Urbit for Normies

A layperson’s guide to the coming new internet.

February 11, 2020

Erik Newton


Urbit is a challenging project to fully describe because, rather than a single product, it’s an entire system. Often when I talk about one of the individual elements of the system, someone will tell me that another company is already building that — and they’re usually right. What sets Urbit apart is that we’re building all these elements at once to work together seamlessly.

For that reason, this overview is long. I wanted to explain, at a very high level, as much of the system as possible, to share an image of the entire forest rather than spending too much time on any of the trees.

My own path to Urbit was not predictable, so it turns out I’m a useful ambassador to describe what the heck we’re doing to my fellow normies.

I refer to myself as a normie because I’m a lawyer by training, not the typical code-savvy early Urbit adopter. I ran a law firm and, after retiring, founded a podcast and magazine about relationship dynamics. During that time I came to believe that humanity was in desperate need of better ways to relate. I didn’t know how, but I knew that my podcast about romance wasn’t going to move the needle. I began to look for a bigger project. I wanted something I truly could invest myself in; something that could have a real impact on this problem.

That’s when a friend introduced me to Urbit. Saying it was the most credible project he’d seen in years, he described it as “an open-source decentralized internet project,” and that it “would give control of computing back to regular people.” That sparked my interest, but I didn’t totally understand it. After looking over the website and watching a couple of obscure descriptive videos on YouTube my response was threefold:

  1. This is huge — if it actually works, it’s the future.
  2. This is real — It’s got working code, dozens of engineers, and a very unorthodox solution.
  3. I don’t truly understand this — I can’t read the code, and I can barely comprehend the paradigm shift.

So of course I asked for an intro.

Fast forward: I ended up becoming COO at Tlon, the primary developer of Urbit. Urbit is exactly the sort of project I was looking for — one that represents an important promise for humanity. But, boy, did I have to fake my way through the technical elements of my new job those first few months.

What I eventually came to realize is that if Urbit is only accessible to programmers, it’s dead on arrival. In order to be useful, Urbit has to be understandable by the non-technical user. Like me. And maybe like you.

I understand as well as anyone how complicated Urbit can appear. But, fundamentally, Urbit is quite simple and it promises a critical upgrade to human interaction. That might sound like hyperbole but it’s the reason I work here. This is my attempt to explain to fellow normies the scope and scale of this world-changing project called Urbit.

What is Urbit?

Let’s take this one step at a time and start with the most basic definition:

Urbit is a peer-to-peer internet being built from scratch to be more private, secure, and durable than the current internet.

At its most basic level, an Urbit is:

  1. A super-private computer, combined with
  2. an ID, which is
  3. connected peer-to-peer with other Urbit computers.

Taking that a half-step deeper, each Urbit user gets a permanent identity, which allows them to access their personal computer in the cloud, and then talk to directly with other Urbit computers (i.e. other people) on the network, all without using an intermediary.

When I say “computer” I’m not talking about a physical device, but rather the software that computes. Urbit is a virtual computer, not a hardware device. Today that means you can access your Urbit computer from anywhere, on just about any device with a web browser. Eventually you won’t even need the web browser.

By “intermediary” I’m talking about all those centralized servers that we use every day to do our computing. Servers owned by Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Slack, Amazon, Nest, Apple, and so on. All of these companies and products keep close tabs on our activity and use that information to sell us things and influence our opinions. Everything we do online is watched and recorded.

Urbit will fundamentally change that — more about the privacy implications later.

What it looks like

Another way of explaining Urbit is to describe how it feels and looks. Visually, Urbit belongs to a genre often called “calm computing.” Urbit is designed to be simple, basic, and non-addictive. You won’t find any flashy-blinky lights here; no zany colors; no wacky branding. Just calm, functional, purpose-built tools for people to connect and work together. (One of my favorite examples of calm computing is the light phone.)

Today Urbit’s interface looks like a tab in your web browser that has some limited functionality (chat, a weather app, a notebook, link sharing). Soon, you won’t even need the web browser — you’ll be able to access or run Urbit directly in its own window. Inside will be a super clean interface with all the functionality you might want from your computer, in one place and with one login (think document creation, email, social media access, accounting) — but it will run on your virtual Urbit computer, so it will be safe from corporate prying and data leaks, available on any device, and all inside one simple interface.

