You, the protagonist, are on a small fishing schooner off the coast of Norway. This is an Edgar Allan Poe story, so things aren’t going well. Your ship is trapped in a mile-wide whirlpool that grinds whales into pesto. Your younger brother just drowned in a perfunctory half-sentence. Your elder brother is clinging to a ringbolt near the bow. You’re astern, hanging on to a lashed-down empty water cask. The ship rides the maelstrom like it’s in the Indy 500, keel centripetally pinned to the black lane of water. Up to one side is the whirl’s edge, open sky, a brilliant moon. Down to the other is a rainbow, which smiles across the roiling mist of the abyss. 

Fear has driven your brother mad. You, however, take this chance to reflect on the romantic hopelessness of your situation. Turning and turning in the narrowing gyre, you begin to feel that you could get excited about dying this way, about being consumed by this great vortex of violent energy. It’s pretty fucking tremendous, right? Aren’t you and your brother lucky, in a way, to be finding out what’s down there? 

This article appears in the October 2022 issue. Subscribe to WIRED Illustration: Eddie Guy

But the run-me-over moment passes. You start contemplating the other debris that got sucked into the vortex along with your ship—home furnishings, construction materials, the snapped-off trunks of trees. Some stuff plunges quickly down into the funnel. Some stuff holds its place. Smallish cylindrical things, you notice, hardly descend at all. And look, here you are atop one of Poe’s favorite cylindrical literary devices, a cask. 

You signal your brother to join you, waving an arm as if to semaphore: Hop on! I found us a ride! He refuses to let go of the ringbolt. Grief-stricken but stoic, you lash yourself to the cask and wait for your moment. When it comes, you cut loose into the unknown alone. 

You watch the ship spiral down and disappear below you. The maelstrom subsides. Hair gone prematurely white, you live to tell your tale to a reporter.

Marshall McLuhan, the adopted seer of Silicon Valley—and at one time WIRED’s official patron saint—loved this story of Poe’s. Employed as a professor of English in Canada, he understood his job as awakening the masses to the “vortices of energy” exerted by different communication technologies (TV and film, radio, the printed word) and helping people “program a strategy of evasion and survival.” He preached that participants in “the electric age” must be like Poe’s fisherman. “Pattern recognition in the midst of a huge, overwhelming, destructive force is the way out of the maelstrom,” McLuhan once told a roomful of students. They had two choices: Learn to make the leap, or die paralyzed by the whirl.

It’s a shame that Saint Marshall didn’t live to tweet. What would he have said as he watched the electric age become the networked age, the age of a dirt-cheap, globe-spanning communication technology riding around in people’s pockets? What patterns would he have spotted as the great human network—with its political enmities, racial hatreds, economicuncertainties, climate fears, wars, pandemics—drove the walls of the maelstrom higher? What buoyant objects might he have pointed out on deck? When would he have said to jump?

The story you’re reading now is not about McLuhan or his obsession with vortices. This story is mostly about Balaji Srinivasan, a technologist and investor in his early forties, who does tweet, prodigiously.

Srinivasan has worn many identities in public—biomedical entrepreneur, Stanford professor, venture capitalist, crypto exec, potential head of Donald Trump’s Food and Drug Administration, Covid sage, gadfly up the nose of The New York Times. But I’d say his true calling is that of an ideological cooper. He develops flotation devices for escaping the maelstrom. In this too he is prodigious. When he first appeared on TheTim Ferriss Show, a podcast hosted by the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, he spotted patterns and prophesied the future almost uninterrupted for nearly four hours. This is typical, a former coworker of his told me; it’s called “getting Balaji’d.” Earlier this year, Srinivasan synthesized his thoughts into a book called The Network State, which is meant to provide some of the equipment and coaching you need to cut loose from this doomed schooner.

Balaji Srinivasan: “We want to be able to peacefully start a new state for the same reason we want a bare plot of earth, a blank sheet of paper, an empty text buffer, a fresh startup.”

Photograph: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Of course, Srinivasan isn’t the only one in this business. You, the consumer, have an Ikean abundance of casks to choose from these days. And like a lot of people, you may be questioning whether the traditional manufacturers (media corporations, major political parties, institutions generally) are really putting out the most watertight stuff. Maybe you’ve furtively checked out a few competing models over the years. Could this reclaimed-wood Occupy cask be your ride out? Or this splintery democratic-socialist one? Or this polyethylene drum that says TRUMP in gilt letters on the side? Should you consider the communal living cask, the digital nomadism cask, the prepper cask? Is a Bitcoin key more buoyant than a bank account?

At first glance, Srinivasan’s barrel may not stand out from the pile on deck. It seems to be made of a fairly typical techno-libertarian composite material—some mix of disdain for institutions, fear of wokeism, zeal for engineering, and lots of “personal runway” (i.e., enough money to buy an actual runway).

But look closer. Like a Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle, the cask is covered with curious utterings. Transcendence requires self-defense … The more mobile we are, the more cheaply we can change our law … A fractal polity is nuke-resistant … As you trace the words with your fingers, you begin to understand why Srinivasan is known—among his nearly 700,000 Twitter followers, among founders and VCs from Singapore to Sand Hill Road, among the kings and queens of crypto—as something of a mystic.

