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Sovereignty as a Service
Jordan Hall thinks technology should co-evolve with governance to form a meshwork of network states. Elon's X can become an exemplar.
by Jordan Hall
Polymath entrepreneur Jordan Hall has a cult following. He is among those tiny few working in an area we might call metapolitics. But he’s not one who peppers the prefix “meta-” on everything to talk among the smart set. Instead, Hall speaks from a deep understanding of complexity dynamics. He has years of experience as a tech entrepreneur. Together, those attributes make him ideally suited, not just to diagnose the problems of politics as such, but also to regard the systems and assumptions that give rise to its pathologies—the deep code. He then imagines new realms of possibility.
We’re excited to cross-post this article from Hall’sbecause this is just the kind of subversive thinking we hope can animate the revolution. As you probably know by now, we don’t seek to overthrow unjust power. We seek to underthrow it.
It seems evident to me that the best evolution for
Let me explain.
It is useful to recall that social technologies like literacy, copyright, and the scientific method, while not the same as personal computers, operating systems, or cell phones, are still technologies. As such, they are subject to the same dynamics common to all technologies. They emerge slowly, mature, become established, and then transition into senescence and obsolescence to be replaced by some other development or integrated as a relatively simple component of the new social field.
The S-curve pattern of innovation describes the life arc of technologies like “the corporation” just as they describe the life arc of technologies like the personal computer.
Of course, some technologies like fashion and slang have brief lifespans while others like language and scientific paradigms might take hundreds or thousands of years to play out their terms.
For more than a decade, I have proposed that we are amidst a rather enormous convergence of several large long-term waves. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the disruptions of these waves were seen and felt only at the relative periphery of the cultural sphere. By the 90s and 2000s, the disruption was clearly felt in all sectors of the economic layer. By 2010, even deeper elements like money were feeling it, and now, the disruption has reached the core of our current socio-technical field.
In much the same way that late twentieth-century technologies like the Yellow Pages, Blockbuster, and Nokia were swept away in disruption waves, we are now in the middle of a “big shift” where whole social technology forms like the University, Finance, Healthcare and, yes, Governance are going to be quite substantially changed “all the way down to the roots”.
As an aside, it might be useful to notice that in many ways the big ball of complex problems like ecological disruption, demographic collapse, global pandemics, economic and financial systemic risk, AI risk, etc. (sometimes collectively called the“Meta-Crisis”) is largely a consequence of the presence of and need for this “big shift” disruption. Much of the issue is that none of our existing institutions are adequate to properly address these kinds of hyper-complex and interconnected problems. For what its worth, another big chunk of the issue is that “we” (more specifically, our technocratic leadership) have nonetheless been trying to use these inappropriate institutions to address the very same hyper-problems—a bad habit that just results in making the total systemic situation even more dire.
Thus, from my point of view, we are simultaneously poised for and in quite significant need of a profound disruption wave at the very core of our social technologies.
And, it seems self-evident to me that the best future for a post-Elon Twitter is located precisely here: as a broad platform supporting diverse socio-technical applications and services. I dub this “Sovereignty as a Service”.
While it is beyond the scope of this essay, or my wisdom, to comprehensively describe SAAS, I will endeavor to outline what I currently see as either foundational or uniquely ripe opportunities for X in this context. Having witnessed now scores of disruption waves at various scales, I can be quite certain that most of what I say here will be wrong, but that the broad brush can help support a collective discovery of the shape and trails of the territory.
I. Self-sovereign Digital Identity
Perhaps the most foundational piece, the "commanding heights” of SAAS, is securing and provisioning digital identity in a fashion that is (a) owned and controlled by individual human beings themselves; and (b) valuable and strong enough to displace centralized corporate and nation-state efforts to own and control this important “hill”. He who controls identity controls the (social) world.
Accordingly, if we wish to avoid the profound levels of social control axiomatically ensured by centralized third-party control of “digital identity,” we must pre-empt this move by ensuring a robustly decentralized first-party self-sovereign digital identity.
