A Review of the Network State Part I
And the Impossible Highs and Incredible Frustration of Near Total Agreement
Video: This video encapsulates my emotional state when I read the Network State. Where Balaji Srinivasan is Raju and I, of course, am Bheem. And I guess the United States is the kid in the river surrounded by fire? Also, watch this goddamn movie.
I recently read The Network State by Balaji Srinivasan and felt a thrill I usually reserve for action films or adventure books where I want to stand up and cheer “YES! THE GUY WHOSE BELIEFS ALIGN WITH MINE DID THE THING! I WANTED HIM TO DO THE THING! AND THEN HE DID IT! THE THING IS DONE!” It was like watching the season finale of a show I’d been following for years.
You can find it here for your perusal.
When I first started this substack I had never heard of a DAO, or a Prediction Market, and honestly felt like a bit of a weirdo for asking questions like “How should society and government be restructured in light of the internet?” The simple knowledge that other people exist who have been seeing the same problems and thinking about solutions is incredibly validating since before this I’ve mostly just been quietly staring off into space by myself trying to think of answers.
For anyone new to this substack, I’ve been pondering these questions since my childhood when my hometown was economically destroyed by a narrative seeking news industry and a ham-fisted government policy machine that was incapable of making good decisions. I wrote it all down into a comedy you can find here, because I thought that would be the best way to explain it, although I’ve since come around to realizing I should probably have written several “Wait But Why” style essays. Based on a story that wasn’t actually true, ineffective policies were passed that strangled our local industries, and within a decade several of my classmates were child prostitutes and the teen pregnancy rate was over fifty percent. It was like living in a room where someone kept turning down a dimmer switch. I’ve been slowly developing a mechanic as to exactly why those things happened at a deep level, looking at societies like giant organisms that have to organize their internal components into order to take effective action, and then trying to work backward for what should be fixed to prevent those kinds of mistakes from happening again.
The thing Balaji calls a Network State is something I call an Extelligent Web, or a Constellation when I’m being more poetic. Although the definition doesn’t quite totally overlap, it was good to see someone else recognize the same need. And while Balaji doesn’t have something like the Forum to serve as the container for all of States I’m still chewing on the book and will probably do a re-read before I register minor or more technical disagreements. There’s a lot here and a lot of it I frankly never even imagined so that was also deeply refreshing.
The underlying and sometimes unspoken axiom of the book is one we have all viscerally experienced. A nation is a shared idea in the minds of its people, an organizing principle made of our beliefs about what we all collectively know to do, and as more of our attention has moved into the virtual world the more the bonds to our physical nations have weakened. Our cultures are no longer being drip fed to us by a few centralized channels, so we can no longer randomly pull in a sampling of Americans and assume they’ve all seen the same five television shows, the same top 40 songs, or any other cultural touchstone you’d choose. The internet has made the worlds we live in more different and less overlapping than ever before. For instance, I have an access to the Indian movie industry I never could have imagined as a child. I didn’t even know there was an Indian movie industry and I had never even met anyone from India until college. After I saw Baahubali a few years ago, I could not care less about whatever bullshit movie a seventy-five year old Tom Cruise is trying to sell. I want sincere, earnest, myths that aren’t so worried about trying to defend themselves from smug twenty somethings on twitter debunking the ability of a man to make a sled by simply hugging a tree that it forgets to have any earnest emotion. I feel a genuine camaraderie with anyone who speaks Telugu because I have to feel connected to any culture that understands S.S. Rajamouli is the greatest director to have lived. If the United States wanted to go to war with southern India, a place I have never visited and yet a place whose values I cannot help but feel are deeply matched with my own, I would honestly have to consider defecting. As an anecdote it’s funny that I tell all my co-workers to watch RRR and that it is the most pro-human and life-affirming work of art I’ve seen in years. At scale, and with time, that’s the death of our current system of nations.
You’ll read all kinds of novel thoughts in this book. This isn’t a rehash of other people’s opinions. This is the soul of a man’s mind committed to the written word. There were all sorts of things that made me smile to myself and nod “of course!” I was also clued into an existing company that’s already doing blockchain juries to resolve disputes and I literally pumped my fist in the air because when I read these things I’m always hoping that someone else will already have all my thoughts so I won’t have to have a substack anymore.
