Some have said that bitcoin can be thought of as digital property, akin to a kind of virtual gold. If so, this description then raises the question – can technology be used to create entirely digital landscapes?
The developers behind a project called Urbit have spent much of the past decade trying to answer that question. It's through this concept that the project, developed by a startup called Tlon, has attracted support from Silicon Valley powerhouses like Andreessen Horowitz and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
Urbit is a network of personal cloud computers that, according to its founders, aims to create a means through which individuals can run their own servers without having to go through the trouble of running complicated server infrastructure.
Described by its creators as a "virtual city", the project dates back to the mid-2000s and is the the brainchild of Curtis Yarvin, a programmer who has stoked controversy in the past for his "neo-reactionary" political writings under the pen name Mencius Moldbug. Despite attracting criticism over the years, the project is pushing ahead, and last night completed an initial sale of sever addresses.
So what does this have to do with bitcoin and blockchain?
As its online documentation makes clear, Urbit itself does not use an actual blockchain (though it does share some kinship through its peer-to-peer network). Yet in the project’s white paper, bitcoin itself is frequently invoked, and in interview, Tlon co-founder Galen Wolfe-Pauly argued that Urbit could become an ideal platform for running bitcoin nodes and distributed apps.
Wolfe-Pauly told CoinDesk:
What it looks like
The project is composed of several parts: a virtual machine (dubbed "Nock"), an operating system ("Arvo"), a programming language ("Hoon") and a peer-to-peer network ("Ames").
The Urbit white paper invokes galactic imagery to describe how identities are then organized within its hierarchy. From “galaxies” to "stars" to “comets”, Urbit is envisioned as a virtual universe, and this extends to how identities are further generated.
As for how you actually interact with your Urbit, Wolfe-Pauly said that it depends on user preferences. Portability, he went on to say, is a key element of its design.
"You would install Urbit locally and you could either pay someone to host it for you in the cloud or easily host it yourself in the cloud,” he explained. “Or, if you were really concerned about privacy, it’s really easy to install it on an old Linux box and put it in your closet.”
The project is still very much in its early stages.
Wolfe-Pauly told CoinDesk that for now, it’s primarily developers who would be interested in using Urbit. As it stands, the project exists in testnet form and can be downloaded today.
Bitcoin and Urbit
In addition to its peer-to-peer nature, Urbit shares bitcoin’s concept of resource scarcity. Identities on the network are artificially restricted, and earlier this week, the team sold 1,020 Urbit “stars” for $256 apiece, netting the project $209,100.
As the crowdsale progressed – it sold out over the course of several hours – bitcoin startup 21 Inc CEO and A16Z board member Balaji Srinivasan drew a comparison between bitcoin and Urbit, arguing that "if IP addresses were P2P tradeable like bitcoin, they'd be Urbit address space".
But the similarities, if they can be called that, start to end here.
As it exists today, Urbit doesn’t share the globally distributed nature of bitcoin, and as its white paper outlines, the hierarchical structure of the Urbit “universe” differs from the even playing-field model espoused in Satoshi Nakamoto’s bitcoin paper.
As it exists today, Urbit is largely centralized (owing to its nascent deployment), though Wolfe-Pauly says that, should its ecosystem grow, the overall structure of Urbit’s network should become more distributed.
Galaxy image via Shutterstock
CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk offers all employees above a certain salary threshold, including journalists, stock options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.