Balaji Srinivasan recently published a book called The Network State. The Network State builds on a piece he wrote in 2021, titled “How to Start a New Country.” How does Srinivasan suggest we go about this? First by starting in the digital world, and then materializing in the physical world once the population has sufficiently grown to accommodate the demands of a real-life community.
In Srinivasan’s words, here’s the project in “one informal sentence”:
A network state is a highly aligned online community with a capacity for collective action that crowdfunds territory around the world and eventually gains diplomatic recognition from pre-existing states.
With how seamlessly the digital has mingled with the physical, particularly in the last few years – and how few boundaries seem to exist between cyberspace and meatspace – the idea is a fascinating, hopeful one.
It isn’t completely original to Srinivasan, though his book is the first to lay this idea out accessibly to potential founders of new countries. And importantly, Srinivasan is also galvanizing change through investing in projects that seek to realize this change. I spoke with the team behind Afropolitan, one such project in which Srinivasan has invested.
Katherine: What is “Afropolitan”? Where does the name come from?
Afropolitan is a term constructed from the name Africa and the ancient Greek word πολίτης (“politis”), meaning “citizen” (itself from polis, “city”). The name Afropolitan is an attempt at redefining the African by, on the one hand, emphasizing ordinary citizens’ experiences in Africa and, on the other hand, reconceptualizing the African Diaspora’s relationship with the African continent.
We are introducing the term “Abundance” to define what it means to be Afropolitan. Africa and the African should no longer be associated with scarcity; instead our identity should mirror our reality of limitless possibilities.
Katherine: What is a digital nation? Is it the same thing as Balaji’s network state? If not, what are the differences?
The concept of a digital nation existed before Balaji’s Network State, and while there are various ideas on what a digital nation should look like, it is hard to find one that fits into the idea of the network state.
In December 2014, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and the United Kingdom came together to form what was known as the D5. The aim was to build a collaborative network with a common goal of harnessing digital technology to improve the lives of citizens.
The Nations of the D5 agreed to share world-class digital practices, work together to solve common problems, identify improvements to digital services, and support and champion the group’s growing digital economies.
Countries like Canada and Mexico joined later on. Ten countries are currently a part of the D5 (now called Digital Nations). This concept is quite different from the idea of a network state because these countries are still plagued with issues that a network state is meant to get rid of.
As Srinivasan writes,
A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.
If you bring out the different elements that make up this definition, you will see that no country in existence fits these descriptions. Several countries worldwide lack a deep sense of national consciousness, the people are divided along tribal, religious, and other kinds of lines. And this is because the powers that be leverage these things to fuel division among the people so that they can retain power.
The real power comes from unity and repressive leaders are working hard to limit citizens from uniting so they can carry on selfish agendas. This makes collective action much harder.
Network states are also well positioned from conception to sustainably ensure all citizens’ prosperity.
Katherine: Is this the first project of its kind?
Yes, Afropolitan is one of a kind. While several projects are built around the concept of a network state, they all focus on fixing only one or two problems. Things like digital money or creating a Startup City. Afropolitan’s Goal is to create an all-in-one solution for Africans that improves the overall quality of their online and offline lives.
Curating Black and African talent, culture, capital, information, and experiences and drawing from them to build a Nation that would push the boundaries of what’s possible.
Katherine: How do people join Afropolitan? How do you vet members?
The first step is to read the Afropolitan manifesto, after that, you can join the waitlist on the website also. We have a Typeform that we use to accept applications from talents who wants to play a role in building Afropolitan.
Right now, we are still working on a draft of the Afropolitan constitution, and we are also creating a system that would enable us to vet people the right way. We believe that citizenship in the digital nation should be earned by contribution.
Afropolitans should have skin in the game.
Katherine: Do you think there are any drawbacks to patriotism being based on choice, as opposed to the country of birth?
