Three Things #37: October 2, 2022
Big Ideas from Assembly 2022
Urbit is a funky, unique place. It’s really difficult to describe it succinctly, and I won’t attempt to do that here (although I’d like to in future), so for now I suggest you check out this video and these docs instead. I also suggest that you try it out for yourself.
The first annual Urbit conference, Assembly, took place about a year ago in Austin. It was a small, low key gathering with a few talks but mostly people hanging out and mingling. Assembly 2022 just wrapped up in Miami. It was significantly bigger and better than last year, with lots more people and content. Urbit has reached an inflection point both in terms of the tech but also the social side, as the culture forming around it is accelerating. At Assembly, both tech and culture were fully on display (as they should be at any great conference).
I was quite blown away by the event. While I attend a lot of good events, where I tend to meet a lot of good people and have a lot of good conversations, this year’s Assembly was next level. One reason is because Urbit folks tend to be outside the box thinkers and are at the bleeding edge of both tech and culture (the latter, in particular, is quite rare to see at crypto events). Here are the three most interesting themes I heard this year.
Note that several of the quotes below are unattributed as the event took place under the Chatham House Rule.
Thing #1: Urbit ❤️ Web3
Urbit, as a technology and as a community, is adjacent to crypto and Web3 but it is neither. Urbit isn’t a blockchain and it doesn’t have consensus or coins. As a platform, it’s complementary to the things being contemplated and built in Ethereum and other Web3 communities. This is refreshing, and it’s one of the things that drew me to Urbit in the first place.
Web3 applications today are built in a nonsensical, unsustainable way. Every dapp has to reinvent and reimplement more or less the entire stack, and there are scant few standards such that there is literally no way for one dapp to talk to another, other than by writing to very expensive global state. As a result, dapps write things to state all the time that don’t belong there. There’s no linking or embedding. Hardly any shared identity. No shared state. No standard way to save local state, so that when you open the same dapp in another browser, on another computer, or after resetting your wallet app, you lose all of your state. It harkens back to the days when every application had a built in operating system. (You read that right: this is actually how software used to be written, hardware drivers and all, before we had good, general-purpose operating systems and platforms like Mac and Windows.)
This is terrible and ridiculous, and really makes no sense at all. Ethereum and Web3 don’t solve this; Urbit does. After I first learned about Urbit, I didn’t pay much attention because I was too focused on Ethereum at the time, but realizing this is what brought me back to Urbit.
Urbit provides the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s a natural substrate for Web3 apps. It’s Web3 native in the sense that it’s autonomous, pseudonymous, decentralized, and censorship resistant. It’s a composability machine that allows applications to store and share state, locally and with other network users, and that has essential primitives that are missing in Web3 like identity, reputation, routing, messaging, storage, etc.. Web3 and Urbit are like two peas in a pod. It’s the crypto-native operating system that the Web3 world has been waiting for. Once you see this, it becomes obvious and you cannot unsee it.
To date there hasn’t been too much overlap, but I expect this will change soon. Urbit has been focused mostly on building tools like chat, notebooks, and image sharing, on building tools for content creators, and on improving the core, increasing network stability, improving developer experience, etc.. But it’s recently become much easier to build and distribute apps on Urbit. The first few Web3 integrations, such as a native Bitcoin wallet, have already been released, and we’ll see more soon. Uqbar is bringing Hoon, the Urbit-native programming language, to smart contracts, which will allow full-stack Urbit apps to be built using a single framework.
I’m personally very interested, and invested, in seeing tighter integration between Urbit and Web3. If this is something you’re interested in working on, please reach out. I can make sure you’re talking to the right people.
For more: Get a planet and boot up an Urbit! Instructions here.
Thing #2: Manufacturing Consent
“You are information and the purpose of your life is to be processed by huge corporations. Congratulations, you’ve been given meaning.” - Assembly Panelist
I had never heard of this term before Assembly. Last week, I heard it dozens of times, in many contexts, in conversations with and presentations by many different people. In retrospect I’m surprised I hadn’t been aware of it previously.
The term manufacturing consent refers to a book by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky published in 1988. It’s an important concept that, I think, explains a number of contemporary phenomena including Trump, Bitcoin, vaccine hesitancy, the New Right, and, you guessed it: Urbit.
The opposite of manufactured consent, and its antidote, is agency. While I wasn’t aware of the concept of manufactured consent, I think I did have some awareness of the concept. I’ve been thinking and writing about agency for years. I discovered a few years ago that a lot of the choices I’d ostensibly made in my life weren’t actually choices I had made with any degree of agency; they were choices that were made for me, by the people around me, by society, by my environment or, most insidiously, by the government, big companies, and mass media. They were framed to me as if they were choices, but the choice architecture surrounding them was such that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. This is the definition of manufacturing consent (another word for this might be “inception”). This discovery made me profoundly uncomfortable and it led me to make some pretty big changes in my lifestyle.
We live in a time and a place where we’re constantly being lied to: by companies, banks, the government, the media, and pretty much everyone we’re supposed to trust. All of these institutions pander to us, speak to us as if we’re children, and pretend to be our friends. That’s probably not a new phenomenon, but what’s new is that, thanks to the Internet and other modern technology, we can see through these lies.
