Urbit contains a lot of new technology. As an ordinary user, all you need to understand is Urbit's identity model. If you're in a hurry, just read these simplified basics.
An Urbit identity, or “ship,” is a string like
~firbyr-napbes. It means nothing, but it's easy to remember and say out loud.
~firbyr-napbes is actually just a 32-bit number, like an IP address, that we turn into a human-memorable string.
Technically, a ship is a secure digital identity that you own and control with a cryptographic key, like a Bitcoin wallet. As in Bitcoin, the supply of ships is mathematically limited. This keeps the network friendly, by making spam and abuse expensive.
A ship name is just a number; smaller numbers make shorter names. Shorter names are easier to remember, so they're more valuable. So ships are classified by the number of bits in their name. (A ship name is just a scrambled base-256 representation of the number.)
A 32-bit ship (like
~firbyr-napbes) is called a “planet.” A 16-bit ship (like
~pollev) is a “star.” An 8-bit ship (like
~mun) is a “galaxy.” A planet is an identity for an independent, adult human. Stars and galaxies are network infrastructure.
Each planet or star is launched by its “parent,” the star or galaxy whose number is its bottom half. So the planet
3.735.928.559, is the child of
48.879, whose parent is
239. The parent of
~mun and all galaxies is
If Bitcoin is money, Urbit is land. Much as all real-estate titles in England trace back to William the Conqueror, all certificates in Urbit trace back to
But this universe is worthless unless dispersed. It's already quite well fragmented. And as it grows distributed, it grows decentralized. The endpoint is a virtual city of 4 billion (
2^32) citizens, all owners of their own independent digital identities. The stars and galaxies continue as a federated governance and service network.
This city is a social network, a peer-to-peer packet network, and a public-key infrastructure (PKI). In the social layer, your ship is your name. In the packet layer, your ship is your network address. In the PKI, your ship is your cryptographic identity. Perhaps more intuitively, a ship is a sort of pronounceable phone number.
And once Urbit is built, no one owns the city. No one can control it. It does need governance; but it governs itself as a digital republic.
As an Urbit user, these basics are all you need to know. As a developer, a few more details might interest you. (An even more comprehensive treatment is in the whitepaper).
An identity system has three goals: a name wants to be secure, human-meaningful, and decentralized. A principle called “Zooko's triangle” says that a practical identity system can achieve any two of these goals.
The art of OS design is the art of using strategic tradeoffs to almost solve unsolvable problems. Urbit's goals are to be secure, human-memorable, and eventually decentralized. We sacrifice meaning (Urbit is not competing with the DNS), and postpone decentralization. These tradeoffs buy us a simple system that can actually be built.
The Internet doesn't have anything like Urbit ships, so you may need to stretch your brain a little here.
There are three levels of naming on the Internet: raw, numeric IP addresses (like
22.214.171.124), domain names (like
foobar.com), and user identities (like
[email protected] or
Urbit (or more precisely, its Ames protocol) squeezes all three layers into one. At the network level, Urbit is a P2P overlay network; your ship is your network address. It's also the name of your server. Finally, it's your secure digital pseudonym. And we map your ship name into the DNS, at
(One way to use Urbit is as an identity for the Internet, which doesn't have a standard system of secure authentication. Urbit has a single-signon API which lets any Web server accept Urbit logins, like a normal social login -- but not captive to any central mainframe.)
You own an Urbit ship cryptographically, like a Bitcoin wallet. But Urbit doesn't use a blockchain or mining.
You transfer a ship by signing a new public key with the old private key, then broadcasting the signature. Any urbit that receives this new certificate will no longer trust the old key.
Urbit is digital land, not digital money. A currency needs to support high-frequency, zero-friction transfers. Real estate transfers are low frequency and high friction, so the “double spend” problem (which mining solves) is much less pressing.
Don't expect urbits to be tradeable on cryptocurrency exchanges. A trade adds at least one signature to the ship's certificate, or two if the parties don't trust each other and an intermediary is needed. A bulky certificate isn't free, since it slows down new connections.
This isn't a serious problem if urbits are treated like land. But it prevents Urbit from being a competent currency. This is a feature, not a bug. Urbit has no need to compete with Bitcoin or Ethereum, and every reason not to.
In the general case, a ship is actually a 128-bit number. A full table of ship classes:
8 bits galaxy router ~syd 16 bits star router ~delsym 32 bits planet human ~mighex-forfem 64 bits moon device ~dabnev-nisseb-nomlec-sormug 128 bits comet bot ~satnet-rinsyr-silsec-navhut--bacnec-todmeb-harwen-fabtev
Moons are for clients and connected devices: a laptop, a phone, a digital thermostat. A moon is not independent; its parent planet has to sign its key updates. (We don't want rogue clients floating randomly around the universe.)
A comet's address is the hash of its initial public key. Anyone can launch a comet. Nothing stops you from using a comet as your identity, except that the name is a mouthful and everyone will assume you're a bot.
