History as Trajectory Chapter Image

History as Trajectory

Chapter 2


Our history is the prologue to the network state.

This is not obvious. Founding a startup society as we’ve described it seems to be about growing a community, writing code, crowdfunding land, and eventually attaining the diplomatic recognition to become a network state. What does history have to do with anything?

The short version is that if a tech company is about technological innovation first, and company culture second, a startup society is the reverse. It’s about community culture first, and technological innovation second. And while innovating on technology means forecasting the future, innovating on culture means probing the past.

But why? Well, for a tech company like SpaceX you start with time-invariant laws of physics extracted from data, laws that tell you how atoms collide and interact with each other. The study of these laws allows you to do something that has never been done before, seemingly proving that history doesn’t matter. But the subtlety is that these laws of physics encode in highly compressed form the results of innumerable scientific experiments. You are learning from human experience rather than trying to re-derive physical law from scratch. To touch Mars, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

For a startup society, we don’t yet have eternal mathematical laws for society.8 History is the closest thing we have to a physics of humanity. It furnishes many accounts of how human actors collide and interact with each other. The right course of historical study encodes, in compressed form, the results of innumerable social experiments. You can learn from human experience rather than re-deriving societal law from scratch. Learn some history, so as not to repeat it.

That’s a theoretical argument. An observational argument is that we know that the technological innovation of the Renaissance began by rediscovering history. And we know that the Founding Fathers cared deeply about history. In both cases, they stepped forward by drawing from the past. So if you’re a technologist looking to blaze a trail with a new startup society, that establishes plausibility for why historical study is important.

The logistical argument is perhaps the most compelling. Think about how much easier it is to use an iPhone than it was to build Apple from scratch. To consume you can just click a button, but to produce it’s necessary to know something about how companies are built. Similarly, it’s one thing to operate as a mere citizen of a pre-built country, and quite another thing to create one from scratch. To build a new society, it’d be helpful to have some knowledge of how countries were built in the first place, the logistics of the process. And this again brings us into the domain of history.

Why History is Crucial 

You can’t really learn something without using it. One day of immersion with a new language beats weeks of book learning. One day of trying to build something with a programming language beats weeks of theory, too.

In the same way, the history we teach is an applied history: a crucial tool for both the prospective president of a startup society9 and for their citizens, shareholders, and staff. It’s something you’ll use on a daily basis. Why?

You now see why history is useful. A founder of a mere startup company can arguably scrape by without it, tacitly outsourcing the study of history to those who shape society’s laws and morality. But a president of a startup society cannot, because a new society involves moral, social, and legal innovation relative to the old one — and that requires a knowledge of history.

Why History is Crucial for Startup Societies 

We’ve whetted the appetite with some specific examples of why history is useful in general. Now we’ll describe why it’s specifically useful for startup societies.

We begin by introducing an operationally useful set of tools for thinking about the past from a bottom-up and top-down perspective: history as written to the ledger, as opposed to history as written by the winners.

We use these tools to discuss the emergence of a new Leviathan, the Network, a contender for the most powerful force in the world, a true peer (and complement) to both God and the State as a mechanism for social organization.

And then we’ll bring it all together in the lead-up to the key concept of this chapter: the idea of the One Commandment, a historically-founded sociopolitical innovation that draws citizens to a startup society just as a technologically-based commercial innovation attracts customers to a startup company.

If a startup begins by identifying an economic problem in today’s market and presenting a technologically-informed solution to that problem in the form of a new company, a startup society begins by identifying a moral issue in today’s culture and presenting a historically-informed solution to that issue in the form of a new society.

Why Startup Societies Aren’t Solely About Technology 

Wait, why does a startup society have to begin with a moral issue? And why does the solution to that moral issue need to be historically-informed? Can’t it just be a tech-focused community where people solve problems with equations? We’re interested in Mars and life extension, not dusty stories of defunct cities!

