An Empire (Network) State of Mind

Or how onchain brands like Higher will shape the culture

This piece was inspired by jihad's contest, which prompted writers to "describe a higher vision of the future."

In 2024, it's evident that the old world order is giving way to something new. We're not quite sure exactly what the new will look like, but we know that the old is crumbling, leaving us in something of a liminal space.

The conventional wisdom tells us that Pax Americana is ending and that the next era is not likely to be pretty, ushering in more conflict and instability across the world. This take is most common among geopolitics enjoyooors who have historically seen world order shifts through the lens of one empire passing the mantle to the next. Lacking a clear successor to America (even Ray Dalio is capitulating on China), they are left anticipating a world where a power vacuum emerges.

Balaji Srinivasan offers an alternative thesis motivated by his network state philosophy. He suggests that the next empire does not look like a traditional empire with clear geographic boundaries that underpin an ethnocultural value-set. Instead, he suggests that the Internet is the next America.

I'll let you click into his pitch and read the details, but the thrust is this — everything was virtualized by the Internet (eg. work, commerce, entertainment, etc), why not the concept of a state inhabited by "netizens"?

There are many reasons to be skeptical of the emergence of a well-governed internet state in the near-term. For one, states still rule through force and coordinating force without a geographic center is a challenging problem that is yet to be solved. That said, one section in Balaji's thesis stood out:

Fundamentally, Netizens are more connected to each other than they are to random fellow citizens. They videochat with people thousands of miles away, and don’t know their next door neighbors.

For Farcaster citizens, this is self-evident. There are hundreds of casts highlighting the magic of meeting "internet friends" IRL (in real life). Zinger even coined a concept, XRL, to describe this phenomenon:

XRL: first meet as internet friends, then put a body to the username, and then deepen the relationship both online and in-person

The key realization here however is that while the idea of local friendships has been virtualized to mean your neighboring Farcasters, there is a chasm between this mode of relationship, and organizing at the highest level (statehood). If that's the case then what comes next?

My answer — culture.

The globalization of culture

Before the internet and other mass media, culture was largely given boundaries by geography. The music you heard, the art you consumed, and the beliefs you held were influenced by your family, your tribe, and your local government. This was coupled with one's ethnicity and religious background. Culture was intertwined with your lineage and your land.

Inevitably, there began a slow decoupling of physical relationships and culture byway of cross-pollination between tribes and later, states. Historical trade routes like the Silk Road, accelerated this phenomenon, allowing trade to be a trojan horse to exchange culture (keep this thought in mind).

In the 20th century, the radio, TV, and personal computer further accelerated the disembodiment of culture, leading to a world where "asl?" became a common way to break the ice with someone. For the first time, a kid in China could be right "next to" a kid in California.

What do a great TV show, a killer album, and cultural disembodiment have in common?

The late 20th century also gave rise to a great consolidation in brands. Since you could disseminate information across the world in seconds, brands became globalized and the top brands in particular represented entire product categories: Nike for shoes, McDonalds for fast food, and Starbucks for coffee.

Brands atomized as proxies for meaning. In a world where culture was global, we needed icons that helped parse through the noise and tell us what was what. Atomization didn't stop at product categories either — it continued to subcultures and even individuals, eg. Supreme and Taylor Swift, each billion dollar brands.

What was lost in this process though was the ability to influence a brand and therefore the culture, through individual contributions.

If you and I lived continents apart from each other and felt kinship, we could chat in the evenings, and perhaps watch a livestream together or buy the same apparel. But there was no way for us to vote with our voices, besides consuming in a top-down manner.

We could both wear the same Supreme t-shirt, but we didn't have a say in how it was produced. We could both be Swifties, but we needed Taylor as the figurehead for the brand, around which we assembled. Collectively, we traded reach and scale for agency in shaping our cultures.

XRL brands

With crypto providing critical coordination rails, this fundamental limitation is lifting. The key insight here is that much like trade routes of past, commerce serves as a Trojan horse for culture.

If you and I each have a stake in a brand, we have a much stronger incentive to back it in a full-throated way than we did if we were just consumers. Now, not only can two people across the world vibe about a shared interest — they can buy-into it together and pool wealth in service of that interest and create an emergent XRL culture.

We can create a token onchain that represents a brand, then create artifacts and events that bring it to life in the real world. Finally, we return back online or onchain with a deepened sense of connection, but also value — having owned a stake in the brand from the very beginning.

To borrow a page from Chris Dixon's book, we're no longer just reading and writing to brands anymore — we're owning them and co-creating them.

An echo of Steve Jobs' iconic quote, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?”

A higher vision for the culture

The last 100 year arc wound much of the culture into atomic brands, as described earlier. If we are to shift the culture using new tech rails, it may be a fitting point to start at the end with brands, and unwind to our values.

In other words, what would it look like if we coordinated around onchain brands, but left them malleable enough, for the underlying art, music, governance, and even values to be defined by future participants?

Higher is one of the very first experiments on this front, as a "brand" coin — a token that wasn't formed around utility, a meme, an individual, or even IP.

Higher asks you to "believe in something" (emphasis added). It doesn't tell you what that something is, but suggests at a loose framework, and asks you to contribute your part. Like all brands, Higher is a substrate for people to overlay their individuality, but unlike top-down brands, leaves the underlying values and businesses more malleable.

Three different (and distinct) artist renditions of the higher arrow

That said, much like all successful brands, Higher will have to build upon its tabula rasa by progressively committing to what it stands for, as it grows and reaches greater audiences.

It will need to leverage traditional mechanisms for cultural transfer like apparel and branded products, so people can share their allegiance to the brand beyond the URL realm. Similar to how Pudgy Penguins leverages Walmart as their distribution channel for products, Higher is beginning to use its native distribution channel, Farcaster, to sell apparel via Slice.

Beyond this, Higher will need to expand into the IRL world by hosting events, and creating focal points for people to connect and continue building the brand.

Failing to do all these means Higher will regress to its source — a meme. But by fulfilling these next steps and expanding further into the "culture" stack, Higher can cement its values, its norms and potentially even robust governance standards to manage revenue from commerce.

All that to say, once the culture has been established, the next step as Balaji outlined it earlier, could be creating a state. These aspirations might seem comically out of reach right now (and they are), but to invoke the values of the brand, Higher asks us to think higher and dream bigger. What could be a higher vision than establishing an empire network state via collective building of a brand and culture?

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