The Diamond Age

The Diamond Lady of Decentralized Leadership 2.0

After interviewing my friend Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, founder of Bitnation, for my recent Bitcoin Magazine article titled “Bitnation Launches World’s First Blockchain-Based Virtual Nation Constitution,” I am thinking of the parallels between Susanne’s vision of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) “Governance 2.0” and my vision of DIY “Religion 2.0.”

Bitnation’s vision of future open societies is, in one word, awesome.

“I believe the nation state oligopoly is being phased out naturally, due to the forces of globalization, and we’re obviously trying to help fast-forward that process,” says Susanne. “But the question is what comes after it? Everything indicates it will be replaced by an even worse one-fit-all governance model, like the U.N., which will lead to perpetual war between people who simply wish to live life as they want, with their own legal code, their own lifestyle. Bitnation counters that dystopian future through creating an open-source nation model, that everyone can fork, to create their own nation. We believe we’ll make both nation states governments, as well as organizations like the U.N. irrelevant, simply through providing cheaper, more secure and better Do-It-Yourself governance services.”

Isn’t that great?

A compelling and almost believable vision of a future world based on “phyles” – opt-in, non-territorial distributed bitnations – was put forward by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in “The Diamond Age.”

From Wikipedia: “Cities in The Diamond Age appear divided into sovereign enclaves affiliated or belonging to different phyles within a single metropolis. Most phyles depicted in the novel have a global scope of sovereignty, and maintain segregated enclaves in or near many cities throughout the world. The phyles coexist much like historical nation-states under a system of justice and mutual protection, known as the Common Economic Protocol (CEP). The rules of the CEP are intended to provide for the co-existence of, and peaceful economic activity between, phyles with potentially very different values.”

The governance system described by Stephenson in “The Diamond Age” is enabled by pervasive advanced nanotechnology, with “matter compilers” – personal 3D printers for additive Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM) – able to print most goods (from food to advanced electronics with embedded AI) locally from molecular specifications downloaded from the net.

In my 2006 essay “Globalization and Open Source Nano Economy” published in Nanotechnology Perceptions, inspired by the “The Diamond Age,” I wrote: “Detailed design specification in a ‘Molecular Description Language’ (MDL) will be transmitted over a global data grid evolved from today’s Internet and then physically ‘printed’ by ‘nano printers’ at remote sites. This would allow communities wishing to remain independent to retain their autonomy… citizens and communities will be free to do their own thing (provided they do not reduce the right and ability of others to do the same) without having to give in to pressure and blackmail from hostile parties or meddlesome central authorities who threaten to disrupt their supply of basic material goods.”

The Diamond Age” seems set in 2050 or something like that, which is far too soon (I think) for the radical technical and social changes described by Stephenson. In fact, I think Susanne’s vision will have to wait not only for new technologies, but also for social and political adaptations that will take many decades. Besides technical implementation challenges, there is the simple fact that the powers never give up power without a fight.

But another political philosopher thought that the people should own the key means of production, and his ideas had quite an impact eventually. Susanne is a transhumanist with a long-term vision, and Bitnation is doing pioneering work (see my Bitcoin Magazine article) to establish pathfinders and proofs of concept. Therefore, I wholeheartedly support Bitnation and will become a citizen.

Back to Susanne’s “open-source nation model, that everyone can fork, to create their own nation,” that’s exactly the model that I have in mind for the Turing Church, described by a recent Motherboard story as “[Prisco’s] latest, and, to some, most quixotic endeavor: the Turing Church, a transhumanist group that he hopes will curate the crowdsourcing of a techno-rapture.”

The Turing Church is a minimalist, open, extensible Religion 2.0 inspired by the Russian Cosmists and Shakespeare’s “more things in heaven and earth.” Minimalist, because it is a simple, compact cosmology without geography that fits in a Power Point slide (slide below, text here, talk here), deliberately open to interpretation. Open, because it’s open to everyone to build upon, without zoning norms. Extensible, because it can be used as a framework or library and extended vertically.

Turing Church Vision

Why do I bother? Because these ideas give me a moment of happiness before sleeping, and help me get through the night. I don’t want to “convert” anyone, but I see that more and more people seek a fusion between spirituality and technology, transhumanism and religion. The doors of the Turing Church are wide open to those seekers.

In my conversation with Ben Goertzel I summarize my open source approach as “I offer my ideas as public domain starting points to tweak, modify, include in other works, repackage, extend horizontally and vertically, interpret, fork…” The core ideas are coarsely defined and deliberately fuzzy, “without central authorities, without an official doctrine, and with as many non-official interpretations as needed for our happiness and well-being.” Many open source projects have “central management teams vulnerable to squabbles between egomaniacs who want to be the ‘authority’ who decides what goes in and what stays out of the ‘official distribution’,” but here there is no official distribution – rather, personal interpretations and tweaks are encouraged.

“Forks are both inevitable, and healthy,” says Susanne. “I, personally, set out on this path, because I wanted to see a world of thousands or millions of competing borderless governance providers, competing through offering better services.”

I totally agree. The Turing Church wants to be a “library” that everyone can contribute to and re­use in personal philosophical and religious projects. The (inevitable) differences between contributors shouldn’t be allowed to paralyze or water­-down a good project. So, fork instead of over­-arguing – better two separate forks than one master distribution watered-­down by too many compromises. The users will choose.

Of course I realize that, while unstructured horizontal anarchy sounds nice and good, structures and leadership are needed in practice to get things done, because most people seem to need leaders and boxes to function well. But I am no leader, and I am happy to leave boxes to others. A good analogy is the Linux kernel, which can be re­used to build Ubuntu with a nice graphical user interface wrapped around, with plenty of icons and boxes. I focus on the kernel and leave the bells, whistles and boxes to others.

