Building City-States on the Internet

Think of a city—a real one, current or ancient. Think of a city that you consider beautiful, full of rich architecture; a city where important artistic or scientific work has been performed. Think of a city with palaces, temples, monuments, libraries and places of knowledge, a city that tourists today flock to, a city where we have built, or still build, to last the ages. 

What city did you think of?

I suspect that you thought of a city that is or was, at some point in its history, sovereign. Either as the capital of a larger state, or as its own state—a city-state.

Sovereignty, which can also be called (with various connotations) freedom, autonomy, independence, power, or control, means being able to do whatever you want. The less you need to ask permission, the more you are sovereign.

The ability to do what you want can come from a number of sources. It usually comes, ultimately, from sheer physical strength—body strength for an individual, military strength for a country. In addition, it can come from diplomacy, persuasiveness, and prestige. When considering larger groups like cities, it also derives from more subtle properties like the capacity to manage and coordinate large numbers of people.

To make an extremely obvious point, sovereignty (in its broadest sense) is important to consider when studying the future. To improve the world, to spearhead progress, we must be able to do things. So it’s worth studying the systems that allow or disallow a person, organization or society to do what they want to do.

Technology, of course, affects sovereignty. New weapons can allow a country to become more powerful, for instance. But technology can also influence the capacity to do things through improvements in communication and organization. It seems that we currently live in an era where such improvements are rapid and promising: the internet, including its latest developments in crypto and web3, is opening up a lot of new possibilities. Online communities are formed for countless reasons, from gaming to fixing science to buying rare historical documents.

The problems that online communities face are analogous to those faced in the past 5,000 years by cities. How do you coordinate a large number of people for the betterment of everyone? It’s no accident that more and more groups call themselves “internet cities” or at least draw inspiration from urban communities. Cities fall into a sweet spot of size and power: they are local enough that they impact most people’s daily lives, yet large enough that they can influence the broader world. They have a more general purpose than for-profit companies, and span a fuller spectrum of sovereignty.

Thus people in the crypto space are thinking a lot about cities. The founder of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, wrote about city governance using blockchains in his recent essay Crypto Cities. There are examples like ₡ABIN, mentioned in our last issue, which describes itself as an experiment in decentralized cities, starting with a node in Texas, but eventually expanding over the world. CityDAO wants to build a city with decentralized ownership on a parcel of land in Wyoming. Praxis seeks to create a new Mediterranean city-state, with aesthetics that would fit right into the Classical Futurist vision.

I have complex opinions about the project, but in any case, they really nailed the art.

Outside of crypto, many others are thinking about cities. Charter cities would be semi-autonomous cities that some people (such as the Charter Cities Institute) seek to establish wherever the legal framework is friendly to that. Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten regularly writes about those; see his last Model City Monday post about Telosa and Próspera, among others. 

At a more abstract level, it isn’t rare for an online community to describe itself as a city, with perhaps a Discord channel called a Town Hall, members to be citizens, and other fun LARPing. 

A trivial example of how online communities get inspiration from cities. Screenshot from the ₡ABIN Discord server, showing the organization of some of its activities under “Town Square,” “The Pub,” “City Hall,” etc.

These “internet cities,” whether tethered to a real piece of land or not, are a good development. They recreate some of the benefits of physical cities: culture, a sense of belonging, the pooling of resources, and even jobs. But although technology allows them to achieve goals that municipal governments of the past couldn’t dream of, internet cities can hardly be called sovereign. They are not city-states.

The Benefits of City-States

Cities are great. City-states, in many ways, are greater. 

Some of the most productive periods of history have happened in culturally homogeneous areas that were organized not as a centralized empire, but as a number of competing sovereign cities. The poleis of ancient Greece, most prominently Athens, brought forth a golden age of philosophy, art, and architecture, attained impressive levels of wealth, and served as the foundation of Western civilization. 

This story repeats itself in northern Italy during the Renaissance, in the rich cities of the Hanseatic League, all the way to contemporary Singapore. The cities that are the most impressive, culturally and financially, are or were sovereign. The areas that are the most impressive beyond the top city are the ones that consist of several sovereign entities. The median ancient Greek polis or Renaissance Italian city was more impressive than the median ancient Roman or Renaissance French city, even if Rome or Paris may have been more impressive than any individual city.

Concretely, what are the advantages of sovereignty for a city?

