In 2013, the serial entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan gave a widely discussed talk at the tech incubator Y Combinator on a paradigm derived from the work of political economist Albert O. Hirschman. There are two basic paths to reform, he explained: You can speak up and remake a system from within (“voice”) or you can simply leave and build something new that might one day takes its place (“exit”).
That latter concept is the framework through which Silicon Valley tends to solve problems, and it captures the worldview of Srinivasan, whom venture capitalist Marc Andreessen says has “the highest output per minute of new ideas of anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”
In his new book, The Network State: How to Start a New Country, Srinivasan makes the case for migrating much—though not all—of our lives onto the internet while changing how we get together in meatspace. Ever-improving digital tools give humans an unprecedented and always-accelerating ability to create opt-in, fully voluntary communities where people choose to meet, work, live, and love.
From existing, terrestrial countries that are attracting immigrants with the promise of a better standard of living to blockchain communities that draw participants by laying out clear-cut, contractual rules, responsibilities, and obligations, Srinivasan articulates a future that is profoundly democratic and consensual—thus liberating us from a status quo in which self-determination is little more than a pipe-dream.
Raised in suburban Long Island, Srinivasan holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford. He co-founded the genetic testing firm Counsyl and served as the first chief technology officer of Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange. He’s been a fierce critic of the FDA, which might account for his being short-listed to head up the agency under President Donald Trump.
“What if this coronavirus is the pandemic that public health people have been warning about for years?,” he tweeted in January 2020, as Vox and mainstream outlets were busy attacking Silicon Valley venture capitalists for taking the crisis too seriously. “It would accelerate many pre-existing trends,” he wrote, “border closures, nationalism, social isolation, preppers, remote work, face masks, distrust in governments.”
I talked with Srinivasan about The Network State, the rise of China as a tightly centralized global power, and the future of freedom both online and offline.*
CORRECTION: The original version of this writeup mischaracterized Srinivasan’s opinion on whether Peter Thiel is part of the “descending class.”
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