You see the future, right? You want to have a kid, so you go enroll in a network state with Nordic-style social benefits in its territories. You want to Crispr human gametes, so you move your lab to a locality without bioethics panels. You want to live in a sugarless society, so you join a state called Keto Kosher. The life you live is constrained only by the people you choose to associate with. And those people, because they have self-bundled with you, will be more eager to reach a political consensus you like than the nameless hominids ever were. If they can’t, you—or they—will simply seek another network state. This kind of polity, Srinivasan writes, “prizes Exit above Voice.”
Albert O. Hirschman, the original coiner of those concepts, didn’t care for prophesiers. He looked down on what he saw as their Warhol-esque desire for airtime. A European Jewish refugee from Nazism, he was similarly wary of the possibility of an Exit-based, Patchwork-style future. “It is possible to visualize a state system,” he wrote in 1978, in which “each country would supply its citizens with a different assortment of public goods.” They could “‘specialize’ in power, wealth, growth, equity, peacefulness, the observance of human rights, and so on.” Hirschman found this vision inspiringly “polyphonic,” but “perhaps too beautiful to be real.” For one thing, what if a rival power invades? When you think about it, this new polity of ours is vulnerable to a lot of the same risks as our old polity. Our leader could turn out to be a megalomaniac we can’t fire. We might prefer to leave but lack the resources. Maybe no other place we want to live will take us in.
Speaking of which, who are “we”? As I read Srinivasan’s book, my editor brain kept getting hung up on how often he reaches for that pronoun. In the opening essay, for instance, he writes: “We want to be able to peacefully start a new state for the same reason we want a bare plot of earth, a blank sheet of paper, an empty text buffer, a fresh startup, or a clean slate.” Later: “History is the closest thing we have to a physics of humanity.” And: “In the fullness of time, with truly open data sets, we may even be able to develop Asimovian psychohistory.”
Does “we” refer to people like Srinivasan, the technologists, the self-bootstrappers, the seekers of karmabhoomi? Is it a weird-fun Dr. Bronner’s “we,” a freaky Borg “we”? Does it include the fellow travelers he CC’d on that email back in 2013—the other lovers of Exit? They too have only risen with the maelstrom. After laying relatively low for a few years, Curtis Yarvin has resurfaced with a newsletter on Substack, and his influence on prominent Republicans was recently explored at length by Vanity Fair. Blake Masters is the Thiel-funded, Trump-endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate in Arizona and jokes about RAGE on the stump. Patri Friedman runs a venture fund that invests in charter cities. Gibson has a book coming out later this year called Paper Belt on Fire: How Renegade Investors Sparked a Revolt Against the University.
All those people, I suspect, would quickly find their notes in the polyphonic world that Srinivasan imagines. And it’s likely that anyone else who lives according to roughly his values would too, from the 19-year-old coding wiz in Mumbai to the grad-school dropout crypto-nomadding in Costa Rica to the billionaire investor in his New Zealand bunker. But when you strip off the techno-cruft—the promises of a new civilization engineered on a new stack, one that privileges decentralization, devolution of power, and the sovereignty of every individual and/or central processing unit—you see that the essential political philosophy here is pretty antiquated. I don’t know what to call it. Cosmopolitan feudalism? Enlightened tribalism? Corkscrew cliquism? It reflects a belief that the main failure of contemporary society is that the wrong people hold the power. It addresses the problem by unbundling society and then rebundling it to ensure that none of those people ever bother you again. And OK, as long as no nukes get loose, maybe that turns out fine. Maybe you go to your Bermuda in the Sky and I go to my DigiSweden and we’re both happy in the telepresence of the people we’ve chosen. But maybe we find that the imbalance of power, spread out across the overlapping constellations of the physical world we still see outside our windows, feels just as bad as always. And maybe we find that, most of all, we desperately miss home.
If I could slip through the quantum foam at the bottom of the maelstrom, I think I might eventually arrive in an alternate universe in which Srinivasan gives a talk called “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Voice.” He might start it just the same way—poke a little fun at the government, praise the garage-guy ethos, lay some Hirschman on the Startup Schoolers. And then he might say: “Silicon Valley is a place where a certain ideal of American progress finds its purest expression. That makes it our job to offer not just solutioneering oratory and different repackagings of rare earth minerals but also the tools of a better, fairer future for all. So Startup Schoolers, let’s figure out how to update the crappy code base! Help me clear the FUD! Whatever we may all believe, however we may disagree, let’s use our Voice!”
No point wondering what’s down there, though. We have our own maelstrom to escape. Exit is up to us. We are the protagonist.
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