What it’s for

Fundamentally, Urbit is neutral open-source infrastructure, so it can be for many things. From our highest level perspective Urbit is computing for real communities and normal people, not for corporations. To make that real, Urbit focuses on delivering a computing experience that is secure, private, durable, and calm.

For me, Urbit’s core purpose is to give us all back our privacy and our autonomy. It’s time for humanity to control its tools rather than the other way around.

Key elements

One potential barrier to understanding Urbit is that we’re building out multiple layers of this new internet simultaneously, and each has its own explanations and value propositions. Remember, what sets Urbit apart is that we’re building of all these elements at once to work together as a system.

I’ll try to explain the most important of these without straying too deep into the technical weeds.

  1. A peer-to-peer network

    Peer-to-peer networking is a really big deal. On the current internet, essentially all of our communications and activities go through centralized servers owned by corporations (Facebook, Google, etc.) — and those corporations can’t help but use all that information to make money. They’re capitalists, after all, and so we get constant privacy violations and interfaces built for maximum dopamine addiction.

    In an Urbit world, all those communications go directly between users (i.e. peer-to-peer) with nobody in the middle. That means there’s no data capture by any megacorp, less intrusion into your life online, and communications go back to the semi-private one-to-one or small group format that is most comfortable for humans. It’s more like real life.

  2. Your own server

    Servers are complicated. Too complicated. Have you ever tried to use a command line? Exactly. It’s a terrible way to work, and that’s just a hint at how complex servers are to operate. To hide that complexity, we let corporations run our servers for us — they can afford teams of engineers. The problem is that today most of our computing is handled by these corporate servers — and that means we’re giving up control because of complexity.

    As an example, every time you use Siri, your message is sent to Apple’s servers, where it is processed, and the response is sent back to you (which is admittedly amazing). Unfortunately that’s why it never works if you’re offline, and it’s also why Apple knows what you’re saying to Siri. And this applies to all the apps we use: The actual computing happens on corporate servers. The problem is that we consumers aren’t in control and, again, the corporate entities watch, record, and gate-keep all of our activity.

    Fundamentally, Urbit is a super simple server. That means Urbit can run those computations and hold all that data for you, eliminating the need for a corporate intermediary.

  3. Permanent, personal ownership of your digital identity and all your data

    Urbit IDs are permanently ownable — and that ownership is backed by cryptography, not some corporate database. Once you take possession of your Urbit ID, no central authority can ever take it away from you. Sure, if you start spamming people on the network, word could get around and you might get blocked by other users, but none of them can prevent you from using your ID or accessing your Urbit computer. Compare that to the current internet where Facebook owns your Facebook profile, Google owns your Gmail account, Twitter owns your Twitter handle, etc. At any time and for any reason, those services can arbitrarily shut off your access, and you have little to no recourse — all that data, all those followers, and all that reputation is wiped out instantly. Your Urbit, on the other hand — both the identity, and all the data inside your Urbit computer — is yours permanently, so long as you know your secret key.

    A secure decentralized identity system like the one we’ve built leads to some very interesting use cases that are otherwise insurmountable. For example: decentralized Uber, decentralized delivery services, and a solid solution to the problem of fake reviews. To build any of these services, the problem of permanent identity needs to be solved first, and we’ve done that as part of our overall system. I’ll spend more time on use cases below.

    It’s worth noting that this problem has never been solved before. All of our communication channels on the internet today rely on someone else to authenticate our identity. Urbit is — to my knowledge — the first practical application of a decentralized ID system that actually works.

  4. An incentive for good behavior

    On the Urbit network, identities are finite, and they accrue reputation. Compare that to the current internet where identity is infinite (anyone can create as many email addresses or social media profiles as they want, essentially for free) and so spam, scams, and DoS attacks (“denial-of-service”: when many disposable identities ‘attack’ a server at the same time) are rampant. On the Urbit network, there are just over 4 billion total IDs (232 to be exact). Scarcity creates value. That scarcity, combined with reputation accrual, means there's an incentive for good behavior.

