God, State, Network
The collision between the top-down and bottom-up views of history, between history as written by the winners and history as written to the ledger, between political power and technological truth…that encounter is a collision of Leviathans.
To understand this, imagine two schoolboys fighting on a playground. It’s not long before one of them says “my dad can beat up your dad!” There’s profundity in this banality. Even at a very young age, a child believes he can appeal to a higher power, a Leviathan, a powerful man who can sweep the field of his enemies, including Robert from recess.
Men are not so different from children in this regard. Every doctrine has its Leviathan, that prime mover who hovers above all. For a religion, it is God. For a political movement, it is the State. And for a cryptocurrency, it is the Network. These three Leviathans hover over fallible men to make them behave in pro-social ways.
Once we generalize beyond God, once we realize there’s not one but three Leviathans in a Hobbesian sense, much becomes clear. Movements that aren’t God-worshipping religions are often State-worshipping political movements or Network-worshipping crypto tribes. Many progressive atheists are by no means astatists; they worship the State as if it were God. And many libertarian atheists may not believe in either God or the State, but they do believe in the Network - whether that be their social network or their cryptocurrency.
This deserves some elaboration.
The first Leviathan was God. In the 1800s, people didn’t steal because they actually feared God. They believed in a way that’s hard for us to understand, they thought of God as an active force in the world, firing-and-brimstoning away. They wanted god-fearing men in power, because a man who genuinely believed in God would behave well even if no one could punish him. That is, a powerful leader who actually believed that eternal damnation was the punishment for violating religious edicts could be relied upon by the public even if no human could see whether he had misbehaved. At least, this is a rational retrofitting of why being genuinely “god-fearing” was important to people, though they might not articulate it in quite that way. God was the ultimate force, the Leviathan.
By the late 1800s, Nietzsche wrote that “God is dead.” What he meant is that a critical mass of the intelligentsia didn’t believe in God anymore, not in the same way their forefathers did. In the absence of God, a new Leviathan now rose to pre-eminence, one that existed before but gained new significance: the State. And so in the 1900s, why didn’t you steal? Because even if you didn’t believe in God, the State would punish you. The full global displacement of God by the State (something already clearly underway in France since 1789) led to the giant wars of the 20th century, Democratic Capitalism vs Nazism vs Communism. These new faiths replaced g-o-d with g-o-v, faiths which centered the State over God as the most powerful force on earth.
That brings us to the present. Now, today, as you can see from this graph and this one, it is not just God that is dead. It is the State that is dying. Because here in the early innings of the 21st century, faith in the State is plummeting. Faith in God has crashed too, though there may be some inchoate revival of religious faith pending. But it is the Network — the internet, the social network, and now the crypto network — that is the next Leviathan.
So: in the 1800s you wouldn’t steal because God would smite you, in the 1900s you didn’t steal because the State would punish you, but in the 2000s you can’t steal because the Network won’t let you.40 Either the social network will mob you, or the cryptocurrency network won’t let you steal because you lack the private key, or (eventually) the networked AI will detect you, or all of the above.
Put another way, what’s the most powerful force on earth? In the 1800s, God. In the 1900s, the US military. And by the mid-2000s, encryption. Because as Assange put it, no amount of violence can solve certain kinds of math problems. So it doesn’t matter how many nuclear weapons you have; if property or information is secured by cryptography, the state can’t seize it without getting the solution to an equation.
Now, the obvious response is that a state like Venezuela can still try to beat someone up to get that solution, do the proverbial rubber hose attack to get their password and private keys — but first they’ll have to find that person’s offline identity, map it to a physical location, establish that they have jurisdiction, send in the (expensive) special forces, and do this to an endless number of people in an endless number of locations, while dealing with various complications like anonymous remailers, multisigs, zero-knowledge, dead-man’s switches, and timelocks. So at a minimum, encryption increases the cost of state coercion.
In other words, seizing Bitcoin is not quite as easy as inflating a fiat currency. It’s not something a hostile state like Venezuela can seize en masse with a keypress, they need to go house-by-house. The only real way around this scalability problem would be a cheap autonomous army of AI police drones, something China may ultimately be capable of, but that’d be expensive and we aren’t there yet.41
Until then, the history of Satoshi Nakamoto’s successful maintenance of pseudonymity, of Apple’s partial thwarting of the FBI, and of the Bitcoin network’s resilience to the Chinese state’s mining shutdown show that the Network’s pseudonymity and cryptography are already partially obstructing at least some of the State’s surveillance and violence.
