Urbit goes downtown
The hippies had gone from Tibet to Christ to the Middle Ages, now they were Revolutionary Alchemists. Well, thought Mailer, that was alright, he was a Left Conservative himself. “Out, demons, out! Out, demons, out!”
“You know I like this,” he said to Lowell.
—Norman Mailer at the Levitation of the Pentagon, October 21, 1967
The emails started arriving a few weeks beforehand. “You’ve been counting down the days,” they explained, “patiently anticipating your arrival at the first event. You’re ready. The wait is almost over: Urbit NYC kicks off next week.” Urbit is a decentralized network, loosely associated with the new wave of “web3” projects like crypto, that is so allergic to mess and disorder that it has spent twenty years trying to clean up the internet itself. But looking at the emails, I couldn’t even figure out where and when the events of Urbit Week were supposed to take place, or who was in charge of them. There was a map, but it looked like a third-generation Xerox from a 1920s city planning register; there was a schedule, but it started with Sunday, May 22nd, before moving to Friday, May 20th and then “back” to Sunday, May 20th. I sent a message to the Twitter account listed for the “Peter Teal Party,” which was apparently sea green-themed and was either on the 19th or the 21st, but the organizer—the founder of a crypto-focused venture capital firm whose Twitter has since gone dark and whose website is currently offline—never responded.
“You may notice,” one of the emails stated, “that some events remain elusive or unlisted.” This mysteriousness, they strongly suggested, was intentional. If you wanted to know what was really going on, you had to get on Urbit.
What did that mean? As the Urbit website puts it, “getting on Urbit isn’t always easy.” The project is notoriously difficult to explain, and, as with the events they had planned for New York, this difficulty is a feature, not a bug. “We like to think this hard work is exactly what makes Urbit special. Consider yourself warned.”
Urbit presents itself—at least, conceptually—as one of the most ambitious internet companies in existence. It aims to do to digital “real estate” what Bitcoin wants to do to money. It is not a computer program or social media platform, but rather an alternative networking protocol and operating system, aiming, essentially, to replace the current, centralized, TCP/IP-based client-server model with a peer-to-peer network of virtual servers, called “planets,” that individuals can run themselves. The idea is that all of your online activity will be routed through your planet, using Urbit-native apps. It’s backed by Peter Thiel and Andreessen Horowitz, and it has a hardcore group of people, who seem to possess a lot of intelligence and a lot of Adderall, working to build it. There are also, somewhat more mysteriously—but somehow equally essentially—a handful of well-connected New York publicists, magazine editors, art advisers, modeling agents and socialites on its payroll.
For now, though, there are few applications that can run on Urbit, and functionally it resembles nothing more than a barebones messaging server, with, at most, a few thousand active users. Logging on, I was brought back to the Usenet chatrooms of the Nineties, and indeed, the topics of discussion seemed charmingly similar: weightlifting, The X-Files, occult writings, your favorite music, cool sneakers.
On Wednesday night, I tooled around a bit, and found the chat group for Urbit NYC week. Though things didn’t officially get started until the next day, there was a casual meetup at Clandestino, a downtown bar with its own mysterious mythology, happening that night. Clandestino is, on the face of it, a pretty regular bar. Wood paneling, tin ceilings, a few beers on tap, a few wines, the standard hard alcohol. They have normal-looking (for Manhattan) bartenders, some rickety tables, loudish music, a tiny backyard where people smoke cigarettes and two bathrooms, one of which is marked “large,” presumably for groups of people taking drugs. But since the start of the COVID pandemic, the mercurial energy of New York cool had begun to consolidate around it. This was the bar at the center of “Dimes Square,” a neighborhood that, in the last three years, has become the sole subject of a popular play, a newspaper, at least one forthcoming reality TV show, dozens of magazine profiles and an endless stream of social media star- and navel-gazing—a vortex of vapidity, allure and ressentiment. This was where you went if you wanted to see models, podcasters, skaters, artists. This was also where you went if you wanted to skate on the outermost edge of our schizoid, internet-poisoned, post-liberal political moment. It was maybe the only place on the East Coast outside of frat houses where it was cool for guys to use slurs, for women to openly express as their life goal getting husbands and babies, and getting their husbands to treat them like babies. Not only was it okay to say “retarded,” it was chic to be “retarded,” a détournement that implied a kind of rustic, anti-woke stripping-away of liberal sophistication and politesse, the psychic correlate of the Carhartt jackets and redneck t-shirts, gold crosses and American flags, that were once again becoming fashionable as well.
Dimes Square functions roughly as its punning name would imply: it is an object of fascination for outsiders and something for “real” New Yorkers to make fun of; a branded and simulated synecdoche for the city that continues to embody the mix of fear, desire, nihilism and naïvete of American national fantasy. In June, at an art opening in Berlin, three people asked me about Dimes Square in the space of fifteen minutes; meanwhile, in Brooklyn, writers were tweeting: “There is nothing more pathetic than the New York ‘downtown’ scene today.” The media kept trying to debunk the scene as something astroturfed by PayPal founder and billionaire political donor Peter Thiel, but this conspiracy theory was itself what seemed to be holding the parties and the podcasts together. “I’d rather be funded by Peter Thiel than write an exposé about it,” said Honor Levy, a 24-year-old writer and cohost of the Wet Brain podcast, which hosted an event during Urbit Week. People kept talking about a “vibe shift,” but what had shifted was that all people seemed to talk about were vibes.
In the space of less than ten days, at least six think pieces mentioning Dimes Square or Clandestino were published in two countries, and meanwhile the cool way to refer to it kept compressing, from Clando to Cland and now down to just Clan, coming worryingly close to something that you can’t say at all, a word folding in on itself. And in an instance of mimetic resonance—one of the strange coincidences that lately seem so common—this was the same week that the project one crypto investor described as “the world’s most impenetrable cult,” “functionally indistinguishable from elaborate performance art” and also, maybe, “the most impactful open source project outside of cryptocurrency today,” was touching down in Dimes Square. It seemed to me they might fit in.
