The Dream of Digital Homesteading

Geoff Shullenberger

Image for article: The Dream of Digital Homesteading
September 29, 2022
Photo: NASA

The airplane banner ads above Miami Beach last weekend mostly purveyed the visceral pleasures of a Florida vacation: from beer and hard seltzer to nightclub shows and shooting ranges. One, however, seemed to promise a more dramatic departure from the ordinary—“Urbit: There’s a planet waiting when you’re ready.”

Curious beachgoers who turned to Google to make sense of this enigmatic invitation would have been informed that Urbit is “a personal OS designed from scratch to run peer-to-peer applications.” Other search results evoke cosmic themes: Urbit is described as “Martian computing,” with further references not only to “planets,” but to “galaxies” and “stars.” But this isn’t a private space-exploration company: Despite its sci-fi-inflected marketing, Urbit’s ambitions are quite earthly.

In essence, Urbit aims to upend the current architecture of the internet, in which users are clients of massive centralized servers that store data, in favor of a decentralized model in which users have ownership of their identities and their data. This ownership is tied to the same encryption technology—the blockchain—that underpins cryptocurrencies. Urbit’s promise of a “planet,” it turns out, refers to this: the unique ID, inscribed on the Ethereum blockchain, that guards one’s data and enables encrypted communication.

For some, the airplane banner ad might have brought to mind—as it did for me—the subway ads in Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film Total Recall, which offer not exactly a trip to Mars, but an artificially implanted memory of a trip to Mars. In it, Mars is a frontier planet taken over by a tyrannical mining company that exploits the impoverished inhabitants. The protagonist, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, helps free the Martians from serfdom by ridding them of their oppressors and unleashing a terraforming process that makes the planet’s atmosphere breathable.

Along similar lines, Urbit vows to liberate users from the extractive dominance of Big Tech, on whose server farms we all toil under the current dispensation. With our new planets, conversely, we may become smallholders on a new digital frontier.

Just a few blocks from where this tantalizing promise floated above sunbathers sipping piña coladas, the second Urbit Assembly took place—not in a pixelated dreamscape, but on the seventh floor of a parking garage, converted into an open-air event space. The four-day gathering brought together programmers, developers, and investors directly involved in building on Urbit with a motley group of hangers-on, including filmmakers, artists, academics, and writers—me included.

The aesthetic of the affair might be described as “tropical startup with cyberpunk characteristics.” Raw concrete mingled with palm and bougainvillea; participants sat on folding chairs and makeshift furniture constructed from pallets, sipping coffee or Spindrifts earlier in the day, Coronas or margaritas as the brutal afternoon sun bore down in the afternoon. Neon signs enumerated the event’s sponsors and participants: the entities currently building, or building on, the new digital realm that is Urbit, with alien-sounding names like Tlon, Holium, Sia, and Uqbar.

This was the third such gathering in a year: The first assembly convened in Austin last October, followed by “Urbit week” in New York City in May. The first of these brought together in “meatspace” the insular, but geographically dispersed, community that has formed around Urbit, a tech ecosystem often compared by its denizens to the Galápagos Islands for its serene isolation from the continent-sized systems that make up the mainstream internet. The New York events, conversely, lured outsiders and non-tech people into the Urbit sphere, and tried to attach the project to certain ambient cultural energies emerging from the so-called Dimes Square scene.

The Miami summit combined these two approaches. By all accounts, it was the largest Urbit gathering yet, and it doubled the size of last year’s Austin assembly. It did so in part, it seemed, by drawing in curious parties from the broader cryptocurrency world, and in part by attracting influential people from outside the tech industry who sympathize with Urbit’s critique of Big Tech dominance and its effects: in particular, the expanding coordination of surveillance and censorship between state and private entities.

At one point, I overheard a fragment of a conversation in which someone stated his ambition to be the “tech bro Georges Sorel.” The phrase captured something of the spirit of the event. Sorel was a heterodox Marxist: Contrary to Marx, he argued that revolutionary change wasn’t inevitable. Instead, the revolution had to be willed into existence with acts of the imagination that would forge powerful myths; these, in turn, would provide the animating force for political change.