But what kind of reality is this cask made for? Where McLuhan looked out from the deck of the schooner and saw a “huge, overwhelming, destructive” spiral, Srinivasan sees something far more tidy—a corkscrew. “I have this concept that all progress actually happens on the z-axis,” he has said. (That’s the imaginary axis that comes out at you from the page of the math textbook.) What does he mean? That what feels to many people like the punishing cyclicality of capitalist technological life—industries disrupted, lives upended, societies undermined—is just a series of twists toward a grand goal. Humanity makes headway by going in circles. Srinivasan calls this his “helical theory of history.”

To puny mortal brains, the grand helical motion is visible as “unbundling and bundling” or “decentralization and centralization.” Srinivasan likes to quote a dotcom executive who said this is the only way to make money: Either you take something whole, dismantle it, and sell the parts, or you take some parts, put them together, and sell a whole. Srinivasan sometimes cites the example of the CD, which got unbundled into the MP3, which got rebundled into the Spotify playlist. “That’s the cycle that happens in computing,” he says. “That happens in history. It happens in technology. And I think it’s also happening here with nations and with states and so on.”

Yes, my fellow cask shoppers, the nation-state is unbundling. The weary giants of flesh and steel came down with what Srinivasan calls “civilizational diabetes,” and Covid has delivered the coup de grâce. The end won’t be pretty, he predicts. The gerontocracy will hoard power. The dreams of the masses for a happier, safer future will be frustrated. Crises will go unsolved. Potential will curdle into despair. But in the face of it all, Srinivasan tells Ferriss, he is here to teach us how to be “square-jawed Chads.” (We’ll get to who “we” are later.) He’s here to work toward “the great acceleration as opposed to the great stagnation.” He’s here to deliver a message to all followers of Saint Marshall: The time to jump is now.

What awaits us beyond the maelstrom, far along the z-axis, at the corkscrew’s end? Government by the internet, for the internet, and of the internet—a new birth of freedom in the cloud. Srinivasan’s book, published on the anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence, is a how-to guide for building startups, where the thing being started up is a new society. His own cloud country, if he were to found one (which may be more of a “when”), would be based on three ideals: “infinite frontier, immutable money, eternal life.” He has called this his “bumper sticker that expands into a PhD thesis.” It’s also his Twitter bio.

Is this the cask for you? Perhaps not. Maybe you’d sooner go down with the ship. But some of the squarest-jawed Chads on deck say the cask has qualities worth considering. And if you’ve paid any attention to Srinivasan during the last few gut-wrenching turns around the vortex, you have to admit: The guy careens, but he sure doesn’t sink; if anything he’s been ascending. So hop on for a turn. See what you like about this cask and what you hate. Maybe you can jot down some ideas for building your own one day.

Before we get to the lab-grown meat of this thing, a disclaimer: You’re best off not trusting a word I write about Srinivasan. The one time I spoke with him, in a refereed conversation he insisted take place on Clubhouse, he compared my profession to that of the East German secret police.

I am what Srinivasan calls a “corporate journalist.” I am an editor at WIRED, which is owned by a media company called Condé Nast, which is owned by a media company called Advance Publications, which is hereditarily owned by the Newhouse family (may they live forever and ever, amen). Srinivasan believes that media companies have “set out to compete with tech companies,” jealous that their (our) old-guard influence is waning at a time when Silicon Valley is attracting “all these users” and “all this money.” And because Srinivasan has founded and funded a number of tech companies, much of what a journalist writes about him—or anyone in the industry—should be understood as emerging from a sense of “wounded amour propre.”

How do a bunch of beta English majors expect to win a fair fight with Silicon Valley alphas? We don’t, of course. So we sit up here on the parapets of the First Amendment, this château we inherited along with every other goddamn thing, and take potshots at the hardworking civilization-builders down below. As Srinivasan has said, “Necessity is the mother of defamation.”

Srinivasan seems to respect our craft in the same way an exorcist respects Satan’s. We are quite good at what he calls “surveillance journalism.” We know how to “befriend and betray” our subjects, he says, how to sweet-talk them into embarrassing sound bites. We use the word “subjects” because we consider them—as we consider you—to be beneath us. And what do we do, finally, when we have gathered enough kompromat on you? We deploy it like malicious code. We “install software into the brains of your social network and make them turn on you,” Srinivasan says. Which is why it’s important to find out which periodicals your friends care about.

Reader, the Subject is right about us. We will stop at nothing. We’ll spam your acquaintances with interview requests. When almost none of them respond, and most of the ones who do say no, and most of the ones who say yes don’t want to be quoted by name, we’ll turn the weapons of Big Tech on itself. We’ll have an AI transcribe days’ worth of your podcast interviews. We’ll learn enough Python, kind of, to scrape your tweets, though we won’t be able to figure out what to do with the resulting JSON file, and our wounded amour propre will prevent us from asking for help. We’ll search doggedly through your old Hacker News comments. We’ll take up residence in the Internet Archive. We’ll mercilessly consider comments you’ve made in their historical and social context. We’ll come into possession of some emails you wrote and waffle over whether to quote from them, not wishing to be the subject (there’s that word again!) of a retaliatory lawsuit.