At Clandestino, I went up to the bar, scouting for nerds. The problem was that male style had been evolving too, and while women had to dress like models or artists to fit in, now it was, sort of, hip for men to look like computer programmers. The guy ordering a drink next to me looked like a possible match, so I said hello and asked if he worked for Urbit. No, he replied, he was a journalist at Time magazine. It was even stranger to meet someone there from Time, an institution that so embodies the vanishing legacy media that I was almost surprised to be reminded of its existence. I had mistaken him for a tech guy, but in fact he had the same job as me; we were both a little embarrassed. He recovered gracefully and told me that his friends were hanging out with someone who was telling them about Urbit; he’d be happy to introduce me.
I thanked him and gave him a minute. Looking around the bar I recognized someone I’d met at an event in Austin last fall, a kind of TikTok hype house for highly online reactionaries, organized by podcaster Justin Murphy. I remembered him vividly, because when he arrived at the house, directly from the airport, the first thing he did was pull out a hardcover copy of Henry Kissinger’s World Order from his messenger bag, and the second thing he did was pull out a knife and slice open the book’s spine, in which he had hidden tabs of LSD. He worked on Urbit, he told me, and he shared his acid with another Urbit engineer, an extremely tall, extremely hyper 22-year-old Australian dressed in a white Tommy Hilfiger tracksuit. We chatted about cyberpunk philosopher Nick Land (“based”) but the two of them were soon engrossed in their laptops, playing StarCraft while they waited for the acid to hit.
Now he was at Clandestino. I went over to him and reintroduced myself. (For this article, he asked that I refer to him by his Urbit ID, which is ~dashus-navnul. “Everyone just calls me Dashus these days.”) Dashus seemed a little skeptical of me at first—“Wait, why are you here?” he asked—but eventually he opened up, and soon we were talking about Thiel. Dashus had the most intricate, extensive conspiracy theory about Thiel that I had ever heard, except for him this carefully orchestrated network of cultural and political influence was a good thing, in fact it was the only hope, politically. The collapse of liberal internationalism would lead to an anarcho-capitalist “patchwork” of corporate city-states; a new elite would carve up zones of influence around the globe, and Thiel, the modern Machiavelli, would show them how. Almost all of Thiel’s critics were, he said, probably controlled opposition, including Max Chafkin, who wrote a recent biography of Thiel that most people understand to be highly critical of him, and Chapo Trap House, a hugely popular socialist podcast. Russiagate was real, and it was good—a gateway to breakdown and patchwork. It was less a question of quid pro quo than a kind of a complicity, a resonance—conspiracy in the literal sense of the word, a political shift that, while not conscious (except, perhaps, in the mind of Thiel) was happening almost automatically, naturally; like breathing.
It was time to find my new friend. I walked over to the back of the bar—passing the girls who looked like models and who were being weirdly friendly toward a group of guys that, it was now obvious, were the rest of the Urbit nerds I was looking for—where the Time journalist was being berated by a portly twentysomething wearing a tie, tweed blazer and a beard, with a high, shaky voice and a copy of Bronze Age Mindset (an irony-soaked, Nietzsche-quoting, fashy-flirting jeremiad written by a Twitter anon) sticking out of his tote bag. “I never talk to journalists. Don’t ever fucking introduce me to a journalist, okay?” Sorry, I said, coming in between them; I’m not even really a journalist… I’m writing a book, it’s about the evolving relationship between technology and counterculture and politics, and I’m interested in Urbit. Do you work for them?
A massive effort was required for this man to control himself; he was sparking with a mixture of rage, contempt and excitement. I couldn’t tell if he worked for Urbit and was scared about the negative attention surrounding its founder, or if he liked the platform and wanted to defend it, or if he wasn’t involved with it at all. This was enemy territory: journalists embodied everything that was wrong with official culture. But here we were, and he had to say something. It was a matter of integrity and self-respect, whether or not I could understand. “Listen,” he said, pulling me aside, “all tech is counterculture. By its nature. It’s fundamentally disruptive—Dionysian. Dionysus, the Greek god of chaos… Do you know what that means? Is that a good quote for you? You can quote me but I won’t tell you who I am.”
If getting on Urbit isn’t easy, getting it conceptually—as a project—may be even harder. The company building it, called Tlon, funds the development of the network by selling unique, tokenized address space, and a slogan often tossed around is: “If Bitcoin is digital money, and Ethereum is digital law, then Urbit is digital land.” But Urbit was in development before the Bitcoin whitepaper was released, and its genesis lies not in the current world of “web3” decentralization efforts, but in the first dot-com boom. In 1994, the man who would go on to found Urbit, Curtis Yarvin, dropped out of a computer science doctoral program at UC Berkeley to find his fortune in Silicon Valley. His first job was at a company building first-gen cyber-trippy digital effects for video editing—the kind of thing that made the MTV logo dissolve in a swirl of saturated colors. Next he worked at a company called Unwired Planet, later Phone.com, where he helped develop the WAP protocol, the backbone of the first mobile web browser. The company went public in 1999, at the height of the boom; in less than a year its stock price had gone up by a factor of ten.
By 2002, the NASDAQ had lost three-quarters of its value, and Yarvin had left the industry with, as he later described it, “a small pile of dollars.” He used this to support the lifestyle he had always dreamed of, his days spent immersed in “old books, code, and surfing”—an independent scholar, San Francisco-style.
For years Yarvin lived a hermetic life. Starting in 2004, Google Books made thousands of out-of-copyright books available online, for free; most of Yarvin’s days were spent reading around in forgotten philosophy and economics texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 2007, under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, he started a blog called Unqualified Reservations. Over the next nine years he poured out millions of words of pedantic and contrarian musings, the results of his self-directed journey through the digital mausoleum of forgotten writers. If you’ve heard of Curtis Yarvin, it’s likely for this; the blog was the origin point for “neoreaction,” a political theory that rejects democracy and sanctifies the market, combining libertarianism with monarchism to advocate CEO-run corporate city-states. After Trump’s election in 2016, a flurry of reporting linked neoreaction with the alt-right and the sudden shift in the political mood; Yarvin was said to be advising Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and other figures of the early Trump era and had, we heard, the ear of Thiel, at whose house he watched the 2016 election returns.