The quick answer comes from Paul Johnson at the 11:00 mark of this talk, where he notes that early America’s religious colonies succeeded at a higher rate than its for-profit colonies, because the former had a purpose. The slightly longer answer is that in a startup society, you’re not asking people to buy a product (which is an economic, individualistic pitch) but to join a community (which is a cultural, collective pitch). You’re arguing that the culture of your startup society is better than the surrounding culture; implicitly, that means there’s some moral deficit in the world that you’re fixing. History comes into play because you’ll need to (a) write a study of that moral deficit and (b) draw from the past to find alternative social arrangements where that moral deficit did not occur. Tech may be part of the solution, and calculations may well be involved, but the moment you write about any societal problem in depth you’ll find yourself writing a history of that problem.

For specifics, you can skip ahead to Examples of Parallel Societies — or you can suspend disbelief for a little bit, keep reading, and trust us that this historical/moral/ethical angle just might be the missing ingredient to build startup societies, which after all haven’t yet fully taken off in the modern world.

Applied History for Startup Societies 

Here’s the outline of this chapter.

  1. We start with bottom-up history. The section on Microhistory and Macrohistory bridges the gap between the trajectory of an isolated, reproducible system and the trajectories of millions of interacting human beings. Because both these small and large-scale trajectories can now be digitally recorded and quantified, this is history as written to the ledger — culminating in the cryptohistory of Bitcoin.

  2. We next discuss top-down history. This is history as written by the winners, history as conceptualized by what Tyler Cowen calls the Base-Raters, history that justifies the current order and proclaims it stable and inevitable. It is a theory of Political Power vs. Technological Truth.

  3. We then talk about the history of power, giving names to the forces we just described by identifying the three candidates for most powerful force in the world: God, State, and Network. Framing things in terms of three prime movers rather than one allows us to generalize beyond purely God-centered religions to understand the Leviathan-centered doctrines that implicitly underpin modern society.

  4. We apply this to the history of power struggles. With the God/State/Network lens, we can understand the Blue/Red and Tech-vs-Media conflicts in a different way as a multi-sided struggle between People of God, People of the State, and People of the Network.

  5. We go through how the People of the State have used their power to distort recent and distant history, and how the Network is newly rectifying this distortion in If the News is Fake, Imagine History.”

  6. Having shown the degree to which history has been distorted, and thereby displaced the (implicit) historical narrative in which the arc of history bends to the ineluctable victory of the US establishment18, we discuss several alternative theories of past and future in our section on Fragmentation, Frontier, Fourth Turning, and Future Is Our Past. These theses don’t describe a clean progressive victory on every axis, but instead a set of cycles, hairpin turns, and mirror images, a set of historical trajectories far more complex than the narrative of linear inevitability smuggled in through textbooks and mass media.

  7. We next turn our attention to left and right, which are confusing concepts in a realigning time, in Left is the new Right is the new Left. Sorry! We can’t avoid politics anymore. Startup societies aren’t purely about technology. But please note that for the most part this section isn’t the same old pabulum around current events. We do contend that you need a theory of left and right to build a startup society, but that doesn’t mean just picking a side.

    Why? While a political consumer has to pick one of a few party platforms off the menu, a political founder can do something different: ideology construction. To inform this, we’ll show how left and right have swapped sides through history, and how any successful mass movement has both a revolutionary left component and a ruling right component.

  8. Finally, all of this builds up to the payoff: the One Commandment. Using the terminology we just introduced, we can rattle it off in a few paragraphs. (If the following is opaque in any way, read the chapter, then come back and re-read this part.)

    If history is not pre-determined to bend in one direction, if the current establishment may experience dramatic disruption in the form of the Fragmentation and Fourth Turning, if its power actually arose from the expanding frontier rather than the expanding franchise, if history is somehow running in reverse as per the Future Is Our Past thesis, if the revolutionary and ruling classes are in fact switching sides, if the new Leviathan that is the Network is indeed rising above the State, and if the internal American conflicts can be seen not as policy disputes but as holy wars, as clashes of Leviathans…then the assumption of the Base-Raters that all will proceed as it always has is quite incorrect! But rather than admit this incorrectness, they’ll attempt to use political power to suppress technological truth.

