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Urbit Is Web3, Weird and Wonderful and I Don’t Care Who Made It

Sometime around the nadir of the pandemic, a plumber tugged on the mask hanging under his nose and told me with a straight face that the billionaire George Soros was responsible for his having to wear it.

If a friend said something so preposterous I would laugh and say “GTFO.” But in that moment I felt nothing but gratitude and respect toward the man who was fixing my toilet.

However far-fetched or risible, his interpretation of world affairs was irrelevant to our interaction. All that mattered in this situation was his competence as a plumber.

I forgot that story until recently, when I sat down to write about Urbit, and realized I would have to address – trigger warning, grab your puppies – the matter of its creator, Curtis Yarvin.

Urbit is an open-source software project that seeks to return networked computing to its peer-to-peer roots. Yarvin came up with the idea more than a decade ago and launched it in earnest around 2013. He is far more famous – or infamous – for his elliptical political writings, under the pen name Mencius Moldbug. I’m not going to try to summarize those. Plenty has been written already. Suffice to say Moldbug is a (self-styled) reactionary.

Yarvin left Tlon, the company he founded that spearheads Urbit development, in 2019. Yet any time journalists pay any attention to developments in Urbit, we feel obligated to spend at least a paragraph all but apologizing for Moldbug’s monarchist musings.

I’m sick of it.

Guilt by association is bad enough when it’s leveled at people, and maybe stupider when applied to inventions.

Urbit holds promise as a platform that could disintermediate the Silicon Valley behemoths that have made the internet a living hell. As discussed in a separate article published today, developers are finally shipping usable apps but must overcome serious challenges to garner adoption, not least of all a clunky user experience. (Hence the wry community meme, “Urbit: Give it a second.”)

A meme posted to Channel, an Urbit imageboard
A meme posted to Channel, an Urbit imageboard

Read more: Urbit Courts DAOs, Crypto Teams in Quest to Make Internet P2P Again

Yet just as the interminable gossipy parlor games about Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto’s true identity have little if any bearing on the cryptocurrency’s utility or long-term value, Urbit should be evaluated on its own merits.

Critical distance

Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul, behaved like a pig. Pulp Fiction, a film he financed, remains an all-time banger. Buy the DVD used if you don’t want any of your money to land in his bank account.

Rocker Ted Nugent has said some inappropriate things. His 1978 double-live album still shreds, and you can download it as a torrent.

Heck, the girl-group impresario Phil Spector was convicted of murder and the oldies stations still play “Be My Baby.” FM radio doesn't cost a dime.

Ezra Pound’s loathsome views about the events of his day did not make him any less of a poet. Nor did they make him any less correct when he said “The bad critic criticizes the poet, not the poetry.” His work is in the public domain.

See a pattern here? One can appreciate a work without liking or endorsing its creator. (The reverse might sometimes be true: pop star Rick Astley seems like a lovely guy, but there’s a reason his biggest hit is a perennial internet punchline.)

As it is for music, film or poetry, so it is for technology. Software can and often does have bugs or viruses, but it doesn’t transmit cooties.

If you don’t like it, fork it

I can foresee a few objections to this line of reasoning that are a tad more sophisticated than “eww, Yarvin’s icky.” One could argue that unlike purchasing a secondhand Blu-Ray, participating in Urbit enriches Yarvin because he holds a lot of the namespace, or virtual real estate, which would gain in value if the network took off.

If that’s your only dealbreaker, remember that no one can stop a rival from copying the open-source code to create a parallel network in which Yarvin has no stake. (Pitches have been made.) Call it Burbit or Gurbit or Nurbit. So it’s theoretically possible to reap the benefits of Urbit without indirectly lining Yarvin’s pockets. Granted, it can be hard for a “fork” project to catch up with the original protocol’s network effect, as we’ve seen with the blockchains that splintered off from Bitcoin and Ethereum, or splintered from the splinters.

If you're reading CoinDesk, chances are you hold some cryptocurrency. When you buy BTC or another digital asset you are arguably benefiting existing holders, at least a few of whom may well have done much worse things than writing offensive blog posts. Does that make you want to sell? Really?

The power of exit

A stronger counter-argument might be that Urbit is not just a coincidental creation of an authoritarian thinker but an attempt to apply his political ideas to the digital realm. Those who make this case like to point to the network’s hierarchy of “ships.”

In Urbit’s quirky taxonomy, an individual user’s personal server and ID is known as a planet. Each planet is issued by a star, which in turn is issued by a galaxy. For example, my planet, ~fodrex-malmev, was spawned by the star ~litzod in the ~zod galaxy. (The Martian-sounding naming convention is one of Urbit’s many eccentricities, which are endearing to me but are liable to bewilder everyday users.)

The owner of a galaxy can issue (then sell, or give away, or keep) up to 225 stars and the owner of a star can issue (then sell, or give away, or keep) up to 65,535 planets. Once a planet is yours, though, it’s yours.

A planet costs about $40, versus thousands for a star and hundreds of thousands for a galaxy. Even $40 might sound steep considering a typical social media or email account gives you similar functionality for free – until you remember the old adage that if you’re not paying for it, you are the product. Adding a nominal but nonzero cost to an identity is intended to deter spam and misbehavior.

(Planets can issue subordinate identities called – you guessed it – moons, which they can revoke at any time, a potentially appealing concept for parents struggling to regulate their children’s screen time. There are also free disposable identities called comets, the equivalent of a Twitter account with an egg avatar and no followers. Comets cannot spawn moons, and some chat groups on Urbit won’t admit them.)

A criticism sometimes leveled at this setup is that it’s a digital form of feudalism, and thus somehow reflective of Moldbug’s admiration for monarchy. The system definitely creates scarcity. The number of galaxies is capped at 256, which works out to 4.3 billion possible planets, on a literal planet whose population is almost twice that number.