I wrote about neoreaction too, five years ago in this magazine. What interested me, at the time, was not any novelty or danger that this strain of thought represented. To the contrary, neoreaction’s fantasy of a world run by tech CEOs who used the profit motive to bypass the difficulties of democratic governance seemed uncannily similar to the world in which we already lived. Neoreaction is an extreme application of engineering principles and market values to politics; what this represented, it seemed to me at the time, was not a genuine turn away—either for better or for worse—from the liberal consensus. It was more like liberalism’s ultimate, apocalyptic fantasy: one in which rationality itself, abstracted from history and hard-coded into networks, took over the business of living for us. Neoreaction was the revenge of Silicon Valley’s hippie nerds—the DMT-death at the end of history.
Urbit was the other product of Yarvin’s seclusion. Like neoreactionary thought, Urbit presents itself as a radical alternative to everything existing—namely, in this case, the internet in its current form. Yarvin claims to have worked for six years on the first 42 lines of code, as if compensating for the logorrhea of his writing on politics with the extreme concision of his vision for computing. Elegance is an engineering principle, indeed perhaps the cardinal one: the simplest solution to a problem is, other things being equal, the best. The internet’s current infrastructure notoriously fails this test; it is a hodgepodge, a bricolage, layers of incompatible protocols patched together via still other incompatible protocols, with countless points of failure. It is built, in other words, like a city, held up by the history written on its bones. Urbit wants to start over: to bypass the mess and found a new community to replace it.
The network’s name alludes at once to the language of computing (ur-bit, the original bit or binary digit) and to social structure (the urbs, the town): its core ambition is to reinvent the latter by way of the former. The idea is that everyone will have their own Urbit ID—unique, but pseudonymous—which will function as both identity and server, virtual self and virtual machine. Like the utopian, engineered republic of neoreactionary theory, Urbit is a city of words, a utopia of language. The difference is that, with the internet, you can imagine living there. “Digital land”: the code is not simply the description of a possible virtual world, but its infrastructure.
Tlon, the company Yarvin founded to build the network, takes its name from a Borges story in which, sometime in the seventeenth century, “a secret benevolent society” decides to “invent a planet” called Tlön, systematically delineating a whole world—complete with encyclopedic descriptions of its language, metaphysics and culture—that doesn’t exist. Their wager is that by describing an alternate world, more orderly than this one, it would bring it into existence. This is Yarvin’s wager too, and in a sense that of Silicon Valley as a whole: that community, the art of living together, is a conceptual problem all the way down; that you can, in other words, engineer your way into a new world.
“This is a moment of transition,” Sam Frank explained to me. A transition to what? Frank was involved with Occupy Wall Street, and wrote for Harper’s Magazine about Silicon Valley and libertarian politics. In an arc that is now becoming familiar, he became disillusioned with the left, wrote skeptically about the new right, and then moved toward a “post-left” politics that draws heavily on right-wing thought. In the next few years, he got rich off of cryptocurrency and invested in Urbit (he owns a “galaxy,” equivalent to 1/256 of the address space); now he is on the board of its foundation, working as a kind of conduit to the cultural scene. (Galen Wolfe-Pauly, Tlon’s cofounder and now CEO, has a similar trajectory, having grown up on a cypherpunk commune in Santa Cruz before studying to become an architect and eventually moving to tech.) The media has made much of what the Dimes Square scene calls “the vibe shift.” The implication is that the “shift” is a rightward one; and in a sense, this trajectory resonates with the old story about the New Left: the hippies become neocons, the radical experiments in forms of life trail off into a New Age pastiche of lost tradition. If anything, though, it is not a shift from one “vibe” to another, but, as the writer John Ganz recently put it, a shift to “vibes” as a paradigm for culture.
Culture has always been produced in a network; but now the network is online. Much has been made of the internet’s erosion of trust in figures of centralized authority, whether they be bankers (money), journalists (civil society) or scholars (truth). But the shift is less about decentralization than derealization. The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari—favorites of the new online right who are often cited as prophets of the internet’s disruptive social power—called it “deterritorialization.” The online world is not so much a different kind of order, as its patrons have always claimed—anarchic, horizontal, free—as a different kind of space—smooth, pliable, virtual. Like a video game, virtual space unfolds as a vector, continuously reshaping itself in an informatic feedback loop. Have you noticed that when you navigate with your phone you never actually know where you are? With Google, the map becomes the territory: in order not to become lost, you have to insert yourself into the world on screen. You arrive when the dots match up.
In the virtual sphere, everything is already a symbol; we navigate in a vacuum. The “downtown scene” was something you could make fun of in Brooklyn and be a part of in Berlin: either way it was the internet where things seemed to be happening. And yet: the internet itself seemed to be, somehow, “happening” more intensely in New York. Urbit imagines itself as a new and fully virtual world, but for now, the vibes still needed a medium, and New York was the ultimate test. Urbit Week was, as Frank described it to me, an experiment. “The thought was: we throw some parties and see how it goes. It’s vibe-testing—you can’t fake whether a party is good.”
Two nights after the Clandestino meetup, I’m at a three-story loft on Eldridge Street where Noah Kumin sits at the merch table selling copies of his new, Urbit-sponsored literary journal, the Mars Review of Books. He’s wearing a loose, graying white t-shirt, and looks a little greasy in a way that hovers successfully between 4channer and art bro. The coolest thing right now, he is saying, is to be an incel. He gets the words out with a straight face, but it’s not quite clear how he means them. Noah, for what it’s worth, does not remember saying this. But entertain, for a moment, the thought. Could it really be that the last island of authenticity, the last store of raw libidinal power, untamed by institutions and cultural mores—those stabilizing, regularizing, above all emasculating forces—is the total absence of sex, a life totally divorced from bodily contact? Is it possible that the coolest thing to do is to live on the internet?
Noah himself doesn’t appear to be an incel, as he later introduced me to his girlfriend; and though he uses Urbit—the Mars Review hosts its own Urbit group, and he is self-publishing an Urbit-themed history of computing on the platform—he doesn’t seem to be much of a programmer. Noah is, like Sam Frank, a literary person who has been pulled into the Urbit universe. After college, he wrote essays for literary magazines and worked on a novel while doing a day job in publishing. “There’s no pay in publishing,” he said. And now he is getting paid.
