11 min read

The rise of network unions

The rise of network unions

This post is an exploration of balajis' concept of the network union:

A network union (NU) is an evolved state of a digital community. Coalitions of people who, powered by technology, shape the world to their will.

Perhaps the best way to explain this compelling and impending phenomenon is to look at some hypothetical cases. But before we can do that, we should talk about...

Your digital selves

For the vast span of human history, each person was only one person. They existed in a single body which moved around on the rock called planet Earth.

You're born into a body you'll have for your entire life. You're given a name you'll probably have your entire life. You get ID cards, make relationships, get paid, and make people smile, cry, and question their sanity.

After the internet showed up, some of us started to have alter egos online. We may have used a different name than the one on our ID cards. We say things we'd never say in "real life." We make friends and enemies. We learn things. And we waste a whole lot of time.

But more and more, our digital selves are influencing the physical world, and the lines between the two are getting blurred. It is now possible build strong relationships with other people, make an income, and influence countless others... without them ever knowing your "real" name or seeing the face sitting on the front of your skull.

If you keep these activities to yourself — and if you get paid in cryptocurrency and use a VPN — even your bank, government, spouse, and mother might not know you're doing any of this.

So at what point does a digital self become "real" in the traditional sense of the word?

I won't get any more philosophical than that in this post, but it's a question that I think should be posed before we continue this discussion of network unions because participation in some of them will require more individual legitimacy than others.

The 2 types of NUs

First, there will be network unions that anyone is welcome to join. We can think of these as Open NUs.

Then, there will be network unions that have some barriers to entry. We can think of these at Exclusive NUs.

Open NUs

The local leader

Your name is Brenda Badass, and you're sick of all these fuckin' potholes in your sizable city of Lamesville.

You go online and tell everyone that you've created a group (which is actually a network union) called Potholes Suck (PS). You share a map of the city with pins on each pothole. Each member of the group who fills a pothole and uploads a picture of it will get 10 BrendaBucks. People will then be able to spend their BrendaBucks to vote on how the group should improve the city next.

To your surprise, several hundred people join the group, and the potholes are all filled within the week. Similar projects follow. More people join. More BrendaBucks are issued, and Lamesville is starting to look less lame than it used to.

Also, people are starting to trade their BrendaBucks internally. It starts small. One member is happy to mow another member's lawn for a month because they've done so much to help the community. Another member wants to accumulate a large amount of BrendaBucks so that their upcoming proposal gets adopted by the other members.

City elections are coming up. You realize that over a quarter of the city's population is already in PS, so you announce that you're running for mayor. The only campaigning you do is to state, in a short post, the things you plan to do as mayor:

  • Let people use BrendaBucks as municipal tax credits
  • Revitalize the historic downtown district
  • End all homelessness in the city
  • Eliminate 90% of the fees to starting or owning a business

"You can't do that, Brenda, you crazy bitch!" say the haters. You admit that you don't know the legality or feasibility of your plans. But you do know that you care about making Lamesville a nice place to live, and your fellow NU members know it too.

You win in a landslide. Change happens. The ball is rolling.

The possible variations to the story above are limitless. Maybe Brenda ends up leading a mass exodus from Lamesville. Maybe a large portion of the city secedes. Who knows. Balajis offers a lot of possibilities, too:

One day the network union may bargain on behalf of the collective for cheaper bulk purchases of a high-volume staple like masks. The next day it could negotiate with a payments platform to reinstate a deplatformed member. And the next day it might find a job for a union member down on her luck. In general, if a corporation demonetizes you, unbanks you, deplatforms you, censors you, or otherwise harms you, a network union has your back. If a state doesn’t respect your group’s interests, a network union has your back too.

Exclusive NUs

Visa petitioners

Moving abroad is kind of a bitch, but maybe not for the reasons you're imagining. Once you get rid of all the excess baggage weighing you down, the physical process of relocating is pretty straightforward — just grab your laptop and your clothes, then buy a plane ticket.

