A Distributed Tribal State for Geeks


Travel like a boss.

A thoughtplay. A state that has no land, no regional focus, just a tribal kind of affiliation. Instead, our tribe could sign up for citizenship, and the state’s services are aimed squarely at those information workers among us who work from their laptops wherever they are. Think of it as a city state for geeks, minus the actual city. Let’s call it, for this argument’s sake, the Distributed Tribal State (DTS, not the final name obviously).

The notion has been put forward a number of times, maybe most prominently and most tangibly by Neal Stephenson as corporation-based citizenship that you essentially can sign up for. It has sometimes referred to as distributed republic:

The concept of a distributed republic is that of a fluid republic consisting of land and citizens scattered across the globe, changing far more frequently than conventional nation-states.

What makes a state anyway?

Traditionally, the conditions for a recognized nation state are as follows. Always keep in mind that the notion has always been a blurry and – more importantly – complex one, and there are many state-like entities that would, in Facebook’s words, described as “it’s complicated”. (I’m not going to embark on a deep poli-sci discussion here, this is about the bigger, utopian picture.)

So, the somewhat-most-recognized (if strongly disputed) basic definition is the one put forward in the Montevideo Convention, which has found its way into customary international law:

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

It’s worth pointing out that the currently dominating model of nation states is heavily based on a model that became popular in the nineteenth century; as such, it’s somewhat arbitrary, and more importantly, it’s not like a universal checklist that any other state would refer to. Mostly, what constitutes a state is a political question rather than a legal one. (For a quick, but solid overview of the strenghts and weaknesses, and lots of exceptions to any of the guidelines mentioned above, read this.)

That said, let’s quickly go through the four, because we have to start somewhere:

a. Permanent population: For what it’s worth, if people signed up in a permanent way (namely by giving up their former citizenship) I’m tempted to say that would suffice.

b. Defined territory: Nope, fail on that one. But given that many nations have been in territorial disputes for ages, this is hardly a knock-out criterion. Basically I’d argue that as long as no other state claims that the DTS violates their borders, it should be all possible to solve. Of course that would not happen as the DTS negotiates bilateral agreements with all the states to specifically allow DTS citizens to live and work on their land in exchange for taxes.

c. Government: Check. Whatever exact shape it might take, I daresay a democratically elected government would be the plan.

d. Capacity to enter into relations with the other states: Check. Why not!

How about practicalities?

On a merely practical level, I imagine most issues can be worked out through bilateral or multilateral agreements:

Taxes, for examples, could include two layers. Citizens would pay a certain share of their income, etc., to the DTS. On top of that, the DTS negotiates blanket agreements with all other states to automatically pay a certain percentage of taxes to those states where DTS citizens spend time. That’s just fair, after all they’d be using those other states’ infrastructure. The trick is to do this as automated and easy as possible. So, say you’d be working for 150 days a year out of Berlin, another 30 in Buenos Aires, 50 out of London, 12 out of Paris, and the rest scattered around the globe. You automatically report where you spent how much time, and pay taxes accordingly. In the end, DTS citizens might actually spend a bit more, not less taxes than they currently do in their nation states, but it would be much less of a hassle, and after all freedom comes at a price, so to speak. (It might also turn out a bit cheaper, who knows.) This might even spark a bit of a competition to attract DTS citizens to spend more time in one place or another.

Health insurance and retirement would be easy, as now we’d pay it in one country, instead of always hustling back and forth between several systems and many people already do today (and many mure will in the future). Where you collect the services doesn’t matter. Again, a key part of the DTS’ role is to negotiate bilateral agreements with existing states to use their infrastructure. You might get a better service at a hospital in Tokyo than in Burkina Faso, or the other way round, and where you decide to use your health card is up to you, or your current location at the time you need it.

Military and defense is a tricky one in a state with no land. Certainly a traditional military wouldn’t be very useful. Would it need some sort of spec ops? An anti-cyberwar unit might be all that is needed, after all the servers need to be safe and secure.

All things governmental would be resolved through a network of highly secure servers. A trusted, heavily encrypted VPN connection comes with the citizenship.


Governance itself is a bigger question that I dare to tackle here, but off the cuff I’d say a hybrid mix of representative democracy and some elements of liquid-style responsiveness.

Challenges and open questions

There are big, essential questions that need to be explored here, of course. To name but a few:

  • Inclusion: The concept outlined here is quite elitist. How about inclusion of those less privileged? How about non-exclusion of any citizens who might evolve away from the core concept that particular state was initially built on?
  • Strong social state vs libertarianism: To self-identify as “geeky” or “global” or “an information worker” or “adhereing to hacker ethics” (or whatever the smallest common denominator might be) is likely to attract potential citizens from a wide range of political backgrounds and flavors. We could, Pirate Party style, try to just shed established political labels of “left vs right” and all they imply. Personally I don’t think that would solve any issue but be a merely semantic trick. Instead, it might mean that several such states are necessary ranging from the more radical libertarian to those with a stronger focus on social welfare and stronger state. (Personally, I tend to err on the side of social security over libertarianism, but obviously there’s plenty of room for many states to co-exist.)
  • Evolution over time: What happens over time? Initially, this is likely to attract the people whose needs it caters too most. Concretely, relatively young professionals who travel a lot as part of their work, which is built around online-communications of sorts. In other words, we’d be looking at (I’m simplifying to make a point) a relatively young, healthy, privileged group of experts of some sort or another, that heavily depend on technology. The same thing that empowers this group today might at some point be their most vulnerable point, if the technology evolves in unexpected ways or stops to function in a cataclysmic event of sorts, or if the population simply ages without attracting enough younger citizens. What happens to a state then that doesn’t have any infrastructure or land?