Getting paid is an important thing for writers; necessary, even. And it can be a relief—now that the lie of the millennial “creator economy” has soured into the hell of gig work—to acknowledge which side your bread is buttered on. But there’s more to it than that. Urbit’s push into the cultural scene, after twenty years of flying under the radar, coincides with the emergence of what we might call the hype economy. What young people aspire to be now is not “creators” but “influencers”—in other words, to turn themselves into blank vessels for branded content. In a recent survey, American adolescents identified “vlogger/Youtuber” as what they wanted to be when they grew up, ahead of teacher, professional athlete and musician. (Chinese kids picked “astronaut.”) This is partly a question of fame, of course; even outer space isn’t as frictionless as the virtual, and the easiest way to circulate around the globe is on the internet. But it’s not the self that is being broadcast. Selling out isn’t just okay, a trade-off one is willing to make for material comfort; there is something exciting about emptying yourself out, about shaking off the burden of authenticity.
At the Mars Review party the vibe was ambient grift, with an undercurrent of paranoia. The evening had started with readings from some contributors to the magazine, and here too things seemed held together by a cultivated opacity. Justin Murphy, the podcast host and former left-leaning political science professor who now advocates what he calls “neofeudal technocommunism,” modeled roughly on Yarvin’s neoreaction, read a piece made up of eminently tweetable epigrams about NFTs, gender roles and natural selection. New fathers discover that wives and babies form a “conspiracy,” he said, a “bioweapon sent by God to free men from themselves.” “COVID was definitely real, but it didn’t come to the United States through a wet market. It came through TikTok, you just don’t remember it correctly.”
Next, Sam Frank performed a monologue, the unhinged rant of a “man in a Hawaiian shirt” who was not Sam Frank but who Sam, his voice rising and speeding up, his affect becoming increasingly unhinged, seemed to be turning into as he read. “You don’t understand a thing about how the world works. You have no idea what’s coming. They watched the moon landing in 4k. They’ve had ten-Terabyte memory sticks for decades. … Don’t even ask about free energy. That’ll absolutely get you killed. Jack Parsons was intelligence, Houdini was intelligence, Elon Musk is a Rothschild. He created Bitcoin.” The monologue ended with the description of something like an acid trip, a vision of a temple at the end of a tunnel of light, a place with “5D controllers” that “glows in four dimensions,” where rooms can be rearranged with the mind.
Next was the editor of an indie literary magazine called Forever, Anika Levy, who had helped organize this party. Forever publishes formally experimental, noncommercial work by young writers like Nico Walker, Honor Levy and Sean Thor Conroe, but they too were in Urbit’s orbit. Wearing a knit cardigan with a large, sparkling American flag on the front, she read a short story about a woman on a date with her sugar daddy at a Michelin-starred restaurant, being spoon-fed uni while she fantasizes about “a bunch of different terrorist scenarios: airplanes, incels, biological weapons.” After, they wander midtown Manhattan, cruising the circuit of corporate, clichéd Americana—Dave & Buster’s, Madame Tussaud’s, Times Square. A psychic tells her: “men will take care of you forever.”
The readings, on the whole, were a mash of conspiracy theory and cultural regression, and what they conjured was less an artistic renaissance than a reaction, in the literal, nonpolitical sense of the term: something passive, almost automatic. To be taken care of forever sounds nice, at first. You don’t understand how the world works, and you don’t need to; it’s out of your hands, someone else is taking care of things, daddy or the Rothschilds, or, better, Daddy Elon, himself a Rothschild. Just retweet the meme; just buy Bitcoin.
One way of dismissing this scene that I heard repeated in various forms was that it was some combination of a “LARP” and a “grift,” that people were playacting at beliefs and values that they didn’t hold as a way of getting clout. “You’re not fucking trad, fucking Catholic,” one of the more Urbit-skeptical—and socially adjusted—people at the party said, describing girls he had encountered. But the performative element of this political aesthetic is not hidden. It misses the point to say that these people aren’t really reactionaries or traditionalists. You don’t have to believe in the truth of the rituals of culture for them to have an effect; the belief comes after. They were not “faking” their beliefs but mythologizing their lives.
On Justin Murphy’s podcast, the self-proclaimed “e-girl” and downtown “neo-socialite” who goes by Sophia Vanderbilt—and who was, until last fall, involved with Remilia Collective, a culty, edgy NFT project associated with Urbit—described the new downtown ethos as like “autofiction.” As she puts it, “People don’t want to be a character, they want to be themselves as a character.” Autofiction, typified by writers like Tao Lin, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, has been the dominant style of literary fiction for the last fifteen years, and its signature is a ranging, impersonal voice, which seems to correlate with neither a real-life author nor a fictional character but rather a speculative, collective consciousness. Like autofiction’s decentralized “I,” the characteristic downtown persona is neither an authentic, true-named self nor an anonymous, depersonalized one, but—like Urbit, too—pseudonymous and thus multiple: invented, and therefore free. Remilia’s founders describe this as “network spirituality”; they see their NFTs—singular, “tokenized” images that can bought and sold—as digital selves, liberated from constraint. “We have collectively probably like two Substacks, forty Twitters, forty Instagrams. You’re playing lots of different characters. It’s lore-building,” explain Honor Levy and her podcasting partner Walter Pearce on a podcast. And your pseudonymous Urbit ID can streamline this distributed selfhood: “I’m gonna finally become the mix of all my alter egos as one, become my truest self,” Levy says, sipping Red Bull and getting increasingly hyper. Urbit was network spirituality’s event horizon: “I feel like totally like, cult, like, I would—not die right away, but I would fight for Urbit, I would birth for Urbit.”
At about eleven o’clock, with the readings finished, Noah turned things over to a roster of DJs they had hired for the night. The loft came with Klipsch speakers; Urbit had brought in a mixing board. The headliner was DeSe Escobar, who lives in Dimes Square and was one of the founders of Club Glam, a party at China Chalet, an upstairs dim sum restaurant deep in the Financial District where, in the years between the financial crisis and the pandemic, artists, models, skaters and everyone who wanted to absorb their glamour convened to smoke inside, do drugs at banquet tables and dance under the sagging, water-stained drop-ceiling acoustic tiles. These in-between spaces, these gray zones, have defined downtown New York in the postwar period, after industry fled and culture moved in. Lofts and warehouses, basements and rooftops, graffiti and hip-hop and rave: not exactly countercultures, but zones carved out from inside the grid, where the normal order of things wasn’t exactly violated or transformed but bent, evaded, temporarily suspended. The analogy to cryptocurrencies is relatively straightforward and has been championed by crypto’s enthusiasts; the idea of a network that routes around existing institutions has an anarchistic, DIY allure. Urbit pushes this analogy even further. As a network, it would not be just a technique, a shortcut, a temporary diversion, but an alternate world, existing—virtually—right in the heart of this one.