The hassle, instead, is visas. If you have a good passport, a lot of the time you can just show up in a country, and they'll let you stay for 90 days. That's not bad if you're a digital nomad, but for most people, picking up and moving every three months gets old fast.

Say you want to live in Thailand long-term. They'll let you stay a couple years if you get a student visa. But this means paying money to a school — e.g. to learn Thai, martial arts, etc. — and often going to Thailand, then hopping over to Laos to switch your visa type. My wife Rei and I have now done exactly that on two separate occasions.

Don't get me wrong — Laos is pretty chill. But I don't want to go fly (or worse, take a van) all the way there just to activate my visa. I don't want to wonder what I'll do to stay in Thailand after one or two years. I don't want to visit immigration offices every couple of months. And I don't want to waste time going to language classes that are slow and inefficient. (I'm dying for NativShark Thai to come out.)

Sometimes when Rei and I are going through the long and arduous process of applying for a long-term visa for a new country, we'll jokingly say:

I wish we could just chat with them for a few minutes. They'd see that we are good people. We'll bring money into their economy. We won't cause problems. We'll respect the culture. It's a win-win!

And that's supposed to be the premise of a long-term visa arrangement. The country wins by getting a valuable resident. The resident wins by living somewhere they find preferable.

But the country can't just let anyone in. Who knows how many of them will turn into homeless illegal residents. So they big-brain the situation:

A: How do we let in just foreigners who benefit our nation?

B: First of all, let's make sure their visa application includes an apostilled copy of their birth certificate.

A: Great idea. Love it. Let's also require a bachelor's degree from a 4-year university. I don't want some asshole who's making six figures without a degree.

B: Eww, could you imagine? Oh, and don't forget printed photos for the application. Let's go with 4cm by 4cm. And let's deny the app if the size is wrong, lmao.

I can't really blame them. If I asked an 80-year plumber to set up my website and podcast studio, he's probably gonna fuck it up.

Nations who figure out how to identify, attract, and welcome valuable residents will have a huge advantage in the next couple of decades. Some governments have gotten wise to this, which is why:

  • Georgia lets people just show up and stay for a full year. And the visa is easily renewed.
  • Thailand lets you stay for 5-20 years if you give them 10k~50k or so with their Elite Visa.
  • Panama makes it easy to get permanent residency with their Friendly Nations Visa.

There are more examples emerging just about every month. Most are a hassle to apply for. Or they require so much money that you have to be in the 1% to qualify.

And a lot are much less appealing than they look on the surface. For example, they offer you a visa if you're self-employed and make a certain income, but then they try to tax you a bunch.

Now, imagine that I'm the member of a network union called Awesome Fuckin' Expat Lads & Lasses (AFELL). To be in AFELL, you must (cryptographically) prove you:

  • Have a stable income of at least X BTC, ETH, etc.
  • Have sufficient savings to fund setting up a new home abroad.
  • Have no criminal background.
  • Have a valid passport from an approved list of nations.
  • Participate in initiatives to preserve and promote varied cultures.
  • Other stuff — who knows.

The head of AFELL could call up, say, Malaysia.

AFELL: Malaysia, how would you like to have 8,000 quality lads boosting your economy?

Malaysia: Sounds lit. What can I do?

AFELL: Give us 10-year visas on arrival. No application! And we don't want to pay taxes.

Malaysia: No application? Are you crazy?!

AFELL: Crypto, baby. It is better at identifying quality lads than all your consulates combined.

Malaysia: I don't know. What about local residents? Won't this deal hurt them?

AFELL: Nah, because we all source income from outside Malaysia. We're literally bringing money into your country. And we're happy to compromise when it comes to stuff like owning Malaysian assets so that your local residents don't get left behind.

Malaysia: Hmm...

AFELL: Tell you what: We'll also set up a business accelerator where we offer free training to Malaysians on areas of member expertise.

Malaysia: Sweet. Let's do it.

Since I'm a verified, active member of AFELL, I can now show up in Malaysia whenever I want and live there long-term. If I do shady shit, I risk getting booted from AFELL, which would suck because it's the world's best club for location-independent humans. It makes it possible to show up in the most free states of the world with just a QR code they scan on my phone to let me enter and live there long-term.

