and guys who run hacker hostels. Even plied with abundant free alcohol, the crowd is too meek and respectful to take the docked jet ski out for a joyride. Techno-libertarians, evangelists of various spiritual and non-spiritual stripes, a contingent of the coastal literati – an odd menage-a-trois, but one no doubt endowed with powerful culture-making potential.
If these forces hold one belief in common, it might be that in the beginning, there was the word.
If these forces hold one belief in common, it might be that in the beginning, there was the word. Tlon and Uqbar, two of the companies building Urbit, both take their names from a story by Jorge Luis Borges – Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – in which a secret society creates a new world from scratch, bringing it into existence by writing about it. As they publish an encyclopedia describing this new world, its principles emerge into reality, grafting onto – and eventually consuming – the world that preceded.
This rhymes with some sort of utopian dreaming, with that oft-cited quote from David Graeber, that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” To the people who found offshore charter cities and craft laws in Latin America, this axiom is so obvious as to be implicit, charged with the confidence of capital and power. The world is already being remade, here and elsewhere, with impressive imaginative autonomy.
Turner situates the deeper origins of Silicon Valley ideology in the lineage of the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts: abandoning the world of old, making themselves more visible to God, and being rewarded with wealth in the process. “Why did we leave the known?,” he asks, in an interview with Nora Khan. “So, we could become the unknown, the people without history, the people without a past.” But no exit is ever a clean break. Difference casts shadows; politics persist. “When you leave history behind, the realm that you enter is not the realm of nothingness.” Is it the realm of New World Energy? Of seasteading? Of a third, more mysterious thing?
From what else do we seek to exit, though – by what means, and to where?
I missed Srinivasan’s keynote. I overslept after staying out all night skinny-dipping in the ocean. I was not, apparently, spiritually prepared for that infusion of New World Energy. I struggle to .ZIP my swag-stuffed suitcase and schmooze my way out of a late checkout fine. Over one final lunch in the parking garage, I catch snippets of a panel on “The Timeless Way of Building,” and am struck by the sense that Urbit is touching on some of the right answers, even if they’ve arrived at them by asking the wrong questions. There is a great deal of talent, and maybe even wisdom, reverberating through this network, aimed at engineering a break from the extant structure of networked computing – the horror world of total datafication that Forall describes, run amok with algorithmic attention-farming and ad-trackers and the flattening influence of SEO.
From what else do we seek to exit, though – by what means, and to where? I mull it over on the flight back to Berlin, the site of my own personal exit. I congratulate myself for having opted into more bureaucracy, more taxes, while ads for “citizenship by investment” in Antigua roll before each episode of Billions on the inflight entertainment system.
ADINA GLICKSTEIN is an Editor at Large for Spike and publishes the column User Error monthly. Last month, she wrote about BeReal and Lars von Trier.