Point is, don’t trust me. Don’t trust any of the dozen other Newhouse flacks who worked on this surveillance file. We’re the Stasi, and we monetize the lives of others.

Let’s begin the operation.

It is a Saturday morning in October 2013. A crowd is gathering at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California. They’re here to attend a lecture series and networking event called Startup School, put on every year by the VC firm Y Combinator. For a technologist of a certain age, the venue is akin to Mount Sinai: From the stage here in 1984, Steve Jobs handed down the original Macintosh.

Of the people on today’s list of speakers, Srinivasan has one of the lower-wattage names. Jack Dorsey, the Twitter cofounder, is here. He’ll talk about how to build a product that “strikes a chord with everyone on the planet,” which he’ll illustrate by standing at the podium in a half-zipped track jacket for two and a half minutes while the audience listens to a French jazz tune called “Anguish.” Paul Graham, a cofounder of Y Combinator, will interview Mark Zuckerberg onstage, and when Zuck describes Facebook’s drive to connect the whole world “because it’s the right thing to do,” Graham will say, “so it’s a movement.”

In other words, Silicon Valley is twisting the corkscrew like there’s no tomorrow and generally expecting applause for it. The technocratic liberalism of the Obama era and the platform economies of Big Tech have been enjoying a nerdish cross-country romance for several years. Even jaundiced corporate journalists have occasionally caught feelings for all the talk of hackathons and network effects and health care economics.

But signs of an eventual, acrimonious unbundling have also been swirling for some time. Lehman Brothers went overboard in 2008, and then the global economy went grasping after ringbolts. Six weeks later Satoshi Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin and the idea, both threatening and beguiling, of a trustless decentralized financial system unencumbered by big banks and regulators alike. In The Wall Street Journal, Marc Andreessen issued his famous dictum that “software is eating the world.” (Other verbs he used to describe what tech was doing to the existing order included “take over,” “invade,” “eviscerate,” and “crush.”) Occupy Wall Street happened. Peter Thiel, after publishing an essay that questioned whether “freedom and democracy are compatible,” began making donations to Ted Cruz, a Tea Party insurgent running for Texas senator. Steve Jobs died. The writer Rebecca Solnit referred to Google’s private buses as “the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.”

The romance really began to unravel in the month leading up to Startup School. In Washington, Cruz and other Republicans maneuvered the Democrats into a standoff over Obamacare funding, causing the US federal government to shut down for more than two weeks. Simultaneously, the botched rollout of—a would-be for comparing insurance plans—revealed the Obama team to be a hopeless JV squad when it came to building platforms. When the government’s 16-day hiatus barely budged the stock market, a prominent venture capitalist said it was “becoming excruciatingly, obviously clear” that “where value is created is no longer in New York; it’s no longer in Washington; it’s no longer in LA; it’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area.” In Valleywag, Sam Biddle wrote, “This Asshole Misses the Shutdown.” In New York magazine Kevin Roose noted that the shutdown cut off essential services for low-income Americans and accused Silicon Valley of having a “dysfunction fetish.”

It is in this charged atmosphere that Srinivasan steps up to the podium. He is dressed sort of like Steve Jobs at an Apple event, which could be a coincidence. When he looks out, he sees a friendly crowd. His mouth seems dry, but he looks confident.

For the past five years, Srinivasan has been living a Silicon Valley bildungsroman. With a group of other young Stanford alums, he founded a startup called Counsyl, funded by Thiel, among others. It sells genetic tests for expectant parents to help them avoid passing on heritable conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy, sickle cell anemia, and Tay-Sachs disease. Returning to Stanford a triumphant entrepreneur, Srinivasan co-taught a big MOOC called Startup Engineering. (Course description: “Spiritual sequel to Peter Thiel’s CS 183 course on startups.”) MIT Technology Review has named him to its “Innovators Under 35” list. He cofounded another company, which is busily, buzzily working on a dedicated chip for bitcoin mining. He’s about to become a general partner at the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.

As Srinivasan’s business profile has grown, his political ideas have undergone a few twists of the corkscrew. In the years to come, he’ll talk especially about a book called The Sovereign Individual, recommended to him by Thiel. He appreciates its “strength-to-weight ratio,” how each line rewards exegesis. The authors—James Dale Davidson, an American investor, and William Rees-Mogg, a British baron and longtime editor of The Times of London—argue that as digital technology makes wealth increasingly hard to tax, the nation-state will dissolve. Governments and industries will topple. Millions of “losers” and “neo-Luddites” and “left-behinds” will find themselves unemployed, or worse. But in the end, a tiny “cognitive elite” will escape the “tyranny of place” and build a global meritocracy in cyberspace. They will live wherever they please, associate with whomever they please, and keep every tax-sheltered cent they earn. Davidson and Rees-Mogg call this new realm of opportunity “Bermuda in the sky with diamonds.” (Thiel wrote the preface to the 2020 edition.)

Srinivasan introduces himself to the Startup Schoolers as one of a dozen people with his name in the Bay Area. “I left Stanford in early 2008, scandalizing the department, to found a genomics company, which has become very successful,” he says. But he isn’t here to talk about that. He brings up his slide deck. “What I want to talk about today,” he says, “is something I’m calling ‘Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit.’”

