Activism

The Network State: A Review

Can political states unmoor themselves from geographical borders and exist solely online? Balaji Srinivasan’s new book explores the political potential of emerging technologies.

Aviezer Tucker
The Network State: How To Start a New Country
by Balaji Srinivasan (self-published, 474 pp., $9.99)

Once upon a time a Sumerian chieftain might have looked at the newly designed grid of irrigation canals and asked himself what it meant for the future of politics. In his new book, Startup founder, investor, and former Stanford professor Balaji Srinivasan looks at the internet today and ponders its political implications. He concludes that nation states and territorial sovereignty are becoming as obsolete as those empires founded on upriver control of irrigation: Networks that connect nodes in the “cloud” are becoming “startup societies” that may evolve into “network states.” Conversely, technology could be facilitating a more perfect totalitarianism.

Technology initially facilitated the nation state. Srinivasan highlights how in previous eras mapmaking clarified fuzzy borders; printing codified national tongues; and firearms helped to redistribute power from elites to ordinary people. One may add that canals and railroads, the telegraph, the radio, television, and national mass media enabled centralized nations. But since the middle of the 20th century, Srinivasan emphasizes, technology has been decentralizing and fragmenting what had been unified. The internet unbundles society into its constituent parts, and then rebundles them like playlists in music streaming services by connecting peers to peers.

Social networks are founded on geodesical nets rather than geographical locations. Facebook has far more nodes at more locations than any historical empire has ever had. Remote work is becoming the norm.  “During the pandemic, every sector that had previously been socially resistant to the internet (healthcare, education, law, finance, government…) capitulated,” Srinivasan notes. In the future, virtual reality may enable distant physical work through robotic avatars. Meanwhile, cryptocurrencies are shifting monetary policies from central banks to the diffused net. The invention of smart contracts that act automatically when set conditions are satisfied (for example, when a property is listed publicly as owned by a buyer, a bank account automatically sends funds to the seller) might eliminate the need for national adjudication, laws, and enforcement.

Blockchain technology may record in a public ledger all financial transactions and smart contracts, to form a grand archive of humanity (Borges’ Library of Babel comes into mind). As Srinivasan writes, “the first draft of history will be the raw on-chain event feed, written directly to the ledger of record by billions of writers and sensors around the world.” Some states and municipalities have already transferred many functions to digital platforms: El Salvador uses a cryptocurrency; Estonia offers e-citizenship. British journalist and Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Edward Lucas became its first e-citizen.

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Categories: Activism, Strategy

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