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All Hail the Cloud King
Private 5G networks, currencies and robot armies
I was at AWS re:Invent last month. My first impression was that the conference was largely incremental: more serverless, faster hardware, hybrid infra, customer case studies - it was all very normal.
Yet after stewing on it a bit more I started to piece together the critical infrastructure AWS was building: private 5G networks, satellite-based networks, private outposts, blockchains, full-stack supply chains, and robot fleet management.
I realized that AWS had built the infrastructure to shift the world as dramatically as the agricultural revolution did. AWS is not just a company:
AWS is a meta-country that provides APIs for anyone to create their own country1
BREAKING NEWS - Amazon’s corporate tax has been increased to 30%
BREAKING NEWS - Amazon has moved its corporate headquarters to Ireland
BREAKING NEWS - The United Nations have set a global 40% revenue tax rate for Amazon
BREAKING NEWS - Amazon has disbanded its headquarters, created its own internet, robot military, and currency
BREAKING NEWS - The United States military has experienced technical difficulties while deployed outside Amazon HQ. All weapons and communication networks are jammed.
Voting with your browser
The hard times create strong men meme has made it to my front page a few times.
One of the reasons why this meme resonated so much is that normal people aren’t immune to the consequences of weak men’s actions. See the Lebanese trash crisis as an example.
Compelling speeches don’t make up for incompetence
As a nihilistic acknowledgment of government incompetence, countries like El Salvador have begun offering 0% tax rates to attract wealthy foreigners. A Libertarian utopia would need to address its murder rate first.
Regardless, public servants are now acting like public servants who need to solve your problems to encourage you to stay. A slightly more optimistic story is the Mayor of Miami genuinely asking tech people on social media how he could help?
In stark contrast to cities like Seattle where it’s normal to see a guillotine outside of wealthy men’s mansions.
COVID has normalized remote work, smart people have figured out they can be in a city they enjoy living in, close to people they love, and still have a global impact thanks to the internet. Remote: Office not required makes the case that remote rewards doers and strong writers over charisma. Skillsets that bureaucrats have had no incentive to cultivate.
If remote workers feel stuck with mediocre opportunities or micromanaging bosses then all they have to do is trade one corporate MacBook for another and they are good to go. It’s no surprise that tech salaries have continued to rise through 2020 and 2021. US employees at least can now vote with their feet and work someplace that aligns with their mission.
Companies can also vote with their feet, they can choose to incorporate in favorable tax havens (this is not a new idea) but with cloud services, they’ll be able to create their own digital countries and create their own laws and regulations.
Imagine if you could change your citizenship by just getting a new Macbook, what would the world look like? Would laws become more favorable for citizens if countries have to compete for their citizens? Would existing powerful governments allow such a transition?
Violence, Asymmetries & Hierarchies
Before I answer how exactly Amazon or AWS more specifically can help create fully sovereign countries, it’s worth quickly understanding how the history of violence determines human governance structures. The below is inspired by Szabo’s analysis, one of the original Cypherpunks.
The story goes: hunter-gatherer tribes, small egalitarian groups devoid of bureaucracy suddenly adopt bureaucracies to advance to an agricultural society. 2 Social structure was small, there were no states or hoarders so there was nothing of value worth fighting over.
We lost our innonence when we learnt to farm
Consider that most farms historically were family-owned and labor was divided among family members but large swaths of land were difficult to protect so it was common to pay tribute to a local Lord for protection. These Lords then also organized themselves into larger bureaucracies like Duchies or Kingdoms to protect themselves from other Dukes and Kings as long as they promise to also raise their levies should the need arise.
The common peasant though never really cared who their master was as long as they didn’t increase taxes too much. It was simply not realistic for a King to send out an army to deal with a tax-evading peasant, neither was it realistic for a King to siege one of their lieges fortresses without expensive catapults that they would need to transport 3
Industrial societies were further centralized, they required large labor forces hierarchically organized to achieve some complex goal like building a widget. In this regime, regardless of how wealthy a factory owner is, they are sensitive to violence because they have a lot more to lose than to gain when engaging with their violent but less wealthy counterparts. Eventually, this asymmetry makes it unsustainable to build large peaceful enterprises so a single party “the government” achieves a monopoly on violence to allow for “free markets”. Tributes get rebranded to taxation and industrialists can now scale their operations.
With the internet, value is even more centralized, successful companies generate data that help them improve their product which helps them centralize their influence even more. Tech startups are also asymmetrical in the sense that they can take on large incumbents with very few resources and distribute profits over a small group of people.
The creator economy is a convenient rebranding of trickle-down economics that fails to address this new paradigm entirely. Fundamentally, people have finite attention and will gravitate towards the best content which will gather most of the value of the creator economy. The twitch streamer power-law distributed salary data leak proves this point.
Ok Mark that’s great so what does this have to do with robot armies and AWS ruling the world
The implication of violence is necessary for safety, an example would be how the Mongols secured the Silk Road. This is partly why both socialism and libertarianism as a goal instead of a heuristic are naive ideologies. Neither humans nor governments are immune to vices.