    The founder’s counter is cryptohistory and the startup society. We now have a history no establishment can easily corrupt, the cryptographically verifiable history pioneered by Bitcoin and extended via crypto oracles. We also have a theory of historical feasibility, history as a trajectory rather than an inevitability, the idea that the desirable future will only occur if you put in individual effort. But what exactly is the nature of that desirable future?

    After all, many groups differ with the old order but also with each other — so a blanket solution won’t work. And could well be resisted. That’s where the One Commandment comes in.

    As context, the modern person is often morally reticent but politically evangelistic. They hesitate to talk about what is moral or immoral, because it’s not their place to say what’s right. Yet when it comes to politics, this diffidence is frequently replaced by overbearing confidence in how others must live, coupled with an enthusiasm for enforcing their beliefs at gunpoint if necessary.

    In between this zero and , in between eschewing moral discussion entirely and imposing a full-blown political doctrine, in this final section we propose a one: a one commandment. Start a new society with its own moral code, based on your study of history, and recruit people that agree with you to populate it.19 We’re not saying you need to come up with your own new Ten Commandments, mind you — but you do need One Commandment to establish the differentiation of a new startup society.

    Concrete examples of possible One Commandments include “24/7 internet bad” (which leads to a Digital Sabbath society), or “carbs bad” (which leads to a Keto Kosher society), or “traditional Christianity good” (which leads to a Benedict Option society), or “life extension good” (which leads to a post-FDA society).

    You might think these One Commandments sound either trivial or unrealistically ambitious, but in that respect they’re similar to tech; the pitch of “140 characters” sounded trivial and the pitch of “reusable rockets” seemed unrealistic, but those resulted in Twitter and SpaceX respectively. The One Commandment is also similar to tech in another respect: it focuses a startup society on a single moral innovation, just like a tech company is about a focused technoeconomic innovation.

    That is, as we’ll see, each One Commandment-based startup society is premised on deconstructing the establishment’s history in one specific area, erecting a replacement narrative in its place with a new One Commandment, then proving the socioeconomic value of that One Commandment by using it to attract subscriber-citizens. For example, if you can attract 100k subscribers to your Keto Kosher society through deeply researched historical studies on the obesity epidemic, and then show that they’ve lost significant weight as a consequence, you’ve proven the establishment deeply wrong in a key area. That’ll either drive them to reform — or not reform, in which case you attract more citizens.

    A key point is that we can apply all the techniques of startup companies to startup societies. Financing, attracting subscribers, calculating churn, doing customer support — there’s a playbook for all of that. It’s just Society-as-a-Service, the new SaaS.

    In parallel, other startup societies are likewise critiquing by building, draining citizens away from the establishment with their own historically-informed One Commandments, and thereby driving change on other dimensions. Finally, different successful changes can be copied and merged together, such that the second generation of startup societies starts differentiating from the establishment by two, three, or N commandments. This is a vision for peaceful, parallelized, historically-driven reform of a broken society.

Ok! I know those last few paragraphs involved some heavy sledding, but come back and reread them after going through the chapter. The main point of our little preview here was to make the case that history is an applied subject — and that you can’t start a new society without it.

Without a genuine moral critique of the establishment, without an ideological root network supported by history, your new society is at best a fancy Starbucks lounge, a gated community that differs only in its amenities, a snack to be eaten by the establishment at its leisure, a soulless nullity with no direction save consumerism.20

But with such a critique — with the understanding that the establishment is morally wanting, with a focused articulation of how exactly it falls short, with a One Commandment that others can choose to follow, and with a vision of the historical past that underpins your new startup society much as a vision of the technological future underpins a new startup company — you’re well on your way.

You might even start to see a historical whitepaper floating in front of you, the scholarly critique that draws your first 100 subscribers, the founding document you publish to kick off your startup society.

Now let’s equip you with the tools to write it.