Original image courtesy BILTalks
Technology / Urbit

In Urbit, the Internet’s Democracy is at the Founders’ Discretion

In 1997, Curtis Yarvin appeared at a “Touch of a Poet” open mic event in Berkeley. He wore a black turtleneck, circular wireframe glasses, a right earring, and his hair slicked back into a ponytail in what would be a parody of an open mic poet, if not for the fact that he was so genuine. He nervously read his short poem on the beauty of the sunset outside his apartment in Pacifica, detailing the eucalyptus trees and rows of identical houses. He closed with a poem dedicated to his mother who, he said with a shaky voice, was “about to separate with her husband.” The poetry garnered a few laughs before Yarvin rushed off stage.

It didn’t take him long to leave the poetry circuit. Writing in 2012, he reflected:

Not only is poetry dead as a market, it’s arguably even deader as a form. The profession of poetry is all about making the connections you need to get a book published, at which point you can work (for pennies) at a community college teaching poetry, and have as good a right as anyone to introduce yourself to chicks as “a poet.” You can’t be utterly illiterate, though, unless you’re a protected minority.

By the time he made this statement, Curtis Yarvin had been reborn as reactionary internet blogger “Mencius Moldbug,” whose focus was bringing about monarchy through a “neoreactionary” movement that flourished in the 2000s blogosphere and became the seeds of the more recent alt-right. He wrote about apartheid’s superiority and the world’s failure without kings. He strangely cast doubt on Barack Obama’s Columbia attendance, earning him a line of communication to the Trump White House through Steve Bannon.

Sometime around 2010, he started Urbit. Intended as a new computing platform (as vague as that sounds), Urbit was effectively a decentralized chat room and blog platform that ran on users’ computers. As with many decentralized communication platforms of the time, it expressed democratizing goals. It would “unlock the power of individual creativity,” “govern itself through republican forms,” and provide users with a “practical digital independence” that didn’t “facilitate censorship,” as it claimed in its written principles.

This supposed internet democracy saw enormous initial success. Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, invested in Urbit’s parent company, Tlon. Urbit hosted sales of one thousand of their “stars,” essentially less privileged accounts, at $512 a piece…and sold out in mere hours, twice. It generated lots and lots of press. It was heralded as “the most coherent vision for why decentralized computing is necessary.”

But the promise of democracy hid the platform’s true authoritarian and, strangely, monarchist structure. While the rebranded Urbit sells accounts at tiers of galaxies and stars, the original specification describes it as a “digital feudalism” of lords and dukes (the lowest tier on the old Urbit was a pope, perhaps a wink to Yarvin’s atheism). No matter the language, the power structure remains in the program, with each tier having authority over tiers below them and the ability to revoke their serfs’ standing at any time through cryptographic protocols.

Those authoritarian mechanisms coded into the system continue into its upper level governance. At the top, Urbit is controlled by a “consulate,” composed of two people—currently one of the co-founders and one of their tech’s original authors. Nominally, this consulate is elected by a “senate,” but the senate is composed of galaxy owners—185 of 256 of which are the founders through various titles. Tlon claims these tiers of its upper level governance are balanced against themselves, but provides no checks or balances between them. It markets itself as “self-governing,” yet in execution Urbit is anything but.

Though Urbit’s first phase of adoption got off to a very profitable and noisy start, it is worth asking what the significance of its façade of democratization is if, as many predict, Urbit crashes and burns, or simply cannot grow beyond its initial core of theoretical computer science nerds and neoreactionaries. Who cares whether a kid will let you into his little backyard treehouse? It is because the treehouse resembles mansions. Despite Urbit’s current size and funding, it looks and behaves a lot like the current social media and internet behemoths.

Currently, owners of social media platforms rarely flex the power their platforms provide. But that doesn’t mean that this power doesn’t exist. In June 2009, when Iranians were actively protesting election results and using Twitter to organize, Twitter delayed routine maintenance to aid the protests. Twitter’s recent bans of rule-breaking users have caught mostly the ire of American conservatives and the alt-right, but this show of force still carries a general message: the platform’s few, wealthy unelected owners have the final say, just like the Urbit consulate.

Urbit doesn’t hide from the fact that, on its platform, “authority is proportional to property,” with the ownership of its voting accounts bestowing total supremacy. Urbit couches this authoritarian idea in hip cryptocurrency terms of democracy through distributed ownership (another democratic façade), but through these terms lays surprisingly bare the ultimate power structure. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s equivalent to Yarvin, holds a majority of voting shares in his company, and, thus, full control over the platform, no matter how large its privately-moderated meme groups grow.

The world’s Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys may promote their platforms’ supposed freedom, wear nose rings, grow shaggy beards, and talk of Yarvin’s Pacifica sunsets, but the internet is not inherently democratic, and its current power structures certainly don’t encourage such  wide-ranging enfranchisement. We should prepare for Moldbug’s internet.