Next slide: “Is the USA the Microsoft of Nations? Let’s consider the evidence.” Srinivasan gets a few jokes in: The Constitution is an ancient code base in an “obfuscated language.” There’s “systematic FUD” (Bitcoinese for “fear, uncertainty, and doubt”) about security issues. The software maker treats its suppliers terribly (thumbnails of Saddam and Gaddafi). The audience laughs.

Next slide: “What displaced Microsoft?” Answer: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. The force that incumbents fear most, Srinivasan says, is “some guys in a garage.”

Srinivasan is en route to the first statement of his big thesis, but he must take a detour through what he calls “a fundamental concept in political science.” He brings up the cover of a book by the late social scientist Albert O. Hirschman called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

Exit, Srinivasan explains, is taking your business elsewhere. It’s emigrating, unbundling, hitting the Back button on your browser. “Voice” is staying and speaking up. It’s citizens voting in elections, customers writing letters to the CEO. Voice and Exit are “modulated” by Loyalty, meaning that if you’re more loyal to something you’re less likely to eye the door.

The United States, Srinivasan explains, has been powerfully shaped by Exit. It’s “not just a nation of immigrants.” It’s also “a nation of emigrants.” The Puritans fled religious persecution; the revolutionaries fled a tyrant king; the Western pioneers fled the “East Coast bureaucracy”; the huddled masses fled pogroms, Nazism, Communism, the American embassy in Saigon. Exit is about “alternatives,” Srinivasan says. It’s about reducing “the influence of bad policies” over people’s lives without “getting involved in politics,” without “lobbying or sloganeering.”

And what other choice is there? The problem, Srinivasan explains, is that Silicon Valley is mired in a battle with what he calls the Paper Belt, “after the Rust Belt of yore.” The Paper Belt includes the entertainment industry (represented by LA), higher education (Boston), finance and media (New York), and government (DC). Against these incumbents, Silicon Valley has been the ultimate garage guy. The tech industry “arose out of nowhere,” Srinivasan says, “and by accident we’re putting a horse head in all of their beds. Right? We are becoming stronger than all of them combined.”

Naturally, Srinivasan continues, the Paper Belt is experiencing a “Paper Jam” and is pointing its finger at the IT department. “They are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley—to say that it was the iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts, the bankruptcies, and the bombings.” It’s important to correct the record, Srinivasan says, but no good will come from too much fighting: “They have aircraft carriers; we don’t.” What he’s describing instead, and will keep describing for the next nine years, is an “opt-in society, ultimately outside the US, run by technology.”

The Valley is already moving this way, Srinivasan goes on. Larry Page has talked about a special zone being set aside for unregulated experimentation. Andreessen has predicted that the world will see “an explosion” in the number of countries. Thiel has proposed colonizing the ocean; Elon Musk, colonizing Mars. To partake in the “Ultimate Exit,” Srinivasan says, you could buy a private island or even just telecommute. His final tip to the Startup Schoolers is that if they want to think big, they should build technology “for what the next society looks like.”

Here in Cupertino, the talk seems well (or at least politely) received. People post their notes from Startup School, weaving Srinivasan’s speech in among all the other helpful tips for founders. But in the media, it sets off a klaxon. In Valleywag, Nitasha Tiku (later a WIRED staffer) writes, “This is the Tea Party with better gadgets.” In New York, Roose writes that Srinivasan shows signs of a political personality type unique to Silicon Valley. His diagnosis: a “persecution complex” with “undertones of class hostility,” driven by a “secessionist instinct.”

Srinivasan, in an email to the journalist Tim Carmody (also a former WIRED writer), says there has been a misunderstanding. “I’m not a libertarian, don’t believe in secession, am a registered Democrat, etcetera etcetera,” he writes. “There’s nothing wrong with thinking about leaving the country of your birth in search of a better life.” But the damage control doesn’t seem to work. “Silicon Valley Dreams of Secession” reads a headline in Salon. “Silicon Valley Roused by Secession Call” reads one in The New York Times. “Silicon Valley Has an Arrogance Problem” reads one in The Wall Street Journal.

“Sheesh,” Srinivasan writes on a lively Hacker News thread the next day. “Clearly this touched a nerve.” He feels a need to clarify his position to a wider audience: “The motivating emotion here isn’t arrogance,” he writes. “It’s one part apprehension,” given what typically happens to talented would-be emigrants when the right of Exit is denied (he cites “the Jews in Europe”), and “one part hope, thinking that we can build something better with a clean slate.” Over the next two weeks, as The Economist warns of “a coming tech-lash,” he drafts thousands more words about Exit. And he starts working with an editor at WIRED to condense his ideas into an essay.

At this point, according to my tattered copy of the Stasi employee handbook, I am supposed to sit down at my sad little socialist typewriter and punch out my assessment of how the Subject came to hold his views.

Srinivasan’s childhood isn’t something he spends “too many cycles on”—that is, cogitates a lot about. He grew up on Long Island in the 1980s, the son of physicians who emigrated from India, and showed an early impatience with institutions. When the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen asked him about his upbringing, he said, “I have this one-liner which says: Life in the United States begins with a 12-year mandatory minimum—the Schoolag Archipelago.”