We don’t believe there are any drawbacks, instead, there are greater upsides to being a citizen of a place by choice. Africans globally have never chosen a country out of reflection and choice, most of our nation states were created by accident and force. A digital nation allows us to transcend the colonial borders from the past.
The most basic description of patriotism is defined as a group’s loyalty towards their members and the land they share in living. Loyalty means having a strong feeling of support or allegiance.
What makes a nation strong is the mindset of its people and what they believe in, not any other construct that we may have layered on what a nation means. Over the years, we have seen new nations formed through rebellion, wars, etc. These new nations broke off territories for themselves within existing nations or even moved to a new place entirely.
When assessing this concept of network states, it is essential to clarify the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism is a blind belief that one’s nation or cultural heritage is superior to others. Patriotism is a feeling of admiration for a particular belief or way of life.
Most of the problems that affect nations as we know them currently stems from nationalism and its sister beliefs like tribalism. Few people remain patriotic to a nation that doesn’t prioritize their welfare. Many people have renounced their citizenship in a particular country and pledged their allegiance to another.
Choice is always important.
Katherine: What existing bodies will citizenship be recognized by? How do you navigate that? And with that, is this the first project of its kind? Who do you draw your inspiration from, if any?
We aim to ladder up to legitimacy by building credibility that allows for diplomatic recognition. We drew some inspiration from the Federalist Papers:
It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.
Our current African countries were put together by accident and force, and we have suffered the consequences of that decision with no light at the end of the tunnel. We believe that by working with the best minds while leveraging current technology, we can build a country by reflection and choice. One that people opt into. But first, we build it digitally and replicate it physically. You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.
Katherine: Why is it a DAO? Can you explain what a DAO is for people who may not be familiar?
A DAO is a Decentralized Autonomous Organization. DAOs are run by encoded transparent rules controlled by members of the organization with no central power having any veto power. Many of the issues faced by Nations currently stem from a few individuals coming together to hijack power and make selfish choices that affect the citizenry negatively.
The wisdom of the crowd would always be greater than the wisdom of a few people and DAOs make it easy for groups to align, build and defend the things that they believe in. Afropolitan is being built as a DAO because it aims to tap into these benefits.
Katherine: What role does cryptocurrency play in Afropolitan? Why is it important to your project?
The decentralized nature of cryptocurrency represents the best hope for Africans in today’s world. No other group has suffered from the impact of single points of failure reflected in our devalued currencies. Inept central bank policies keep our people in poverty and locked out of the global financial system.
Today, cross-border payments are broken across Africa. The African Diaspora sends about 70 billion dollars in remittances, many of which get eaten up by outrageous fees charged by processors. We believe cryptocurrencies offer a better store of value and currency than the status quo currently used by Africans worldwide. By changing the money, we can change our narrative.
Katherine: Why do you think social media platforms don’t think of themselves as countries?
The primary goal of social media platforms is to provide a place for people to communicate with others. While social media platforms are great for finding people with similar beliefs, they rarely go beyond that.
The most important goal for social media platforms is monetizing the attention on the platform. We have seen social media platforms lean towards the government’s desires even if their actions are not favorable to citizens. The internet enables people to organize around shared values at scales that were previously unthinkable before the turn of the century. If it were a country, Facebook would be the largest one in the world. With the advent of cryptocurrency, the next Facebook will not be a social network with a passive online community but a full-blown digital country with its native currency and shared purpose.
Katherine: Do the way digital communities are moderated inspire how you plan to govern?
Yes, it does. A great example is Reddit. Reddit is a social media platform that shows some of the most incredible acts of leadership when defending what people believe in. Thousands of subreddits are being moderated by individuals who deeply believe in the topic, or the individual the subreddit is about. And they do this not because they are paid to do it but are purely driven by their allegiance to the Subreddit.
Katherine: Where do you see Afropolitan in five years?
In five years, Afropolitan will execute phase three of our master plan laid out in our Manifesto.