This piece was written in response to the post “How to Start a New Country” by Balaji Srinivasan on 1729.com. This is meant to be interpreted as constructive feedback and nothing more.
I’m not sure what I felt after reading this post by Balaji Srinivasan but it’s a mixture of being terrified and very excited. It could lead to either a utopian vision of the ideal country built for the 21st century and beyond with the core principles of technology behind it, or it could lead to a dystopian vision of the future where peoples day to day life shift from the “real” world to the “virtual”. Major Ready Player One vibes here, at least for the initial stages.
I really enjoyed the piece, however, I would like to see some sections expanded. Specifically the first and the last.
1)”Why Start a New Country?”
Balaji starts by explaining the why behind starting a new country. This absolutely should be the thing he starts with but I believe the content should be further expanded.
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.
From this, it seems as though the reason we should start a new country is that it creates a clean slate. This by itself is not a good reason to start a new country. (Also @Balaji.S, there is a spelling error in that quote. Try “constraints” instead of “constraint”.)
You can buy a plot of land anywhere, but unless there’s a compelling use case it would be unproductive. You can get a fresh start-up, but unless you have a great idea and execution, it’s going to be like the 90% of start-ups that fail. You can get a blank sheet of paper, but unless you have something you want to create, it’s as useless as the paper I used to write my high school English literature exam. You probably get the point by now but to summarize, the ability to have a clean slate is not a reason to start a new country.
It is also unclear whether Balaji imagines a single network state or many experimental network states. The former would have a uniting effect, a single network state that spans the entire world. The latter would have lead to a more fragmented world than we do now, but it would allow for greater experimentation and innovation in the space of countries and governments. Maybe it would start as network cities eventually merging into a single network state or country. I’m not sure about this but would love to see it explored further by someone like Balaji.
2)”What Counts as a New Country?”
I really enjoyed the beginning of this section. It caused my mind to dance around quite a bit to define a country from my own experience. The traditional map and globe have a world of coloured countries with imaginary borders. As someone who loves space, I was reminded of the pictures taken of earth from space such as Earth Rise and Pale Blue Dot. These pictures show what the Earth really is, it shows us that those imaginary borders are just that – imaginary.
The weakest part of this section according to me is the part on the user counts. As Balaji says:
The strength of affiliation to our hypothetical cloud country matters, as does the time spent on the property, the percentage of net worth stored in the currency, and the fraction of contacts found in the community.
These things matter a lot. There would be a reduced barrier of entry to the network state as all you need is a way to access the internet. However, this also means that it’s very easy to get off the network state. It would also mean that time spent on the property would be a subset of the total time someone spends on the internet.
Balaji links to metrics such as daily social media use and talks about the number of users on Facebook and Twitter. However, Balaji fails to talk about if this is even a desirable outcome. The way these platforms get people to use the platforms more and further the daily worldwide social media use is not by conviction to an idealogy or a nationalistic consciousness. The way these platforms keep their users on for so long is due to addiction. Most of us on the internet know what it feels like, we don’t want to be the person that spends 3 hours a day on Instagram or Twitter but yet we sometimes become that person.
Balaji links to a Wall Street Journal article titled “Most Teens Prefer to Chat Online, Rather Than in Person”. A person looking at this might consider this a good thing when it comes to the creation of a network state, however, if you read the article you will see that there is also a rise in the number of people saying that their devices distract them. You will see that 44% of teens are frustrated with their friends who use their phones when they’re together. The desire for human connection is strong and if this pandemic has taught me anything, its that we need people. A conversation over zoom or text is not an ideal way to build human connection and linking to an article with a clickbait-like title is not a good way to address this issue. Anyone who has been through a long distance relationship would agree that even though it may be possible, it can also be extremely painful. Maybe Virtual Reality has a solution for us, but again, it is unclear whether or not this will suffice. The consequence is the degeneration of the mental health of all the users on the network.
An important question to answer when it comes to creating a network state is how do you get people to spend time on the property without being a source of addiction. This is where the slope from utopia to dystopia could get very slippery and I would like to see it be addressed. This would be less of a problem when the community begins to crowdfund property, but there are many steps to climb before that becomes viable.
Rather than a social network, Balaji’s description sounds more like a massive open-world role-playing game. What I see is taking the premise of the world in Ready Player One seriously and extending it further to its own country to reduce the possibility of unwanted regulations.
It’s not too crazy to imagine a new “game” that achieves all of the points in Balaji’s article. The crazy part to me is making it desirable to live while also avoiding the addicting nature used by traditional social media.
The part I didn’t understand at all was Balaji linking to a Quora article when writing “the percentage of net worth stored in the currency”. This made absolutely no sense to me and this line should be expanded further to talk about how the economy of such a network state would work.
Nevertheless, I’m very excited to see this idea develop further and hope that even a tiny part of my feedback helps in that endeavour.