    You might think 4 billion IDs sounds like too few given how many humans we have on the planet. I won’t go into the technical details here, but if we ever get to the point where that’s a problem (which would be a great problem to have), we’ve outlined several solutions that allow everyone alive to get on the network. We don’t intend to lock anyone out.

  5. Tools anyone can learn and use

    Urbit is a system that anyone with patience can understand completely from top to bottom, from the integers of byte code to the complete OS and everything in between. Urbit in its entirety is just over 50,000 lines of code. That is tiny. Compare that to Linux (the open-source OS that most modern computing is built upon), which is tens of millions of lines of code, and you start to see how important this is for efficiency. Apple’s and Windows’ codebases are similarly massive. In our current computing system, nobody can understand the entire thing completely, and that means there are innumerable security holes. With Urbit, while it may demand something of you, any reasonably intelligent developer can grasp the whole thing. We’ve worked very hard to keep our system simple at each level. That makes it more efficient, more durable, and much more secure.

  6. Lessons from the last half century

    Bear with me — this is where some jargon kicks in. In many ways, Urbit is an attempt to apply lessons learned from the failures of 20th century computer development. From an engineer’s perspective, Urbit solves a series of problems that we end users rarely notice, but which cause extraordinary amounts of complexity and waste. The list of applied lessons is long, but rather than bullet them all, I’ll explain the one that surprised me the most.

    Urbit is deterministic. That is, a given sequence of inputs always produces the same output. When I first heard that, I thought, “Wait, isn’t that what all operating systems do? Give you the same result every time?” Weirdly, the answer is no. Normal operating systems don’t work this way. Normal modern operating systems actually get varying results when they compute things. This is a deep problem that causes programmers countless hours of frustration. The most common implication of this that you’ve probably experienced is having to reboot your computer — either because it’s locked up, or because it simply won’t do something that it was totally doing a second ago. What’s annoying to a regular user, though, is absolutely crazy-making to developers.

    This determinism makes programming on an Urbit immensely more efficient than other environments.

    Urbit applies this and a whole list of other lessons from the past half-century of systems software to increase reliability and security in everything from file storage to networking to user-facing apps. All this adds up to more security and reliability and less service-lock-in with Urbit than with our current systems.

  7. Private, human-sized, and efficient

    Because Urbit isn’t centralized or owned by any one company, there’s no incentive for it to dominate your life. Your Urbit isn’t designed to spy on you, get you addicted to clicking its buttons, manipulate your emotions to gain attention, or nudge you to buy something. Your Urbit is a simple, customizable, permanent place for you to do all your computer-based tasks with your friends in absolute privacy.

    This is so much the case, in fact, that it presents a bit of a problem for Tlon. We don’t know how many people use Urbit every day, who they talk to, or what they’re doing. While we think this is how things should be, it puts us in a bind when a VC wants to know about our user base; we can only make educated guesses. That said, we think this is the right problem to have.

    What all this adds up to is that the Urbit network is immensely more resource efficient, secure, easier to customize, and smaller in size than any other computing system in the world. If you care about data security, privacy, durability, or even just elegance, Urbit has the best design going.

How it compares

A final way to understand Urbit is to make comparisons between Urbit and current products we use today. This is limited, because ultimately Urbit will grow in directions we can’t predict, but comparisons are a useful starting place.

Again, on the current internet, we all access megacorp software using our web browsers and app interfaces. This means that we each exist as a line in a megacorp database, and those megacorps use that data to make money, which results in rampant privacy violations and addictive interfaces. Urbit is the alternative to all that: it’s decentralized, private, and secure. And it’s yours.

Let’s get to some real-world examples.

Urbit vs. Reddit

Imagine you’d like to discuss a certain research topic with a group of friends. Say, Canadian small cap equities or the best cookie recipes. You’ll need a chat interface for live discussion, a notebook to record concepts, and a way to share links for discussion. You can do this in the default web if you want: use Reddit for the links (but make sure it’s a private group), use Google Docs for the notebook (but make sure everyone has Gmail), and use iMessage for the chat (but everyone needs a Mac). And don’t forget, each service has their own login and security holes, and they’re all mining your data.

The alternative is spin up a group on Urbit. All of that functionality is available today in one clean, simple interface. It’s private, you own the data, there’s only one login, and you can even learn to build apps for your group.