In class, the suburban Solzhenitsyn “was kind of a smart-ass at times.” Once, when a physics teacher tried to explain centrifugal force by saying it was like “when you wash clothes in the drying machine,” Srinivasan says he raised his hand and asked, “Don’t you dry clothes in the drying machine?” He recalls this moment as life-changing. “I was trolling him,” he says. “I was a kid, but I was also technically correct, which is the best kind of correct.” The comment set off a liberating chain of events: It got him kicked out of class, which pushed him into the orbit of a kindly public-school administrator, who let Srinivasan do independent studies in science and math. That taught him “how to self-bootstrap,” he says.

Srinivasan’s father had always urged him and his brother Ramji not to go into medicine, but into tech instead. As his mother once noted, Hindu scripture distinguishes between janmabhoomi, the land you’re born in, and karmabhoomi, the land of action. Srinivasan went west, to Stanford. He majored in electrical engineering, dove straight into a master’s in the same field, then one in chemical engineering and a PhD; he taught classes in statistics, data mining, and genomic analysis. (According to his brother, he saw the human genome as “the next internet.”) All signs pointed to his being a Stanford lifer, clicking through slide decks until his hair and beard took on a Socratic quality.

But what kind of bildungsroman would that have been? In 2007, Srinivasan picked another track: the dorm-room-to-boardroom startup. With his brother and a handful of friends (including another guy named Balaji Srinivasan), he founded Counsyl. A few years later, he had his first appearance in The New York Times, which quoted him as saying, “Nothing is more relevant than making sure your child doesn’t die from a preventable disease.”

Srinivasan’s WIRED essay is published on a Friday morning in November 2013. It runs under the headline “Software Is Reorganizing the World,” a friendlier restatement of Andreessen’s famous dictum. Where the “Ultimate Exit” talk was like a stump speech, all sharp-elbowed appeals to the base, the essay makes a softer case to the general voter.

“For the first time in memory, adults in the United States under age forty are now expected to be poorer than their parents,” Srinivasan begins. “This is the kind of grim reality that in other times and places spurred young people to look abroad for opportunity.” Emigrants often used to leave “out of sadness and melancholy,” he writes, and remained “homesick for the rest of their lives.” His idea of Exit isn’t about “going Galt.” It’s about making a new start and seeking communities of a kind only software makes possible.

Srinivasan describes his vision as the logical culmination of a world where two people can meet on and then make a life together, or a handful can meet on Quora and form a housing co-op. “There is no scientific law that prevents 100 people who find each other on the internet from coming together for a month, or 1,000 such people from coming together for a year,” he writes. And as those trends continue, “we may begin to see cloud towns, then cloud cities, and ultimately cloud countries materialize out of thin air.” In the long run, these new polities will also coalesce in physical space—a “reverse diaspora,” in which the far-flung citizens of a cloud nation come together at some x,y coordinate on Earth. The exodus will be frictionless, because software has nullified the tyranny of place. “Nothing today binds technologists to the soil besides other people,” Srinivasan writes.

What, you might wonder, will happen to your current neighborhood, your current town, your current country as people increasingly abandon ship for their own cloud worlds? What will become of the people who can’t or won’t make the switch? The authors of The Sovereign Individual are forthright about the violence and disorder that will attend the rise of Bermuda in the Sky With Diamonds. Srinivasan, in WIRED, doesn’t get into it.

But if he hopes that the essay will calm the furor over the “Ultimate Exit” talk, he is quickly disappointed. Less than a day passes before it’s upstaged by the Paper Belt’s latest provocation, an article in TechCrunch called “Geeks for Monarchy.” The writer, Klint Finley (a longtime contributor to WIRED), mentions Srinivasan, but his story is mostly about the neoreactionaries, a more stridently antidemocratic tribe of bloggers who are popular on certain fringes of Silicon Valley.

Their lead thinker—their most charismatic writer, anyway—goes by the pen name Mencius Moldbug. He was once described to me as “the Machiavelli to Thiel’s Cesare Borgia.” The first post on his blog, Unqualified Reservations, in 2007, begins: “The other day I was tinkering around in my garage and I decided to build a new ideology.” Moldbug stands against what he calls the Cathedral, an oligarchic ruling class shrouded in a fig leaf of representative democracy, which includes swaths of traditional media, academia, and government (for all intents and purposes, the Paper Belt). In his vision of the future, called Patchwork, “sovereign corporations” take the place of nation-states, and CEOs are territorial monarchs with absolute power over everything save their subjects’ right to exit. The world becomes a shopping mall of polities.

Moldbug gives a bit more attention than Srinivasan does to the transition from our decrepit political order to the next. It is to be accomplished via RAGE, which stands for “Retire All Government Employees.” As for dealing with unproductive members of society, he suggests finding a “humane alternative to genocide”—something that “achieves the same result as mass murder (the removal of undesirable elements from society) but without any of the moral stigma.” He imagines imprisoning them in a pleasant VR world, “waxed like a bee larva into a cell.”