To my mind, this likely will involve the following elements (and perhaps others):
A strong disambiguating binding between a provable and tamper-resistant digital identity and a unique human being. (i.e., anyone can prove that you are really you, that you are a human, and that no one has messed with the data associated with your identity).
Complete ownership and control of both data and sharing permissions by only the individuals themselves.
An application-neutral interface allowing anyone to request such permission to provide user services, i. e., an open platform.
The ability to provide fully anonymous identities that are also provably bound to the core identity. Currently, it appears that zkSNARKs are the correct solution to this problem. Using this technology, we can neatly cut the Gordian Knot of simultaneously allowing people to take advantage of the virtues of anonymity while (a) ensuring that they aren’t bots and (b) providing methods of extinguishing sociopathic behavior.
Given the power, importance, and leverage of this piece of the stack, I’d propose that broad and deep adoption is vastly more valuable here than narrow monetization. In other words, don’t charge anything for this function. With more than enough value in SAAS, one need not resort to ham-handed monetization. If you like to think of things in terms of money, let’s propose that every verified Sovereign identity is worth, say, $5,000. Thus, if X were able to roll over 100,000,000 users into this infrastructure, that would be worth $500,000,000,000. A nice ROI and, as we will see, entirely plausible.
From X’s perspective, this replaces the concept of “blue checkmark” as a “verified identity” and all efforts should be made to migrate this as the default, perhaps obligatory, identity. I would propose that the aspect of “blue checkmark” that points towards “importance or social status” can and should be otherwise grounded as an aspect of Sovereign Identity, perhaps monetized at the application layer.
II. Sovereign Payments and Commerce Infrastructure
It is no secret that legacy social technologies like the nation-state place monetary authority on the left hand of the throne. It is also no secret that they are currently endeavoring to continue this tradition by means of “central bank digital currencies” (CBDC’s). Given the extraordinary capacity for subtle, diffuse social control presented by CBDCs (all such things ultimately cannot but evolve towards becoming Chinese-style social credit systems), it is necessary that any SAAS provide a separate and powerful alternative. Some requirements:
Capture-resistant. Obviously, the old regime will not give up its control easily. Deep capture resistance against all kinds of attacks must be intrinsic—including threats of (and use) of violence against individuals and groups. On the other side, as we have discovered, it’s not a good thing for *anyone* to have control over the keys to the financial system. Accordingly, the system must be capture-resistant to the provider and users of the SAAS platform, as well. At present, it seems evident that one or more existing blockchains are the only viable solution. While it is plausible that X could implement and roll out an adequate solution (see more below), “defense in depth” is the proper approach—no one solution (and certainly no new solution) should be trusted.
Micropayments. At least one aspect of the payments infrastructure should be extremely scalable and capable of supporting fast, fine-grained micropayments. This should power everything from ordinary commerce all the way ‘down’ to IOT and software to software transactions.
Smart contracts. At least one aspect of the payments infrastructure should be programmable and support a substantial replacement of bureaucratic and legislative social technologies.
A diverse and powerful set of new institutions can be constructed on this foundation.
In X’s case, this is obviously an entirely new service. Fortunately, it is easy enough to provide it in conjunction with a cryptographic self-sovereign digital identity, and to the degree that it is provided by virtue of integration with existing blockchain infrastructure, the principal challenges have already been meaningfully (though not at all completely) resolved.
The various advocates and partisans of the many different projects out there (including non-blockchain efforts like Urbit and Holochain) can feel free to make the case why their particular tech should in at the front of the line for integration into the world’s first SAAS stack. X can and should make judicious use of the power and responsibility of choosing (kingmaking?) here.
Obviously, this aspect of SAAS (in some cases literally) prints money. Remember, for example, that a large portion of the X user base is not Western. When considering the potential implicit in providing this population an economic layer superior to the legacy “first-world” economy, X’s current $5Bn “revenue” line seems absurdly trivial. When you begin to layer in the TAM associated with taking market share from legacy sectors like finance and insurance, and growing entirely new market sectors like IOT and AI data transactions, you quickly get to trillion-dollar TAMs.
