Since I read his “An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives” last year, I have casually followed Mencius Moldbug (Curtis Yarvin), and I wrote this post to process the negative reaction I experienced when I looked into his project called Urbit.
What problem does Urbit solve?
From what I can understand as a tech-interested non-specialist, Urbit attacks a few closely related issues:
1. Every application on your smartphone or computer is developed, maintained, and managed by a private organization (often for profit).
2. Every application has to be hosted on servers which are physical assets owned, housed, and managed for profit by a private organization.
3. The servers which host our applications are being rapidly consolidated into the hands of just a few companies globally (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Alibaba, etc…).
Urbit basically asks, “what if we decentralized hosting by outsourcing it to everyone’s machines?”
Each individual hosts their own applications on their own computer, each local machine is discrete, and all machines can interact with one another securely and fluently (this is similar to how torrent currently works).
All applications would be open-source (free, publicly maintained and improved), and all programmers rely on a common coding language to undergird most everyday applications.
Also, let’s throw in cryptocurrency because magic internet money makes us more mobile and less dependent on national governments.
I honestly don’t understand enough about computer science to make a serious judgment about the technical feasibility of the infrastructure underlying the project (Nock, Hoon, etc…), but I can offer commentary on the strategic choices made by Tlon the organization leading the project.
Hierarchy in Cyber Space
To ensure that Urbit gains acceptance beyond a particular circle of digital anarchists, alt-right theorists, and computer geeks, Tlon needs to demonstrate a good-faith commitment to proactively shedding any advantage which could accrue to to themselves in the process of Urbit’s adoption, development, and expansion.
Let’s briefly look at Urbit’s structure, and a breakdown of the system’s current ownership:
To operate within the Urbit world, one must possesses an Urbit ID and occupy a region of digital real estate. This digital real estate is divided up according to the following hierarchy: 256 Galaxies contain 65k Stars with a total of 4B Planets possessing a total of 2 to 64th power Moons. Each piece of real estate costs money (the average planet being $10), and the one who owns the parent domain to your child domain draws a monthly rent for “hosting” you. You are free to move your child domain to a different parent domain, if that parent domain will have you.
Tlon itself currently possesses slightly less than 50% control of all the “digital real estate” in the Urbit world, and Yarvin himself retains “a few thousand Urbit stars” (which is anywhere from 4% – 6% of the total Urbit universe, and which could produce roughly $5.85trillion if the child planets were fully populated at $10 per planet).
If this project gets as big as Tlon hopes it will (being the default for everyone everywhere), they would (1) own insanely valuable digital real estate which only extremely wealthy agents could purchase, (2) have massive leverage to extract rent for digital real estate, and (3) they would possess a dominant coalition in the governing structures of the Urbit universe, giving them significant de facto control. In short, they stand to become rulers of a new digital domain.
If that’s true, then no one can take their project seriously. Why?
Because under these circumstances, adopting Urbit is not simply a choice to embrace a particular technical solution, but also a choice to become a voluntary citizen of a newly emergent digital hierarchy. For every individual who adopts Urbit, Tlon’s faction levels up slightly in their godhood.
Here’s the bottom line: if Tlon actually want this solution to succeed because they believe that it’s maximally good for the world, they need to decide now that they do not intend to profit off this venture, and that they are committed to continually diluting their own faction’s stake. They need to demonstrate this not only with their words, but also their actions.
I am reminded of Count Von Zinzendorf’s words on being a pastor, “Preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotten.” This is the attitude of one who has devoted themselves entirely to a project which is greater than themselves. We can soil something good by having too much skin in the game.
I created the resource list below to provide myself a collection of links related to Urbit:
Install + Set up: https://urbit.org/using/install/
Developer’s guide – Creating a development ship: https://urbit.org/using/develop/#creating-a-development-ship
Hoon School: https://urbit.org/community/hoonschool/
Buying a planet: https://urbit.live/buy
Community grants: https://urbit.org/community/community-grants/
Urbit grant proposals: https://grants.urbit.org/proposals
Urbit for Normies (written by the COO): https://urbit.org/blog/urbit-for-normies/
I haven’t even addressed the glaring PR debacle which is the fingerprints of Curtis Yarvin on the project. Regardless of how one feels about Yarvin’s writings, he is sufficiently controversial and on the “wrong side” of public opinion to be a massive liability to the success of Urbit. While Yarvin walked away from Tlon back at the start of January 2019, this is hardly sufficient distancing considering how much of the system Yarvin continues to retain ownership over. Ultimately, I suspect that most of the tech world will not accept Urbit simply because Yarvin birthed it, and they think Yarvin is an authoritarian racist. This is sad, certainly, but it’s how life works. You can’t piss people off with ideas they aren’t open to hearing, and then expect them to take your other projects seriously.