The main one is freedom from exploitation. It is tempting for any state to see an economically prosperous but politically dependent city as a cash cow, and redistribute its resources elsewhere, especially in the center of government. Redistribution can be good—poorer places need resources too—but such an arrangement is vulnerable to mismanagement, and it can harm the cities that are the main engines of economic creation. New York City gives far more to the rest of New York State than it receives, and while that’s advantageous for the people of upstate New York, it’s arguably a bad situation overall, since a more prosperous New York City would be extremely beneficial to the United States and to the world.

Another advantage is nimbleness. It takes less work to steer a small boat than a giant ship. If a city has to rely on policies that are decided by the government of a much larger state, then it cannot adapt to new opportunities as fast as a sovereign city could. By the time the legal framework has changed, the opportunity will have passed, or been seized by a more sovereign city. By contrast, a city-state like Ancient Athens was able to quickly change its government and military in times of crisis.

Then there is the pressure of competition. City-states are not protected by some larger entity, so they have to fend for themselves. Superficially, this does not look like an advantage, but because it forces the city to do well economically, attract talented individuals, and defend itself, it encourages innovation and forbids complacency. 

It’s not a coincidence that these advantages apply equally well to startups as opposed to large companies. Sovereignty is useful in both situations. Just as startups tend to be more innovative and lead to good outcomes for places where they are most active, city-states are a hotbed of political and cultural innovation.

So it seems that it would be desirable for the future to contain more city-states beyond Singapore. Yet, barring major political upheaval, it is infeasible and probably undesirable for many cities that currently exist within states to reach full sovereignty. At most, we can hope for conditional sovereignty, the kind of independence that has allowed Hong Kong to be more dynamic than most of China—even though, as the lessening of Hong Kong’s autonomy today makes clear, this is not necessarily a very stable situation. 

Bonus Sovereignty for Internet Cities

Do internet cities really need political sovereignty? Would internet-enabled technologies be sufficient to reach the capacity of a city-state without proper independence from sovereign powers?

Let’s consider ancient Greek poleis. There were many cultural and technological factors that allowed them to do things beyond what an “average” city-state could. Let’s call this “bonus sovereignty.” In Greece, bonus sovereignty would have meant, among other things, the shared cultural context: customs, language, religion. It would also include communication infrastructure, which is created by technology—a developed maritime network, for example. Yet another component is institution design, like the impressive democratic governments of several Greek cities.

In internet cities, the analog to Greek culture and mythology might be a number of memes that motivate large numbers of people to work together. Communication infrastructure is web technology. Institution design can be analogous to the relatively new development of governance tools, some based on blockchain tokens like Snapshot.

But now consider: Your polis honors Zeus, is home to a prestigious school of philosophy, and speaks the only non-barbarian language: Greek. You sit at the center of a strong trade network, and you have one of the most robust political systems. You’re doing great. You’re achieving great things for the ages. Until, one day, the city next door comes over, defeats your neglected army, occupies your acropolis, and enslaves your entire population. Maybe you didn’t honor Zeus enough?

Bonus sovereignty is only that: a bonus. It can allow you to perform great work, but there’s always a danger that your work gets impeded or, worse, undone by a higher authority. The government might decide to forbid some of your activities because it deems your goals incompatible with its own, or because you are unpopular with the electorate. Or the government might just fail at creating a functional environment in which you can thrive. Daniel Golliher, of Maximum New York, gave me the example of the city of San Francisco, a tech hub where many incredible projects are born, but which has terrible local governance, driving smart people away.

In other words, neglect political sovereignty at your own risk. For a time, your internet city, untethered to the physical world, can prosper, but you never know when it’s going to fall due to those pesky real-life politics you were trying your best to not think about.

It may be more tempting for ambitious and smart people to work on cool, new, private projects—startups, the organizational equivalent of city-states—than getting involved in regular politics. There is little to be gained from a public career now, compared to the costs to one’s reputation and sheer quality of life. But the solution cannot be to turn our backs on it and leave it to the opportunists. It would be like being a culturally impressive Greek polis that is neglecting its army. It’s tough to be democratic and study philosophy when your entire population is enslaved.

Internet cities, which use technology to solve coordination problems like never before, are great. Internet city-states, which would acquire sufficient political sovereignty to secure their future and accomplish ambitious goals, would be greater. 

They don’t exist yet, and it’s not easy to guess how exactly they will be built. But certainly we should attempt to build them. 

By Étienne Fortier-Dubois

Writer and programmer who is interested in the evolutionary forces underlying most things. He writes about science, history, and aesthetics, among other things.

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