Who Gets to Build the Next Software Stack of Civilization?

Sep 14, 2022 7:00 AM

Who Gets to Build the Next Software Stack of Civilization?

WIRED’s editor in chief considers Silicon Valley’s visions for the future of governance, plus more thoughts on this month’s headlines.

An altered image of CEO Balaji Srinivasan

Illustration: WIRED; Getty Images

It’s two weeks to RE:WIRED Green, our event on climate change and the power of human ingenuity to tackle it. We’ve got speakers on food tech and food waste, de-extinction, glaciology, intergenerational activism, right-to-repair, community agriculture, nuclear energy, and more—among them ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, restaurateur Kayla Abe, paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara, and cultured-meat pioneer Isha Datar. Join us in San Francisco on September 28. As a WIRED subscriber, you can get 30 percent off a ticket by using the discount code HOTWIRED30 when you register. And now, here’s this month’s update.

As well as being a crucible for new technology, Silicon Valley has long served as an incubator for political ideas. I find it interesting—though unsurprising, in hindsight—that the Bay Area’s ethos of individualism and self-actualization has led in two very different directions simultaneously. On the one hand, tech companies broadly espouse progressive values like abortion access and LGBTQ rights; on the other, the Valley is home to a growing libertarian movement that’s hostile to government regulation and social interventions.

Our cover story this month is Anthony Lydgate’s profile of one of the standard-bearers of that movement, Balaji Srinivasan. If you haven’t heard of Srinivasan, one possible reason is that he’s famously hostile toward journalists, who correspondingly tend to avoid writing about him. (I think you’ll enjoy how Anthony deals with that in his story.) Srinivasan is certainly not as famous as some of the others in his circle—a group of wealthy disestablishmentarians clustered around the PayPal founder and Trump backer Peter Thiel—but he’s been gradually rising in prominence, most recently by publishing a book called The Network State, which came out earlier this year (on US Independence Day, no less).

The culmination of Srinivasan’s political thinking over the years, including an article he wrote for WIRED in 2013, the book calls for people to abandon traditional forms of governance in favor of new, virtual states linked not by geography but by whatever shared values they prefer. You might choose a state that offers universal health care, enforces vegetarianism, or lets you genetically engineer your kids, and if you don’t like the way things are going there, you can simply pull up stakes and move, digitally speaking, to a different jurisdiction.

This might seem nuts to you—or it might seem quite reasonable. Srinivasan is echoing a dissatisfaction that’s widespread, no matter your politics. The notion that our existing electoral democracy is in fact just an elected oligarchy runs all the way from Curtis Yarvin, the neoreactionary writer who advocates replacing the system with a benevolent monarchy, to Hélène Landemore, the Yale political scientist who calls for a more hands-on form of civic participation called “Open Democracy.” Srinivasan’s world of self-sovereign, cloud-based digital states may seem pie in the sky, but is it any more so than Landemore’s vision of a polity deeply engaged in deliberating the sorts of questions we’ve traditionally outsourced to professional politicians and bureaucrats?

I think this is one of the key questions we face today. As I wrote in a Reddit thread more than four years ago, “we’re running 21st-century societies on 17th- or 18-century software” whose inadequacies are only becoming more apparent to everyone. Who gets to build the next software stack of civilization, and what it looks like, will be one of the defining struggles of the next few decades. I’d argue that’s why paying attention to the ideas of people like Srinivasan is essential, whatever you think of them.

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But I’m curious about what you think. Do you agree that we need a new paradigm for governance? And if so, how drawn are you to ideas like Srinivasan’s?

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Since we’re on the subject of radical ideas: I want to meet Sayaka Murata, who has 30 imaginary friends and writes about feeling like an alien trapped in a woman’s body. I want to meet Ada Palmer, who lives in a bash’ (a small commune) and imagines futures where gender is erased and religion is banned. I want to meet Becky Chambers, for whom the height of speculative fiction is daring to think of a world in which people are kind, or Emily St. John Mandel, who explores how we can make meaning from a life that might be a simulation, or Janelle Monáe, the artist, musician, and actor whose characters are Black, queer, “dirty computers,” or Jessamine Chan, who imagines a world in which robot children are used as surveillance tools to monitor and re-educate inadequate parents. I haven’t met any of these women, but our writers have, and their stories are about some of the strangest, most subversive people writing speculative fiction today. I sometimes talk about how important it is to keep the weird in WIRED, and these are some of the best examples.

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Gideon Lichfield is the editor in chief of all editions of WIRED. He left the UK in 1998 and has mostly avoided the place since, living in Mexico City, Moscow, and Jerusalem before moving to the US. He was previously editor in chief of MIT Technology Review, one of the… Read more
Global Editorial Director

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