A crucial difference between Urbit and other networks is that planets are scarce. Even when the network is fully populated, there are only 4 billion. Early in Urbit's life, most stars and galaxies are not yet operating, so far fewer are available. No one will ever be able to get planets trivially and for free.
Urbit is a friendly network: a network on which you can assume that a stranger is nice until proven nasty. Friendliness is a direct consequence of scarce, individually owned identities. We're not changing human nature, just creating the right economic incentives.
Most forms of network abuse are “Sybil attacks”: they rely on an infinite supply of fresh identities. Scarcity makes reputation work. Spam is a business; if the cost of a new planet exceeds the amount of money you can make by spamming from that planet until its reputation is trashed, there will be no spam.
Shady stars and galaxies that sell blocks of planets to spammers will also develop reputations as “bad neighborhoods,” damaging the value of the whole block. Abuse at any level is designed to be counterproductive and economically self-terminating.
Urbit has no reputation system at all at the moment, simply because we're so small that friendliness is automatic. The clear and rigorous structure of the address space is not a reputation system; it is a platform on which any number of such systems can and should be built. But we can't build one until we need one.
In cryptocurrency terms, Urbit is “100% premined.” Why? Three reasons.
One, Urbit doesn't need mining. Two, Urbit is a much more ambitious software project than Bitcoin or even Ethereum. To fund its own development, the project needs to capture the potential value of its own real estate.
Three, most theories of property agree that anyone whoever creates or discovers new property starts out by owning it. Because galaxies are premined, Urbit starts as a centralized system. But it has two strong motivations to decentralize.
One, the more decentralized Urbit is, the more Urbit is worth. Two, the only way for Urbit to fund its own development is to homestead its own real estate.
Urbit was created by Curtis Yarvin, who has distributed the 256 galaxies as follows (allocation as of June 1, 2016):
95, to the Tlon Corporation. 50, to urbit.org, the future community foundation. 40, to Tlon employees and their family members (24 to Curtis, who started in 2002; 16 to everyone else, who started in 2014). 34, to outside investors in Tlon. 37, to 33 other individuals, who donated to the project, contributed code or services, won a contest, or were just in the right place at the right time.
What's critical is that the whole system is unlikely to collapse back into a single landlord. This is why we've intentionally scattered Urbit's ownership across a diverse set of entities.
Furthermore, we've defined informal conventions designed to motivate a healthy ownership structure by punishing violators with reputation cost. Address blocks should only split, never merge; galaxies and stars should be owned by different parties; galaxies should be owned by true individuals, not corporations. Urbit does not live up to these ideals at present, but must always progress toward them.
Urbit is a peer-to-peer network. Urbits that live behind a firewall or on a home network need “supernodes” to help them route packets. The supernode is the parent. So a parent's work isn't done once it's launched all its children.
There's no way to enforce this responsibility. So a star or planet can be adopted by a new parent of the same class, letting it escape from a bad default parent. If your parent stops serving you, and no other parent is willing to adopt you, you're probably a bad actor.
Supernode routing is just one example of why you need a parent. A mature Urbit will naturally develop all kinds of other federated services -- from technical standardization and update approval, to certificate update broadcast, to reputation and friend lookup. All these services are delivered by cooperating stars and galaxies. Bad actors at this level should be rare.
Especially when Urbit is young, the level of trust that a child places in its parent is high. The trust implied by automatic kernel updates is almost infinite. You can disable updates, but that's nowhere near practical yet. (Ideally we will be able to freeze the Arvo kernel, like Nock, and turn off kernel updates; but this will take years at least.)
Constitutional innovation is dangerous. Our vision of digital governance isn't ours, but is synthesized as best we can from the work of four great 20th-century thinkers: the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, the political scientist James C. Scott, the urbanist Jane Jacobs and the architect Christopher Alexander.
All decentralized computation systems rely to some extent on Lessig's principle: “code is law.” Where law uses human interpretation to determine an outcome, code uses mathematics. It is code, not law, that decides who owns a Bitcoin wallet.
But all these systems, including Bitcoin, need governance. They need as little as possible, but not none. In the digital world as in the real world, laissez-faire is always necessary, never sufficient. Governance is a human universal.
That's why we call Urbit a “virtual city.” And as a city, it can't be a corporate gated community. It might start as that, but it has to grow up into a true city-state: a self-governing digital republic. This pattern is not just blind clinging to Anglo-American tradition; like every prudent constitution, it fits the actual virtues and vices of its target population.
Urbit's galactic hierarchy resembles the natural patterns we find in many existing human political systems. As Alexander wrote:
Wherever possible, work toward the evolution of independent regions in the world, each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries.
We adapt Alexander's vision to a digital republic as the pattern that authority is proportional to property. This pattern already has a name in the cryptocurrency community, which calls it proof of stake. Urbit's launch hierarchy is a sort of built-in proof of stake.
Another governance pattern, a political cliche but no less valuable for it, is the system of checks and balances. The address space of Urbit is covered by three independent tiers, galaxies, stars and planets; which should govern? The obvious design is a three-chambered legislature balanced against itself.