Balaji Srinivasan gets this in a way that so few people do. He sees the meta pattern made out of people. He sees the patterns starting to shift. He sees the world as it might be once that realignment inevitably happens… and I just kinda wish he independently also came to some of the other conclusions I did.
Some of the specifics of the Network State did give me an eyebrow raise. I believe Balaji sees a world wherein you will be a member of many nations, each having different degrees of sovereignty depending on where you are and what you’re doing. I can see something like this working, in fact I think it has to, but without something like the Forum to contain them I worry it would lead to greater division. A lot of real life decisions are binary and you have to choose to do one thing or another thing. That’s a small practical matter though, and I’m sure if I can ever gain a foothold in these circles I could talk someone into the Forum being a good idea. My biggest immediate departure was the lack of a cut over plan to reform the existing governments.
My worldview is informed by a lot of hard-won practicality. I love humor and jokes and I tend not to be taken seriously by people at first —long time readers may remember I was placed in the classroom for mentally handicapped students the first few weeks of grade school because I was convinced all the questions on the placement test were tricks and I had a panic attack— but I tend to “win” contests like “What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” and “Who has had the most negative interactions with violence?” The book has a lot of hand-waiving over what happens if the United States starts to significantly degrade as its most talented Citizens flock to Network States and pushes and encourages its audience to start fresh. Your enemies also get a vote, which is why doing things is hard.
To steel-man Balaji’s position, I’m thinking he may have been encouraging would-be Network State founders to focus on the basics for getting initial polities established. To challenge the Republican of Democratic parties, or the parties in any major nation, you’d need at least tens of millions of Network State Digital Citizens concentrated in a few key places. In countries like the United States and that might be an “over-population on Mars” problem for some number of years. I did, however, sense at times what felt like a genuine a frustration with the existing history of nations and a desire to somehow expand and build over the top of it without ever having to assimilate any part of it.
I think this is a very, very bad idea if what I’m sensing is correct. We will eventually need a cut-over plan, and I try to think of it in terms of building a dam by digging down next to a river. You need to make sure you’re aware the river is there and having plans for your system to absorb all of that current. Otherwise you’re going to dig a little too deep without thinking about the whole and then get washed away, in the form of some jack-booted killer coming to take you out for threatening the centers of power. Maybe not a thought you need to have when you’re digging with a shovel, but it’s a consideration you should have in the back of your head for when you start bringing in the heavy equipment.
I haven’t had a chance yet to write about what I call “Intellipodes” but basically if you look at the super structures of a civilization Intellipodes are the parts that interact with the environment to understand what’s going on, decision action for the good of the whole, and then execute that action. These are becoming increasingly automated and siloed. For instance, our Intelligence Agencies like the CIA or the FBI are part of our Surveillance Intellipodes. Our military is part of our Violence Intellipode. It’s a bit more complicated than that and some people jump back and forth between them but one of the problems we’re facing is that our civilization can’t coordinate these very well anymore. We’re too big. In the act of establishing our Network States and bleeding away talent from the US we’d significantly decrease the coordinating power guiding our Intellipodes and I worry what the consequences of that would be. Although my plan, which is to hijack the Republican Party by just saying things like “Of course the Founding Fathers would have wanted us to divide these powers back to the people through crypto voting!” and to keep talking and smiling until everyone just goes along with it is probably not practical either.
I’m going to use this as a jumping off point to start writing some of those “Wait but Why” style articles and maybe one will even catch Balaji’s attention —I’ve had several different blogs over the years and it seems I have some instinct to just delete them every sevenish years and erase myself from the internet, but on an old one I once attracted the interest and interaction of a Nobel laureate, so stranger things have happened— and I can share some useful information here.
I’m going to end here as there’s so much more to say but the baby is waking up and my wife probably needs a quick break. Hope you all are well and that we can find ourselves in a beautiful future together.
I would love to work with you to build a private, encrypted online community.
Please don’t nuke things every 7 years - reminiscent of a Khrushchev mandate.
The resilience of a complex man made systems is a concern. The power grid is one fascinating example. The Northeast Aug 14, 2003 blackout was caused by a series of electrical, computer, and human failures. The US-Canadian 2004 final report bears reading; search for the delicious term “A Normal Afternoon Degrades.”
Current attempts at decentralized power generation are underwhelming (unless you have a stable waterfall or geothermal hot spot).
Did enjoy fungus analogy - mycobacterium are definitely resilient. Will try to read this book and return with something cogent.