In other words, once X’s finances are stabilized post-acquisition, it’s time to focus on the big picture and not revert to counting beans.
III. Censorship-Resistant Communications
Implicit in the concept of “Network State” is, of course, networks. In the realm of the virtual, the communications-layer *is* the territory. And, just as any geographic sovereign must be able to protect its physical territory, any viable SAAS must provide for the security of the communications layer. To put it simply, it must be difficult if not impossible for any potential adversary to disconnect a person from their SAAS communications network.
Here X, or more specifically, the House of Musk, is uniquely positioned. The combination of X as a software stack and Starlink as a communications service provider is unmatchable by any other agency in the world. Obviously, any SAAS must be available to any user via ordinary open Internet protocols (you don’t have to use Starlink if you don’t want to). At the same time, the advantages of a vertically integrated networking/software stack that has already proven itself nation-state resistant (cf Ukraine/Russia) can’t be overstated.
Presumably, this layer will ultimately have to migrate all technical services off of vulnerable nodes like AWS and into some sort of P2P mesh (relatively easy to incent using a smart-contract micropayments system) and will need to replace hardware vulnerabilities (looking at you Apple and Google), but this is the price and opportunity of Sovereignty. Fortunately, the House of Musk also seems to have decent hardware engineering capabilities.
Notably, as mentioned above, to the degree that a new X SAAS might be taking on the deeper layers of the stack (i.e., replacing AWS storage and hosting or more), this would be an excellent place to implement a bespoke crypto infrastructure. Nothing like an incentive landscape to drive significant decentralized activity. Of course, X could also play a systems integration role here as well. Filecoin, Theta, and others have already invented and deployed much of needed infrastructure.
Ultimately, I imagine that this piece of the stack will ephemeralize—as the economy moves up the S-curve on the platform, hard costs like modems and satellites will simply be “baked in” and invisible to the user.
IV. Rule of Law
The current controversy around “content moderation” is really a subset of the broader issue of “rule of law” in the virtual environment. Any valid SAAS must provide a rule-of-law infrastructure that allows different networks to self-govern according to their values and priorities.
Ironically enough, an example of this kind of approach can be found in a rough form in the decentralized “instances” mechanics of the Mastodon “Fediverse”. Because each instance is entirely controlled by its own administrators, content moderation policies are handled locally (i.e., each server has its own rules and rulers), rather than globally. If you want to be part of a community with strict speech controls, you can. If you want to be part of a community with few limits on speech, you can.
If we take this kind of notion up a level and think about rule of law as a scope of service, there are only a few basic domains that we need to satisfy.
Agreements (contracts)—a substantial portion of this part of rule of law will be solved in software. Whether explicitly in the form of “smart contracts” or simply as a result of UI choices, a huge chunk of what is currently managed in written legalese and lawsuits can be (much more efficiently) migrated to code. Here the SAAS should provide a robust “marketplace for governance tools” that allow individuals and communities to easily drag and drop an increasingly rich toolkit to serve their particular needs.
Adjudication—of course, sometimes code can’t solve the problem completely. Sometimes human judgement has to be brought to bear to deal with the complexity, nuance, novelty and humanity of specific “fact patterns”. There are a variety of ways to address this need. As mentioned above, Mastodon has taken the approach of a federated decentralized model. They use the classic tiered permissions system (user, moderator, administrator) to grant power and responsibility to different users. Many other (more flexible) approaches exist. For example, a simple approach I wrote about back in 1996 was a play on the notion of the “jury.” If we recall, the original concept of a jury was not a random selection of complete strangers, but a jury of “peers” (i.e., people who all parties to the conflict knew and respect as being well positioned to weigh in on the conflict). In the social media realm, we can imagine an (opt-in) “Adjudication as a Service” whereby everyone must select some (say) seven or twelve people who they feel comfortable listening to (i.e., a “Council of Elders”). In the event of a conflict between any two members of the network, the system can (use software to) assemble a 3-person jury consisting of one member of each parties Council and a third member of the other two Council-members. Such a jury can be empowered to evaluate the case and adjudicate according to the other tools available to the community on the platform (i.e., levy fines in a crypto currency, establish a public statement, kick someone from the community, etc.).
