Building things, even Calm™ things, makes noise.

February 22, 2021

Christian Langalis



The Storm before the Calm

Building things, even Calm™ things, makes noise. George Nakashima’s wooden furniture evokes peace, but its construction still begins with a chainsaw. We mention this because we’re firing up our newest power tool.

We call her Eliza. She is a data-collection robot.

Hang on. An AI? Harvesting my data? Spying on me? Flooding me with spam? This is Urbit, right? Let us tell you about our new friend in basic terms, where MEGACORP might otherwise deploy legalese.

What Eliza is and isn’t

Replicants are like any other machine - they're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem.

Rick Deckard

Let's start with the benefits. Eliza is a simple chatbot. She was made to collect feedback on Landscape. She asks direct questions about peoples' usage of Urbit, records any responses, and reports them to her managers at Tlon. She'll also provide timely advice and information to ships kind enough to chat with her. She'll begin reaching out to ships via DM in the coming month. If you don't want to, just say no, and you'll never hear from her again.

Finding bugs is critical to Urbit's rapid development, especially in this period of nascency. Most Urbit-related frustrations go unreported; regular folks don't think to open up Github when they experience a minor issue. That's why it's incumbent upon us to design a lower-friction forum for feedback. People who aren't comfortable filing an issue might be willing to talk to a friendly chatbot.

Now, about hazards. By design, there are few. Eliza runs on Tlon's comet, not on your planet. There will be no OTA to install %eliza-bot-store on everyone's ships. Eliza learns things through conversation, not hidden surveillance software. Data she requests, like the text output of our network analytic tool, +tally, must be sent manually. MEGACORP tends to cut this corner; to refine their products, they just track your reactions in real-time.

Since she's open-source, anyone can creatively deploy Eliza. Just write her a dialogue tree. Of course, that also means we can't keep people from misusing Urbit bots. We think automated agents on the Urbit network are inevitable, so let's create a good baseline culture around them. (Much love to Tendiebot, who's serving up stock prices in ~tomdys/wall-star-bets.) However, once Urbit is used world-wide, we can't rely on culture alone.

A New Internet Economics

The sum of Urbit's architectural design is a new online economics: a way to finance and monetize access to internet infrastructure where people retain maximum equity. Explicitly acquire a low-maintenance, low-cost server. Use it to compute explicit things. Return to life.

We all know the basic MEGACORP business model: offer a free service (to suckers who don't own a server), secretly mine the data they generate on the (addictive) platform, then sell targeted ads to advertisers. This model will not survive Urbit. The ubiquitous personal server changes the economic equation. You used to 'pay' for an experience with your time and data. On Urbit, once you purchase core internet infrastructure, it's yours.

So, can Urbit meaningfully curtail our world's appetite for data? We'll see. Post-enlightenment society runs on instrumental reason, right down to the last byte. Marketers will always want a fresh dataset. However, when the goods are on your Urbit, you can at least demand the respect you deserve. Long term, we expect a transparent market for data, not an opaque "agreement". An analytics company wants to track everything you see and do on Urbit? They better be paying well.

Eliza doesn't pay respondents. Her collection is a charity to Urbit's developers. (We're also still busy enabling payments on Urbit with the Bitcoin wallet.) However, her presence is not a term of service either. In a few years, by the nth time some smart aleck uses Eliza's chatbot code and conjures 'Zalexa' to attempt an intrusion upon your Calm™, we will see the economics of Urbit's architecture suddenly vivify. Blacklists, reputation systems, and, eventually, even data markets, all Urbit primitives envisioned long ago, will become real. We won't need Zoogle to underwrite a spam filter for the entire internet; the scarcity of Urbit address space, in tandem with a true web-of-trust, handles that.

If Urbit is to be used worldwide, the old system will not go down without a fight. Spammers, spies, and digital robber-barons will hunt for ways to game Urbit. Our passage out of the digital gutter is beginning in earnest, and we are thrilled to put our new architectures to the test.