Encryption thus limits governments in a way no legislation can. And as described at length in this piece, it’s not just about protection of private property. It’s about using encryption and crypto to protect freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of contract, prevention from discrimination and cancellation via pseudonymity, individual privacy, and truly equal protection under rule-of-code — even as the State’s paper-based guarantees of the same become ever more hollow. Because the computer always gives the same output given the same input code, unlike the fallible human judiciary with its error-prone (or politicized) enforcement of the law.
In this sense, the Network is the next Leviathan, because on key dimensions it is becoming more powerful and more just than the State.
When we say that the Network is the next Leviathan, which we can abbreviate as “Network > State” it is useful to give specifics. Here are several concrete examples where the Network’s version of a given social practice is more powerful than the State’s version.
- Encryption > State Violence. When there is strong encryption government can’t crack, that means communications states can’t eavesdrop on, transactions they can’t intercept, and digital borders they can’t penetrate. It means nothing less than the ability to organize groups outside state control, and thus a diminution in the power of states to control.
- Cryptoeconomy > Fiat Economy. We just discussed this in the context of the Network’s Bitcoin being money the State can’t easily freeze, seize, ban, or print. In theory this is just a special case of the point on encryption, but its implications are broad: all manner of financial instruments, corporate vehicles, accounting, payroll, and the like can be done on-chain outside the control of states.
- Peer-to-Peer > State Media. There are two kinds of state media: state-controlled media as in China’s Xinhuanet, or state-control media as in America’s The New York Times. The latter controls the state, the former is controlled by the state, but both fight freedom of speech. Network-facilitated P2P communication is anathema to them, particularly if end-to-end encrypted. Citations in particular are worth calling out here — archival references like Google Books, or NCBI, or archive.is can be linked to prove a point, even if official State channels aren’t presently favoring that point of view.
- Social > National. Social networks change many things, but a critical one is that they change the nature of community. Your community is your social network, not necessarily the people who live near you. When the network identity is more salient than the neighor relationship, it challenges the very premise of the Westphalian state, which is that (a) people who live geographically near each other share values and (b) therefore laws should be based on geographic boundaries. The alternative is that only people who are geodesically near each other in the social network share values, and therefore the laws that govern them should be based on network boundaries.
- Mobile > Sessile. Mobile is making us more mobile. And law is a function of latitude and longitude; as you change your location, you change the local, state, and federal laws that apply to you. As such, migration is as powerful a way to change the law under which you live as election. COVID-19 lockdowns may be just the beginning of State attempts to control Network-facilitated physical exit. But in normal circumstances, smartphones are helping people move ever more freely, while the borders of physical states are frozen in place.
- Virtual Reality > Physical Proximity. As a complement to mobile, the Network offers another way to opt out of State-controlled physical surroundings: namely, to put on a VR (or AR) headset, at which point you are in a completely different world with different people surrounding you and different laws.
- Remote > In-person. The Network allows you to work and communicate from anywhere. Combined with mobile, this further increases leverage against the State. The concept of the network state as a division of the world by people rather than by land is particularly important here, as network states are natively built for getting voluntary subscription revenue from people around the world. The diaspora is the state.
- International > National. The Network gives people more of a choice over what specific State they are subject to. For example, they can move a server hosting their website from country to country with a few clicks.
- Smart Contracts > Law. The State’s paper-based legal system is costly and unpredictable. A similar set of facts in two different cities in the same country could result in a different ruling. Lawyers are expensive, paper contracts have typos and illogic, and cross-border agreements range from complex to impossible. We’re still in the early days of smart contracts, but as we get well-debugged and formally-verified contract libraries, this is an area where the Network is poised to take over from the State. Imagine truly international law: it’s done programmatically rather than via pieces of paper, across borders outside the domain of legacy states, and by global technologists rather than country-specific lawyers.