Flexible-but-clear jurisdiction—Mastodon partitions rule of law by “instance” (or server). We can imagine a more fluid and flexible approach whereby users require other people to opt-in to some Rule of Law protocol to interact with them in some way. A typical example in modern agreements is where the parties agree for a contract to be governed by a given jurisdiction (say Delaware law) or to be mediated by a given organization. “In order to follow me, you must opt into and abide by the rules of XYZ Rule of Law protocol.”
This is just an example, but the core principles are easy:
Subsidiarity—as much responsibility should be handled as intimately to the real lived contexts as possible.
Modularity—communities should be able to assemble their own preferred governance stack from components.
Automation—render unto software that which should be rendered unto software.
Humanization—render unto the human that which should be rendered unto the human,
Experiment and evolution—diverse and decentralized efforts to solve the hard problem of how we might properly govern ourselves in this unique virtual domain.
Note, as we begin to explore this domain, we run into the inevitable meta-problem of adjudication and conflict resolution at the global level. Federation is great, but it doesn’t solve the problem of conflict *between* federated communities. Brigading and other coordinated attacks between online communities are already well-established and aren’t going to go away. This implies a meta-protocol that is abstract and general enough to include a variety of communities but clear and strong enough to maintain healthy relationships between communities that might have very different values and interests. Designing and providing this meta-protocol will be among the more interesting aspects of the rollout of a SAAS platform.
V. Executive Function
For the most part, a proper SAAS should be decentralized. This is the best way to benefit from diverse explorations of the vast new niche opening up and the best way to have a capture-resistant platform strong enough to navigate the many pitfalls of greed, ambition, and corruption that will oppose this new niche.
However, sometimes, focused and powerful centralization is precisely the thing. In particular, when it comes to defending the interests (and sovereignty) of the SAAS platform against external threats (whether from legacy Nation States, multi-national corporations/organizations, or other forces) and hospicing these legacy technologies, boldness, speed, and strategic brilliance are at a premium.
Here again, X might have a decisive advantage. It is unclear to me whether Elon is actually interested in (or capable of) the serious responsibility of an oath of fealty, but were this to be the case, it’s clear that any SAAS that had him would be extraordinarily well served. Few, if any, in the current milieu have demonstrated the pure executive acumen of the House of Musk.
The most beautiful possibility emerges when the deep structure of the SAAS, the foundational self-sovereign identity, the payments, and commerce infrastructure, the communications platform, and the rule of law infrastructure are so designed as to make it implausible for a strong executive to capture the people and the platform itself. This enables the SAAS to align interests with and therefore benefit from the potency of a very strong executive, without risk of tyranny.
It’s not clear, for example, that Elon is being honest (perhaps even with himself) when he expresses his values and intents in the form of furthering human freedom and long-term thriving and properly fostering the technical capacity to navigate the many challenges that our species current faces (including crossing the crucial chasm into space); but if he is, then there is an intrinsic alignment of interests between the House of Musk and the SAAS platform.
As I mentioned in the opening, we are undergoing a profound shift that is now unfolding at the core of our social and cultural infrastructure. This shift is deeply entangled with the Meta-Crisis. In some sense, disrupting our legacy social technologies is causing a lot of pain. In another sense, this pain is akin to the pain of childbirth: and the potential of a post-SAAS culture represents perhaps the only viable solution to the Meta-Crisis.
In my estimation, our senescent legacy social technologies are holding us back enormously. We are collectively acting at perhaps 10 percent of our potential. Perhaps much less. If we begin to successfully navigate the big shift, big chunks of this potential will be unlocked. A doubling or tripling of human capacity is more of a qualitative shift than a quantitative one. If you want to solve hyper-problems, this is the thing.
More to the point, if you really want to colonize Mars, this is the thing.
[P.S. Yes, I know that SAAS has been used to mean “software as a service.” I’m stealing it. Fight me.]
This article originally appeared at Deep Code.