Dirk von Heinrichshorst. Photo: Nikolaos Symeonidis

I Became a Citizen of Bitnation, a Blockchain-Powered Virtual Nation. Now What?

The whole process was disappointingly anti-climactic.

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Sep 12 2016, 12:00pm

Dirk von Heinrichshorst. Photo: Nikolaos Symeonidis

Virtual. Decentralized. Voluntary. Borderless.

This is Bitnation, a blockchain-powered government service platform like nothing else. Except, surprisingly, Antarctica.

"That's currently the only place in the world not covered by nation-state jurisdiction," Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, the platform's founder told me matter-of-factly, lighting up a cigarette.

I don't particularly want to move to Antarctica. I'm a French-US national, a dual citizen to two of the world's most powerful countries. I live and work between Tunisia and Germany—my taxes, my insurance, my life is scattered across three continents. I enjoy a greater degree of freedom of movement, speech, education, and employment than most. My fundamental rights are protected. My interactions with state bureaucracy have been mostly painless. I have near-constant access to WiFi.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I applied for Bitnation citizenship. When my father became a US citizen, he memorized parts of the Constitution and wore a suit to his naturalization ceremony. For my part, I lazily clicked through Bitnation's website while in pajamas, pausing only to think up an alias other than my first name. I received a congratulatory e-mail: Welcome to BITNATION!

The whole process was disappointingly anti-climactic.

*

I was hungry for some tangible proof of my citizenship. Part of Bitnation's appeal is that it does partially operate in physical space, with 25 embassies and consulates around the world. Anyone can sign up online to become an ambassador and open an embassy.

A few hours outside of Berlin, I visited Dirk von Heinrichshorst. Four years ago, von Heinrichshorst moved his small family to a secluded castle in the German countryside, which he runs as a bed and breakfast. Motivated by altruism and an affinity to the ideals of Bitnation, he became an ambassador and registered Schloss Heinrichshorst as an embassy last year.

Inside Schloss Heinrichshorst. Photo: Nikolaos Symeonidis

Dressed in a purple shirt and vest, with a well-waxed handlebar moustache curving up to the corners of his eyes, von Heinrichshorst ushered me into a large room decorated like a steampunk reception hall. Ambient Swedish music pours over the loudspeakers and he offered me a glass of sparkling water. A former IT engineer originally from Belgium, von Heinrichshorst speaks softly, measuring each word carefully.

"I am against borders," he told me. "Those borders are the result of centuries of war, of pain and suffering."

Schloss Heinrichshorst has adopted several borderless, Bitnation practices—visitors can pay for their stay in cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin weddings are available via their website, and the embassy has welcomed a dozen "digital nomads" in the past year. Von Heinrichshorst became an ambassador to be able to "help people in some small way."

So far, the platform's services are limited and interest is negligible. Though Bitnation's philosophy is to be a "de-facto service provider," because it is not recognized by other nation-states, it has no legal jurisdiction. Bitnation embassies are thus limited in the services they can provide. An asylum seeker could ostensibly come and stay at Schloss Heinrichshorst, but international protection couldn't be guaranteed. Still in a largely experimental phase, only one couple has signed up to be married through their online platform.

Read more: Bitcoin Is Too Libertarian to Save the Developing World, Says UN Paper

While von Heinrichshorst said he would support the limitless growth of opt-in virtual nation (VN) states, which corresponds to his own world view, he is cautiously optimistic about the feasible, full-scale implementation of Bitnation.

I came away from Schloss Heinrichshorst more confused about Bitnation. What is the point, exactly? Who is it catering to? Is it a viable solution to inequality, or just some fleeting, newfangled idea meant to stir up debate?

*

Bitnation has nearly 4,000 citizens flung across the globe, though the majority—and its spokesperson—are based in Europe. The platform is gaining momentum at a time when the strains of the nation-state model are increasingly evident. Europe, the birthplace of the Peace of Westphalia and the emergence of sovereign jurisdiction as we know it, is seemingly plagued by a rise in right-wing nationalism, an uneven debt crisis, an influx of refugees, and a Brexit.

Is Bitnation the modern solution?

"In the wake of #Brexit I have become a citizen of @MyBitNation. It has huge potential and is gaining momentum. #BlockchainsnotBorders," @Memset_Kate tweeted a day after the referendum passed.

Through some targeted programs, Bitnation has been able to address specific inadequacies of the European nation-state model. The platform's Refugee Emergency Response project, for example, provides emergency digital ID cards and Bitcoin Visa cards to people escaping war-torn countries and arriving on the shores of Europe.

"We don't need to improve existing nation-states, we need to make them redundant"

As many refugees have their identification confiscated when fleeing, blockchain technology could help to verify individuals who can't physically prove their legal status; debit cards can provide much needed funds to families. While the EU Parliament voted for a hands-off approach to blockchain regulation, the technology's usage varies across the continent, and Greece, which is the landing point for most Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghani refugees arriving by boat, has no specific legislation on Bitcoin.

