Design of a digital republic: part 1, goals

Oct 26, 2015 · 16 min read

Some of us remember when the Internet was a social network. Today, the Internet is a modem.

It’s a wonderful modem. It connects you to all kinds of great online services. Some of which are social “networks,” but only networks in the MBA sense. Really they’re social servers: giant virtual mainframes running one hardcoded program. 1976 called — it wants its acoustic coupler back.

So, you prefer 1996. So, you wish you had your decentralized Internet back. So, you don’t seem alone in this. So, we know one thing: wishing hasn’t made it happen.

John Perry Barlow

It’s interesting to go back and read John Perry Barlow’s 1996 manifesto, the Cyberspace Declaration of Independence. Some parts of the Declaration seem dated. But many feel fresh, even urgent. Not bad, 1996.

But in 2015, what stands out most about this document is its incredible confidence that the Internet is inherently free, and easily strong enough to announce and defend its own freedom, against “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel.”

Well… hindsight is 20/20. But in hindsight, even in 1996 things were starting to head south. Usenet — the brain of the Internet, when the Internet had a brain — was already disintegrating under the barbarian invasions. And where is the WELL these days? (John Perry Barlow is probably still on it.)

While the Net has certainly scored a point or two against the State, the State has scored a lot more points against the Net. If the State wants your domain name, it takes it. If that’s independence, what does utter defeat and submission look like?

Worse: whatever state tyranny exists, it’s obviously dwarfed by the private, free-market, corporate tyrannosaurs that stalk the cloud today. We can see this clearly by imagining all these thunder-lizards were actually part of the government. “Private” and “public” are just labels, after all.

Imagine a world in which LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and the NSA were all in one big org chart. Is there anyone, of any political stripe, who doesn’t find this outcome creepy? It’s probably going to happen, in fact if not in form. While formal nationalization is out of fashion, regulation easily achieves the same result, while keeping the sacred words “private enteprise.”

Reading Barlow’s Declaration is like reading the real Declaration, in an alternate history where Jefferson lost. In 2015, do we still believe in these goals? Arguably, we believe in them more than ever. We basically live in 1996’s nightmare. We know exactly what to be afraid of. It’s already here.

But we’ve lost the ability to believe we can achieve these goals. 20 years ago, digital freedom seemed inevitable. Now it seems impossible.

Engineering digital freedom

Don’t panic! This is a simple case of cause and effect. Digital freedom isn’t inevitable. It’s also not impossible. It’s quite possible. It just requires actual engineering work.

If you think a result is inevitable, but it’s not, you won’t do the work and you won’t get the result. So, let’s do the work. Dealing is way better than worrying. 1996 worried about the problem; 2016 ought to deal with it.

A constitution is not a declaration. It’s not a list of ideals. It’s more like a bridge — an actual structure, that fails unless it stands up to genuine load. A bridge isn’t a bridge unless it works. If you want a bridge, you have to build a bridge. It doesn’t typically happen that you set out to build something else, but at the end it turns out you’ve built a bridge.

The designers of the Internet did not, of course, intend to implement any of John Perry Barlow’s ideals. How close they came is in a way remarkable. Perhaps it was possible for the designers of the Internet to build a global, decentralized social network. They weren’t trying to, and they didn’t.

If we want a decentralized social network, we can’t do it without rigorous engineering work. And we can’t limit our work to the world of code. A decentralized network has to work not just technically — but politically, economically, and socially.

Where do we go from here? How do we get back to 1996? Admit we’ve failed, and try again. How else?

Two axioms

It’s rarely worth arguing over an ugly truth. Either you know it, or you can’t be argued into it. Or it’s not true. So it’s better to just give it as an axiom. Two axioms:

One: the Internet can’t be fixed. We can’t redecentralize the Internet. It has too many accumulated administrative and technical misfeatures.

Two: there is no practical, completely decentralized network. Government is a human invariant, in the digital world as in the real world. Even Bitcoin has a central government.