So far the crowd was dominated by Urbit people, most of whom had flown in from elsewhere—San Francisco, New Orleans, Austin, Seattle. One young developer, originally from Ohio, had been living in Ukraine, where, he said, there was a sizable Urbit community; when Russia attacked, he had hid out in the subways before escaping via Poland. Urbit employees aren’t required to work in the office, and the community is highly dispersed, with many of them surfing Airbnb and living as “digital nomads.” But the readings by the Mars Review contributors had attracted some writers and their friends, and now a more “downtown” crowd was starting to assemble. The cast of Dimes Square, a gentle, Whit Stillman-esque satire of the louche literary world by the young playwright Matthew Gasda, had been filtering in; Urbit had paid for a performance of the play to be staged in the loft the previous evening, and now the cast members were chatting on the same couches where they had read their lines 24 hours earlier. Near the makeshift bar, set up in the open-plan kitchen, where cases of Budweiser were stacked inside three otherwise empty Sub-Zero refrigerators, a group of skate kids sprawled out on the floor, rolling blunts and scrolling on their phones. They had never heard of Urbit, they said; they were here because their friend was playing a set later. And it was a party.
The party’s organizers seemed preoccupied with managing the growing crowd of scenesters, tech bros and artists on Eldridge Street, waiting to get in. Meanwhile the atmosphere inside the loft was getting cramped and humid, and at some point in the night the single air-conditioning unit had been, inexplicably, removed; the party was migrating to the rooftop. For a couple hours things on the rooftop held together, the mood elevated, anticipatory, vibey. A painter who now mostly trades NFTs talked about the crypto crash with one of his online friends, a crypto millionaire (erstwhile billionaire). “I just sit in front of my computer watching the zeros disappear and want to kill myself,” he said cheerily. One of the night’s DJs, a 24-year-old from Chicago, described how he worked under two different monikers, one for “queer DIY” parties in Bushwick and one for “edgelord” parties in Manhattan like this one. He was in a reading group on the Yarvin-aligned, Deleuze-inspired right-wing theorist Nick Land, he told me, but he felt that the moment for esoteric politics was over. “I can DJ for 25 hours a week but it doesn’t scale. I have to figure out how to make money—it’s time to just be neoliberal now.” A cloud of Instagram and Twitter girls hovered around the edges of the rooftop, staring intently and working their phones, carefully made-up faces lit gray-white by the LED glow. “I’m at an Urbit party?” one girl posted to Twitter. “We’re urbit girls now,” replied another.
Meanwhile, outside, a group of people who had come from an art opening at Reena Spaulings were waiting to get in. Reena Spaulings is a pseudonymous collective—taking its name from a quasi-autofictional novel authored collectively by the Bernadette Corporation—that was one of the first art galleries to set up shop, back in 2004, in what is now Dimes Square.
Inspired by the punk Marxism of the Situationists, Bernadette Corporation’s attitude—corporation as art, as prank—set the tone for a generation of artists trying to navigate the bleakly homogeneous and commercialized world of post-Cold War culture. There had been an afterparty for the Reena Spaulings show and another downtown opening under the Manhattan bridge, where they set up speakers and danced and drank beer, but the cops had broken it up, and now they were here, trying to get into what someone had told them was “the Peter Thiel party.”
Downstairs, I found Anika, and said that my wife was outside, could we get her in? Anika raced downstairs and explained to the bouncer that we needed to let in one person—someone’s wife, it was really important. “Okay: NO ONE is getting in,” the bouncer bellowed, “no one except ONE WIFE! Is there ONE WIFE named Jenna here?” Back on the rooftop, framed against the dense gray humid Manhattan sky, the crowd seemed smaller, its energy less concentrated, the vibe thinning out. The beer was gone, the scenesters had moved on to the next party, and the tech guys were getting conspicuous again. “Are you an e-girl?” one of them asked Jenna, as we drifted toward the exit.
“Well,” one of the artists still waiting outside texted, “is it cool?”
While I was working on this essay, multiple friends, better connected than I, told me that Kaitlin Phillips had asked for my email. Phillips, who did not want to speak with me on the record, was recently credited in a New York Times profile with helping to publicize the Dimes Square scene, though she denies any direct stake in it, just as she did not want to discuss whether she was working for Urbit. Her careful vagueness is characteristic of these transactions between culture and tech. In a type of arrangement that is quickly becoming a model for the new economy, even those who obviously work for Urbit—the programmers building the network—are mostly not, technically, employees, but, Uber-like, work as independent developers under contract to Tlon or the Urbit Foundation. Most had started as unpaid volunteers, teaching themselves its aggressively idiosyncratic programming language and contributing to the network architecture for free, in the hope of being granted a star or perhaps a galaxy, and thereby getting “knighted,” as another Urbit programmer put it to me, “in the Urbit aristocracy,” which has control over the network’s governance. With the rise of crypto and NFTs, there is now a space in which the business models of tech and culture can converge. The question is whether this space can be a vital one: whether a new and genuine culture—something more than hype—can flourish in it.
Some have critiqued the current economic structure as evincing a “new feudalism,” in which a few corporations have de facto control over the internet and use this privilege to extract, in the form of data, what classical economics calls “rent”—in other words, an existing value that is simply appropriated, rather than a new “profit” generated through productivity improvements. Shoshana Zuboff’s bestselling, Obama-recommended The Age of Surveillance Capitalism makes a popular version of this argument. For Zuboff, data are pieces of our selves: tech companies make money by “dispossessing” us of this data, which is naturally and by right ours. The problem, according to Zuboff, is distinct from the kind of exploitation that occurs under industrial capitalism, in which the product of workers’ activity is siphoned off by capital owners. Under the “new feudalism,” tech companies steal our very essence, our identity.