The Urbit crowd, like Sorel, rejects any doctrine of historical determinism: Neither the internet as it exists, nor the one they hope to usher into existence, is inevitable. The old internet, many speakers implied, was built on myths it could never fulfill, myths about freedom that soon came to legitimate a centralized, hierarchical architecture. The new internet, the message seemed to be, needs not only to be built in the technical sense; it also needs to be memed into existence by powerful mythmaking. This sensibility is evident in the sci-fi language of planets, galaxies, and stars, but also in the attempt to attach the project to broader cultural trends, such as the backlash against Big Tech censorship.

In his main-stage speech on Day Two, Galen Wolfe-Pauly, CEO of Tlon, the company mainly responsible for building Urbit, juxtaposed two timelines of personal computing. The first was the one we know, beginning in 1969 and ending now, with a widely disliked but adamantine regime of surveillance capitalism overseen by monopolies or oligopolies in collusion with the state. In this version, the personal computer had turned out to be a “failed experiment.” If we continued on this path, he told the audience, the future would look like this—and he projected an iconic scene from Blade Runner (derived, like Total Recall, from the visionary imagination of Philip K. Dick), a film in which sinister corporations lord it over a humanity reduced to hi-tech servitude.

In defiance of today’s tech monoculture, as Wolfe-Pauly explained, Urbit aims to rebuild not just the internet, but personal computing, from the ground up. “The future is long,” he intoned. “We can still start over.” His alternative timeline begins now and ends in 2072, at which time Urbit’s model of networked computation has prevailed in the form of a matrix of “computers we can trust” and over which we have ownership—or to use the term preferred by Urbit enthusiasts, “sovereignty.”

It is on this point that suspicions might emerge around the enterprise. Ownership, put simply, means you must buy into Urbit to get a piece of it. Unlike an email account or a social-media profile, an Urbit “planet” must be purchased (or in my case, given to me by someone connected to Tlon). Given Urbit’s rudimentary functionality at the moment, its success relies on people buying into it because they believe in its future promise—a promise that can only be realized by getting people to buy into it. A detractor might ask whether the whole thing amounts to a Ponzi scheme—the same question often asked about cryptocurrencies, to which Urbit is technically as well as ideologically linked.

Both speakers and participants I spoke to privately tried to allay such concerns in two ways. First, they noted that Urbit’s immense technical challenges and exceedingly slow rollout made it no one’s idea of a quick-buck scam. Second, they asked, in effect, what isn’t a Ponzi scheme—or rather, to what extent is a successful institution simply a Ponzi scheme that succeeds? Certainly, if the designation applies to cryptocurrencies, it might apply just as well to the many overvalued, unprofitable companies to emerge from the more respectable corners of Silicon Valley in recent years.

But given the libertarian leanings of many at the gathering, it was unsurprising to hear the standard adage that fiat currencies are more of a Ponzi scheme than cryptocurrencies, and so are plenty of other institutions built on people’s confidence in them: universities, bureaucracies, and so on. The question, from this perspective, is not how to avoid building or investing in Ponzi schemes; rather, it is how to build something out of nothing that eventually becomes more than the sum of its parts, and thereby evolve into a self-sustaining system. The options are: fail, or become too big to fail.

One influential version of these ideas is found in Silicon Valley kingmaker Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, where he distinguishes between “zero-to-one” and “one-to-n” innovation: the latter sort merely scales up or iterates on an existing model (as with the startups that try to be “Uber for dogsitters,” “Yelp for airlines,” and so on), whereas the former tries to build something entirely new. Urbit is decisively a “zero-to-one” enterprise, attempting to route around the entire existing architecture of the internet and restart networked computing from scratch. (Likely for that reason, Thiel has been one of its investors.)

“Urbit claims to offer something like a Homestead Act for network computers.”

The event space’s panoramic views from above Miami hinted at the earliest moments of a rocket’s liftoff—and after all, we were just a few hours down the coast from Cape Cañaveral. Analogously, Urbit remains closer to zero than one. Anyone who has booted an Urbit planet will likely tell you it is not the most inviting interface for the novice, although its aesthetics are appealing. The investor Balaji Srinivasan, in his keynote address to the assembly, humorously compared the cognitive tax of merely accessing, much less building on, Urbit to passing the Chinese imperial exams. For him, though, this was a good thing—a useful sorting mechanism.