We can’t force you to accept these axioms. We’ll just assume they’re true for the rest of this document. This means we’re designing a new, self-governing network on top of the Internet.

On digital republics

The English word republic is from the Latin res publica — “public thing.” A republic is a government run as a public trust, without any single point of failure — person or institution.

Every (real) democracy is a republic, but not every republic is a democracy. The distribution of both formal and actual authority within a republic need not be in any way uniform. (Arguably, it never is.)

The design goal of a republic is effective, durable and stable governance. Humans and servers are inherently fallible. Therefore this goal cannot be achieved without what humans call pluralism and programmers redundancy. Or in other words, decentralized governance.

Both the old Internet of the ’80s and the distributed social network built on top of it — Usenet — were very much digital republics. ICANN still thinks of itself as a republic, but to some it looks more like a corporation. In previous decades, influence over collective decisions was more about personal reputation than corporate authority — the way IETF still works.

A republic needs a constitution — a set of formal processes that guides and shapes the real questions of governance, which are always informal.

The republic is in a healthy state if its actual power structures match this constitution. The Soviet Union had a fine constitution. Its actual authority structures had little to do with its official structures.

Again, the digital republic is a machine — if it’s not well-engineered, it won’t work. There are three categories of engineering we have to get right: political, economic, social.

Political engineering

Our ideal network is actually not designed to be a digital republic. It’s designed to become a digital republic.

The most basic principle of political engineering is that there is no one true constitution; the constitution has to fit the polity. And our polity cannot succeed without changing. And we care what it ends up as, much more than how it gets there.

On young networks

In a young, small network, digital freedom is irrelevant. There is no structural conflict of interest between the government and the users. Everyone in the network is a pioneer, and all pioneers have the same goal: found the republic. Anyone who stops believing in the network just leaves.

The young network is a high-trust society in two ways: trust between users, and trust in government. The main purpose of decentralization is to prevent conflict among the distrusting. Decentralization is superfluous in a high-trust society.

A young network can’t be decentralized even if it wants to be. Consider the early days of Bitcoin. Somewhere between the initial release and now, there’s a point in time T such that before but not after T, Satoshi himself could have rebooted the blockchain.

Not even with a 51% attack — but just with an email. He could have said: I screwed something up, here’s a new genesis block. And everyone would have switched to the new blockchain, at the mere verbal whim of Emperor Satoshi.

When Bitcoin was young, it was a centralized network, even though it had a decentralized constitution. In practice, Satoshi was above the constitution. Even if he didn’t use it, he had an authority above cryptography.

Political engineering in Bitcoin

There are two layers of sovereignty in Bitcoin. The highest layer is the choice of blockchain itself — the rule that the longest chain is best is completely informal. Or to put it differently, it’s the principle that makes Bitcoin Bitcoin and everything else an altcoin. No math is involved here — just the agreement of human beings. Or in other words, politics.

Even the cryptographic layer rests on informal foundations. The 51% attack on Bitcoin is well-known; any coalition that can construct one is sovereign. But no such coup has happened, or will — why?

Because the coalition is plural. Since each coup supporter would be acting against its own self-interest by damaging the reputation of the currency as a whole, the coup requires self-destructive folly from multiple serious actors. Suicidal collusion is never a realistic risk — or if it is, nothing can mitigate it.

Even if one miner controlled 51%, their incentive against an attack would be enormous, because they would destroy the blockchain they captured. On the other hand, not everyone responds sensibly to incentives. The purpose of a republican constitution is to eliminate single points of incentive failure.

Bitcoin is a stable, mature republic — but it is not secured just by cryptography, but also by political engineering.

Political engineering in Reddit

Compare to an unstable, mature non-republic: Reddit.

2015’s Reddit civil war is a dead ringer for one past conflict: the English Civil War. Marx and Pareto agree: all major civic conflict arises when a new social class develops a collective sense of its right to govern. The danger is most acute when a governed class senses that the governors do not live up to the standards of the governed.