Finley is careful to avoid unduly implicating anyone in these ideas. “I don’t know Srinivasan,” he writes, “but it sounds like he’d find neoreactionary views repulsive.” This turns out not to be quite true. Within hours of the story going live, Srinivasan is on an email thread about it. Here are some of the people CC’d:

Curtis Yarvin, aka Moldbug, is a programmer. When he isn’t on Blogspot toying with birtherism and writing things like “but maybe I’ve been reading too much Hitler,” he works on a software project called Urbit, described as a “clean-slate OS and network for the 21st century.” (Thiel and Andreessen Horowitz are early investors.) The point of Urbit is to strip off the cruft and rebuild modern computing from first principles. Usually when you’re versioning software, you count up: Version 1.0, 1.1, 1.2. With Urbit, the numbers count down to 0.

Patri Friedman, son of the anarcho-capitalist thinker David Friedman, grandson of the legendary economist Milton Friedman, is the cofounder of the Thiel-funded Seasteading Institute. He sometimes blogs on a site called Let a Thousand Nations Bloom, which is devoted to “a Cambrian explosion in government.” He has been talking about Hirschman’s Exit/Voice paradigm for years and has called exit “the only Universal Human Right.”

Michael Gibson, an apostate academic who works at the Thiel Foundation, is another Hirschman stan. He will shortly cofound the 1517 Fund, named for the year in which Martin Luther, the original Garage Guy, is said to have posted his 95 Theses on the Cathedral’s door. He describes himself as a “conservative anarchist.”

Blake Masters is a Stanford Law grad who took Thiel’s course when he was a student. His notes on it will soon become the basis for Zero to One, a best-selling book on how to run startups and “build the future.” (The original notes include an entry about Srinivasan’s visit to class in 2012, when he talked about the futons-in-the-office stage of creating a successful company.)

Though Srinivasan has gotten off easy in Finley’s article, his sense of threat is palpable in the email chain. He calls the story “extraordinarily dangerous.” He tells the others that they should “unite the clans”—the audiences of various edgelord bloggers—and retaliate against journalists who “dox” them. He seems to imply that this is what Finley’s article did to Yarvin, whose name had been quietly linked with Moldbug’s online for years but not paraded in the press. (Usually, “doxing” also includes publicizing a street address or a phone number or other private information that might enable serious real-world harm, which Finley’s article doesn’t do.) Srinivasan thinks an attack-back strategy could work. “It might mean moving to Singapore though as endgame,” he writes.

Yarvin counsels calm. “Dude, control the frame,” he replies. “If you make a big thing of it, you prove their point.” He tells Srinivasan, “You and I have different vulnerabilities, you because you’re in the closet and I because I’m out of it. Our mission over the next few years is to drag sanity into the mainstream from opposite directions. It’s a long game which rewards patience …”

Friedman agrees that inaction is best for now.

Gibson agrees too. (He’s at a wedding in Tahoe.)

Masters doesn’t reply.

Five days later, Moldbug writes a 6,000-word blog post that says, among other things, “No one should ever respond to a journalist. (Or a Stasi-Mann.)”

Illustrations: Eddie Guy

In December 2013, Srinivasan joins Andreessen Horowitz. The VC firm hires him mainly for his crypto savvy, but he also uses his new perch to follow his own advice to the Startup Schoolers—to build the technology stack that the next society will run on. He handles the firm’s first investment in civic tech, a company called OpenGov, whose goal is to make the complex workings of local government as simple to understand as an analytics dashboard. He moonlights as the cofounder of a company called Teleport, which is building a geographic search engine for digital nomads. He spends his time “evangelizing” the view that the biggest risk for many tech companies is government regulation.

Srinivasan has to step back from Andreessen Horowitz in 2015 to tend to his bitcoin-mining-chip company, which is in dire straits. (Long story short: The price of the cryptocurrency crashed.) While he is doing so, Thiel becomes a member of Donald Trump’s presidential transition team.

So in the winter of 2017, Srinivasan finds himself in New York, riding an elevator up Trump Tower for a job interview to run the FDA. Srinivasan has recently deleted all of his tweets, including one in which he said that a doctor-run “Yelp for drugs” would work “vastly better than FDA” and another in which he said Trump’s shtick was “amusing” but that the man was “no fan of technology.” All that’s left on Srinivasan’s timeline is a single message for his audience—or is it a mantra for himself? “Don’t argue on Twitter. Build the future.”

I don’t know what Srinivasan and Trump discussed. I asked him about it in our one interview, and he said: “What I think is realistic is to exit the FDA, like we exited the Fed with crypto.” He also said: “Ultimately, the reason that I’ve never joined a government agency is that many of these roles are like white elephants. People are chasing brass rings that have long since been tarnished. And they find themselves in the cockpit of a dysfunctional robot that actually doesn’t do anything. In fact, the only thing it does do is take lots of bullets through the windshield, to mix metaphors. And the thing about that is, I prefer to build things myself.”

Though he does not join the president’s inner circle, the Trump years are nonetheless good to Srinivasan. Counsyl, the genomics company, sells for $375 million, a figure he is not shy about quoting. Even his bitcoin venture turns around: Many eyebrow-raising shifts in strategy (and two name changes) later, he sells the company to Coinbase for $120 million—and gets himself “acquihired” as chief technical officer of the country’s biggest crypto exchange. After barely a year there, during which time he seems to strike many executives as brilliant and some employees as disruptive (the polite way to put it), he leaves. Eventually, he changes his LinkedIn bio to say that he is “angel investing and taking some time off.”

