America's future and the network state

The geopolitical concept of hegemony is implicitly a game of keep-away: a smattering of nation states who've divided their mountains and oceans among themselves, battling for dominance in a constrained landscape. After the fall of the Soviet Union, America was left holding the ball, but – as the narrative goes – if we're not careful, Russia or China or India might sneak up and steal it away.

But what if hegemony were determined not by geographic borders or resources, but instead by who can attract the best people? In this version of the world, America is a proposition nation, held together by shared ideas rather than a shared origin (like ethnicity or geographic proximity). If America, the nation state, were to become less attractive to outsiders, the hegemonic tribe has no true allegiance to its shining seas and waves of grain: they merely migrate to where the opportunities are.

It's these two competing theories – hegemony as physical place to be defended, versus hegemony as a self-selected tribe in search of a home – that are playing out in tech today, through the widening division between Atoms and Bits. While the Atoms tribe is playing geopolitics, it’s the Bits position that Balaji Srinivasan attempts to unpack in his manifesto The Network State. Twenty years from now, what we think of as America may no longer refer to that country bordering Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. America might instead be summoned up to the skies, its spirit and consciousness expanded to a digital nation.

I explored the Atoms/Bits division in an essay for The Point, which just came out today. It’s also an attempt to explain what Balaji’s network state thesis means to me, and to reconcile it with my love of America.

James Pogue recently published a thorough profile of prepper types who are gravitating towards the American West as a way to “exit” society, which heavily references Balaji’s vision of the network state, but something about the scene he paints feels more ominous, resigned, and doomer-ish to me than how I personally connect to it: a vote of no-confidence rather than a new reimagining. I view the tension between nation state and network state as fundamental groundwork for understanding why tech matters, where it derives meaning, and what it can contribute to society. To me, that is an optimistic story that represents a modern kindling of the American spirit.

So that’s what I decided to write about. You can check it out here:

In other news…

  • I’m giving a (virtual) talk at The Stoa next week about mapping digital tribes. We’ll discuss how cartography can both legitimize and threaten digital spaces, methodologies for tribe mapping, and look at a bunch of different maps together! Would love to see you there, next Mon, Feb 27, 6pm ET. RSVP here.
  • Early stage funding markets for science: I worked on a paper last summer about the growth and impact of “early stage” science funders, with support from Schmidt Futures. In particular, I looked at several emerging funding mechanisms – rapid grants, scout programs, and focused research organizations (FROs) – and how they serve the needs of science funders. Might be useful to anyone who’s interested in field building, especially grantmakers. You can check that out here.