Still in its pre-beta (and pre-alpha) phase, Bitnation views people from emerging markets as its core clientele. Dr. Jennifer Jackson-Preece, Associate Professor of Nationalism at the London School of Economics, told me that EU member states "offer their citizens more or less what the liberal ideal says they should offer them… The value [of Bitnation] would be added for those states which for various reasons are not able to offer the people within them the sorts of security and well-being we [Europeans] take for granted."

But Bitnation is not entirely interested in adding value.

"We don't need to improve existing nation-states, we need to make them redundant," Tarkowski Tempelhof told me over Skype. The gabled facades of Amsterdam's rooftops are visible through her window.

Architectural bits, downtown Berlin. Photo: Nikolaos Symeonidis

The ultimate goal of Bitnation is for optional VNs to replace the traditional nation-state model, dismantling borders and essentially creating a new world. Under the Decentralized Borderless Voluntary Nation (DBVN) constitution, anyone can establish a nation based on their own principles, cultures, or traditions, and states would compete with one another for citizens by offering the best price and quality for their services.

Arbitrarily born between borders, Bitnation proponents believe that humans are "geographical prisoners" who cannot meaningfully choose our government or its services. "We are hardcore on people's freedom to choose," said Tarkowski Tempelhof.

The belief that every human would define total freedom as an individual choice is a complicated stance. We are social creatures, after all, with a tendency to organize and make decisions on a communal level, to delegate tasks and assume societal roles.

"Today's Bitnation is very limited, but could grow into something"

It's also a view motivated by extreme crypto-libertarian philosophies, which necessitates both an internet connection (when only 40 percent of the world has ever gone online) and an affinity for 17th century Western political thinkers. But notions of freedom differ across cultures and religions.

"A lot of libertarians… think that the mere fact of being "free" makes you empowered," said Brett Scott, an author and independent researcher who has written on blockchain technology for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. "It's all founded on these notions of negative liberty, which is like, as long as nobody stops you, everything is fine. This is not at all how societies work."

Proponents of Bitnation repeatedly stressed that freedom of choice doesn't have to fall into a collectivism versus individualism binary. No one is forced to use Bitnation, Tarkowski Tempelhof insists. Instead, it's about opting in or opting out.

But "merely not having somebody stop you doesn't equate empowerment," Scott told me. "Empowerment involves having your needs authentically met and having support structures that enable you to live your life, and flexibility within those [structures] so you can express your individuality."

*

At times, Bitnation's ambitions seem blissfully blind to how our world works. Total freedom, choice, and equality through an online, decentralized, self-organized platform? How—and who—would let that actually happen on a full scale?

"Today's Bitnation is very limited, but could grow into something," Vinay Gupta, project manager of Ethereum Release, a venture capital firm in the blockchain space, told me, surrounded by monitors in his London flat.

"Stuff that will change the world always looks stupid until you turn around," said Gupta, as he chewed thoughtfully on an apple. "That's certainly true—airplanes, motion pictures, and nuclear power come to mind—but we do live in a world seemingly staunchly entrenched in the current political model.

"There's a lot of life yet in the sovereign state," Jackson-Preece told me. In this sense, it can be most useful to view Bitnation as a provocative thought experiment: What would happen if DIY governance were the norm?

"People are increasingly more happy if they can choose an environment that fulfills them, personally, emotionally, and intellectually," Tarkowski Tempelhof said The Bitnation founder worked as a military contractor for the US Department of Defense for several years, and points to her experiences in Libya and Afghanistan as instances of a "one-size-fits all, top-down approach [going] to rat shit."

The best way to ensure stability and peace, Tarkowski-Tempelhof said, is allowing people to "do their own thing."

Because a nation is as much an ideological concept as it is a legal one, one strength of Bitnation lies in its ability to give agency to groups who have been ignored or repressed by modern nation-states. The VN Aboriginal Union of North America, for example, bills itself as the world's first indigenous nation-state.

VNs place an enormous amount of hope in the inherent goodness of humans, to organize in ways that are respectful and humane. "I want to have faith in humanity," von Heinrichshorst told me earnestly.

Inside the faraday cage at Schloss Heinrichshorst. Photo: Nikolaos Symeonidis

My cynical mind wanders toward a more nihilistic realm: When people self-select, they have a tendency to socialize into increasingly radical points of view, creating a toxic circle of isolation and extremism. We've come so far—what if, say, white supremacists decide to form virtual nation-states with their own rule of law?

"I frankly see that as a good thing," Tarkowski Tempelhof said, "not because I like white supremacists—I hate them—but because I think it's better they come together and live their life as they want to."

The crypto-libertarian dream might very well have arrived, at least for some people. And for those who don't like it, there's always Antarctica.

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