- Cryptographic Verification > Official Confirmation. Perhaps the most important arena in which the Network is stronger than the state is in the nature of truth itself. As incredible as it may sound, the blockchain is the most important development in history since the advent of writing itself, as it’s a cryptographically verifiable, highly replicated, unfalsifiable, and provably complete digital record of a system. It’s the ultimate triumph of the technological truth view of history, as there are now technical and financial incentives for passing down true facts, regardless of the sociopolitical advantages any given government might have for suppressing them. To foreshadow a bit, this ledger of record is history written by the Network rather than the State.
These examples can be multiplied. As mentioned before, Uber and Lyft are better regulators than the State’s paper-based taxi medallions, email is superior to the USPS, and SpaceX is out-executing NASA. If you think about borders, you now need to think about the Network’s telepresence (which defeats physical borders) and its encryption (which erects digital borders). Or if you care about, say, the US census, the Network gives a real-time survey which is far more up to date than the State’s 10 year process.
In short, if you can bring the Network to bear on an issue, it will often be the most powerful force. This is essentially what every startup founder does, all the time: they try to figure out the Network way of doing something, without going through the State. There’s an app for that!
This is conceptually important, because a startup society founder that can reposition a particular conflict such that it is the Network against the State has a chance to win. But if they go through the legacy State, they’ll be an alligator out of water, and they will likely lose.
Applying the “Network > State” formulation to recent events, think about January 2021, when — at the behest of the New York Times Company and all of mainstream media — Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter combined to deplatform a sitting president and disappear his supporters’ app from the internet.
This was undeniable proof of the US government’s impotence, because the “most powerful man in the world” was clearly no longer even the most powerful man in his own country. The informal Network (the US establishment) trumped the formal State (the US government).42
Obviously, Trump and the Republicans weren’t in control of events. Less obviously, elected Democrats weren’t either. Oh, sure, many of them added their voices to the cacophony. But because the First Amendment constrains government capacity to restrain speech, they couldn’t tell the tech CEOs to shut down opposition voices - but the publishers could. And because the final control over these networks is in private hands, state officials didn’t have the final say.
Put another way, the people with their fingers on the button are no longer elected officials of the state. Does the US government feel like it is in charge? That is what Network > State means.
To be clear, the Network does not win every conflict with the State. In many cases the actual outcome is “State > Network.” Indeed, the conflict between these two Leviathans will shape this century like the conflict between the God and State Leviathans shaped the last.
Some examples of “State > Network” include Ross Ulbricht’s arrest by the US government, the persecution of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, China’s crackdown on cryptocurrency, the European Union’s GDPR regulation, the COVID lockdowns that inhibited any digital nomad’s ability to exit, the rising number of government internet shutdowns, and the US establishment’s push to censor the internet.
Let’s review a few cases of particular importance: the techxit from San Francisco, the political defeat of tech founders in China, the biasing of AI in the name of AI bias, and the digital deplatforming of establishment critics in both the West and East.
SF city government > Bay Area tech founders. Despite how competent the tech founders of SF were on the Network, the political billionaires of the San Francisco city government managed to use their control of the State to turn the city into a hellhole. Intentionally or not, this had the effect of driving out the new money, their potential competition.
Yes, there have been some successful tech-funded recall efforts recently, but it’s likely too little, too late. It’s akin to a stock price showing a bit of an upward trend after a huge and irreversible drop. Because the Bay Area’s monopoly is over. Technology has now globally decentralized into web3, and San Francisco (and even Silicon Valley) has now lost its position as the undisputed tech capital of the world. You no longer need to go to the Bay Area to build a startup — you can found and fund from anywhere.
This is, on balance, a good thing — the fact that tech is no longer highly dependent on the triple dysfunction of SF/CA/USA is crucial to the world’s future. Note also that while the defeat of tech in SF was due to State > Network, the reason tech lives to fight another day is thanks to remote work, which allowed movement away from SF in a “Techxit.” And remote work is a case of Network > State.
CCP > Chinese tech founders. Until about 2018, Chinese tech founders were celebrated by the CCP. Imagine if Zuckerberg and Dorsey were given the equivalent of Senate seats for their contribution to the economy, brought into the establishment rather than standing at a remove, and you’ll get a sense of what the tone was like. Jack Ma (Alibaba founder), Pony Ma (Tencent founder), and their peers were either one of the 95 million CCP members (<7% of the country) or praised by CCP media.