Urbit vs. Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Or let’s say you want to share pictures with your friends, post micro-messages to the world, write a blog, or share a podcast. There’s simply no reason you should use some centralized company (one that then owns your content) to broadcast any of those things. Instead, send it out from your Urbit. You’ll own the content, you’ll control the data, no company will spy on you, and nobody can ever take your ID from you. With Urbit we all finally own the tools, and that means we own the data by default.

Urbit vs. Nest

Imagine, as I do, that you want a connected video camera in your house, but don’t want the Nest corporation (which is now owned by Google) to be able to spy on you. Or perhaps you just don’t want to have to sign up for yet another duplicative service in order to use the camera you just bought. If any of that is the case, you can run your camera through your Urbit instead. The video feed will never leave your control, because it no longer has to live on Nest’s servers. Your camera will talk over a secure channel only to your Urbit. Your Urbit is the server.

You can apply this same concept to smart speakers, a Ring doorbell, connected baby monitor, smart fridge, or any of the innumerable connected devices that give someone else access to your personal life. Why should anyone else have access to that information?

Urbit vs. Google Docs

Imagine you want to write a screenplay with a small group of friends, but you don’t want Google mining the content of your shared doc for advertising keywords, and you won’t want to use multiple services for chat, document sharing, email, etc. In that case, simply create an Urbit group with your friends and write together using Urbit’s writing tools. Your content will stay completely private to the team until you decide to release it to the world, and you’ll communicate using one simple interface. Even better, the archive of your multimodal work lives in one place, so looking back at your process doesn’t require reconstructing it from dozens of different apps. And everything is stored on your respective Urbit computers, not Google’s servers.

Urbit for your protected health information

Imagine, as is already becoming the case, that it becomes highly valuable to have your genome sequenced in order to make good healthcare decisions. In that scenario, most of us would want our health care providers to be able to make precise assessments of parts of our genome, but we wouldn’t want insurance companies or other third parties to have access without our permission. In the current paradigm, once you share the information, it’s out there and can be leaked or sold. So much so that we all sort of assume that leaks are the default. In the Urbit paradigm, that information lives on your Urbit computer and nowhere else, and any software necessary to process it can be run on your Urbit as well. In other words, there’s never any need to share the raw data with anyone; instead, you can download a small program, run it on your Urbit, and share the final analyses only without ever exposing your data.

Some of these cases are, admittedly, a bit speculative since we haven’t built all the functionality yet. But it’s coming, and quite soon.

For now, if you like the way this sounds you can get yourself an Urbit ID and start learning about how to safely store cryptographic keys (it’s really not that hard, and we give you suggestions). If you’re feeling technical or adventurous, you can try booting our beta OS interface to see what it looks like. It’s fussy, but it exists. Soon it will be less fussy. You can check out our roadmap if you’d like to know when.

Why we need Urbit

We humans haven’t evolved enough to manage the firehose of information that modern technology blasts us with. There’s too much news, too many connections, too many opinions, and more agendas out there than any of us can mindfully comprehend. We’re designed for much smaller communities, one-to-one connections, and slower idea assimilation than our modern infrastructure allows. The pace of change is increasing, and we don’t know how to manage it.

We’re scared, and to manage that fear we’re becoming more insular, more entrenched. Layer on top of all that the incentives that big business and big politics have to manipulate our emotions, and we’re headed in a very dangerous direction.

We can’t turn back the technological clock; humanity can only ever press onward. This is where Urbit comes in. Urbit is a forward-looking solution to this particular set of problems around human-scale computing and personal autonomy. Urbit provides a means by which groups can live peacefully in parallel.

Urbit is a computing environment that allows humans to do everything they want on computers, but in communities of their choosing, in a way that feels direct and natural, and in a way that allows true personal freedom. Urbit is calm, secure, and private in its most fundamental architecture. No spying corporations. No manipulative politicians.

And that is what we need. Humans need a way to at once take advantage of our vast technological advances but not be dominated by them. Urbit is an open-source tool that we all own, that anyone can understand down to its roots, that’s fully under its user’s control. It is human-scale computing for human-scale communities. Simple, durable, yours.

For me, this first iteration of Urbit is more than enough, and it’s exactly the sort of peaceful future I want to work towards.