“Ask yourself: What am I doing this for?”
So begins the Tlon Corporation guide to starting a secret society. One is given to every attendee of Urbit Assembly upon entry along with a hat, t-shirt, water bottle, an envelope of lavender seeds, and a pack of Marlboro Lights.
Assembly has colonized the seventh floor of a parking structure a few blocks from Miami’s South Beach. The physical and fiscal labor put into the event space is evident: it has been transformed into a venue capable of supporting three stages and two bars with the overall aesthetic of a coworking space. Stacks of two-by-fours are lined with modular cushioning. Piles of oranges serve as centerpieces, each with stickers that say: Urbit Inside. The tables are stacked with copies of the city’s premiere luxury magazine, Miami in which Urbit took out an ad just to list the weekend’s wifi password.
“Who will join me?” the Tlon pamphlet continues.
It’s the second official congregation of the Urbit Foundation. The people trickling in are, in one way or another, here to experience product launches “from the bleeding edge” and panels from “visionary technologists and unhinged cultural critics” alluded to on the event’s website.
“Urbit is kind of like New York City,” says a programmer who was kicked out of the Air Force for smoking weed, “you either love it or you hate it.”
“Am I a leader or will I ultimately be led?”
Simply put, Urbit is a decentralized, peer-to-peer network and operating system. Instead of users, the community consists of owners governing digital real estate. One can hold a ship, planet, star, or galaxy, which represent different tiers of stake in the company. Though the vernacular might sound fantastical and gamified, hundreds of real people and millions in capital—crypto or otherwise—are involved in the business.
It was started by political theorist, software engineer and far-right blogger Curtis Yarvin and remains backed by Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel. Tlon is one of the companies building out Urbit. Other satellite companies include Uqbar, Tirrel, and Vienna Hypertext. Their association to Urbit looks something like this:
“Hello my friends and weirdos and freaks,” says Erik Newton, COO at Tlon, who introduces the executive director of the Urbit Foundation, Josh Lehman, on the main “Galaxy” stage.
What is Urbit? Lehman struggles to concisely articulate it. “I still can’t describe [Urbit] in one sentence. And if anyone here can, I’ll give them a galaxy.” Galaxies are not on the open market and privately sell for over a million dollars.
Why build on Urbit? the mega-screen asks behind Lehman. Why not use the internet?
He explains. Programming became accessible in the 80s with the popularity of personal computers. The individual bought and solely owned their software and hardware. Then came the internet. Now servers are the dominant mode. Computers are getting smaller. As communication grows more nuanced, more tools are needed to manage it. Companies own these tools rather than the individual: Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. Computers aren’t personal anymore. “Privacy has become a thing of the past,” laments Lehman. Furthermore, the internet discourages creativity. Building on it “sucks” for developers. Its mass complexity stifles the freedom of these weirdos and freaks. Urbit offers a solution. Lehman’s thesis, bookended like another familiar slogan, is make computers personal again. The crowd cheers. A plane flies by carrying a banner reading: “URBIT. THERE’S A PLANET WHEN YOU’RE READY.”
Urbit participates in some self-parody. One-of-one bootleg t-shirts circulate with the recurring phrase I ______ AT URBIT ASSEMBLY.
Photo: Madeline Cash
Assembly’s programming is diverse, encompassing a healthy variety of tech and culture. Talks and panels present bloggers and podcasters, Buddhists and software engineers. One panel consists of Lucien Smith, Hamzat Raheem, Petra Cortright, and Asher Penn. Another is a round-circle on coding. The weekend’s preeminent group chat, originally called “Gin and Tlonic,” includes both “Urbit folk” and members of the downtown New York landscape. “There’s a weird combination of artsy people with extremely autistic tech kids and crypto bros,” says Pablo Peniche, head of growth at Vienna Hypertext.
Raheem, a stone sculptor from Nigeria, now Massachusetts, is the most Urbit-fluent of the artsy people. He explains that he has to monitor his pacemaker through an app, requiring him to carry his phone 24/7. It has changed his relationship to the internet and made it more vital to participate in online society.
Urbit is notably interested in incorporating culture into their narrative. A story by Jorge Luis Borges—”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—is the company’s namesake for its subjective idealism. They have an in-house literary magazine, The Mars Review of Books, run by Noah Kumin, which publishes writers such as Tao Lin (his piece on autism is in the latest issue) and Dimes Square playwright Matt Gasda (who offhandedly said of Urbit, “unholy alliances abound”). Their programming language Hoon takes its name from the Wallace Stevens poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon” (“I was the world in which I walked”). Urbit brings poetry into binary. Hoon uses diacritic marks as opposed to symbols like in traditional HTML. Kumin explains, “Curtis [Yarvin] believed it was better and necessary to create something from scratch.” It’s supposedly mistake-proof. Iron-clad. There’s beauty in its density.
An Instagram account, shirts_of_assembly, documents the patrons’ fashion. The shirts display an esoteric knowledge of early online culture: Erowid, MegaTokyo, Mt. Gox. There are many men with extremely lengthy beards at Assembly. “The intersection of gamers and Islamic fundamentalists,” says a pseudonymous strategist called K, “is long facial hair.”
