Creating a Digital Republic

Urbit As the Future of the Internet

by Jefferson White 

Lighted Renaissance building to illustrate "Creating a Digital Republic"

The dominant form of government in the twentieth century was the centralized national state, together with its massive bureaucracies and the attendant massive private corporations.

The authority of this power complex, even in its most democratic form, rested upon a system of bureaucratic control. And the legitimacy of that control, in turn, rested upon a national unity created by a system of one-way mass communication. Modern societies were united through a common lens on the world created by the mass media experience.

However, in the nineties, the rise of the personal computer and the Internet struck at the heart of this system. The Internet subverted one-way mass communications by substituting a radical peer-to-peer network in its place. Anyone could now communicate with the world at large. The Internet threatened to dissolve the foundations of centralized authority.

But today the Internet revolution appears to have stalled. The forces of centralization have adapted, at least in the short run, to its imperatives. The peer-to-peer communications of the first Internet have dissolved into a form of “client-server” relationship, in which peer-to-peer communications now take place in corporate "boxes" which are monitored and controlled. These corporate boxes are now the Internet for most people.

For example Facebook users now number in the hundreds of millions of people. And Facebook “knows” more about the online lives of each one of those hundreds of millions than those individuals know about themselves. Facebook possesses an unprecedented system for tracking and storing information on every user, while experimenting with this knowledge to shepherd the social networks that exist within its "box." Facebook’s rules determine, not only the context in which all peer-to-peer communications will take place, but the nature of those communications, and whether those communications will be allowed.

And the national state is currently engaged in a project to bring this corporate “boxed” Internet under its control as a public utility. This formalization of state control is rapidly becoming the joint project of the national state and of the mega-corporations.

And this means that the coming battle over the final structure of the Internet will determine whether a state-corporate alliance becomes the Internet or whether that incipient system will be destroyed through the creation of an even more radical peer-to-peer system. If this latter revolution occurs, the centralized organization of both the Internet and society will be destroyed. A radically new kind of society will emerge in its place.


Urbit: Software Code as Law

The word Urbit, particularly when pronounced aloud, sounds like the name of a cartoon character.  Here's little Urbit, playing with his friends.

The name becomes more serious when one examines its roots. Urbit is a compound of the words “Ur” and “bit.” Ur is the name of one of the oldest cities on earth, whose ruins are in what is now Iraq. According to the book of Genesis, Ur is the city that Abraham left at the direct order of God:

The Lord said to Abram, leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great and you will be a blessing;
I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

(Genesis 12:1-3)

Today one out of every three people on earth views Abraham as his spiritual and/or biological ancestor: every Jew, every Christian, and every Muslim. It all begins at Ur.

But the word Ur has a somewhat different meaning for today’s secular intellectual, although that meaning also derives from the book of Genesis. In current intellectual usage, Ur is not a noun but a prefix. When someone talks about an “ur-language” or an “ur-civilization” they mean one of mankind’s original languages or civilizations. The prefix "ur" has the meaning of "original" or "primitive."

The second half of Urbit is the word bit. Here we have the computer and the Internet. “The bit is the basic unit of information in computing and digital communications.”

Hence the name Urbit.

Urbit is a software project backed by substantial money. The general public has not heard of it and will not hear of it unless it achieves its very ambitious goals. Urbit's developers intend a software revolution that will radically change the nature of the Internet. They define their goals in specifically political terms. Their aim is to destroy the current mega-corporate boxes that have become the Internet and to restore peer-to-peer communications as the basis of the Internet. They intend to create a digital republic. However, this digital republic will not be governed by a written constitution, but by software code.

Developer of Urbit, Curtis Yarvin:

One way to understand Urbit is to forget the technology totally. Instead, let's build the same product out of magic. Technology is hard and imperfect and slow. Magic is easy and perfect and fast. Why not use it? At least for a demo?

Magic step one: total integration.

Make a list of all the cloud apps which have your personal data. OK, just imagine making a list. OK, use magic.

By magic, we make some giant company buy all these apps. It could be any of them, but let's say it's Facebook. Facebook buys all the apps. As of now, all your cloud computing happens in your Facebook profile.