Zuboff’s criticism, as Evgeny Morozov notes in a recent issue of the New Left Review, partakes of a broad ideological shift in the dissident politics of the postwar period. It is a shift in emphasis away from the problem of labor’s exploitation to the “appropriation” or “dispossession” of entities that are seen as otherwise outside of the system of industrial-capitalist modernity: native peoples and those in the “Global South,” women, ethnic minorities, even nature itself as a standing resource. (The turn to “identity” in politics is a symptom of this: witness, for example, the discussion around “cultural appropriation.”) Indeed, Zuboff explicitly compares users of digital platforms to “native peoples … whose tacit claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience.” Again, the spatial metaphor is important: the issue, Zuboff suggests, is not that our labor is being exploited—something that happens in time—but that our selves are “vanishing.” Before, we existed within our selves—we lived in our bodies. Now the self has been vampirized, turned into data on the internet, circulating in a system whose purposes are foreign to us. “You are now remotely controlled,” Zuboff announces in the title of a New York Times op-ed.
Oddly, considering their supposed ideological distance from one another, this is essentially Urbit’s critique too. “We think the internet can’t be saved. The way things are going, MEGACORP will always control our apps and services because we can no longer run them ourselves,” Urbit’s website warns. “The locus of control over your life is no longer embodied in the physical, but the digital,” writes another Urbit developer.
The proposed solution to neo-feudalism is, in essence, a better feudalism. If you are given back your data, you will get back yourself—will become lord of your own domain. Like NFTs and crypto, Urbit’s value proposition relies not on the provision of a new tool to increase productivity, but on defining a new asset class.11. There are proposed use cases, of course, for both cryptocurrency and Urbit’s virtual personal server, but these depend completely on the success of the network in valorizing its digital assets. It is worth noting that, both for Urbit and for crypto especially, the utility of the network has so far been vanishingly slim, while speculation has been rampant. Here, too, these proposed solutions to our current economic and political problems seem more like symptoms of them. Unlike NFTs and crypto, the asset Urbit aims to capture is already in widespread use—indeed, it is (viewed from Urbit’s perspective) the foundation of the digital economy. While they have toned down the terminology (the 2010 whitepaper titles its section on address space allocation “digital feudalism”), Urbit, at its core, still seeks to formalize the idea of virtual space, to turn it into property.
Taking a cue from the poststructuralist philosophy of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze (references to whom are common in Urbit world), Urbit squares the difference between the new left and the new right by taking state power as such to be the enemy, and conceiving of ownership, rather than (for better or worse) the foundation of liberal capitalism, as an untried solution to its pathological excesses. By shifting property into the realm of the virtual, it hopes to turn the internet into what it was dreamed to be by the hippie counterculture that invented personal computing in the Sixties and Seventies: a new frontier where you can solve political problems by—literally—routing around them. Balaji Srinivasan, the venture capitalist and former CTO of Coinbase and an Urbit galaxy owner, develops this vision in a recent book called The Network State, which advocates “startup societies,” essentially sovereign computer networks that would use cryptocurrencies for money and auto-executing smart contracts for law. If you like your country, you can keep it; otherwise, you can simply found a new one, online, where space is infinite.
Your virtual server—your “planet”—is your home on the digital frontier. The frontier, of course, is not a new concept; and Yarvin describes Urbit’s ownership structure as “standard Lockean libertarian homesteading theory.” For Locke, the foundational right is to own the self: as he writes in perhaps the most famous passage of liberal philosophy, “though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person.” The world outside is shared; but the self is one’s own.
But what is in there? If, as liberalism asserts, all “value”—everything that can be accounted, everything that matters—is ultimately property, and all property is founded in one’s own person, then at the heart of the world there is something strangely hollow. My first encounter with Urbit engineers occurred in Central Park, in 2018, after a friend had put us in touch. The mutual friend was not himself a reactionary or a crypto person but a left-libertarian interested in “autonomy”—although lately these groups have started to converge. We wandered Central Park in the July heat, the Urbit engineers vaping compulsively while everyone talked in the most abstract, verbose terms about cybernetics, computation, the origin of money, the meaning of truth. It was less exhilarating than maddening, abstract speculation unfolding itself infinitely from within, ungrounded in any reference to the external world, not even the world that, as we bumped into tourists and hiked through the park’s trails, was directly in front of us.
When I pressed one of them, a former Urbit intern named Jimmy, to explain his political philosophy, he described it as “omni-orthogonalism.” This seemed to mean just setting oneself athwart from every other possible political opinion—in other words, the absolute opposition to any politics at all. Every man not only his own island, but his own planet. I asked him, as we rode the subway downtown and he tried unsuccessfully to stabilize himself in the car while adamantly refraining from holding or leaning onto anything, if this was a common political position, or even one that he could logically recommend that others adopt. He responded: Well, it’s the right political philosophy for Jimmy.
On Sunday, Justin Murphy was hosting one of the “elusive, unlisted” Urbit events in Brooklyn. Justin was another former leftist who had drifted toward the new tech scene; a former militant anarchist who had become a career academic in the U.K. (a paper of his published in 2017 is titled “Are ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws Racist and Sexist? A Statistical Analysis of Cases in Florida”), by 2018, Murphy had resigned from his university job after being suspended for calling people “retards” on Twitter and comparing abortion to necrophilia. He has since set up shop in that gray zone between cultural producer and new-media entrepreneur, becoming, in essence, a speculator on his own personal brand; he has a podcast and a newsletter and offers a suite of paid programs for aspiring “dissident intellectuals,” including courses and virtual writing retreats.
I had first met Justin in February of 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, at a live podcast session he held in Los Angeles with Yarvin. A crowd of nerdy hipsters gathered in a wood-paneled former veterans lodge, chatting about crypto, AI and esoteric philosophy. As I was talking with Yarvin about the pandemic, which he saw as a unique opportunity to turn back globalization via the strengthening of borders, Justin came over to Yarvin and whispered, “the VIP is here.”
