Virtual Nations: Prelude to Revolution

Let a thousand nations bloom

Sienna, Italy

Summary: The monolithic nature of today’s brick and mortar governments forces compromise on critical issues just when we need bold decisions; their preoccupation with everything physical and the need for historical precedence derived from centuries-old legal frameworks slows legislative progress down to a trickle just when we need swift action. This problem is exacerbated by the rapid rate of technological advance, much of which is alien to lawmakers.

We aim to liberate the governance of intellectual property and legal jurisprudence over non-physical entities from the historical yoke of existing governments, in the process creating nimble self-governing virtual nations with focused social and political charters that they can drive effectively using the most modern tools at their disposal. Our goal is to break the logjam in political discourse and drive a massive improvement in philanthropy at scale on thorny issues that impact humanity and our planet today and into the future.

In order to achieve this goal, we need to build a platform for delivery of e-Government services to citizens of virtual nations as well as the initial implementation of a few such nations. The same platform can later be utilized by physical governments to streamline their operations.

Imagine what would happen if a green guy arrives from Mars tomorrow and you’re tasked with educating him on how we govern ourselves as a species. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re a nice person and don’t want to scare him with tales of torture, mayhem, and despotism from days past. As such, you’ll limit yourself to describing the most advanced model of governance ever devised by us humans. Let’s further limit the lesson to the system as currently implemented in the most modern and economically successful nation on earth.

There are so many parts of this lecture that I’d love to hear, starting with the reasons we choose to govern ourselves by a document authored at a time when slavery was still legal, most of the populace was illiterate, and it took months to deliver an “urgent” message cross-country; what the electoral college accomplishes and why it’s necessary; why a simple act that is perfectly legal in one state is considered a crime five miles down the road in another; what gerrymandering means and how it’s weaponized to subvert representative democracy; why corporations are really the same as individuals when it comes to fundamental rights.

I suspect the poor creature will jump back in his spaceship and skedaddle back to a sane planet long before you get a chance to tell him why we still have to vote on pieces of paper and wait days or weeks for election results, decades after building an electronic system that could accomplish the same task much more accurately in a matter of seconds, not to mention why we spend billions of dollars every year electing “representatives” to vote for us in a far-off land when every one of us carries a device in our pockets that could perform the same task in milliseconds flat with more fidelity, far less theatrics, and dramatically less cost.

I’ll leave it to you to explain why we have a right to free speech but not a right to privacy, a right to bear arms but no right to shelter or universal healthcare, a right to vote but, and let’s be honest about this one, no right to actually be faithfully represented by the very people we elect to office.

I doubt you’ll ever get a chance to explain why we continue to spend trillions of dollars building weapons of mass destruction when we already have enough to destroy the planet many times over or why it makes sense that a climate protection accord, painstakingly negotiated by thousands of scientists and policymakers across the globe, can be stymied at the whim of a single petulant individual.

Perhaps you’ll opt to avoid all these messy topics and instead cover an even more “modern” human attempt at governance. I dare you. I double dare you. You’re welcome to pick from any of the following twentieth century attempts: Soviet Russia, Mao’s China, the Third Reich, North Korea, or the Islamic Republic of Iran.

There’s a reason aliens are always depicted as little green men in the movies. They’re actually a nice shade of pale blue in real life. They only turn green with nausea when they arrive on Earth and realize what a mess we’ve made of things. We can stop worrying about them coming over to take control of our planet. The smart ones would run away the minute they find out how we choose to govern ourselves.

We shouldn’t blame politicians for the current state of affairs. They’re just playing the game by rules we’ve put in place, fighting each other tooth and nail every day to make small incremental changes to an old and creaky architecture. If we’re not careful, the whole platform may crumble under our feet even as we’re busy patching it.

The last time we innovated positively in our model of governance was 250 years ago, a time without cars, without telephones, without even electricity! A time when most of the populace never traveled more than a dozen miles from their place of birth and when women were considered the property of their husbands. A lot has changed since then. It’s time to rethink our approach to governance, from the bottom up.

Every once in a while, and I’d say two and a half centuries is long enough, it’s time to take a giant step backwards and ask: Which is smarter? To keep making small incremental changes to an existing monolithic architecture or to start from scratch, knowing everything we know, drawing upon every lesson we’ve learned so far, comprehending and taking into account everything that has changed around us. After all, we’ve disrupted everything else in our lives recently; why not the way we govern ourselves?

One of the lessons you learn working in the computer industry is that there’s a significant cost associated with working on an old architecture and that cost increases over time, not linearly but rather exponentially. The more customers you support, the more scenarios you address, the more lines of code you generate, the harder it becomes to change the overall system for the better.

