Will This New Internet Save Us?
A Philosophical Introduction to Urbit: The Last Stack With a Soul
April 24, 2022
It seems to me we need new tools. Yes, accompanying philosophy on how to use them too, but tools nonetheless. With tyrannical tech such as surveillance AI and social credit systems already being implemented (unhindered in China, and POC here in West), the gravity of the situation calls for exit alternatives. Tools will constitute our escape pod, and one such tool is Urbit.
What is Urbit?
Here's how others have described it:
- A new way to relate (to others, and ideas)
- A critical upgrade to human interaction
- A new type of social computing
- A world-changing project
- A new internet
What it is technically
Urbit can be hard to describe because it is many things simultaneously. But in short, it's at least three things:
- A super-private computer,
- An identity,
- A peer-to-peer network.
Or, in one sentence:
Urbit is a peer-to-peer internet being built from scratch to be more private, secure, and durable than the current internet.—Erik Newton ~patnes-rigtyn
Let's have a look at these three components separately.
Component 1. A super-private computer
Your Urbit computer is best run locally, with your personal computer functioning as your own server. Self-hosting your data is not only great for privacy, it also solves what Balaji Srinivasan called the data export/import problem:
What if all of your relationships could simply appear, automatically, in every new social app that emerges for the next 100 years?—Justin Murphy ~hatryx-lastud
People hate Facebook, but they stay on it because their friends are on it. Not until we take matters into our own hands by self-hosting can we genuinely expect features like a persistent social graph. Their land, their rules.
Component 2. An identity
All of our communication channels on the internet today rely on someone else to authenticate our identity. Urbit utilizes a decentralized identity system, where your ID is pseudonymous, meaning you can stay completely anonymous if you choose to not publically share it. This has some interesting implications.
Because all Urbit groups are unindexed, they spread via word of mouth. So you find the communities you're drawn to, but stay oblivious to ones that make you cringe or enraged. No more heated comment sections.
People siloing into self-selected communities might seem like we're just worsening the echo chamber. But one perspective is that when we take away the algorithm, we are reviving people's ability to focus and think for themselves. So open-mindedness should increase as a result, not decrease.
Component 3. A peer-to-peer network
Today if you want to talk to other people on the internet, you have to go through an intermediary: Servers, owned by Google, Facebook, etc. The short-term cost is your data, which is stored on those servers. The long-term cost is your time and attention which those corporations use to sell to advertisers.
Because Urbit has a decentralized ID system, it cuts out the middlemen and lets you talk directly with people on the network. This has huge benefits for privacy and integrity.
Furthermore, Urbit implements a design philosophy called calm computing. With no notifications or blinking lights, it's going back to the original conception of the computer as a tool, to empower the human, treating its time and attention as something to be respected—not extracted. It strives to answer the question: What if we increased our attention spans?
How will Urbit save us?
Take a closer look at keywords like, "feed", "influencer", and "push notification". What do they all have in common? They describe a master/slave relationship between information producers and you as a consumer.
Like a hot girl entering a biker bar, just by logging on, one defaults to a compromised position, having to defend oneself from intruders. "Surfing" is now but a relic of our naive retro-future—the current web more aptly described as being "survived" or "trekked".
Make no mistake about it, there is an information war taking place, and it is happening on the boomer web. The price? Your attention. Worst part is, there is no “them.” Even curators and producers (devs, influencers, advertisers) are themselves addicted to their phones, and self-censoring their speech.
In the last couple of decades, it has been radically redefined what it means to be a human. Shorter attention span, less freedom of mind, less proactivity. No dignity. Urbit solves this. Not by partaking in the information war, but by offering an alternative. Because yeah you could quit socials, but will you? We're social creatures in need of an alternative—without a "feed," to eat when we want.
How to get started
All you really need to get started is a planet. A planet is the permanent identity you'll use to navigate the Urbit network. It's a bit like a crypto wallet, but you can think of it more like a digital piece of land that you buy once and own forever.
To get on the network, you have two alternatives: You can either self-host, in which case I'll assume you're technical enough to figure it out. Or you can use a hosting provider, in which case you'll have to pay a monthly fee. I recommend Holium Hosting, mostly because I work there, but we're also the only hosting provider that allows you to join with an existing Urbit ID and pier.
Mass exodus wen?
Urbit is still technically difficult to get on for the average person. So not until my mom can boot up her own planet can we even start to entertain the thought of a mass exodus. Even when the UX is ready, there are still network effects.
So probably a dramatic event, like a massive password breach, making the old web unusable, will have to happen for the majority to consider moving over. For now, though, it's mostly fringe nerds. It just makes it a more fun experience IMO.
An ending note: According to Heidegger, we have since the start of philosophy been concerned with simple matters. Each epoch allowing for a capped radicality in worldview. And he suggested that only now are we entering the epoch of a whole world view, along with the rising threat of a complete instrumentalization of our world via tech; risking becoming more things than persons. Maybe it's time to choose a ship wisely.
There is also Bluesky, which has almost 300k followers on Twitter at the time of writing. But it's strictly focused on the passport problem – an identity protocol, if you like – so it's not a fair comparison to Urbit which is a full-stack solution.