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.

What keeps me up


Sitting down with a cup of coffee brewed from the excellent Balzac’s beans that an even more excellent person brought me from Toronto, my mind started wandering. There are a whole number of challenges – big and small – that I keep thinking over. Some of them seem rather insolvable, others not so much. Here’s a brief, entirely incomplete and pretty much unstructured snapshot of some of the things that keep me awake at night, and get me going in the morning.

How can we get the insights from the Quantified Self community to work for more people, more easily? How can we use them for medical purposes on a much more mainstream level? And how can this work in government-run health systems – think interfacing with the institutions etc. This is big, and there’s a lot of potential here on many levels (societal, individual health, institutional organization etc).

On the one hand, there’s this huge startup hype going around in Berlin welcoming expat technologists. On the other hand, a creeping anti-foreigner attitude that creeps in disguised in an “anti party tourist” rhetoric. Dangerous and annoying – what can we do about it? And how come the Green party seems like they’re in on it? Looking at my personal environment, it’s all about this diversity: I share offices with people from four countries; my girlfriend is American; a large chunk of my friends are from abroad. Where gentrification is used as a proxy argument against global exchange, my sympathy stops.

Speaking of global exchange, there’s all kinds of global problems that need global solutions, but there are currently no institutions that could tackle them. It’s the incredible complexity of global economics and the speed the world changes that seems to break institutions. This goes down to the personal level and my previous point: the small but growing number of people who live lives on a global or multi-local level (as opposed to nation-based, the state is almost reduced to a backdrop and issuer of identity) almost falls out of the governance structures. At the same time, while totally privileged to work that way, and also contributing lots to local economies and communities, this group faces all kinds of hurdles while moving back and forth. Just ask anyone who tries to work for a few months from another country while on a project of sorts, or founding a company. Again, others have written at much more depth about this – I recommend starting reading Ben Hammersley’s excellent blog.

At least in Germany (but also in many other developed countries), the job market is doomed almost by definition. Demographics look dark for both jobs and pension plans, education can’t keep up, immigration restrictions are tough even for super skilled workers. We produce more as a society/economy, yet still aim for full employment, which only half makes sense. How can we make sure everybody can get by and participate fully (particularly those whose jobs have been made redundant by technology) without getting into early-20th-century capitalism v communism debates that help no one? (This, of course, is kind of the big question here.)

Globally, trust in institutions is way down, including political parties. As someone who majored in political science and worked in election campaigning, this is particularly tough, yet totally understandable. However, how to fix this? No real alternatives to parties have emerged. (Personally, I’m disappointed by the Pirate Party that seemed to take an ambitious stand on this issue, yet ended up combining the worst of both worlds.) We kinda need a quick fix for this, too, as a strong disconnect in politics leads to the rise of dangerous freaks – of which the Tea Party is only one. (Not to invoke Godwin’s Law too early on in the discussion, but having grown up in Germany I’m somewhat sensitive to populism.)

Besides those heavyweight questions, there’s lighter & more positive challenges ahead, too. Funnily, they tie right into the same mechanics as the rest above.

Why can we still not get a decent video streaming service in Germany? (Netflix, I’m looking at you!) As long as national borders – here in shape of licensing deals – delay the global distribution of inherently global services, we all lose. There are many, many, many examples of this, and truly, it’s 2011 – this is a problem of the past that just sticks around because we’re all used to it. Let’s tackle that. Seems doable.

Infrastructure! The apartments I know are still relatively (!) barebones in terms of network infrastructure. Yet, both offices and apartments alike have an abundance of screens large and small. (I’m aware of five in my household – two phones, two laptops, one under-utilized TV. Not counting some smaller gadgets, disused phones etc.) There’s huge potential and so little going on. The good folks at BERG and others have been digging into this for awhile. There’s so much more to do there yet.

And then, of course, there’s always the loveliest of Sunday questions: Who to meet for coffee, and where? And that’s where I’m off to now. Enjoy your Sunday.

The sun is Constantly Setting (watch it)


Out of Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino‘s lab comes Constant Setting, a beautiful Flickr-based mashup. Constant Setting shows us photos (released under Creative Commons, tagged on Flickr with sunset and a location), from those places where the sun is setting right now. So what happens is, you get to see a never-ending flow of sunset photos from all over the world, following the sun setting around the globe. Beautiful – make sure to switch to full screen!

Constant Setting, image courtesy Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Image: Constant Setting, courtesy Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

Constant Setting was created by Alexandra D.S., D’Arcy Saum and Nick Chip. Read more on Alexandra’s blog, and don’t forget to watch the sunset.