It’s much easier to make small incremental changes to an existing architecture, adding a few bells and whistles here, fixing a few bugs and blemishes there, than to do anything original, to deliver substantive improvements — even when the system is most in need of those changes. Mediocrity, compromise, and incrementalism become the modus operandi even as more and more effort is expended to keep the whole edifice up and running.

The same argument can be made for the automotive industry, just to take another example. As an automobile manufacturer, you can keep chipping away at the internal combustion engine, producing cars every year that are slightly more fuel efficient or a tad bit faster. Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself differentiating your brand by innovating on the number and shape of cup holders!

Or you can recognize that an electric vehicle is fundamentally a better architecture, inherently easier to build and maintain, and better for the environment. No need to go to the gas station, no need for gears and catalytic converters and exhaust pipes, no oil changes, no CO2 emissions, no Exxon Valdez oil spill. The list keeps going on.

Sooner or later, just like in the computer and automotive industries, just like in any endeavor resulting in the creation of complex systems, we will come to realize that we’re spending more time and energy feeding the old architecture than actually addressing the real problems it was meant to address. That cost becomes more and more prohibitive as time goes on, as warts are added to the system to deal with eventualities that the original architects never envisioned.

The monolithic nature of today’s brick and mortar governments thus forces compromise on critical issues just when we need bold decisions; their preoccupation with everything physical and their need for historical precedence derived from centuries-old legal frameworks slows legislative progress down to a trickle just when we need swift action.

Why on earth are we still using this ancient model of government, with all its warts and inefficiencies, and twisting it into pretzels in order to manage the affairs of billions of people in an age when you can get the answer to literally any question we can imagine in just a few milliseconds? Why on earth are we reaching unnaturally to find “precedence” in two hundred year old real estate laws to apply to matters of Cyberspace?

Of course, there are excellent reasons why the founding fathers put in place checks and balances between the various pillars of government, why we are a republic and not a pure democracy. But, and this is a big “but”, we’ve all seen those well-meaning principles sullied for political gain. Gerrymandering, corporate lobbying, special interests, Citizens United, electoral college, congressional stalemates, … the list is endless.

We can chip away at the current model, slowly and incrementally improving it while putting up with all the unintended warts, one step forward, two steps back; or, we can start with a clean sheet of paper, learning from the past and designing a new system for the future.

Now is the time, I claim. Time to rethink the model. The world around us has changed. Democracy, as currently implemented, is not the end state of government. It’s only one step along its evolution, one that has served us well but is now showing its age. We can do better.

So, what’s the answer? I’m not smart enough to know that but here are a few thoughts on the subject.

Imagine a world in which we’re all citizens of multiple countries: a physical one in which we reside as well as several “virtual nations”, each of which champions our most cherished social and political causes.

Each such nation can simplify the landscape by concentrating on one or a few critical issues rather than compromising in order to appease all constituents. We can use online tools to make our opinions known directly, alleviating the need for all those far flung representatives. Over time, as we gain popularity and prove our mettle, we can influence existing governments on how they work and how they prioritize the concerns of their citizens.

As a first step, and in order to reduce the problem space, we can draw a line in the sand between the physical and virtual worlds we inhabit. We can continue to use the existing governance models and systems already in place to address the needs of the physical world around us while building a new governance model, informed by the current one but free of its historical idiosyncrasies, for the virtual one.

There’s really no urgent need to change the laws around residential real estate or vehicular traffic in a city, for example. But why on earth are we using those same laws to drive the definition and implementation of laws for Cyberspace? Yes, a website “resembles” a residential property in some ways but it also differs from it in many respects.

It’s one thing to use existing laws as precedent for new environments, quite another to use the same cumbersome processes we were saddled with two centuries ago. There is no reason to slow down how we govern intellectual property and Cyberspace by the same arcane legislative processes.

To be clear, I’m advocating the use of the internet, blockchain algorithms, zero trust security, and computing infrastructure in general, for all manner of simplification of building a Government-as-a-Service platform, one that implements streamlined tools for such tasks as filing and voting on referendums, census taking, elections, public debate, social services, intellectual property governance, etc.

And before you scream about the privacy and security issues, please keep in mind that I managed the operating systems and security divisions of Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, Cisco, VMware, and Cloudflare. Please trust me on this. It can be done securely, scalably, and reliably. And, yes, of course we would take all necessary precautions to make sure it’s not abused and that the privacy of all citizens is protected. Besides, it’s not like I’m proposing that we use such a system to implement the laws of the United States or other existing governments. Au contraire! All I want to do is to create made-up countries.

Imagine what citizenship in such nations would mean to people living under authoritarian governments today. Imagine, too, the powerful message sent to such repressive regimes as citizens (anonymously) make their voices heard around the globe.