Much as the Puritans looked down on the Cavaliers as immoral, atheistic fops, the Reddit moderators looked down on the Reddit staff — or certain parts of it — as faceless corporate drones. When you’ve attained real political status in a community, through hard work and genuine talent, it’s contemptible to let yourself be governed by people without the basic skills to even pass as competent, much less exceptional, in this community. As Napoleon said: every regime is safe so long as it is ruled by its most talented citizens. And if it’s not, it isn’t.

But technically, Reddit couldn’t just have a French Revolution. Reddit is an inherently centralized site. It looks like a bunch of different places, but that’s an illusion. It’s actually one big mainframe. The Reddit staff is stuck running this mainframe. The users have a lot of social capital invested in it.

If there was a technical mechanism that let the users of Reddit, collectively and coherently, fork Reddit and take ownership with a Tennis Court Oath, they certainly would have done so long ago. The result could only be a digital republic. But they can’t, so Reddit’s future is unclear. Man may be born free, but mainframe guest accounts certainly aren’t born free.

From monarchy to republic

In real-world history we see a curious pattern: not only are republics fairly rare, but every successful republic (from Athens to Rome to England) started out as a successful monarchy. Perhaps this is also the right way to build a digital republic?

Another way to state the political engineering problem that our new network has to solve: maximize the chance of producing a mature digital republic. There are two failure cases: failure, and a mature non-republic. We should prefer the former — “range safety,” as a rocket scientist would say.

Our conclusion is that a young network is a monarchy (whether under a BDFL or a faceless corporation), whether it likes it or not. But the network must be technically designed to evolve into a mature republic.

And — most critically — the republican evolution cannot be prevented by the monarchical admins. When the evolution has to happen, the monarchy has every incentive to help it succeed. If it chooses to interfere instead, it will just get run over.

Reddit couldn’t have a revolution; its code wasn’t designed for a revolution. A new network can and should be designed for just that. Revolution may not be the ideal way to give birth to a republic, but it certainly works and it’s better than nothing.

Thus what seems like an optimal political design: the ugly, centralized, young larva that’s designed to molt into a beautiful, mature, decentralized butterfly. And once mature, the larva must molt or die — not keep growing into a gigantic, man-eating caterpillar of death.

Economic engineering

Economically, a new network should bootstrap. It should be designed to generate revenue that funds its own development. Ideally, its operators accept no traditional investment at all.

A digital-token business is no novelty in the age of Bitcoin. But a network address space is not at all the same thing as a digital currency. When we look at current address spaces of meaningful economic weight — DNS domains, IPv4 addresses, even Twitter handles — we see not digital money, but digital land.

On digital land

Digital land is very different from digital money. People mine gold, but nobody mines land. Transactions in money are common, fungible, and should involve minimal friction. Transactions in land are rare, unique, and involve significant friction. And most important, land has intrinsic utility; money does not.

For example, Bitcoin needs a blockchain to solve the double spend problem. A blockchain is very expensive. If we consider mining dilution as a cost, a Bitcoin transaction costs multiple dollars. That cost is exacted as a dilution tax on all holders (arguably, correct accounting in BTC uses a “normalized BTC” unit which is the fraction of all BTC outstanding), but it remains a cost.

For certain values of “solved,” the double spend problem is also solved by a trusted escrow agent. For digital money, escrow is not a workable general solution. For digital land, it may be. Escrow is certainly orders of magnitude cheaper than a blockchain.

Digital land in a decentralized system still needs to be owned cryptographically, like Bitcoin. But as with real property, it doesn’t need to be mathematically impossible to steal digital property. It just needs to be realistically impractical. If we can ensure that those with the power to steal lack the motive, and those with the motive lack the power, our design works.

For digital land, a blockchain is an unnecessary expense. So digital land has no mining. But from the Bitcoin purist’s perspective, any altcoin without mining is “100% premined” — ie, probably a scam. Digital land is not digital currency, but it’s silly to argue over definitions.

A moral theory of digital land

The libertarian philosophy of Murray Rothbard is the normative belief system of Bitcoin. It’s easy to explain digital land in Rothbardian terms: ownership is on the homesteading principle.