Unlike a medieval serf, however, a planet owner wields the power of exit. For example, she can always relocate her planet – including her data and social graph – to another star, provided that star is willing to accept it.

“These relationships are entirely voluntary,” said Andrea O’Sullivan, a technology writer and early adopter of Urbit and, back in the day, Bitcoin. “Any Urbit ship can change its parent at will.”

Aside from creating parcels to subdivide, the main function of a galaxy is to route connections between peers on the network. Once connected, “the two ships can generally communicate with each other directly (barring some connectivity issue),” noted O’Sullivan (whose spouse works for Tlon). “In the future, this is being decentralized further: Stars will begin routing for previously unknown peers.”

As a result, no planet is permanently tied to its issuer. “If your star or galaxy isn't a great router, you can pick a different one,” O’Sullivan said. “It does not own your data or your identity, only you do.”

The other function of these virtual celestial bodies is to transmit software updates. By default, each ship receives such updates from its parent. “Changing this is as simple as clicking a button in the interface or issuing a command in the terminal,” said O’Sullivan. “You could receive software updates from any other ship on the network, it need not be a star or galaxy.”

Crucially, planet owners can also vote with their feet when it comes to hosting. Technically advanced users can host ships on their own machines; neophytes may feel more comfortable paying a provider like Tlon to host them. But they can fire the provider at any time.

To be sure, the convenience of centralized hosting means sacrificing some degree of control. You have to trust the hosting service to delete your data after you leave, much like cryptocurrency investors who store coins on exchanges have to trust those intermediaries to guard (and not steal) their assets. But once you’ve moved your data, you can easily pick up computing where you left off with a new host or on your own computer without having to rebuild your social connections or reconstruct your content.

“It's just a key and a file and a program. That's it,” said Galen Wolfe-Pauly, Tlon’s CEO. “It's not like some bulls--- ZIP file of a bunch of different files that Google or Facebook will give you, which is completely useless without Google's infrastructure.”

So whatever Moldbug wrote about slavery (I don’t have enough time or Ritalin to read the post in which he allegedly justified it), the system he designed is enabling something arguably close to the opposite in cyberspace.

“The creator of Urbit would have to be the dumbest authoritarian ever,” said O’Sullivan. “It is designed to bake sovereignty in. The network could be populated by only Moldbug Haters clubs and there's nothing he could do about it.”

See what I did there

Hover your cursor over your browser tab and you'll see a slightly different version of the headline from the one at the top of the web page. That’s the “meta” title, optimized for search engines (and let’s be honest, it’s really optimized for one engine, Google’s). Notice how I shoehorned the accurate but tangentially relevant phrase “Thiel-Backed” in front of “Urbit.”

The billionaire Peter Thiel is a famous and controversial figure whose name is undoubtedly searched more than “Urbit.” Like Soros, he writes checks to a lot of people. Thiel has invested in Tlon and at least one other Urbit ecosystem startup, Hypertext Vienna. That’s why I crammed his name into the meta field, in order to throw off a pheromone that would arouse Google’s algorithm.

I am disgusted at myself for doing this.

But I have to, in order to minimize the risk of this piece disappearing into a black hole. And the fact that this thirsty, pathetic pandering is practically a job requirement for my profession, even if I can at least relegate it to the back end of the content management system (CMS), is symptomatic of a bigger problem with today’s internet – one that Urbit, commendably, aims to solve: the outsized power of the giant platforms.

“Like everything else on Urbit, creator content goes directly to the people it’s supposed to go to,” wrote Noah Kumin, author of a forthcoming book about Urbit, in a blog post last year. In other words, content is delivered in a peer-to-peer manner rather than through the servers of a large platform that can arbitrarily extend or curtail a creator’s reach. “No middlemen, no MEGACORP data mining, no capricious terms of service, no obscure algorithms determining what gets seen and what doesn’t.”

(Of course, without a bullhorn like Twitter or Google, writers or artists must find their audience the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth, but there is a rudimentary search engine on Urbit as well.)

Urbit isn’t a blockchain (though it uses an Ethereum smart contract to track ownership of identities). But it’s one plausible path toward Web3, the decentralized internet that many people in the blockchain community aspire to build.

One of Urbit’s most charming features is the “calm engine” found on the system preferences menu. Instead of nudging you to turn on push notifications, instead of trying to keep you glued to your device, this dashboard does the opposite, presenting a series of toggle options to make the online experience less “engaging” (which increasingly seems like a euphemism for “addictive”).

This should be a standard feature for internet platforms, not the outlier.
This should be a standard feature for internet platforms, not the outlier.

The calm engine hints at a possible future where the machines work for us, not vice versa.

Getting there will be an uphill battle. Wolfe-Pauly cites growth over recent years in the user bases of privacy-preserving browser Brave, tracking-free search engine DuckDuckGo, encrypted email service ProtonMail and private messaging app Signal as evidence that despite the stereotype of an apathetic public, consumers indeed care about digital sovereignty. I hope he is right. But the torrid growth of the invasive and illness-inducing TikTok, particularly among the young, suggests things are going the other way.

It’s easy to sneer at Urbit for its ties to Yarvin, its nerdy nomenclature and its unusual approach to programming (instead of progressing from version 1.0 to 2.0 and so on, core parts of the infrastructure go backwards toward zero, at which point this code will be deemed final; the idea is to make any ship durable and usable for decades even as apps are updated at higher levels of the stack). In a world where the deck is stacked in favor of hyperstimulation and learned digital helplessness, the Urbit community’s efforts to humanize computing may, ultimately, make no difference.

But to borrow from an old song, at least they are trying. What have you done?