With the internet, threats became asymmetrical. If a large and a small country are engaging each other in cyberwarfare, the larger country has much more to lose and as a result, it’s much more difficult for a large country to exert influence.
Counterintuitively nuclear weapons encourage peace because there’s always a possibility of mutually assured destruction which most reasonable humans would like to avoid. Cyberwarfare on the other hand is grey, there’s always the possibility of plausible deniability which encourages many small skirmishes on the internet. Contrary to what empiricists like Steven Pinker believe in the Better Angels of our Nature violence will not decrease over time, it will increase and the internet will be an infinite fractal Maginot line connecting everyone.
Now imagine a world where instead of a few hundred countries, we have a few hundred thousand, and each of those hundreds of thousands of countries poses a genuine threat to each other. What does the steady-state of such a regime look like?
At the very least we know that whoever allows the creation and maintenance of new governments would be very powerful. There’s a non zero percent chance that AWS becomes a meta country where
AWS provides the same APIs by which it could rule the world to customers, only difference is customers need to pay a usage (sales?) tax
A “Rule the World” Solution
AWS regularly publishes “solutions” online as architecture diagrams describing how to achieve some complex goal by assembling a bunch of AWS services. So here’s a reference diagram for how AWS could rule the world and how a clever AWS customer could do the same.
Existing superpowers like the United States exert military dominion to control trade (via infrastructure, supply chains, and currency) and ideas (language, media, and religion).
Sure, a cantankerous hacker can be frustrating to deal with, but if they’re harmful enough in the digital world, they will eventually be harmed in the physical world.
Military is the prerequisite for a stable state - it’s the only monopoly that really matters
AWS is arguably the most important company in the digital world, it provides scale as a service. You focus on your customer’s needs and AWS will provide the elastic compute and storage infrastructure and only charge you for your actual usage. Your interests are fundamentally aligned because AWS would only charge you more as your products and services become more popular. But this is purely in the world of bits, what if AWS could actually help you move things in the physical world.
GreenGrass is AWS for the physical world
The architecture above isn’t fundamentally different from a social app, you have
Hardware like Arduinios equipped with AWS enabled chips with software that needs to make decisions in the real world
Hardware can be equipped with 3D printed firearms
Hardware that would not allow communication from the outside world
Hardware that can make requests for long-running jobs like ML model training or create digital resources like databases
Software can be improved over time by collecting data from the real world and/or simulations
Software can be redeployed and monitored using Git/Dev/MLOps
This is it, this is the architecture by which you can rule the world - it’s much simpler than traditional military supply chains because you have better observability, faster deployment cycle, and don’t need any perishable resources like food.
The idea is that AWS can perfect such an architecture to retain their role as the meta-country and that other new countries can leverage AWS expertise to become countries.
The world of bits is crucial but it has less impact than the world of atoms. We’re too used to rapidly growing software companies and decaying governments to accept this. In the near future, competent organizations will have fully robotic armies so they can’t be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. The metaverse will play an increasingly important role in our lives, but nothing will ever be more important than violence because our genetic code is just several abstractions on top of “stay alive”.
Unrestricted Warfare is a book that’s supposedly read by all senior leaders in the CCP that describe how to succeed in asymmetric warfare or in other words how to win a war without soldiers.
It’s a playbook often used by opponents of the United States like interfering in US elections by manipulating social media ranking algorithms, mass surveillance to thwart uprisings, or saying one thing and doing another.
Presumably, a large chunk of the US military relies on devices and materials totally dependent on Chinese supply chains, war would be devastatingly expensive for both parties.
A much cheaper option is to control the “meme” or media landscape.
While people can be fully aware that foreign actors are trying to influence their thoughts, it’s crushing to also realize that domestic news outlets can also share their fair share of propaganda. Trump was correct with his “It’s all Fake News” catchphrase but wasn’t honest enough to admit he too was guilty of it .
The media however doesn’t need to be mediated by central parties, any good writer or speaker is a 1 man media company that can have a disproportionately large impact on a discourse by simply sharing better memes.
You don’t need to buy the Washington Post, you can create your own social network using nothing but AWS EC2, S3, RedShift, Direct Connect. You can create your own facts, reality, history, myths and it’s not obvious if we’ll ever be able to close this Pandora’s box.
Being wrong is painful but if we can always find people who agree with us then we never need to be wrong.
But AWS canceled Parler! That’s true, they’re not an unbiased platform - superpowers rarely are unbiased.
Supply Chains and Survival
Amazon has its own freight network, container ships, hardware, and planes - it’s a deeply full-stack company. Full-stack doesn’t actually mean more efficient because it’s more efficient to outsource development but it makes you more fragile and that’s something you want to avoid if you want to live long enough to rule the world.4 Ports can get crowded, people forget about single points of failure and the GPU shortage may last forever.
