“The universe of Urbit is utterly foreign. Galactic identities abound. Layers of neologisms, runes, and lapidary conventions combine with disorienting effect, even to — no, especially to the experienced programmer. There are many resources to study, and endless paths within. Most are necessary, none are themselves sufficient.“
As someone with a taste for the esoteric, Urbit, a computational infrastructure built to re-empower computer usership, is immediately attractive. Composed of planets, stars, comets, ships, galaxies, and a unique programming language structured on an iconography of ASCII runes, the Urbit universe feels like a cosmological science fiction. It is also a peculiar case of the collision and occasional asymmetry of politics and technology.
Networks are both an active embodiment of ideology while occasionally offering a suspension of them. Urbit offers the user access to an independent server in an effort to decentralize the internet away from corporate governance. Maintaining that corporate servers such as Facebook prohibit user freedom and control, Urbit is an effort to create a new platform on top of the pre-existing internet infrastructure. The website states:
“Your Facebook is now your Dropbox and your Evernote and your WordPress and your Gmail. And it’s not just Web apps; all your servers move to Facebook. Your Nest talks to a Facebook server. Your iPhone talks to Facebook instead of iCloud. Your Fitbit records your heart rate in a Facebook log. Your Facebook manages your finances and pays your bills. Got bitcoin? Facebook is your wallet. Shop online? Check out the Facebook Store — it sells everything!
In short, you can just lock your browser to facebook.com. The Web is dead. Or more precisely, it’s an obsolete protocol which you use to log in to Facebook.”
Urbit operates by linking all internet usage to an independent server which you control. It collects and securely stores your entire data live stream- all personal data produced intentionally or inadvertently. Controlled by a private key, this information can be shared pseudo-anonymously, in a gesture which the developers believe could signal massive changes in medical and financial research. It also offers a encrypted and decentralized chat network. Functionally, Urbit harkens back to the early peer-to-peer days of the net, prior to spam and advertising and the centralized control of private companies.
Urbit is still in an early stage, an its effort towards a fully decentralized network remains fully fictional until it is adopted by a wider audience. Currently, Urbit usage requires the adoption of a new functional language, Hoon, and so remains largely inaccessible to non-programmers. The dream of the platform is to develop its interface towards widespread usability, but this requires time, effort and participants. While Urbit seems directly orientated towards user interests, there is a potential barrier in the way of popular adoption: the political writings of its primary developer, Curtis Yarvin or Mencius Moldbug.
Yarvin draws a distinction between his activities as a programmers and the writings of his online avatar, Moldbug, an influential figure in the highly controversial neo-reactionary movement. Loosely summarized by David Auerbach at The Slate, Yarvin (writing as Moldbug) believes that “Democracy sucks, the strong should rule the weak, and we could use a good old-fashioned dictator to clean up this mess.” While Yarvin insists he is not a racist, critics strongly believe he is.
In 2015, Yarvin was rejected from speaking at a tech conference, Strange Loop, on account of his views. Last year however, LambdaConf included him as a participant irrespective of his beliefs, maintaining that “LambdaConf is all about functional programming. It is not about everything that can, does, and sometimes should divide us outside of it. But it is about this one thing, this one community, this one large subject that you are all passionate about and seek to improve our world with.” This resulted in an enormous scandal, the loss of other participants, and has been criticized as a “colorblind decision[s]” that signals “the death knell of inclusion in tech.”
It is difficult to accept the disconnect that Yarvin maintains between his two personas, particularly when Urbit possesses such a strong ideological core. Discussing Lambha’s decision to include him in their 2016 conference, Yarvin wrote “Yarvin will be speaking and attending. Moldbug is neither speaking nor attending. Yarvin is not interested in anything except system software and will ignore you, like a total aspie, if you bring up any other subject.” He also emphasizes that he has not been active as Moldbug since 2013. As Urbit has been in development by Yarvin since 2002, this temporal lapse is not enough to sever the connection between the two ideological spheres. Perhaps key to understanding the difference is the fact that Urbit, a decentralized network structured on facilitating user control, is not necessarily compatible with Moldbug’s anti-democratic beliefs.