Your Facebook is now your Dropbox and your Evernote and your WordPress and your Gmail. And it's not just Web apps; all your servers move to Facebook. Your Nest talks to a Facebook server. Your iPhone talks to Facebook instead of iCloud. Your Fitbit records your heart rate in a Facebook log. Your Facebook manages your finances and pays your bills. Got bitcoin? Facebook is your wallet. Shop online? Check out the Facebook Store -- it sells everything!

In short, you can just lock your browser to The Web is dead. Or more precisely, it's an obsolete protocol which you use to log in to Facebook.

Does this sound creepy? Sure. It's incredibly creepy. But look on the bright side: it's also incredibly convenient. (And incredibly secure, at least with a 2-factor key.)…It's not actually clear that it's more creepy to be owned by one corporation, than nine corporations. But it feels creepier.

Facebook is now, for all intents and purposes, the Internet. But since we are dealing with magic, Facebook turns out to be a surprisingly benevolent dictator. First, Facebook decides to cede to every individual on Facebook complete control over their private information. Facebook will continue to track and record your every move, and will analyze your every move, but you alone will be allowed to see and control that information and analysis. No one else will be permitted to see it, not even Facebook itself.

And then Facebook will decide, since it no longer knows anything at all about you, that there is no longer any reason for it to exist. Facebook will therefore dissolve itself and will turns over complete control of its software to you and to the hundreds of millions of others who are on Facebook. However, it does not turn over the system as a whole to be governed democratically by those hundreds of millions of people. Instead, it creates several hundred million clones of itself and turns over one clone to each individual within the system. In effect, there are now several hundred million Facebooks.

This miracle is accomplished by replacing the current software glue that binds Facebook together with a radically new software system based upon individual agents. Anyone can create a software agent to interact with everyone else’s agents in the system. And all agents are bound by the rules that are set by the individuals who create them. 

Curtis Yarvin:

When anyone can write an agent, only code can be law. Privacy is no longer enforced by the informal decisions of Facebook product managers. It must be enforced by [your own] formal security policies.

A new kind of constitutional government – a digital republic – has now come into existence. And because much of our lives now happens online, this radical decentralization of software authority will create a radically new kind of Internet governance and human interaction.

Of course, this is the magical version of Urbit. What does the real Urbit currently look like? 

At the beginning of 2017, Urbit’s developers announced that they were in “developer beta." The underlying software now existed and they were in the opening stages of testing it.

Now the reader may harbor a justified skepticism about this claim. For the magical Facebook we have been discussing, if done according to current programming techniques, would be exponentially more complex than any software system in existence. And current software requires hordes of programmers just to keep it running, as well as to fend off continuing assaults by hackers and viruses. The average computer user can no more personally control that software than he can control the weather. How is it possible to create a fundamentally new kind of software that is not only infinitely more complex than current software, but which can be easily controlled by the average user? 

Aren’t we still in the realm of magic?

And yet the developers at Urbit claim that they have created the basics of such a system through the expedient of pushing all of its complexity to the operational edge.

But what, exactly, does this mean?

It means, among other things, that Urbit is completely incompatible with all the existing software infrastructure of the Internet and with the operating system of your computer as well, which it will replace. But, just to begin with, how do you entice the billions of people who now use the current software to jump to Urbit?

The short answer is that Urbit “paints over” the existing software. It is not only vastly simpler to use than today’s software, it will “run on top” of the existing software.

First of all, Urbit combines the operating system of your computer, your browser, and the infrastructure of the Internet, into one system. Curtis Yarvin: “…the easiest path to human simplicity is technical simplicity. The whole Urbit stack, including apps, is only 30,000 lines of code and all of it is as dumb as possible.” All the complexity comes in the agents that are created on “the edges” of Urbit.

Let us briefly explore one minor aspect of this radical simplification. Today’s Internet consists of three levels of addressing. First, there is the IP (Internet Protocol) address, which your computer is assigned each time you log on to the Internet and which allows you to browse the Internet. Second, there is the “domain name” address, which is used by websites to identify themselves so that they can be browsed. Third, there are the Internet addresses used for specific kinds of programs, for example email programs. Email addresses are a third kind of Internet addressing.