It helps to draw an analogy with computer hardware, typically when picking an AWS region you’re making a tradeoff between price and latency. Thing is, you’re also implicitly making a tradeoff with governance, are you OK with your servers being stored in a country that neglects the concept of privacy if it was cheaper?
If you prioritize long-term survival over short-term profits, you’re likely to outlive most governments and that $1-2T valuation can steadily towards newer records.
Nowadays everything feels like a Ponzi scheme: NFTs, Lebanese Lira, Tesla, S&P 500, Chinese Real Estate, Treasury bonds to the point where anyone who makes any wealth needs to learn how to become a part-time asset manager.
It’s hard to sleep easy at night knowing you could lose it all based on decisions made by faraway bureaucrats and scammers outside of your control. However, as countries are allowed to become smaller with less complex but less fragile supply chains then we can bureaucracies to be more manageable and be more accountable to their constituents.
Private 5G and Currencies
The most mind-blowing announcement for me from AWS re:Invent 2021 was Private 5G.
The TL;DR is that you can create private internet networks for your friends, company, or online country. You can’t be hacked because you don’t exist as far as the outside world is concerned. You can remove the whole asymmetric hacking attack vector as you scale.
But attackers could still potentially bring down your base towers, in which case you put your infrastructure in space where warfare seems to be prohibitively expensive because it’s never happened before. (Maybe it will in my lifetime, I’m not sure).
Latency doesn’t matter for everything, I don’t mind having my model training happen in space as long as my model inferences happen very close to me.
Modern nation-states can no longer hide their incompetence and corruption. The Arab Spring fueled by social media turned every protester into an anti-government propaganda device. Every dictator in the world was closely monitoring the Arab Spring as a blueprint for how they too could lose their power and their answer was to dismantle internet privacy. The dictator’s plan worked because every country has an oligopoly on telecom that’s closely regulated by the government but with private 5G networks and satellites, the dictators will need to update their runbook.
AWS Blockchain also lets you mint your own currency. Before you call me a crypto shill, I will readily admit that I too think most cryptos are a Ponzi but I view them as Ponzis in the same way I view the Turkish Lira as a Ponzi.
Over 60% of Ethereum runs on cloud services, 25% of which on AWS, so claims of decentralization are purely a roadmap ambition and not a present reality.
Regardless, historically people living in countries with rampant hyperinflation haven’t had the option of holding stronger currencies.
At the very least, people want a currency that doesn’t collapse over time, and then they may favor certain monetary and fiscal policies based on their political beliefs. And if people aren’t born in a country where their beliefs don’t map to the beliefs of the majority, then they can vote with their browser. If they still lose it all, they have no one else but themselves to blame, you don’t get sympathy for willingly putting your savings in a Ponzi scheme.
The new Serfdom
Many social movements are inherently destructive, they want to bring down existing corrupt institutions yet have no plans for how to rebuild new ones. Martin Gurri has observed this problem in many popular uprisings including the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wallstreet movement in his book Revolt of the Public
People are mad because they view their leaders as malicious thieves, yet the reality is their leaders are mostly incompetent because they’re inheriting institutions they could have never founded themselves.
Amazon has shown that they are competent but it remains to be seen whether customer obsession alone will mean they will be a good steward for AWS for everything.
At the very least, they force our democratically elected leaders to step up their game or risk extinction since the everything store will be a meta country with an everything tax. Would you trade a constitution for the Amazon principles?
AWS becomes the equivalent of the US or China or UN. They can veto certain countries, extract a levy in return based on usage (serverless) instead of a subscription.
In California at least most of my taxes are a subscription proportional to my wealth that goes towards the privilege of enjoying nice weather. If I were to become an AWS citizen instead it’s likely I’d pay for the usage of goods and services.
California can’t threaten AWS anymore because the state has no threat of violence and therefore no way of punishing AWS.
Governments can’t win economic wars without controlling currencies, military wars in the age of robots, or media wars in the age of private internets.
We are entering the age of hundreds of thousands of countries, and things are only going to get weirder from here
Thank you Hamel Husain for providing structural feedback, Ainur Smagulova for helping me flesh out my ideas over many lunch rants, and the Robot Overlord Discord community for feedback and inspiration.
The idea of a meta-country may be familiar to you if you’ve spent some time reading about DAOs or crypto theses in general. While conceptually you could do everything I talk about in the article on the blockchain in the future, you can do it all now using AWS
It’s worth noting that it’d be naive to say that our hunter-gatherer ancestors or hunter-gatherer colleagues are more or less violent than us. The answer is unfortunately it depends and the “Noble Savage” untainted by violence and capitalism is largely a myth and Graber makes this case brilliantly in the Dawn of Everything
If you’ve ever wondered how Mongols with their cavalry invaded Europe with their fortresses, consider that Mongols assembled siege weaponry like catapults on-site instead of transporting them halfway across the world
1 lung is more efficient than 2 lungs but more fragile