James Duesterberg, who penned one of the most comprehensive dives into Urbit, consistently and unaffectionately refers to the participants as nerds. The attendees do exude the mutual comradery of otherwise outsiders. There’s a pride in what they’re doing that is perhaps in spite of those not in the club—a “one day, you’ll all see” sentiment once associated with Revenge of the Nerds.
The gender ratio is unbalanced. There is a half-hour wait for the men’s bathroom while the women’s is empty. None of the men will visit a restroom intended for the opposite gender. “It’s like, everyone at Urbit is paranoid of the panopticon, I’m paranoid I’ll suddenly be cold,” Ruby Sutton, a reporter for Astra, says of the stark contrast between Floridian humidity and air conditioning.
There’s a sense of mystery at Assembly, a whisper of something clandestine, maybe even sinister, happening just beneath the surface. Something that goes beyond privacy and technical innovation. It’s the first year that the conference is allowing reporters. Upon seeing a press badge, a father tells his child that he is not allowed to speak to journalists in the cadence of don’t talk to strangers. Assembly is like Fight Club: there’s only one rule.
Urbit-ers find freedom in confusion. The company is intentionally covert and indefinable. It allows owners to move around information, code, and money without being legible to state powers. “We’re not trying to be a black market,” says Z, a Tlon programmer. “There is nothing illegal going on here.” Why is this group so concerned with privacy? Doth the programmer protest too much? Balaji Srinivasan, former CTO of Coinbase who has previously been linked to “The Dark Enlightenment” and was allegedly Trump’s top pick to lead the FDA, is the event’s keynote speaker. “Acceding Urbit is like taking the Chinese gaokao exams,” he says. Srinivasan means that it is self-selecting and incredibly challenging. Raheem compares setting up his planet to running a marathon: so difficult and grueling that a sense of pride accompanies its completion.
There are undeniably some shadowy figures associated with Urbit. Yarvin is crowned the architect of neoreactionary politics. Thiel is considered dangerous for his outspoken far-right political proclivities. Hadrian Belove of the now-defunct Hollywood theater Cinefamily, who was accused of a litany of disturbing sexual allegations, is in attendance. Some consider Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary Alex’s War, which screened at Assembly on Saturday night, a laudatory treatment of Infowars’ Alex Jones (who is currently in multiple lawsuits for denying the Sandy Hook school shooting). Panelist Charlotte Fang stepped down from Remilia after encouraging underage girls to self-harm and restrict their eating (there was some racism and antisemitism involved as well). Invited speaker and podcaster Justin Murphy recently tweeted, “Sometime in the next 5-20 years, the entire woke/queer/up-is-down bubble in Art & Culture will pop.” Whether Urbit condones the aforementioned behavior is unclear and, perhaps, irrelevant.
Raheem doesn’t think there is anything intrinsically insidious about Urbit. “There’s money and money can’t be neutral,” says the sculptor. “It just depends on who has the tool and what they’re gonna do with it.” It’s choose your own adventure networking, only as ominous or benevolent as the player decides.
The few onsite journalists are trying to piece it all together. What’s Urbit’s connection to downtown New York culture? Why encourage 150 people to build a secret society? What’s really going on here? K says, “If I’m trying to connect the dots between Kaitlin Phillips and Curtis Yarvin I end up feeling like Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.” What he means is, like Cruise in Kubrick’s final feature, one could wend deeper into the labyrinth of Urbit, open door after door, become privy to more exclusive levels of information—but to what end?
“Sure, it’s a cult,” says one of the event directors, Anika Jade. “But like, not all cults are bad.”
The pamphlet handed out at the start of Assembly—How to Start a Secret Society—concludes with a poem:
Wish you were on Urbit.
Wish you were in Miami.
Wish you were next to us on the beach.
Piecing together the night before.
Our recollection of the weekend is a kaleidoscope of each of our subjective experiences. Where one of us blacked out, another one of us might remember. Some parts remain forgotten altogether.
A little bit like Urbit.
The sun’s setting. The tide’s rising.
Wish you were here.
Photo: Madeline Cash
The aforementioned debauchery, of course, had not happened before the printing of this guide. No sandwich eating or beach hanging had yet occurred. The creation of lore is integral to Urbit’s brand. Perception is as important as the company’s reality, if not more. What could be happening is as powerful as what is. According to Gin and Tlonic, most of the guests were not getting wasted and blacking out. On Friday night, at least 32 of them went to see James Cameron’s Avatar at a nearby theater. The narrative, shrouded in secrecy and prestige, will always be more alluring than the truth. A little bit like Urbit.
Penn of Sex Mag makes the analogy between Urbit’s society- and world-building and the climate change fears Cameron expresses in Avatar. Cameron has his characters inhabit other planets and other bodies in the wake of climate collapse while specialized companies build apocalypse bunkers in Texas. Is Urbit the digital equivalent of doomsday prepping? The strategist K says that exclusivity is not how you prepare for Armageddon. “If you really think the world is ending, my advice is get to know your neighbors.”