Since it all comes down to leadership, I just asked Susanne for practical advice to aspiring leaders. “There should be one person or a few to set the general tone and direction, while others take that and do what they want with it, rather than many coming up with rules and show stoppers,” she said, and emphasized that it’s not like other people just follow. “People take that idea, and make it their own. Anyone can take the concept, and do exactly what they want with it. As a leader, the best thing you can do is just to communicate the message well enough, and hope you inspire people to act.”

I concluded the conversation with Ben saying that the leaders of new spiritual transhumanist movements are likely to come from a different path, and be much younger than us. We old-timers are good advisers but poor leaders, because we are too reasonable, too zen, not sufficiently irrational, dominant, and subversive. In “The Diamond Age,” Stephenson rightly notes that only the subversive change the world.

Susanne – the Diamond Lady – is a natural-born leader who dreams powerful dreams, goes relentlessly after her dreams, and gets others to help. Bitnation’s plans include a space agency to open source and decentralize space-travel. The idea is great – I have written about it in “A Virtual World Space Agency” – and could be an ideal bridge between Bitnation and the future of humanity out there among the stars. I am not impressed by the proposed implementation steps, but I guess I am just being too rational and unsubversive.

Cover image from “The Diamond Age.”

  • spud100

    Random musings, which are perhaps not very useful in response to this article?

    1. Is this: Basically another physicist looks at Tipler Cylanders and finds it thinkable for time travel.
    What is good about the article is that it sort of gives me a level of technology to look for to achieve the goals of Cosmism. This sounds millennia down the road, to begin to think about this, and I cannot imagine what the engineering bottlenecks will be for this? Not for our age to be sure.

    2. 3D printing replaces Drexlers nanotechnology, or J. Storrs Hall’s Utility Cloud for the time being. 3D is already involved with biomedical, so the take off point will only get better. Nanotech seems more hopeful with medicine, internal microbots and such. Politically if 3D is all I say it is, then Engel and Marx’s “means of production,” arrives at everyman’s doorstep. Politics then will change for “Mr Government Man, what canyou do for me anyway?” We all make our own and cooperate locally, and who needs them?

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Spud, your first point doesn’t seem too relevant here, but it’s interesting. You didn’t give the URL of the article! Please post it, or add it to the Irrational Mechanics wiki.

      The second point is very relevant. The nanotech that enables The Diamond Age’s society isn’t the replicating nanotech of Drexler’s first book, but the more limited Atomically Precise manufacturing (APM) of Drexler’s last book. The nano-printers (“Matter Compilers”) depend on a centrally controlled “Feed” – an Internet-of-Matter from which they pluck the atoms and molecules needed to print stuff.

      So the means of production are not fully decentralized, but only partly decentralized, because you need a connection to the Feed. At the same time, even this limited form of decentralization of the means of production enables very profound social and political change, just like Marx said.

      However, a central point of Stephenson’s novel is the emergence of real replicant Drexlerian nanotech, the “Seed,” which can enable even deeper social and political change. Seed technology is developed by a revolutionary underground social movement.

      All that is far in the future, but there’s an analogy in today’s world. The Internet has partly decentralized the means of production and distribution of digital goods like text and video, but you still need to be connected to the Internet, which is basically centrally controlled by the powers that be. But emergent mesh networks could give us a truly decentralized, P2P Internet.

      • spud100

        Glad you found the URL’s for the Tipler-Van Stockum Cylanders. It’s like Clarke and Baxter’s Light of Other Days, but using a the Cylanders to emulate what quantum black holes did in Days. So, should I break open the champaigne bottles and cheer? For me, today, too far off, in time and probability, to celelbrate the potential. Maybe later? 3D printing is here in our hands now, and nanotech for medicine is still in the labs, and not at all for manufacturing. So, we take the 3D as a gift and I do not question its impact.

        • Giulio Prisco

          Drinking champagne to celebrate events that could happen in the far future is good, it takes your mind away, for a few moments, from the relatively petty reality of today. So, yes, open that bottle, drink, and allow yourself a moment of happiness.

          For if Tipler’s time machine ever works, Akashic engineers from the future could be peeking into your brain right now, and recording you. If Tipler’s time machine doesn’t work, somebody someday will develop one that works.

          In the meantime, we have 3D printing, which has a clear evolutionary path to molecular nanotech. That will happen much sooner, so keep another bottle of champagne in the ice.

    • Giulio Prisco
  • magnus

    Interesting concept, the bitnation. As a draft, I liked it. Somehow related to the spirit of some of the more serious micronations. Espcially the need to keep record of things through a sort of blockchain impressed on me.

    Combining the bitnation concept with micronations and the conlang communities could create quite a robust structure, but then also increase the probability of attracting agressors.
    (Maybe not as dark as in Istvans book).

    About the conlang communities, maybe we could ask them for translation of the cosmist manifesto. When translating, one thinks about the text. ..

    Should we invite some micronations to our cosmistic agenda? What could be a good, formal letter to them about cosmism that in the end will creatöe some media attention?



    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Magnus. Re “Should we invite some micronations to our cosmistic agenda?” I don’t think that could work. They are fighting their revolution and I guess they want to focus on that instead of diluting efforts. Those who fight their revolution don’t usually support other revolutions.

      • magnus

        re “Those who fight their revolution don’t usually support other revolutions.”
        Yes, after some rethinking I tend to agree. But are they harder to reach than “the man in the street”?