The concept of the nation state arose in response to the historical context in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This paradigm was well suited to its time, but now the context has changed. In his paper entitled “The Network State Revolution” Jur founder Alessandro Palombo analyses how it is not an ideal social construct in a digital world experiencing the growth of Web3.
The evolution of technology created a context that profoundly influenced the evolution of social organization into what today we call the “Nation State.” During the era in which nations were formed, people’s lives and relationships were preordained by their birthplace. Transportation was slow, expensive, and inaccessible. And this situation persisted into the 19th century. The average citizen at that time lived his entire life in the range of a few miles from his home.
Etymology tells us that the word “nation” comes from natus, which means “born.” For the majority of the population, sharing culture equated to sharing territory, and vice versa, because where you were born was where you lived your entire life.
According to Benedict Anderson, the printing press played a central role in the birth of modern nation states. In 1440, the Gutenberg printing press enabled vast populations across expansive territories to develop a common sense of culture:
The development of nationalism, he argued, was caused by the convergence of capitalism and print media. According to Anderson, the development of mass vernacular newspapers laid the basis for the nation because their readership could imagine sharing a collective experience of the news, irrespective of their geographical distance from each other and of social hierarchies.
Further expanding cultural identity, the cost of producing books in England declined dramatically after the introduction of the printing press, as sharing information across distances became 10x cheaper. However, although technological innovation achieved a breakthrough in printing capabilities in 1600, it took centuries to achieve critical mass in literacy; in 1800 only 62% of England’s population could read.
Similarly, the internet was not immediately embraced, but grew exponentially over the past thirty years. The Internet even produced its own “language,” as Mario Gabriele notes in his article on the subject:
“The modern version of a vernacular language is, of course, the meme. It is the dialect of the internet everyman, and it is natively suited for that dominion. Not only are memes context-rich, visual, and remixable, they’re often post-linguistic — you do not need to speak a particular language to enjoy them. Such a feature is ideal for the internet’s global audience”.
The Internet has enabled a broader sense of belonging, creating conditions for digital coexistence online and in the metaverse. The cost of sharing information is virtually free today.
If Anderson’s assessment is accurate, social media –living in an eternal “now”– are more capable of creating commonalities than past influences. Despite the distance that separates them, a physically dispersed population that is online can still relate and share emotions on Instagram or a sense of belonging in Reddit. Instead of associating with those who are close in space, they can associate with those who are close in interests and values. The Internet has already enabled the formation of new cultures and “subcultures” where people share a vision.
For many, the Internet –the home of so many subcultures– already holds a deeper meaning than shopping and cat memes. It is a place where significant new relationships are formed. Members of crypto-communities commonly meet in person after having interacted for months or years online. While it is a long way from the ideas of the 80s, for someone born in the 1990s or in the 2000s, the idea of founding an opt-in digital society is not far-fetched.
The implications of this movement are more than cultural: if the Internet has already enabled online commerce, thereby rendering territorial boundaries less important, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will catalyze the next leap. The Internet will facilitate the creation of new types of techno-political boundaries and, conversely, become increasingly significant with its own virtual boundaries.
Web3 introduces an Internet of ownership where users own digital assets directly, without intermediaries. Trading Bitcoin does not require trust in a Leviathan, “controller,” or specific guarantor of peace. Again, it’s possible to see the speed of change— this time at a faster and more abrupt rate of cryptocurrency adoption. Not only has the territorial boundary disappeared, the need for a guardian of that boundary or trade relations becomes obsolete and unnecessary.
The paradigm of “ownership” or “to have” is going to be stateless and a-territorial as well. This is what could be described as a Copernican Revolution of the dynamic between the digital and physical worlds. The digital world is becoming the main realm where our consciousness is formed, relationships are built, culture is made, and scarce resources are managed. Minting tokens online was only the first step.
When we consider the current context, it is evident that the basis for the emergence of new social constructs such as Network States are already well established. The Internet made e-commerce a reality; scrolling social networks represents a daily routine for billions of people. Web3, VR, and AR will be just new elements in a trend that started thirty years ago that will accelerate us along our trajectory to increasingly digitized lives.
We can see the trend of non-governmental digital replacements for offline government service in the growth of Online Dispute Resolution in Paypal, Ebay, Alibaba, or Airbnb. Large platforms managing millions of relationships created their own “quasi judicial” system, already absorbing what in the past was predominantly a prerogative of states. New “services” have already built systems (with their own rules and principles) that are already “stateless” and self-standing. Already we see online alternatives for some government services. Network states offering more complete services will inevitably follow and may become significant much more quickly than many people expect. Twelve years ago, how many would have guessed that the blockchain economy would grow to an asset value of several trillion dollars? Network states may have a similarly surprising trajectory.
You can read more about the Network State movement in the Network State Wiki created by the Jur community.