This is not an Urbit-exclusive ambition. Starting over is a recurring theme for Web3 projects. A panel talk entitled “New Institutions in the Network Age” includes Dryden Brown, CEO and co-founder of Praxis. “The world’s changing in a really dramatic way,” says Brown. He has a really dramatic response: the company is striving to build a utopia in the Mediterranean. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that idealism can be a slippery slope to fascism. Brown, ever modest, says his project is more like the Roman Empire.
The first night concludes in a cocktail party. Lips loosen as drinks flow. Press and programmer alike are one at Assembly. Secrets spill. Someone says Malia Obama confirmed the existence of aliens. They discuss an app that allows users to rent hot girls to attend their parties. There is talk of getting follistatin gene therapy to look younger. Investment opportunities are as abundant as ketamine and citrus. Curtis Yarvin is everybody’s darling. Curtis this, Curtis that. In Honduras with Curtis. In Dubai with Curtis. On the crypto island of Próspera with Curtis. Privacy is jeopardized not by the “old internet” but by the bottomless margaritas the foundation provides.
Raheem compares the Urbit community to the inner circle of Medici. “[They] would gather the most brilliant minds of the moment and have these dinners and debates with the brightest people of the time.” As would William Randolph Hearst, as would the members of the Algonquin Round Table. Urbit Assembly presents the opportunity to meet an investor for your start-up, to connect with others who speak your obscure coding language, who want to discuss pre-Raphaelite art, smart contracts, Buddhism, James Cameron, fashion, crypto fluctuation, the flora and fauna of Southern Florida. It’s a safe space, an autonomous zone, a haven.
Day two kicks off with a talk on “Network Spirituality”; people can accelerate their desires and interests more effectively online than they can in the physical world so they treat the digital ecosystem like a religion. The panel includes podcaster Murphy and surprise guest Fang, who seems bored and walks off midway through the conversation. Soryu Forall, a Buddhist monk with his own meditation academy, explains that we are all merging into code. “The goal of your life is to be processed. That way, you have significance.” Murphy calls Urbit Protestant Capitalist. He says that its founders were divinely called upon. There is a more obvious parallel between Urbit and Mormonism and the belief that one will receive their own planet after they die. Raheem, who practices Islam, feels a connection between Assembly and attending a sermon at a mosque. “Urbit deals with these really difficult philosophical concepts about why humans feel the need to make things.”
Saturday’s main stage panel hosts Sam Frank, who serves on the board of the Urbit Foundation, Kumin, Walter Kirn, Moyer, and Katherine Dee. Kirn monologues about Borges. He calls Urbit an “intimate internet.” He disparages Shakespeare. Frank’s shirt reads, “I MET MY WIFE AT URBIT ASSEMBLY.” The women on the panel are the first to reveal skepticism for the club. Moyer notes that we already have an internet. Why would we need another one? Dee says, “People are too impatient to use Urbit so they might as well read a book.” The tension mounts and the clouds surrounding the semi-outdoor venue look like they’re about to burst. Frank and Kumin continue advocating for computing outside of ideological perimeters. Kirn makes reference to the feminist mob. There is a Q and A. Someone in the audience defends The Daily Stormer. Another goes on a diatribe against masturbating. Dee incorrectly identifies an audience member as Amish. It starts to rain.
Photo: Madeline Cash
The third day of Assembly is more or less the same as the previous two. More humidity. Fewer oranges. Resources are dwindling. The carriage is slowly turning back into a pumpkin. Back into a parking structure. A hurricane is forecasted. People are heading back to their respective homes in New York and Silicon Valley. They exchange numbers and Urbit addresses. Srinivasan, the keynote speaker, says that Urbit’s premier app is its community. “Urbit was the friends we made along the way,” says K. Maybe they will give him a galaxy.
Urbit’s dedication to decentralization is critical to its identity. Urbit is not perfect but there’s progress. There are advocates for change. There is clean use of dirty money.
“Urbit is no more dubious than this glass of water,” says Kirn. “It just depends on what you pour into it.”
If one is to wade into the sphere of power and influence, climb to the upper echelons of Urbit, what is at the top? Planets? Galaxies? Satanic ritual? A Tlon higher-up tilts his phone screen covertly. Perhaps he’s hiding the answers to the weekend’s question: what’s really going on here? What am I doing this for? But no, he’s looking at a photo of his 18-month-year-old daughter jumping into a puddle. He texts his wife that he loves and misses her.
“A storm is coming,” someone says.
“You mean on Urbit?” asks their friend. “Something big is coming in the next hundred years that will change computing, programming, and culture forever.”
“No,” they say. “A literal storm is coming. There’s a weather advisory. We all need to leave.”
The hurricane is rolling in. Everyone gathers at the Standard Hotel. The sky breaks right after the conference’s closing remarks. An iguana steals someone’s french fries. The sea, sky, and infinity pool are all the same shade of gray. People say their goodbyes. They link and build and look forward to next year’s Assembly. They are leaders and they are being led. The weirdos and freaks are optimistic. Their glass of water is half full. But what will be poured into that glass—water or Kool-aid? online community or virtual tyranny?—still remains to be seen.