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The Network State Review Part 1: The Case for Sacred Experiments
Slave Morality as the Spirit of the State
Balaji Srinivasan is often cast as a technical thinker. This is for good reason, considering his silicon valley background and love of technical metaphors. But to me, his most important contributions are as a moral thinker. Most importantly in my view, he is a moral thinker who avoids assigning too much or too little importance to ideas themselves. But enough praise. What does he actually say?
Technology has allowed us to start new companies, new communities, and new currencies. But can we use it to create new cities, or even new countries? A key concept is to go cloud first, land last — but not land never — by starting with an online community and then materializing it into the physical world
The key idea is to populate the land from the cloud, and do so all over the earth. Unlike an ideologically disaligned and geographically centralized legacy state, which packs millions of disputants in one place, a network state is ideologically aligned but geographically decentralized. The people are spread around the world in clusters of varying size, but their hearts are in one place.
Oh my. Very ambitious. But this ambitious vision of the future is the subject of part 3. Part 1 is about Balaji’s vision of the past and present.
Balaji has many coinages in the book, but my favorite has to be “offense archaeology” (Correction: offense archaeology originates from The New Criterion. It’s a wonderful coinage nonetheless):
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History is how you win the argument. Think about the 1619 Project, or the grievance studies departments at universities, or even a newspaper “profile” of some unfortunate. You might be mining cryptocurrency, but the folks behind such things are mining history. That is, many thousands of people are engaged full time in “offense archaeology,” the excavation of the recent and distant past for some useful incident they can write up to further demoralize their political opposition. This is the scholarly version of going through someone’s old tweets. It’s weaponized history, history as opposition research. You simply can’t win an argument against such people on pure logic alone; you need facts, so you need history.
Offense archaeology is opposition research at the civilizational scale. It is the equivalent of cherry picking the worst personal scandals in an adversarial political candidate and leaking them to favorable press outlets. The only difference is that at present, only regime allies and legacy media are playing this game at all. It is total asymmetric warfare. A ruling power does not need a monopoly on the present, but it does need a monopoly on the past. By this lens, he rejects straightforward technocracy:
Wait, why does a startup society have to begin with a moral issue? And why does the solution to that moral issue need to be historically-informed? Can’t it just be a tech-focused community where people solve problems with equations? We’re interested in Mars and life extension, not dusty stories of defunct cities!
The quick answer comes from Paul Johnson at the 11:00 mark of this talk, where he notes that early America’s religious colonies succeeded at a higher rate than its forprofit colonies, because the former had a purpose. The slightly longer answer is that in a startup society, you’re not asking people to buy a product (which is an economic, individualistic pitch) but to join a community (which is a cultural, collective pitch). You’re arguing that the culture of your startup society is better than the surrounding culture; implicitly, that means there’s some moral deficit in the world that you’re fixing.
The Sacred Swarm
Balaji acknowledges the power of implicit cultural changes. He also recognizes that this pattern in the modern context leads to a type of Tocqueville-style cultural suffocation:
As context, the modern person is often morally reticent but politically evangelistic. They hesitate to talk about what is moral or immoral, because it’s not their place to say what’s right. Yet when it comes to politics, this diffidence is frequently replaced by overbearing confidence in how others must live, coupled with an enthusiasm for enforcing their beliefs at gunpoint if necessary.
In my view this is due to a necessarily totalitarian moral system, which is accountable to none but inspires true believers who act like worker drones: outsourcing their morality to the swarm while unable to make judgements based on principles or evidence rather than social cues. I offer an alternative answer to the question of the sacred posed to me by Robin Hanson (around 1:17:00). Here’s Hanson:
All of which leads me to suggest a theory of the sacred: when a group is united by valuing something highly, they value it in a style that is very abstract, having the features usually appropriate for quickly evaluating things relatively unimportant and far away. Even though this group in fact tries to value this sacred thing highly. Of course, depending on what they try to value, such attempts may have only limited success.
Hanson may be right that this property is what makes things sacred. But I have an alternative, constructive explanation: the sacred is exactly the set of ideas where it pays to be totalitarian. In my model of social systems, the optimal strategies are highly implicit and subconscious, resulting from many iterations of selection against both tolerance and explicit planning. Those strategies can treat various things as absolutes, refusing to compromise on them and using them as moralistic cudgels. In my view, at any given point in time, the sacred is the set of totalitarian strategies that have already won. Like Robin and Balaji, I oppose most of what is considered sacred by the current ruling class. Yet I cannot help but acknowledge that it is impressive to achieve near total victory on these sacred issues.