Then everything shifted. Just like America, China had its own establishment-driven techlash.43 The huge cost of pausing of the massive ANT Financial IPO on some regulatory pretense was a signal. For the last several years, the CCP has put what it considers to be the “national interest” over enormous sums of money, incurring at least a trillion dollars in cost for COVID lockdowns, shutdowns of IPOs, and overnight bans of entire industries like gaming and Bitcoin mining.
This looks stupid. Maybe it is stupid. Or maybe they know something we don’t. The CCP’s early action in the 2000s and 2010s to ban foreign social networks looks farsighted in retrospect, as if they hadn’t built their own Weibo and WeChat, then US executives in Silicon Valley would have been able to deplatform (or surveil) anyone from China with a keystroke. So, unfortunately, perhaps signaling that there are “more important things than money” and gearing for conflict will turn out to put the CCP in a better position for what comes.
Be that as it may, the Chinese techlash is an example of “State > Network.” The CCP-controlled Chinese State beat the international Network of Chinese tech founders. But it didn’t win forever, as many of the most ambitious founders and funders in China are now using the Network to move abroad and escape the Chinese State.
Biasing AI with AI Bias. Jon Stokes has written at length about “AI ethics” and I’d encourage you to read his work. But in brief, this entire pseudofield is about putting a thumb on the scale of AI algorithms in the name of balancing the scales, particularly at influential tech giants like Google. It’s about ensuring that members of the US establishment are always looking over the shoulder of technologists, making sure that their code is 100% regime compliant44, just as the Soviet Union did with its commissars, the NSDAP did with gleichschaltung, and Xi has done with Xuexi Qiangguo.45
The fundamental concept is about asserting moral control over a technological field. AI “ethics” doesn’t really contest what is true or false, it contests what is good and bad. And what is bad? Anything that advances a politically unfavorable narrative. As a concrete example, in 2021, Ukraine was widely reported to be a corrupt country full of Azov Battalion Nazis. By mid 2022, those reports would have been reclassified as “disinformation” and pushed down to page 10 of the search results46, if the AI bias people had their way.
Now, the usual dodge is that there’s always discretion involved in the selection of any machine learning training set, and judgment used in the configuration of any algorithm, so who is to say what “unbiased” means? But the goal here is to make sure that discretion does not scatter randomly, or at the discretion of the individual investigator, but instead consistently points in a single “ethically approved” direction, whether that be submission to NYT (in Blue America) or CCP (in China). It’s centralized political control by another name.
Note also that the name of their field has been chosen to ward off attack. What, are you against ethics in AI? (These are the same people who speak mockingly of “ethics in journalism” when it suits them.)
So, a better term for it is “AI bias,” not as in the study of bias, but as in the study of how to bias AI. And the power the AI bias people have is enormous. A few zealots in the right places at big tech companies can and will distort the Google results of billions of people, until and unless Google’s monopoly is disrupted, or unless the right people within Google push to make their algorithms transparent.47 Newspeak isn’t a dystopia for them, it’s an instruction manual.
And they might well win. The episode where Merriam-Webster changed the dictionary in real-time for political purposes is only the beginning; the new Google is about to use its power to centrally change thought.
This is considerably worse than Baidu, which more straightforwardly filters searches that are “problematic” for the CCP. Because the AI bias people pretend that they are doing it for the powerless, when they are really doing it to maintain the US establishment’s power.
Digital Deplatforming. Another example of the State trumping the Network, of political power exercised against technological truth, can be seen in the muzzling of regime-disfavored voices on social media.
As always, this is obvious in China. Say something the CCP doesn’t like on Sina Weibo and your post disappears, and possibly your account and maybe you’re brought in for “tea” by the security forces. But in the West, if you say something the regime doesn’t like on Twitter, your post disappears, and possibly your account, and — in American protectorates like the UK — maybe you’re brought in for “tea” by the security forces.
Ah, didn’t expect that, did you? But click those links. The only reason that UK-style hate speech laws haven’t yet come to the US is the First Amendment, which has also limited to some degree the totality of private attempts at speech and thought control.
Nevertheless, even by 2019 we could see the convergence of the American and Chinese systems in this respect. Just as WeChat blocked mention of Tiananmen, Facebook blocked mention of an alleged whistleblower. Operationally, it’s the same thing. In the East it’s official government censorship, whereas in the West it’s unofficial private censorship, but that’s not a substantive difference - it’s censorship as ordered by the Chinese and US establishments respectively. The substantive difference is that in the West there’s a third faction of decentralized censorship resistance.