Like most NUs, you could probably also come up with a potential use for a native currency, which they might call an ExpatiCoin. These might be accumulated by, say, reviewing the cryptographically identity-protected* application materials of would-be members, and they might be spent when polling which nation state should be lobbied next, among other things.

*Because although fellow NU members would only know you by your pseudonym, your real-world identity and background would have to be linked to your account in order to gain membership and access to sovereign nations.

Identity Pseudonymous Layered: pseudonymous & real
Dispersion Localized Global
Native currency BrendaBucks ExpatiCoins
Membership Open Exclusive

NU seed bombing

On the one hand, we could imagine what would happen if a single network union grew to be very large, with many millions of members. Suddenly, altering federal government policies is not out of reach. And it is even theoretically possible to create an entire country.

Conversely, there is a good chance that there will be a multitude of average-sized NUs. For example, what if most cities in the country started their own chapter of Potholes Suck? Would all of the leaders of PS chapters in a certain state coordinate to take control of the government? Would the entire state secede from the nation? Is it feasible that the chapters would grow to be so ubiquitous that the governance of the entire country as a whole would change? We'll see.

But it seems likely that once a small number of NUs get a bit of traction and publicity, they will be emulated. We can imagine that the internet will seed bomb the planet with them — a trend that cannot be contained.

NUs are vehicles of freedom

The concept of freedom becomes important when an entity with more power than you interferes with your ability to do what you want.

In his forthcoming book Freedom, Sebastian Junger explores the three things that people do when their freedom is threatened by a more powerful entity:

  1. Run
  2. Fight
  3. Think

Network unions make each of these three reactions more effective. In the examples above, AFELL helps members to run away from their oppressive governments. Or the members of Potholes Suck could go off and create their own city somewhere.

Brenda Badass and her fellow NU members combine their powers to fight against the incumbent government's negligence by taking control of it through an election.

And all network unions that attempt to assert the freedom of members are inherently employing people's ability to come up with creative methods of defense against threats of liberty. It is here that we find the genesis of cryptocurrency itself — the aim to create a liquid store of value that cannot be debased by a government.

Your most valuable self

What seems inevitable is that the digital world — a vast array of network unions — will affect almost every aspect of human civilization.

We're approaching a society in which it matters less about who you are and more about what you've done or can do. And technology makes it so that your digital selves are a lot more equipped to prove what you have or can do.

Say you want to become a professional translator of Japanese. You want to write English localizations of Japanese video games. The traditional path to doing this would have been to get a degree in the language, followed perhaps by a master's degree in translation and maybe membership in a translators' association. And then you have to apply for a job at an agency, and they give you a test that does a mediocre job of gauging your actual skills. They pay you a shit salary to translate stuff that doesn't even interest you.

What if, instead, you just learned Japanese with a platform that tracked your mastery of each concept the language contains — every word, every grammatical construction, every conjugation? What if that platform were so good at tracking concepts that its tests would accurately gauge the entire scope of your knowledge of the language? What if it allowed you to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are qualified for a particular translation project? The client could upload their translation documents, and the platform would know which translators are familiar with all of the concepts in it and are therefore qualified to translate it.

Suddenly, it doesn't make sense to take the traditional route. Technology makes it possible to not only learn something online, but to verify your ability. It doesn't matter who you know, or where you went to school, or if you wore a tie to your interview. If you can do the job well, you'll get the job.

I mention Japanese because we're working on this over at NativShark, but the concept applies to all jobs that can be done remotely.

What's the point of even screening applications when blockchain technology can just match me to a person who is definitely qualified for the job?

And who knows, maybe the candidates for that job will be members of a network union that requires proof of knowledge or ability in order to join. Maybe rather than competing for jobs, they just get them automatically based on the amount of NU currency they hold (e.g. BrendaBucks). Maybe they bid for receipt of contracts using this currency.

Time will tell.