Minutes later, Peter Thiel, looking somewhat awkward in a starched pink button-down, was chatting with a group of 25-year-old hipsters drinking PBR, as his black car idled outside. Yarvin opined on the upcoming election, which at the time looked to be Bernie Sanders versus Trump. As always, he talked around his own views in circles of irony, claiming to endorse Bernie because his grandparents were communist immigrants. His preferred option, he said, would be a Gordon Ramsay presidency. “Have you seen Kitchen Nightmares?” Ramsay would be the perfect president because he exercised absolute control over his domain, the king of the kitchen. Everyone knew it was a performance, but that was precisely what made it work. “A fully ironic presidency. That would be incredible. And with Trump, we’re halfway there.”
Early in the pandemic, Justin talked about trading crypto on his podcast, but by the fall of last year, he began to focus increasingly on Urbit. This, too, was, organic, he says: he got “Urbitpilled” after digging further into the network and thinking about its role in the emerging tech ecosystem. After this, he got a “grant” of a few “stars” (each of which is equivalent to 1/65,000 of the total network space, and currently goes for about six thousand dollars on the open market).22. As for Thiel, Justin says he’s never gotten money from him. “I’m proud of not needing Thielbucks. I come from a working-class background, so it matters to me that I built this myself.” “I’m basically an unabashed Urbit maximalist,” he wrote to his followers in October 2021, in a note titled “Urbit Apocalypse.” On Urbit, the hype economy finds its true home—a virtual social structure where, according to Justin, “reality entrepreneurs” can create new worlds unconstrained by history or material limits—worlds made, literally, of pure vibes. Justin cites QAnon as a prime example, arguing that, on Urbit, such an actor’s only limit would be other reality entrepreneurs, each narrative constrained only by the need to compete with other narratives. Whoever builds the best, most seductive world wins; and so the world turns into a pure marketplace, in which reality itself is the ultimate and only commodity.
The event in Brooklyn was at the home of an artist couple whose work deals with digital technology; one of them created what many consider to be the first NFT, in 2014. There was a catered buffet and drinks in the backyard. There were a few older people who looked like media-studies faculty types, seemingly friends of the couple, and some of the people I had met earlier in the week. Paul, who on Friday had described the startup he worked for as “Tumblr but not gay,” was saying he wanted to go to Syria to learn Aramaic (though he kept pronouncing it Ara-mic). “It’s very hard. There’s only like two hundred people that speak it. But that is the language that Jesus spoke, so I really want to learn it.”
At around 7 p.m. Justin got up to give his presentation. While the crowd of thirty or so stood around nursing drinks, he fired up a PowerPoint presentation on a screen set up on the patio. The presentation was titled “The Imperceptible Country,” and the first slide was a picture of David Geffen and Joni Mitchell. “How many of you know who David Geffen is?” Most people nodded. Geffen, Justin explained, was a talent agent who worked in the Sixties and Seventies and racked up a lot of famous clients like Joni Mitchell and the Eagles. “He knew how to commercialize and monetize cultural energy really, really well.”
Mitchell is worth around 350 million, maybe more like 500 million. Anyone know what David Geffen is worth right now? David Geffen is worth about 10 billion. Okay? And a very, very smart man, a few years back, once told me that with my newsletter and my podcast, I have a unique opportunity to become the David Geffen of internet dissident intellectuals.… So what I’m going to show you today is my vision for how I think I can become not personally the David Geffen of the new breed of internet intellectuals, ’cause that’s not my personality. I’m just a crazy professor with an anarchistic temperament. But I’m gonna try to build a decentralized, collectively owned, human-in-the-loop AI version of David Geffen.
Here was the web3 disruption narrative, repackaged as a pyramid scheme. The creator economy, Justin explained, had gotten rid of the need for middlemen—for people like David Geffen, even for institutions at all. And Urbit was the new paradigm, the true OS, the environment in which this economy would come to its full flowering. The key is something Justin kept calling “cultural liquidity.” This seemed to mean the ability to monetize something unique—an idea, talent or style—and turn it into a commodity. Something with a particular nature, a specific meaning, becomes something with a price. Before, we needed middlemen to do this: institutions that marketed, interpreted, evaluated cultural objects, arranging them such that they shape our social world. But now with web3, “things are becoming way more permissionless, way more frictionless.”
OnlyFans, Soundcloud, Substack, Instagram: whatever kind of “content” you produced, the middleman was disappearing. With Urbit, this disintermediation could go further, getting rid of the rent-seeking platforms and allowing you to host the content yourself and use crypto to monetize it, thereby “bootstrapping your own cultural liquidity.” The frontier is a click away. The only requirement is that everything that matters turn into content, becoming disembodied, virtual—literally liquidated. Freed from the weight of tradition, of rules and regulations, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps as easily as you boot up your computer. The dream of the internet, which Urbit attempts to realize, is to cut out entirely this detour through the material world, otherwise known as culture. The only work left to do is to be a “reality entrepreneur,” a “decentralized AI David Geffen,” or, more likely, a reality customer, living fully in the virtual.
This is what his Urbit community would do. He calls it “the imperceptible country,” named after a phrase from Deleuze. Justin clicked through to his final slide, and, standing in this Brooklyn backyard, we all looked at a black-and-white picture of Deleuze, as Justin read off a quotation placed next to it, from an interview with the theorist:
What I want to do is my work, for people not to bother me and not to make we waste time. At the same time, I want to see people, because I need to… But when I see them, I don’t want this to create the slightest problem, just to have imperceptible relationships with imperceptible people, that’s what is most beautiful in the world.
What Urbit promises is not just the liberal right to privacy—to be on your own, and to own yourself. It is liberal, but it is also utopian: the promise is of a space that would take the exact shape of your desires. “Choose how you want to disappear into Urbit,” the website offers, or threatens. Your Urbit is you, but free; your home, but virtual; a world, but “imperceptible,” frictionless, a planet spinning in space. The internet has made it possible to ask: Can we live in an imperceptible country? What we imagine in a space like this is something mysterious, special, transcendent. Viewed from the outside, it’s nothing much at all.