The point is that sometimes Network > State (which is new), and sometimes State > Network (which is what most people expect), and the competition between these Leviathans will define our time.
But is it always competition, or could it also be co-optation?
As Larry Ellison put it, “choose your competitors carefully, because you’ll become a lot like them.” This is a tech founder’s version of the Hegelian dialectic, where thesis and antithesis mix to form a synthesis.
In other words, when you have three Leviathans (God, State, Network) that keep struggling with each other, they won’t remain pure forms. You’ll see people remix them together to create new kinds of social orders, new hybrids, new syntheses in the Hegelian sense. We already mentioned the Chinese version of this fusion (“the backwards will be beaten”) in the context of political power vs technological truth, but it goes beyond just the determination of truth to how society itself is organized. For example:
- God/State: the mid-century US was “for god and country.” It stood against the USSR, where people worshipped the State as God. (Though the US also had a peer-to-peer Network component in the form of permitting capitalism within its borders, and the USSR did too in the form of the “Communist International,” the global network of spies fomenting communist revolution.)
- God/Network: this might be something like the Mormons, or the Jewish diaspora before Israel, or any religious diaspora connected by some kind of communications network. It’s a community of shared values connected by a communications network without a formal state.
- God/State/Network: this is something like the Jewish diaspora after Israel. Our One Commandment model also draws on this, as a startup society can be based on a traditional religion or on a moral imperative that’s on par with many religious practices, like veganism.
These are political examples of mixing Leviathans, but there are other ways of thinking about the concept.
One important synthesis that deserves special mention is the “Network/God”: a Network God, an AI God, a GPT-9 or DALL·E 10 that gives instant, superhuman answers to difficult questions using the knowledge of all of humanity.
After all, people already do confide to Google as if it were God, or at least a confessions booth. In the 1980s there was a popular children’s book called Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and you can imagine an app version of this where people ask a given AI God for advice.
That god need not be a general AI. It could encode a specific morality. It could be tuned and trained on particular corpora rather than the general web. What would Jesus do (WWJD), in an app? The Chinese Xuexi Qiangguo app could in fact be seen as an early version of this — “What would Xi Jinping do?” — though one could also have decentralized versions.
What would Lee Kuan Yew do? What would David Ben-Gurion do? What would George Washington do? What would the people you respect advise in your situation? A language model trained on their corpora — on all the public text and audio they’ve emitted over their lives, which could amount to many millions of words — may achieve something like the sci-fi episode where people are revived by AI in an app. There’s already a v1, it just needs to be augmented with a VR simulacrum. And even though this kind of thing is painted as negative in media like Her and Black Mirror, it’s really not obvious that getting interactive advice from Lee Kuan Yew’s app is worse than getting it from Lee Kuan Yew’s books.
The study of God/State/Network syntheses brings us to the fusion we’re most interested in: a Network/State, of which one of them is our titular network state. And there are a few different ways to get to a Network/State fusion.
The first is the from-scratch version described in chapter one, where an internet leader builds a large enough network union online that it can crowdfund territory and eventually attain diplomatic recognition. But it’s worth discussing other scenarios, where existing governments fuse with the network — both positive and negative Network/State syntheses.
Start with the observation that companies, cities, currencies, communities, and countries are all becoming networks.
As an analogy, we used to think of books, music, and movies as distinct. Then they all became represented by packets sent over the internet. Yes, we listened to music in audio players and viewed books in ebook readers, but their fundamental structure became digital.
Similarly, today we think of stocks, bonds, gold, loans, and art as different. But all of them are represented as debits and credits on blockchains. Again, the fundamental structure became digital.
Now, we are starting to think of different kinds of collections of people –— whether communities, cities, companies, or countries —– all fundamentally as networks, where the digital profiles and how they interact become more and more fundamental.