Property in land, as anything, is owned by those who create it — which in real land means enclosing and cultivating it. Digital land is just the same, but creation is a simpler process — and it never involves conquest and/or genocide of previous owners. All this is precisely according to Dr. Rothbard.

Intuitively: if you didn’t do any real work to create your premined altcoin, it’s a scam. If not, not. It’s not necessary to appeal to Rothbard to see why this makes sense.

Economic dynamics

Any bootstrapping address space can define a metric which is the fraction of namespace value recycled into development cost: the recycle rate. In a sense, if the recycle rate is 100%, the network does not leak economic energy.

(In a scam, this non-leaked economic energy non-leaks into the scammer’s pocket. In a non-scam, it goes back into the engine. It’s expensive to settle any new America; if that America has positive general utility, its value when settled should subsidize the cost of settling it. Or at least, a design that doesn’t work this way is like Newcomen’s steam engine, not Watt’s.)

One tradeoff against perfect recycling is the importance of ownership decentralization. If you own an entire network because you created it, you can increase the value of the whole address space by giving blocks away. You may even increase the value of your own position.

A monopolized network is not politically healthy. So its economic value is lower. So — if the network is properly designed and structured — it can be stably demonopolized. The monopoly power achieved by combining large positions is smaller than the reputation cost of remonopolization, so centrifugal force dominates and the system stays decentralized.

Mining is one way to create initial demonopoly. But if it’s not actually necessary, mining has a recycle rate of zero. In a blockchain network, mining is a necessary service and pays for itself. In digital real estate, it would be a bad design.

The objective of demonopolization isn’t necessarily a fair distribution of real estate. Fairness is nice — but from an engineering perspective, to create the incentive structure of a true republic, all that’s needed is nontrivial decentralization. Not much is needed to maintain the stabilizing incentives.

Regulatory engineering

There’s another kind of “political engineering.” Our new network is a sort of second-level political entity; but it exists within a first-level entity, the real government.

Minimizing bad interactions with the real government involves three simple steps. First, don’t look like you’re breaking the law. Second, don’t break the law. Third, really don’t break the spirit of the law.

Fortunately, digital land (such as DNS domains or IPv4 blocks) already exists and is largely unregulated. Or rather, it’s regulated perfectly well by standard property law.

This isn’t just an accident of history. If DNS domains became a useful way to launder money, or any kind of sink of financial skulduggery, carders, pedobears, etc — the baleful eye of the real government would rapidly fall on them.

It’s incumbent on anyone creating a new network of any kind not just to avoid using it yourself for criminal purposes, but to design it so that it’s not useful for criminal purposes. A darknet is not a machine for producing digital freedom. It’s the opposite — an excuse for installing digital tyranny.

Social engineering

Bringing people together is an easy problem for any social network. The hard problem is keeping them apart. In other words, the hard problem is filtering. Society is filtering.

A society without filters is a whirling, beige mess of atoms in a blender. Beigeworld is an inhuman antisociety. A digital republic is a garden; not only does a garden smell good, but every flower smells good. An unfiltered network is a sewer. All sewers have exactly the same smell.

There are four orthogonal classes of filtering: topic, community, flavor and quality. Filtering should be orthogonal to content type: the topic filter “sci.physics” can be a chatroom, a preprint archive and a streaming video channel.

Filtering: topic

Users themselves want to keep themselves apart in structured ways. Topic filtering is the most basic. Imagine a Reddit or a Usenet with only one group. It would consist only of noise.

For topic filtering, the ideal network has a single, organized global topic tree (ontology). Call it half Usenet, half Wikipedia and half the Dewey Decimal System.

Filtering: community

Every topic deserves a community. But not every community is a topic — a node in the ontology. To put it differently, not every community should have a global name. The existence of small, informal, private communities — tribes and microtribes — is essential to a healthy network.