There is a special term for the state of capitalist transcendence that Srinivasan has now attained. Tim Ferriss will use it in their podcast interview. “You’ve sold multiple companies, you’ve had multiple exits,” he says. “You are post-economic, I assume.”

You’re back on that fishing schooner. It’s late 2019. The maelstrom is churning with the flotsam of several years’ worth of America under Trump—and, let’s be honest, several hundred years’ worth of America under various other influences. It’s probably best that you didn’t bring your quadcopter drone with you on board, because if you could look over the lip of the funnel right now, you’d see further trouble on the horizon.

Srinivasan senses it. On January 30, 2020, he tweets out to his roughly 130,000 followers: “What if this coronavirus is the pandemic that public health people have been warning about for years? It would accelerate many preexisting trends.” Those include “border closures, nationalism, social isolation, preppers, remote work, face masks, distrust in governments.” He elaborates in a long thread.

Srinivasan has latched onto his latest, possibly greatest identity: Covid oracle. At a time when the maelstrom seems like a chaotic horror to most people, when media outlets and government officials seem to be putting out more heat than light, he is the confident pattern-spotter. Thanks to his collection of Stanford degrees and his experience setting up a biomedicine company, his analysis is well informed, and it begins attracting him new readers. Most of them are technologists—if not in the US then abroad, where he has many fans—but even some journalists are climbing down from the château wall to listen to what he has to say.

As he accrues hundreds of thousands more Twitter followers, Srinivasan dispenses short-term advice (work from home, cancel group events, ramp up testing capacity, stop making comparisons with the flu) and long-term gospel, painting the pandemic as a moving sidewalk to the future that he has been talking about since Startup School in 2013. “The virus breaks centralized states,” he says in a talk in the summer of 2020. The world is unbundling into “green zones” and “red zones.” This moment represents the true dawn of the internet age, civilization’s ascension to the cloud.

For Srinivasan, it is also a moment to escalate his war with the journalists of the Paper Belt. He takes to task a reporter at Recode, offering a $1,000 bitcoin bounty to anyone who can get her Covid article retracted. He offers the same bounty to anyone who can make the best meme about a scrap he recently had with Taylor Lorenz, then a reporter at The New York Times. (When I ask him about this during our Stasi interrogation, he says that against the forces of corporate journalism, “a little bit of crypto on the internet is like a gorilla against a tank.”) In early 2021, another Times reporter (and former WIRED staff writer) gets into hot water with the fans of Slate Star Codex, a rationalist blog whose audience has some overlap with Moldbug’s; Srinivasan again rushes to his tribe’s defense. When Slate Star Codex reboots under a new name, Astral Codex Ten, its author writes: “I got an email from Balaji Srinivasan, a man whose anti-corporate-media crusade straddles a previously unrecognized border between endearing and terrifying. He had some very creative suggestions for how to deal with journalists. I’m not sure any of them were especially actionable, at least not while the Geneva Convention remains in effect.”

By that spring, Srinivasan has fulfilled his own prophecy and moved part-time to Singapore.

In a recent review of Srinivasan’s new book, The Network State, his friend Michael Gibson calls it “a provocation, an assault, an outcry, a handbook, and a gospel that cannot be ignored.” Srinivasan released it in digital form only, so you can have it as either a traditional ebook ($9.99) or as a continuously updated website (free).

Besides being published on the Fourth of July, The Network State shares something else with the US Declaration of Independence. While some of the text is a high-minded defense of inalienable rights, much of it is a recitation of historic grievances. Srinivasan describes how a new trifecta of political forces—“crypto capital,” “woke capital,” and “Communist capital,” represented by the initials BTC, NYT, and CCP (for the Chinese Communist Party)—is shaping the world order. He name-checks The Sovereign Individual several times, including in a chapter titled “If the News Is Fake, Imagine History.” And he expounds on his helical theories at typical length.

But if, for a moment, you tune out the rants, you may find more to appreciate in Srinivasan’s vision of the future than many did when he first aired it. Where his “Ultimate Exit” talk was an exclusive invitation for technologists to take their toys elsewhere, and his WIRED essay was a sanitized description of a world gently reshaped by new ways of connecting, The Network State attempts to address a broad audience, and it acknowledges that the shit is, very ungently, hitting the fan.

So what does Srinivasan’s future look like now? Sort of like a world gradually re-created in the image of Reddit. You’ll start out—you probably already have—by spending more and more of your time communing with like-minded people around the planet, forming your own virtual tribe. Maybe you all want to ban guns; maybe you all want your aging parents to be able to try experimental therapies for Alzheimer’s; maybe you all want abortion to be politically off the table, one way or the other. Soon you may find that your friends on the infinite frontier matter more to you than the nameless, sometimes menacing hominids who co-occupy your meatspace. You’ll become part of what Srinivasan calls a “sovereign collective” or a “network union.” E pluribus unum, a new bundle born of the great unbundling.