Urbit replaces all three addresses with a single address, which then becomes your permanent property and your permanent Internet identification. It is at once an IP address that allows you to browse the web, it is the domain name of every one of your websites (with variations for each website), and it is your permanent email address (with variations for as many email addresses as you want). With Urbit, you have one online identity, which is also your personal property.

This will effectively put an end to spam, since once you ban an identity (and its variations) you will no longer have to deal with that identity.  It will still be possible to be anonymous online, but only within purely local venues. For example, someone might use a software agent to create a public commons where participants are permitted to use pseudonyms. However the real identities behind the pseudonyms will be known to the person who owns that agent.

Viruses and computer hacking will also be dramatically reduced. It will be primarily your created agents that will come under attack, since it is those agents that will be dealing with the outside world. Your agents will live in a “sandbox” detached from the underlying software. Although viruses and hacking will not disappear, they will also be pushed out to the edge.


Urbit as Constitutional Government

Urbit is designed to be a constitutional, indeed a federal, form of government.

We have been discussing Urbit as if everyone who owns an Urbit stands in a relationship of technological equality with everyone else on the Internet. In short, we have been depicting Urbit as if it were a form of practical anarchy. In reality, the technical complexity of maintaining and upgrading Urbit’s Internet infrastructure will lie still outside the competence of the average Urbit user. It is those with the requisite technical expertise who will control that infrastructure.

To deal with this, Urbit developers are creating five levels of Urbit governance. Two of the five levels are technical levels that will be under the direct control of the average user, so we can ignore them here. That leaves three levels of human governance defined in the software.

The first, or bottom, level of Urbit ownership is called a planet. A planet is what the average Urbit user will own. The second level is called a star. Those people who own stars will control much of the Urbit infrastructure, but only for the planets directly governed by that star. The third, or top, level is called a galaxy. A galaxy will control the Internet infrastructure between the stars.

Since Urbit is a system of property rights, each planet, star, and galaxy will be owned by someone. And there will be a final fixed limit on the number of properties that can be created, since property rights always derive from the reality that there is a limited amount of property to be owned.

The number of galaxies will be limited to a total of 256 properties. The number of stars will be limited to 65,536 properties (the 256 galaxies multiplied by 256 stars within each galaxy). The total number of planets will be limited to a little over four billion properties (or 65,536 stars multiplied by 65,536 planets around each star). All of this assumes that owned Urbit properties will, at some point in the future, reach those limits.

Thus elite rule is presupposed in Urbit.

Urbit’s developers are straightforward about this. Since human equality does not exist, some kind of elite will always rule. What matters is not the existence of an elite, but how that elite is going to be restrained so as to enable self-government by the many. Under the Urbit constitution, the 256 galaxies and 65,536 stars will be “the upper and lower houses” of infrastructure governance. However, since all three levels of digital property – galaxies, stars, and planets – are completely independent of each other, this governance is exercised only to the extent to which a planet agrees to attach itself to a particular star or a particular star agrees to attach itself to a particular galaxy.

Under Urbit's "constitution," meaning Urbit's underlying code, there willl be an absolute “right of exit" built into each level of ownership. If the owner of a planet does not how his star is governing the infrastructure, he can easily switch to another star. If the owner of a star does not like how his galaxy is governing the infrastructure, he can easily switch to another galaxy. At the galaxy level, infrastructure governance takes place only to the extent to which the individual galaxies agree to participate with other galaxies. 

The reader will note that, while this is a constitutional and federal form of government, it is also a non-democratic form of government. Majorities will decide precisely nothing. A planet will either take part in a particular star system or its owner will switches to a different star for his infrastructure. It not the political concept of democracy, but of "exit," that defines the Urbit constitution.

In recent years, democracy has become something of a curse word among libertarian technologists, many of whom have concluded that human freedom is incompatible with modern mass democracy. There has been discussion of something called "patchwork government,” which is the idea that the world's current several hundred governments should be broken down into thousands of tiny “statelets,” in which the right of “exit” will determine the nature of citizenship.

Urbit is the attempt to create this patchwork system as the functional basis for a new kind of Internet. And if Urbit becomes the government of the online world, or a significant part of it, Urbit could also become the government of the off-line world.

I did mention that Urbit was an ambitious software project.