It did not seem like a coincidence that Urbit Week was also Fashion Week, and on Sunday night, there was one last Urbit event, the most “elusive” of them all. This was a co-branded event with No Agency, a modeling agency based in Chinatown that represents Dasha Nekrasova, actress and co-host of the Red Scare podcast (perhaps the best-known avatar of Dimes Square culture). To get in, you had to have a special hat, with No Agency’s logo on it, and you had to have posted a picture of yourself wearing the hat on social media. There was nothing special about the hat; it was just a logo, but the supply was apparently strictly limited, and so only the best-connected could get one.
Along with Midland, the casting agency founded by Walter Pearce (whose podcast Wet Brain also promotes Urbit), No Agency has played a significant subterranean role in the recent transformation of beauty and celebrity. The name itself, “No Agency,” suggests an inversion of the culture-jamming attitude of the Nineties libertarian left, encapsulated in Naomi Klein’s book No Logo. Like being “retarded,” having no agency is post-authenticity, post-oppositional, post-political. It’s not just a question of going with the flow, riding the vibes, living in the moment; it’s a matter of rejecting the distinction itself, of giving yourself over to a world woven whole cloth out of vibes, of becoming your own personal brand. No agency, all logo.
The shift is evident in the preference of both agencies for “street casting”; using models with unusual appearances. Though “street style” has been influencing fashion and media since the Sixties, in recent years there has been a shift from subcultures being an external reference point—a kind of natural reserve of untapped novelty—to the mainstream as itself the production site of outsider status, of unique “identity.” Fashion houses like Eckhaus Latta, Telfar, Vaquera, Vetements and, most prominently, Hood By Air—almost all of whom have used models from No Agency and Midland—have built an entire stylistic language around a decontextualized subcultural ideal, drawing indifferently from punk, goth, suburbia, redneck, post-Soviet poverty, gangs, rave, various diasporas and, especially, queer black club culture. While the designs are drawn from a web of carefully cultivated references, what unites this new sensibility is something much more abstract—not a specific ideal but a kind of blankness: free-floating mobility, a fugitive irony, the allure of an escape from the specificity of ideals themselves. Walter Pearce is credited with inventing the “zombie walk” at the fall 2016 Hood By Air runway show (picture yourself as a “cult leader looking blankly into the sun,” Pearce has been known to tell his models), and this attitude—call it a vibe—is now lurking everywhere.33. Their edgy branding has worked perhaps too well, as Midland is now the subject of a conspiracy theory in the QAnon universe. “Keep digging, Anons. RACHEL CHANDLER IS KEY,” writes Q, fingering Midland’s cofounder, whose once flew on a jet with Bill Clinton. Q fans subsequently dug through Midland’s social media, reposting edgy photos of awkward-looking models with fake blood as evidence that the agency is a satanic underage sex trafficking ring with connections to Jeffrey Epstein. Think of the billions of Instagram selfies that somehow converge in a single, alluring, fundamentally empty pose. “Move over duck pout, it’s all about DEAD face!” runs a recent headline in the Daily Mail. Fashion is always a fantasy, a dream of outward appearance as inward fulfillment; but now the dream is precisely of detachment—of emptiness.
On Sunday, a few hours before Justin explained to us how to bootstrap cultural liquidity and turn ourselves into decentralized AI entrepreneurs, Balenciaga held its spring show downtown, just blocks from Dimes Square. Balenciaga has tapped into this “DEAD” aesthetic, and in spring 2022 was ranked as the world’s “hottest brand.” At the runway show, held on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, models wove between Bloomberg terminals on the trading floor, wearing loose suits, tailored overcoats, Adidas tracksuits—all of it over skintight, head-to-toe leather fetish suits that left only the tiniest holes for them to breathe. They looked like highly sexualized robots, protected from the world by a layer of leather, as stock quotes floated above their heads.
That same evening’s No Agency party was supposed to be the coolest part of Urbit Week, but none of the people I had met over the previous days were going, because they couldn’t get the logo hats. This state of affairs revealed a latent tension: Was Urbit cool? For the whole week, a delicate compromise seemed afoot. The Urbit nerds had slowly let down their guard, wondering if this “downtown” world might be theirs—a hope that, though naïve, was not unfounded. Some of the Urbit crew decided to just head to the party, hatless, and try their luck.
The party was at The River, a recently opened bar on Bayard Street in Chinatown, in an area primarily occupied by senior apartments and bail bondsmen for the nearby Manhattan Jail. Arriving early, the hatless group made it past the bouncer. But by ten o’clock, when the models and influencers and everyone else whose job it was to be on Instagram started to show up, things were different. The hatless crew overheard a discussion about the their fate: “I gave you twenty hats, that was the deal,” the guy from No Agency said to Josh Lehman, the head of the Urbit Foundation. Josh—fit, blond, venture-capital vibes—did have a hat, but there were too many nerds inside without one, and No Agency wasn’t having it. Soon, the two were standing very close together. The No Agency guy had a dirtbag photographer vibe: long hair, not in shape, hopped up. Physically, he was at a disadvantage, but he had something else, something invisible but indisputably real, that a Stanford MBA can’t buy, or at least not yet. They were in the same bar, but they occupied different worlds. “What are you gonna do?” said Josh, getting closer. “Here’s the deal,” the Urbit crew heard the No Agency guy say. “You give me back those twenty hats, I give you back your five thousand dollars, and I never fucking talk to you again.”
The hatless crew was left out on the curb, wondering what to do next. On Urbit, they made jokes and tried to organize. Someone suggested Clandestino. Down the street, at 88 Palace, in a Chinese dim sum restaurant in a mall under the Manhattan Bridge, Balenciaga was hosting the afterparty for its show. Fast electronic music leaked onto the sidewalk, and a line made up of New York’s young and glamorous, smoking and chatting, snaked around the block. The women looked, for the most part, like models. Black, as ever, was in, and very-skinny was definitely back, as were exposed midriffs and ultra low-cut pants. Meanwhile men were pulling up in chauffeured black Escalades, wearing t-shirts and shorts, stubble and gut proudly hanging out, radiating fuck-you confidence. At the very top, we imagine, there is nothing you need: then the distinctions vanish, and become imperceptible.
Art credit: Nicholas Grenier. Echo, oil and acrylic on canvas and frame, 73 in x 97 in, 2018. Drift, oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 in x 60 in, 2021. Like There’s No Tomorrow, oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 in x 57.5 in, 2021. All images courtesy of the artist.
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