Eventually, whether it’s under duress or in a state of fervor, you and your tribe may move toward founding yourselves a country—not a nation-state but a network state. You’ll code a social smart contract, the terms of which will guarantee law, order, and whatever freedoms matter to you. If you like, you can crowdfund social goods, like child care or cyberdefense. You can make it possible to interact with your fellow citizens from behind the safety of a pseudonym, maybe with your social reputation stored in the form of karma points on a blockchain. You could make firearm ownership a capital offense, or you could issue every toddler a Glock. When the collective gets strong enough, you might crowdfund a constellation of territories—a “networked archipelago.” At some point, you’ll achieve diplomatic recognition from other states.

You see the future, right? You want to have a kid, so you go enroll in a network state with Nordic-style social benefits in its territories. You want to Crispr human gametes, so you move your lab to a locality without bioethics panels. You want to live in a sugarless society, so you join a state called Keto Kosher. The life you live is constrained only by the people you choose to associate with. And those people, because they have self-bundled with you, will be more eager to reach a political consensus you like than the nameless hominids ever were. If they can’t, you—or they—will simply seek another network state. This kind of polity, Srinivasan writes, “prizes Exit above Voice.”

Albert O. Hirschman, the original coiner of those concepts, didn’t care for prophesiers. He looked down on what he saw as their Warhol-esque desire for airtime. A European Jewish refugee from Nazism, he was similarly wary of the possibility of an Exit-based, Patchwork-style future. “It is possible to visualize a state system,” he wrote in 1978, in which “each country would supply its citizens with a different assortment of public goods.” They could “‘specialize’ in power, wealth, growth, equity, peacefulness, the observance of human rights, and so on.” Hirschman found this vision inspiringly “polyphonic,” but “perhaps too beautiful to be real.” For one thing, what if a rival power invades? When you think about it, this new polity of ours is vulnerable to a lot of the same risks as our old polity. Our leader could turn out to be a megalomaniac we can’t fire. We might prefer to leave but lack the resources. Maybe no other place we want to live will take us in.

Speaking of which, who are “we”? As I read Srinivasan’s book, my editor brain kept getting hung up on how often he reaches for that pronoun. In the opening essay, for instance, he writes: “We want to be able to peacefully start a new state for the same reason we want a bare plot of earth, a blank sheet of paper, an empty text buffer, a fresh startup, or a clean slate.” Later: “History is the closest thing we have to a physics of humanity.” And: “In the fullness of time, with truly open data sets, we may even be able to develop Asimovian psychohistory.”

Does “we” refer to people like Srinivasan, the technologists, the self-bootstrappers, the seekers of karmabhoomi? Is it a weird-fun Dr. Bronner’s “we,” a freaky Borg “we”? Does it include the fellow travelers he CC’d on that email back in 2013—the other lovers of Exit? They too have only risen with the maelstrom. After laying relatively low for a few years, Curtis Yarvin has resurfaced with a newsletter on Substack, and his influence on prominent Republicans was recently explored at length by Vanity Fair. Blake Masters is the Thiel-funded, Trump-endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate in Arizona and jokes about RAGE on the stump. Patri Friedman runs a venture fund that invests in charter cities. Gibson has a book coming out later this year called Paper Belt on Fire: How Renegade Investors Sparked a Revolt Against the University.


All those people, I suspect, would quickly find their notes in the polyphonic world that Srinivasan imagines. And it’s likely that anyone else who lives according to roughly his values would too, from the 19-year-old coding wiz in Mumbai to the grad-school dropout crypto-nomadding in Costa Rica to the billionaire investor in his New Zealand bunker. But when you strip off the techno-cruft—the promises of a new civilization engineered on a new stack, one that privileges decentralization, devolution of power, and the sovereignty of every individual and/or central processing unit—you see that the essential political philosophy here is pretty antiquated. I don’t know what to call it. Cosmopolitan feudalism? Enlightened tribalism? Corkscrew cliquism? It reflects a belief that the main failure of contemporary society is that the wrong people hold the power. It addresses the problem by unbundling society and then rebundling it to ensure that none of those people ever bother you again. And OK, as long as no nukes get loose, maybe that turns out fine. Maybe you go to your Bermuda in the Sky and I go to my DigiSweden and we’re both happy in the telepresence of the people we’ve chosen. But maybe we find that the imbalance of power, spread out across the overlapping constellations of the physical world we still see outside our windows, feels just as bad as always. And maybe we find that, most of all, we desperately miss home.

If I could slip through the quantum foam at the bottom of the maelstrom, I think I might eventually arrive in an alternate universe in which Srinivasan gives a talk called “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Voice.” He might start it just the same way—poke a little fun at the government, praise the garage-guy ethos, lay some Hirschman on the Startup Schoolers. And then he might say: “Silicon Valley is a place where a certain ideal of American progress finds its purest expression. That makes it our job to offer not just solutioneering oratory and different repackagings of rare earth minerals but also the tools of a better, fairer future for all. So Startup Schoolers, let’s figure out how to update the crappy code base! Help me clear the FUD! Whatever we may all believe, however we may disagree, let’s use our Voice!”

No point wondering what’s down there, though. We have our own maelstrom to escape. Exit is up to us. We are the protagonist.

This article appears in the October 2022 issue.Subscribe now.

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