So, this just as a little thoughtplay. That said, I already proposed that Ben Hammersley would make a good Secretary of State. As for the rest of the cabinet, some names for a proposed shortlist of candidates are obvious: Chairman Bruce might surely make a good president, Cory Doctorow might be a great Minister of Culture. Bruce Schneier might run the Ministry of Cyberdefense, and Parker Higgins would be my preference to head the Ministry for Privacy and Consumer Protection. Maybe Larry Lessig would help us write the constitution to help avoid the dangers of institutional corruption. There are loads more I’m missing.

I’m pretty sure this could be a citizenship I’d be happy to carry.

Foo Session: The end of the world (or state, at least)


What seems like it started out as a joke by David Eaves turned into one of the most interesting (and hilarious) discussions I participated in at Foo Camp. I’m not going to re-hash the whole thing, instead I’ll write down a few key points and thoughts.

The premise for the session was this: As we see looking at political struggles like the Arab Spring or the protest against SOPA/PIPA and related bills, and increasing online censorship both in authoritarian regimes and across the Western World, there is clearly a power struggle going on with the governments on one side and the Internet on the other.

(Yes, yes, we never defined who and what exactly is “the Internet”; for the purpose of the discussion and the blog post, we’ll have to make do, and I’ll capitalize it unless I mean the technical infrastructure that makes up the physical internet.)

So let’s assume there are two major power blocks, in any given country: On one hand, the government, in most cases with an inherent interest to preserve the status quo, which is permanently endangered by the internet’s capacity to empower activists, citizens and all other groups alike. On the other hand, the online community, including civil society and the individuals, political activists, consumers etc etc. The latter is extremely vague of course, but there you go, but let’s assume the Internet strives to be as free as possible, with access to as much information as possible and as little restrictions as possible.

We know that in many cases, the Internet has won that particular battle, or at least helped win it. The Arab Spring or SOPA/PIPA are just two examples. In other cases, not so much: Iran, China, the more subtle types of filtering going on in Western democracies like Germany.

So that’s where we stand, but (1) what does it mean, and are we even asking the right questions? (2) And is there really a battle of state v Internet?

(1) We don’t know yet, and (2) probably not. Instead, let’s look at some of the aspects we need to dig into much, much deeper to really find answers. I’ll just collect them here, as I also don’t really have answers, and neither did the group. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s anyone who could make anything better than an informed guess.

  • What are the possible outcomes if those are the lines of conflict? No state, strong Internet? No free Internet, but a strong state? Neither are likely. Should a state truly collapse, it would most likely mean a breakdown of infrastructure and services, and thereby also mean the end of the internet in that region. On the other hand, hardly any state can afford to really shut down the internet anymore, as basically all of the essential services a state provides are at least affected, if not based on the internet. More likely is a new balance, one that might be shifting back and forth, some slightly more regulated internet than today or 5 years ago, but still with plenty of wriggle room.
  • Did we even identify all the major parties in this constellation? Probably not. As some folks pointed out, corporations might be one of the major forces at work. Companies that try to influence both government and Internet in order to preserve the freedom they strive for to do their business, and potentially keeping each other in check. Maybe a more distinct civil society could also be a party of sorts.
  • Which role do the inter-dependencies between traditional military action and cyberwar play? Will a country get into a military conflict over a cyber attack? What about pre-emptive cyber attacks? What about semi or fully autonomous, networked drones? What about retaliating with a full-blown country-wide DDOS-style attack as a reaction to guerilla cyber warfare? And should there be a NATO equivalent for the civilian Internet, pooling resources to protect the free web?
  • Which role will a nationstate play in a time where networked knowledge workers work, play and live globally, constantly on the move? It probably won’t provide much identity, it won’t provice basic services as long as the person doesn’t happen to be on that nationstate’s soil. That leaves the state as a passport provider and somewhat of a permanent mailbox.
  • Are we headed for a new kind of citizenship that isn’t primarily based on the traditional nationstate? And what would that be based on? Is the uniting factor a corporation/employer, a tribe (West Coast, East Coast, Euro geeks, etc), something more local or regional (city states), or based on your access to information and network (ISP, data haven, or similar)? Stephenson, Doctorow & Co have drawn up a number of scenarios, all of which might be plausible.
  • Will governments around the world try to either crack down on the Internet, or become much, much more responsive to citizens?

One thing is for sure: There’s a good chance that the role of the nationstate will change dramatically over the next 5-15 years. How? Hard to tell. But it’s not likely to stay the way it is.