The most inhuman form of community filtering is the form in which “communities” are inferred algorithmically from an unstructured social graph on a social server. A community is a tribe, not a proximity cluster. Humans are a tribal species and have exquisite instincts for interactions in medium-sized groups.

Filtering: flavor

Flavor filtering is the only major filtering class that’s poorly developed in presently deployed systems.

Suppose you’re building an online grocery store. Suppose one feature of your store is a profile setting where users can mark that they’re vegetarians.

There is no use in asking vegetarians to shop for meat. At best, you’re trolling them; at worst, you’re boring them. A cooking site should not show them recipes for rack of lamb. Etc.

More broadly, many forms of discourse have vibrant flavors which other users are inherently uninterested in tasting. Like topics, these flavors naturally form trees — some users may naturally block all sexual content, others just a subset.

But flavors are not topics. Topic can imply flavor — the bondage board will have bondage-flavored content. Not all communities are topical. Not all all topical communities stick to the point in every single communication.

A key component of flavor-oriented filtering is the principle that flavor is marked by the content author, and enforced by social convention in the community. A well-run community — and not all communities will be well-run — enforces flavor marking even among the locally dominant majority.

Anyone reading this has been subject to speech codes, of one sort or another, since they were old enough to talk. There’s a reason for this: blasphemy and/or heresy is disruptive and antisocial, absolutely regardless of its actual intellectual merit.

If we have a technical way to filter out blasphemy, we don’t need to suppress it with coercive force. Imagine a world in which, not just in theory but also in practice, you could say anything you wanted — so long as you marked it as what it was.

Filtering: quality

All other filtering problems are unimportant next to quality. Any successful digital republic must be in some sense a successor of Usenet, whose defeat by the barbarians is a matter of history. Alas, no one really knows how to do decentralized quality filtering. (Even centralized filtering doesn’t work well.)

Fortunately, a young network is inherently high-quality. Low-quality content is parasitic. It develops only as a network matures. There’s plenty of time to work on the outer walls while the network boots up.

And we can state one social-engineering goal which is not sufficient for barbarian resistance, but perhaps almost necessary. This is expansion resistance: the difficulty of creating a new identity.

If expansion resistance is zero, anyone can create infinite numbers of identities; Sybil attacks become trivial. Expansion resistance is negligible in email; spam filtering works, kind of; it can rescue SMTP, it certainly couldn’t create SMTP. Email has a lot in common with 14th-century Constantinople.

Metafilter (which anyone can join for $5) has solid expansion resistance; it may not be perfect, but it’s certainly spamless. And the grand champion is certainly the ’80s Arpanet, where where creating an identity involved applying to a university or getting a tech job — effectively, infinite expansion resistance.

Imagine a genuinely abuse-free global, decentralized network, where no one had ever heard of a firewall. Usenet was a fragile flower that could only exist under this glass bell. We can’t go back to the Arpanet, but we have to understand why it worked.

Broadly, disposable identities and sockpuppets are the enemy of Internet civilization. The principle of one identity per person, persona or corporation is an absolute principle of netiquette. Genuine multiple personas exist — it’s one thing to split your own identity between person and persona, name and nom de plume or nom de drag — but they’re rare, and an easy exception.

One of the most praised texts in 20th-century political science is James Scott’s Seeing Like A State. Scott points out that successful governments encourage social structures which are structurally governable, like a forester planting rows of trees in straight lines. People today have names like “Carter” because medieval English barons made their peasants take surnames, just so their tax databases would have valid primary keys.

A naive libertarian might call this a bad thing. Simplicity is not tyranny; simple government is good government, which is the opposite of tyranny. The simpler its task, the less energy the government must exert to achieve the same output. Anarchy and tyranny are cousins; so are liberty and order.


Goals and ideals are different things. An ideal is something you want. A goal is an ideal, plus a realistic plan to get it. Goals are more interesting than ideals, don’t you think?

Goals and features are also different things. What are the features of a network that attempts to achieve these design goals? In the next installment, we’ll look at how our own network — Urbit — measures up to these yardsticks.

PS: this document is also on Urbit.

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