We also live in a time and a place where mainstream culture is increasingly being circumscribed and dictated to us by a tiny group of self-proclaimed elites, including mainstream media, universities, politicians and government officials (what Curtis Yarvin refers to as the cathedral). There’s an index card of allowable opinions that we’re supposed to stick to. If we deviate, we get canceled.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that there’s a conspiracy theory behind this, or that there’s a dark, smoke-filled room full of lizard people deciding these things on our behalf. I think it’s just an artifact of elitist, modern, centralized culture, where certain people and certain organizations genuinely believe they have the authority or virtue to make these decisions on behalf of everyone else. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a systemic crisis of incompetency, hubris, and deceit (which more than anything is probably the result of having lived in easy times for too long).
The very best, recent example of this is the lab-leak hypothesis, which was considered “racist” and “Trumpist”, and was enough to get you canceled a couple of years ago—until we suddenly, collectively woke up and realized that, actually, it’s pretty likely to be true. Then, as so often lately, mainstream opinion flip-flopped in a matter of days, hypocrisy be damned. There have been countless other examples of this sort of failure throughout the pandemic, but that was sort of the final straw for me, personally.
I’m not saying don’t listen to experts. I’m not saying the elites are always wrong. What I’m saying, and I think what the Urbit community is saying, is: think for yourself. Don’t take the things others, including so-called experts, say at face value. Don’t allow your consent to be manufactured. Play an active role in granting consent: do so only with agency. The modern world is complicated and of course we can’t deep dive on every single topic, but be very careful about whose opinion you take at face value. Be careful whom you get in bed with; insulate your social supply chain. I think this is one of the core values of the Urbit community, to the extent that such a thing exists.
I’ll end with another great quote I heard at the event:
“If you don’t understand the system, you’re not in control. If no one understands the system, the system is in control. That’s a form of demonic possession.” - Assembly Panelist
Take the time to understand the system.
For more: Read the book that’s the namesake of the idea.
Thing #3: Semiotic Charge
I ignored NFTs for years to my detriment. I wasn’t able to get over the initial “ick” factor: the fact that paying large sums of money for a monkey JPEG just felt dumb. Protocols, cryptoeconomics, inflation, and fungible tokens always made more sense to me, backed as they are by solid math and economics, rather than “fuzzy” aesthetics, vibes, or flex. What’s more, I never felt any desire to show off art that someone else created and I acquired. (My attitude: If someone else created it, why are you showing it off? This makes you look silly. Go create your own art and show that off.)
It’s been a very long journey, but I’m beginning to see what I missed years ago: most people care more about aesthetics, community, and belonging than they do about economics and issuance curves. Due to its utilitarian, universalist nature, money is not particularly good at bringing people together. It can do so for a time, in certain situations, and there are occasional exceptions like community currencies. But, by and large, what’s good at bringing people together is art.
Art is how we express our identities: how we define and align ourselves, demonstrate our tribal allegiances, etc. Art creates tribes and communities, and is in turn produced by them; put another way, art shapes tribes, then tribes in turn collectively shape art. One tribe’s sacred art is another tribe’s graffiti. Which explains why, while I still think monkey JPEGs are dumb and have no desire to be affiliated with a tribe that puts them on a pedestal, many people disagree. There are, in turn, other types of art that I do feel an affinity with, such as Urbit sigils. (And, at the end of the day, is there really any fundamental difference between an ultra-rare alien ape and a perfectly symmetrical sigil? Both sets of characteristics are totally arbitrary, aesthetic manifestations of their cultural context. De gustibus non est disputandum!)
All of this began to sink in for the first time at Assembly, through conversations and certain presentations. I began to see the simple truth of the fact that NFTs coordinate and bind communities much more effectively than tokens do. Art has “semiotic charge” baked in: i.e., it’s charged with symbolism and meaning in a way that money cannot be. I realized that the first NFT wasn’t Rare Pepes or Crypto Punks, it was actually Dogecoin. While not strictly nonfungible, Dogecoin was (and still is) performance art more than a store of value or medium of exchange.
None of this is new. The same things were happening hundreds of years ago during the Renaissance (and probably even earlier). The Medicis used art, through patronage and commission, as a means to establish cultural and political dominance in Florence. That art came to dominate the culture for centuries. The forms of art and expression evolve over time, but the core ideas remain the same.
It’s no surprise, then, that communities rally around certain NFT collections that they feel speak to them and their condition (or in rarer cases issue such art themselves). One such collection that’s gotten a lot of attention in the Urbit community is Milady. There’s a lot to say about Milady and the community that’s emerged around it, and it won’t all fit in this space, but suffice it to say that seeing the community turn out in person was eye-opening, as I’ve mostly avoided NFT events and communities. The project founder, a controversial and reclusive figure known as Charlotte Fang, even made a surprise in-person appearance. Edgelords like Fang are manufacturing communities of rabid followers around values and ideas that make no sense to outsiders: in the case of Milady, these ideas consist of some combination of financial nihilism and schizoid, irony-laced zoomer anti-woke culture. It’s worth sitting up and paying attention and learning from them, even if you disagree with their approach or with the outcome, because these groups are speaking a language that’s both timeless and also incredibly modern and relevant.
For more: Try joining a token-gated community. There are plenty to choose from and you’ll learn a lot from the experience.
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