Dissidence and Diaspora
Now I think I’m reaching an interpretation of Balaji which hasn’t been discussed much by others. A network state is a vessel for moral experimentation, which cannot be done alone. It is a pot to mix and stir a cultural milieu, brewing up alternatives old and new. He makes the analogue to cultural diasporas:
What we’ve described thus far is much like an ethnic diaspora, in which emigrants are internationally dispersed but connected by communication channels with each other and the motherland. The twist is that our version is a reverse diaspora: a community that forms first on the internet, builds a culture online, and only then comes together in-person to build dwellings and structures.
To the chagrin of many anti-immigration conservatives, I appreciate the different cultural diasporas I grew up in for primarily dissident conservative reasons. Living in a community of mostly Chinese immigrants means being able to experiment with sexual norms that most conservatives would consider preferable to the modern Western catechisms of unlimited pornography, sex before marriage, and chemical birth control. Being in a clearly identified cultural group meant the collective freedom to experiment with these sacred things, similar to what Balaji identifies as the goal of a network state:
In between this zero and ∞, in between eschewing moral discussion entirely and imposing a full-blown political doctrine, in this final section we propose a one: a one commandment. Start a new society with its own moral code, based on your study of history, and recruit people that agree with you to populate it. We’re not saying you need to come up with your own new Ten Commandments, mind you — but you do need One Commandment to establish the differentiation of a new startup society.
To me, this is the greatest payoff of Balaji’s philosophy. It’s the simple case for moral experimentation as a group. Ironically, because we have a social progressive ruling class, moral experimentation is right-coded (as opposed to in Iran for example, which has a Islamist ruling class and left-coded moral experimentation). Because I see Lysenkoism, or the denial of reality for ideological purposes, as the closest thing to a universal evil, the fervor and moral case for this type of pluralism is far more important than me than the possibility of starting a new state (though Balaji might argue the latter is necessary to protect the freedom of moral experimentation). In a way, this is the necessary extension of freedom of conscience: freedom to experiment and develop ideas in a shared social group.
Moreover, the ability to experiment in this way and for different diasporas to interact incentives a new era of pluralism. Before I make this case, I’ll give the main lesson I learned from the other ethnic diaspora I grew up in: a heavily Indian and Bangladeshi suburb of Toronto. These types of diasporas can disagree in two ways: difference in conclusions and difference in reasoning. In my experience, the most productive difference is when we agree in conclusion with each other and disagree in conclusion with the regime and we disagree in reasoning with each other. This exchange of tradition, assumptions, and theories has been the root of much productive moral experimentation. To me, this is why the digital (not physical) Indian-Chinese border will always be fascinating to me.
This is one answer to a question I raise to Tyler Cowen about so many Emergent Ventures winners come from Ontario, Canada (including myself). The suburbs of Toronto in particular have this type of diasporic dissidence, which in my experience is quite distinct from immigrant communities in comparable suburbs, such as in the Bay Area or around New York City.
Unlike libertarians, I don’t attribute this innovation inherently to immigration. Many of my readers may recognize this style of interaction and experimentation as characteristic of a different group of people: the New Right. The New Right is a group of wildly different political theorists and commentators encompassing populist nationalists, catholic integralists, anarchist capitalists, monarchists, intellectual dark web centrists, disaffected marxists, doomer agriculturalists, reactionary feminists, and anonymous accounts of all stripes. They are united by a shared desire to move past the sacred tenets of the current ruling class. Both diasporas (physical and digital) turn constants into variables (a phrase from Balaji). Instead, my argument is that the ability to morally innovate as a group results in pluralist exchange and innovation between groups. The (rough) analogue in Balaji’s writing is the difference between God, State, and Network:
The collision between the top-down and bottom-up views of history, between history as written by the winners and history as written to the ledger, between political power and technological truth. . . that encounter is a collision of Leviathans.
To understand this, imagine two schoolboys fighting on a playground. It’s not long before one of them says “my dad can beat up your dad!” There’s profundity in this banality. Even at a very young age, a child believes he can appeal to a higher power, a Leviathan, a powerful man who can sweep the field of his enemies, including Robert from recess.
Men are not so different from children in this regard. Every doctrine has its Leviathan, that prime mover who hovers above all. For a religion, it is God. For a political movement, it is the State. And for a cryptocurrency, it is the Network. These three Leviathans hover over fallible men to make them behave in pro-social ways.
In his view, a theocratic or statist society necessarily has more total dictates than a network-based one. He is clear that each type of society has its advantages and that any society can choose to have a mix of properties of God, State, and Network.