This is obvious for communities and companies, which can already be fully remote and digital, but even already existing cities and countries are starting to be modeled this way, because (a) their citizens48 are often geographically remote, (b) the concept of citizenship itself is becoming similar to digital single sign-on, (c) many 20th century functions of government have already been de-facto transferred to private networks like (electronic) mail delivery, hotel, and taxi regulation, (d) cities and countries increasingly recruit citizens online, (e) so-called smart cities are increasingly administrated through a computer interface, and (f) as countries issue central bank digital currencies and cities likely follow suit, every polity will be publicly traded on the internet just like companies and coins.
And that’s just for pre-existing polities which retrofit themselves with aspects of the network. It doesn’t include the most fundamental network property of the de novo network states described herein: namely that the citizenry itself first assembles in the cloud and only then crowdfunds the earth.
Examples of pre-existing states integrating with the network include (a) El Salvador’s integration with the Bitcoin network, (b) Wyoming’s decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) law and Norway’s cap table bill, which are integrations with the Ethereum network, and (c) places like Estonia and Singapore, where every government workflow is already online. In each of these cases, cities and states are fusing with networks to ship new services that are useful to citizens.
This is the benign version of the Network/State fusion, the one people will flock to.
The malign version of the Network/State fusion is what happened in China, and is happening in America at the federal level with the tech crackdowns. In both the Chinese and American cases the State is “acquiring” centralized technology companies at gunpoint, fusing with the Network from above.
In China the recipe was (a) a few years of media demonization plus (b) mandatory Xi Jinping Thought sessions followed by (c) decapitation and quasi-nationalization –— as is happening with Alibaba and ByteDance. In America during the techlash it was very similar: (a) several years of media demonization plus (b) quasi-mandatory wokeness within followed by (c) anti-trust, regulation, and quasi-nationalization.
Sometimes the decapitation is forceful (Uber was an early target here) and sometimes it’s quasi-voluntary. Indeed, one thesis on why many of the major tech founders have stepped down as of mid-2022, other than Zuck, is that they don’t want to become personally demonized during the no-win antitrust process. It’s more explicit in China that this wasn’t a choice — Jack Ma is no longer in control of the company he founded, and many other Chinese founders have been similarly relieved of their duties.
That is, whatever the surface justification, these are hostile takeovers of centralized tech companies by centralized states. Once taken over, these companies will be turned into total surveillance machines and tools of social control. In China, this is already obvious. But in America, anti-trust may mean zero trust.
To be clear, this is partially a forecast for the future, and perhaps it can be averted, but in the aftermath of any ostensibly “economic” settlement the US national security state could get everything it ever wanted in terms of backdoors to Google and Facebook. The NSA won’t need to hack its way in, it’ll get a front door. And then it will likely get hacked in turn, spraying all of your data over the internet.
This is the malign version of the Network/State fusion, the one people want to exit from.
Synthesis: God, State, and Network
Can we put all three Leviathans together in the modern era? Is there something that’d fit?
Yes. The benign version of the network/state synthesis we’ve just described offers greater administrative efficiency, greater economic returns, and greater levels of citizen consent. But it doesn’t yet offer greater purpose, or meaning.
As a preview, that’s where the One Commandment comes in. The concept is that you don’t want or need to start an entirely new religion to build a startup society, but you do need a moral innovation of some kind. If all you have to offer is a higher standard of living, people may come as consumers, but they won’t come for the right reasons. The consumer-citizen is coming to enjoy a great society, not to sacrifice to make a society great. They won’t understand the values that underpin your startup society’s valuation. And you likely won’t be able to build that high valuation or higher standard of living without a higher purpose, just as neither Apple nor America itself was initially built for money alone. You want to recruit producers, not consumers, and for that, you’ll need a purpose.
That higher purpose could be a traditional religion, as in Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, but it could also be a doctrine with a deeply thought through “One Commandment,” a moral innovation that inverts one of society’s core assumptions while keeping all others intact.
For example, taking the seemingly trivial moral premise that “sugar is bad” and seriously carrying it through to build a Keto Kosher society involves a focused yet all-encompassing change to every restaurant, grocery store, and meal within a jurisdiction. We give more examples later.
The concept of three Leviathans explains why a network state is now feasible. The Network is a new sheriff in town, a new Leviathan, a new force that is more powerful than the State in many contexts. That has changed the balance of power. While syntheses are arising, so are conflicts between Network and State. And that explains much of today’s instability: when Leviathans wrestle, when Godzilla fights King Kong, the earth trembles.