This sorting mechanism seems to select not only on the basis of technical skill and curiosity: It also attracts a certain political sensibility, without which one is unlikely to take the trouble with Urbit. This sensibility isn’t quite standard tech-world libertarianism, which has in fact underwritten, Ayn Rand-style, the dominance of Big Tech titans as the justly earned recompense of true innovation. Instead, it promises technology at a “human scale,” as several participants put it.

Ex-academic political philosopher Justin Murphy (full disclosure: a friend of mine) captured some of this slightly distinct philosophy in a panel discussion with the statement: “We are taking the American DNA and enshrining it in code.” I took this to mean that Urbit claims to offer something like a Homestead Act for network computers, converting internet users from mere sharecroppers on Big Tech’s vast terrains into smallholders and owner-operators. It promises to overthrow what some have taken to calling digital feudalism in favor of a Jeffersonian-Jacksonian democracy of a newly minted digital petite bourgeoisie.

However, there is a tension between this neo-populist strain of Urbit’s nascent mythology and another, older one. Curtis Yarvin, the controversial blogger and programmer who founded Tlon and conceived of Urbit, derived his company’s name from “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Jorge Luis Borges’s short story about a secret society that conjures up a new world out of a fictional encyclopedia depicting, in minute detail, every conceivable facet of an imaginary planet called Tlön. The encyclopedia, secretly disseminated around the world, begins to infiltrate reality, eventually taking it over.

One pamphlet handed out at Urbit Assembly alluded to this source text, promising to explain “How to start a secret society.” To cultivate a hermetic elite and to foster the growth of a broad-based society of prosperous smallholders may not, in fact, be at odds—but they do seem like contrasting emphases in the mythic framework emerging around Urbit: edgy hacker nihilism on one side, the can-do optimism of the American frontiersman on the other.

Borges’s story likely attracted Yarvin because it offers one of the most elegant descriptions of the phenomenon of “hyperstition”: the process by which fictional or speculative entities may be, as we now say, memed into existence; essentially, the process by which we go from zero to one, from house-of-cards Ponzi scheme to too big to fail. Hyperstition, a concept first developed by the cyberpunk philosopher Nick Land and his colleagues at the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, deals not in the unreal but in the not-yet real, forcing a transubstantiation through sheer ludic repetition and saturation. For Land, writing in the 1990s, the definitive feature of emergent cyberspace was its acceleration and proliferation of hyperstitional possibilities.

One panel at Urbit Assembly pitted Land’s prophecies, which darkly welcome a future not unlike those seen in Blade Runner and Total Recall, against those of Ted Kaczynski, while hinting that Urbit’s digital homesteading might split the difference. At another, the writer (and Compact columnist) Walter Kirn glossed Urbit’s project as “conscious medievalism”—furnishing tools for culture to survive the “new dark age” threatened by Big Tech dominance in collusion with the state security apparatus. Urbit, he remarked, might serve as an encrypted private refuge where we can “hide out from the AIs.”

For Kirn, Borges’s positive lesson for the builders of Urbit was that the internet was made by men, and can be made again. But the conclusion of “Tlön, Uqbar”—the second of Borges’s made-up place names, I should note, is now the name of a startup that enables cryptocurrency exchanges on Urbit—is more cautionary. The story’s narrator, initially fascinated by Tlön, draws away from it precisely at the point when it has outstripped reality: “A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world,” he says in the story’s final paragraph—but he “pay[s] no attention to all this,” and busies himself revising an obscure literary translation he doesn’t intend to publish.

Given their Sorelian seriousness about myth and their awareness of the way technologies both rely on and outstrip their founding myths, those in the Urbit-sphere might consider revisiting the wry, mordant fictional text from which Yarvin derived the proper names now attached to their products. I imagine some of the literary types they have managed to pull into their sphere would enjoy joining the discussion.