The Pluralist Moment
The fundamental change is that the ability for groups to organize and expert disrupt the existing equilibrium. Whereas the old rules of society and politics incentives more totalitarian beliefs, the latter incentives cooperation between different post-current-regime factions with distinct visions for their own people. It necessitates a non-totalitarian negotiation. The future is a based America where the traditional Catholics have a total ban on abortion while the Nietzschians beat China to successful gene editing; where the post-left marxists have socialized medicine while the libertarians repeal Obamacare. Maybe this seems like more of a fantasy than Balaji’s Network State.
Here is the political economy case for it. The failure of localism and libertarianism was because more power accrued to those with more totalitarian ideologies through centralized media. But the yields to pluralism are increasing rapidly with technologies such as social media and machine learning. Balaji calls this the Fragmentation Thesis:
Peak centralization was about 1950, when there was one telephone company (AT&T), two superpowers (US/USSR), and three TV stations (ABC/CBS/NBC). Even though the 1950s are romanticized in the US, and there were certainly good things about the era, that level of centralization was not natural. This was an enormous degree of cultural homogenization, conformity, and sameness relative to the pre-1914 world just a few decades prior. Many aspects of individual initiative, creativity, and freedom had been dulled down or eliminated in the standardization process.
Everything was significantly to the economic left and social right of where it is today. Yes, the USA wasn’t communist, but it did have 90% top marginal tax rates, to stop any new people from getting rich and potentially threatening the system FDR built. Similarly, the USSR was far more socially conservative than is commonly remembered, doing things like taxing childless women to reduce their status if they didn’t reproduce.
Typically, those who complain about filter bubbles are actually complaining that there is more than one. Namely, they are annoyed that all information doesn’t derive from establishment sources only. That situation actually did obtain in the mid-century US, when tens of millions of Americans all assembled in their living rooms at the same time to watch I Love Lucy.
His idea is that history bends towards technology, and that technology has been on the decreasing end of the bell curve since 1950 when it comes to centralization.
He also addresses some of the scarcity arguments raised by Henry George and Rene Girard:
Today, if we assess where we’re at, there are four possibilities for the frontier: the land, the internet, the sea, and space. Right now, there are 7.7B people on land, 3.2B on the internet, about 2-3M on the high seas, and less than 10 currently in space. So, practically speaking, an “internet frontier” is easier than the other three. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to use the concepts from the network state to reopen the physical frontier, through a hybrid internet/land strategy, as described in this book.
I don’t think this is in scope for the review, but is important enough to mention. If you’re interested in Georgism, I recommend reading that section.
The Concept of the Moral
Balaji is very clear about his moral “observations”, which is why I’m fairly surprised they haven’t been discussed more. Here is a fairly long list of quotes, which are already highly curated. I recommend reading the entire section, but it is quite long.
A key realization for a tech founder should be that a significant fraction of people want moral progress. Just as much as the technologist wants to get to Mars, a large chunk of society wants to feel like the good guys fighting in some grand cause. And if you don’t give them that cause, they’ll make one up, and/or start fighting each other.
A final realization is that just like most attempts at technological innovation fail, most attempts at moral innovation will also fail. However, if those failures occur within the bounded confines of a consensual startup society, they’re more acceptable as the price of moral progress. And if you think society has in many ways now generally become bad, it may not that be that hard to find ways to improve on it through a moral inversion.
One view is that “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” is essentially the same concept as buy low/sell high … The mood of the words is very different, of course. The political arbitrage of supporting those with low status and attacking those with high status is typically framed as a moral imperative, while the financial arbitrage of buying assets with low value and selling assets of high value is usually portrayed as a dispassionate mechanism for gaining financial capital.
There’s a related observation: the concept of “buy low, sell high” assumes there are many different assets to choose from, many axes to arbitrage. By contrast, the concept of “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” tacitly assumes only one axis of powerful-vs-weak. However, multiple axes of power exist. For example, a man who organizes a million dollars for charity may be economically comfortable, yet can be socially weak relative to the establishment journalist who decides to afflict him for his tweets. So the ability to designate just who exactly is “comfortable” and who is “afflicted” is itself a form of power.
Putting these ideas together, once you start reclassifying much of the moral language flying through the air as a kind of political arbitrage, you can start thinking about it more rationally. Political arbitrage involves backing a faction that is politically weaker today than it could or should be. An early backer that risks their own political capital to make a faction more justly powerful can also gain a slice of that power should it actually materialize.
At this point you should realize that Balaji and I have extremely similar understandings of political economy. I would say that mine is more culturally dependent still and much more based on iterated rather than designed systems. Like my conversations with Zvi Mowshowitz and Richard Hanania, even though we agree on 95%, I believe the remaining 5% is extremely important. Of course, neither Balaji or I expect the regime to give up without a fight. This is hopefully enough of a teaser for you to return for part 2, where I discuss Balaji’s description of the current ruling regime.
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