For centuries, by necessity, the concept of country and of its closely associated terms, nation and government, have been rooted in a physical geographic presence, a “homeland” we are born into and of which we become de facto citizens.

But, obviously, a country is not really about trees, rivers, and mountains. It’s about a set of common beliefs, rules, laws, institutions, traditions, and a shared history — all of which exist only in the minds of human beings. The associated piece of land is just a necessary historical artifact; one that, with the advent of the internet, is no longer required as an ingredient.

For the first time in human history, we have the ability to create virtual nations, ones whose citizens agree to adhere to a set of laws based on a shared set of values and ideals, not ones forced upon them by the incidence of their births, by the prejudices of their forefathers, or by the eccentricities of eighteenth century jurisprudence.

The advent of the internet has made it possible for us to occupy a new and different landscape than the one we used to inhabit just a few decades ago. We do business with corporations halfway around the world, we interact with friends and family many time zones away, we engage in political and social discourse with people we’ve never met and will probably never meet in the future. We live most of our waking hours in a different universe than the one we physically inhabit.

It’s time that we recognize the internet for what it is: a new digital world that can be carved up into virtual nations, each with its own laws, citizens, and corporations, a world where we can learn from the historical mistakes we’ve all made but one that does not need physical proximity or inherited ancient (and often irrelevant) laws in order to thrive.

A nation, in this parlance, is any geographically dispersed gathering of like-minded individuals willing to obey a certain set of laws, in our case laws enacted and enforced by the citizens themselves: a true democracy.

After all, what is a country but a set of ideals shared by a people, embodied in a constitution, and (hopefully) enforced by a government, who just also happen to be, until now, in relative physical proximity? Yet, the citizens are not really defined by their geographic coordinates: an American citizen is an American citizen even if he chooses to live in Timbuktu for the rest of his life. Conversely, when we say someone has renounced her American citizenship, we’re making a cultural and political statement; we are talking about the individual’s belief systems and financial obligations, not where she happens to reside at the moment.

We are citizens of countries, first and foremost, in our minds. And those countries represent belief systems encoded in our laws and customs. A country is an entirely man-made concept and a recent one at that. Even our legal systems are more often concerned with ephemeral mental models and intellectual property laws than with physical pieces of land.

The incidence of our birth place, and the surroundings of our adolescent years, often define our character indelibly. Yet, they also often lock us into political belief systems with which we don’t necessarily agree. That made sense a few centuries ago when we didn’t have any other choices and when our belief systems were informed by the few people around us but it makes no sense in this day and age.

Politics can be massively streamlined in such a virtual world. We no longer live in a universe where we need to elect officials to represent us in far away lands when we can make our choices known, definitively, in milliseconds. Our laws should, of course, be informed by historically relevant precedence but they shouldn’t be forever shackled to them.

Being a dual citizen in our physical countries ensures that the concept of virtual nations can’t be used as an excuse to break existing laws where we live; the idea is to streamline the implementation of social causes, not to thwart existing legal systems.

Virtual nations gain legitimacy by the number of citizens they recruit and by the continued engagement of those citizens in civic governance. If we get a few hundred people interested, we’ll be a failed experiment. If a few thousand, perhaps we’ll become a Facebook “group”… with just as much (or as little) political legitimacy as that implies. If we get a few million people, we start having a legitimate claim to relevancy. And if we get a few hundred million, we’ll start a revolution that will change the world for the better.

These virtual nations thrive financially if and when companies register to do business in them. By doing so, the corporations are making several important statements: first, that they care about (and want to be directly involved in) how their tax dollars are spent; second, that they care about the moral and social values implied by their business decisions; third, that they want to participate directly with citizens in defining how those laws are implemented; and fourth, that as Henry David Thoreau said: “the best government is the one that governs the least.”

What I envision here is similar to how a company like Microsoft or Amazon start subsidiaries in tax havens like Ireland so they can reduce their overall tax burden. In the case of virtual nations, corporations are redirecting their tax dollars to our countries so the funds can be more effectively and efficiently spent on issues that they care about.

Our first customers will be virtual nations based on ideological beliefs that are being assaulted or ignored by today’s governments. Yes, I recognize that the platform can be hijacked to implement hateful nations; no, we will not allow that.

To the extent possible, we want these nations to be small, nimble, and focused. Each nation will represent one or a few such beliefs. You can be a citizen of multiple such nations simultaneously: one where climate change is the most important issue, another where education reform is prioritized highest, a third where gender equality is emphasized, a fourth where…

Think about the efficiency and speed gained by each such nation in pushing its cherished agenda without having to compromise with a thousand competing political agendas.

Now let a thousand nations bloom.

I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thanks.



Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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Ben Fathi

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.