January 22, 1984. It’s overcast in Los Angeles but spirits are high. A rowdy crowd spills out from a local bar onto La Brea Avenue, each patron donning a different Raiders jersey. Their city’s team is up by two touchdowns, enough of a lead over the Redskins to take the edge off the bar. They’re gonna win the Super Bowl.
“This round’s on me,” a Raiders fan boasts from a barstool. He invites his fellow patrons to gather in to collect their drinks. The bartender passes out overflowing mugs like she’s dealing cards. Just as the last beer goes out, a sportscaster recounts the score, and the game cuts to a commercial break.
For the next thirty seconds—while everyone’s got a fresh drink on their lips—the TV’s audio commands the bar. It seems at first like someone changed the channel to a network airing Blade Runner, but this isn’t Blade Runner. It is directed by Ridley Scott. A dystopian scene plays out. An unnamed female protagonist in bright athletic garb tears through the otherwise bleak environment and heaves a sledgehammer at a giant face beckoning from a screen. “On January 24th,” the narrator cuts in, “Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” The rainbow Apple logo appears over black. A brief silence ensues.
“You know,” one patron says to a friend. “I never thought too much of computers. Something’s telling me I should. If everyone had one, you know? I can’t even imagine what that’d look like. Future feels a lot different thinking about it though. Anything could happen.”
“Yeah,” the friend riffs. “Like the Redskins could still win tonight.”
As promised, Apple’s Macintosh rolled out two days later. The $2,500 chunk of hardware—that included MacPaint and MacWrite among its suite of applications—made personal computing accessible, the gateway to delivering simple tools to the average household.
The Raiders fans were right to speculate. Our lives were about to change beyond our wildest dreams. Yet the Macintosh—like every other personal computer—was unable to predict one major phenomenon: the internet.
While mainframe networks within computers might have inspired the concept of the internet, computers themselves weren’t originally designed to be networked. They were designed to be personal. To write. To doodle. The major innovation of the personal computer was the form factor—from something that filled an entire room to something that sat on your desk.
Once the internet arrived, we figured out these beefed up word processors could talk to one another. But for two computers to reach each other at any given moment, they’d both always have to be online. That wasn’t going to happen, so an intermediary computer was invented that was always online and made networked computers possible. That intermediary computer is what we call a server.
The standalone architecture established in the 80s remains the basis of our laptops and phones today, and we rely on private, centralized servers for everything we do online—from our apps and services to our social networks. We’ve grown accustomed to computing this way, but it’s far from ideal. What started as a quick fix to getting computers online has evolved into a quagmire.
Don’t get us wrong. The internet is a beautiful thing. It's perhaps the single most powerful collaborative tool we’ve ever created—connecting us with people and ideas from all over the world. The internet should be an inspiring place, but lately it’s been having other adverse effects on our lives. Unwanted notifications from apps we forgot we even had. Endless scrolls through media we never wanted to see or hear. Logins we’ll forget. Data we’ll lose. The overall user experience of being online leaves us feeling exhausted when we should feel motivated, anxious when we should feel inspired, and uncertain when we should feel at ease.
If you’ve ever wondered why products and services are so insistent you use them, or why social media is so addictive and overwhelming, or why you feel so bad when you finally muster the awareness to put down your phone, you can trace it all back to an overreliance on servers. Private servers are expensive to maintain. To justify the server, companies have to turn a profit. To turn a profit, they’ve got to maximize upside or selling out data. It’s a deranged profit motive: rather than increase product quality, server operators increase product addiction. Our privacy, time and sanity is the price we pay for companies to wrangle our data for us. The server is no longer a messenger, but a bad-intentioned arbiter.
The internet has gone through a lot. Platforms have come and gone. Interfaces have changed, over and over. Most recently, the emergence of web3 protocols claim to be the foundation of another new era. Underneath the facelifts—even in the case of web3—computers are still dependent on private servers to run our day-to-day computing. Sure, computers have network connections, GPS and sensors in them now, but the way those components are networked remains a severe bottleneck to their potential. As indispensable and ubiquitous as computers have become, you’d hope they’d be more complementary to life than demanding of our time.
No average person should be expected to know how their computer works. In fact, we think the best technology is the kind that totally disappears. But we need to first make this point: the way we’ve been doing things online—whether that’s chatting with our friends or building software—can be much, much better. Depending on who you’re talking to, the effects of centralized computing surface in different ways. Some might report social media burnout. Developers, however, might note how much of an undertaking software is. Because everyone’s bought into the dominance of private servers, developers assume that to build software, you’ve got to run a server and assume the liability of user data. We’ve established how expensive that is—especially if your app goes viral—so to even justify building something, you’re probably going to have to start a company.
The internet’s not going away. That claim might ring either negative or positive. So far we’ve painted a pretty negative picture. That’s one way to look at it, but we can assure you there’s another. Not only do we see a way forward, we can actually use the foundational infrastructure of the internet to get there. Look at what we have. Data centers are ubiquitous. Network throughput is super high. We’re just using them wrong—through intermediaries.
Urbit is a new layer on top of that foundation—without the intermediaries—that can be accessed from anywhere and remains under the control of the people who depend on it. Today, it’s a place to start from scratch—without the clutter and distractions—alongside like minded communities. Tomorrow, it’s the fully realized internet, where we own what we build and we build from the heart. No foreseeable roadblocks. Say it again: the internet’s not going away. How does it sound now?
There’s a few minutes left in the Super Bowl. The Los Angeles Raiders are ahead 38 to 9. The two Raiders fans sop up their pints and raise two fingers at the bartender. She acknowledges the signal and begins to pour their last, celebratory drinks of the night.
“My daughter’s watching this game,” one fan announces to the other. “She’s at school on the East coast now. That’s what I love about a bar like this. You can go anywhere and find a barebones watering hole with a television set. Los Angeles. Boston. Kalamazoo. You name it. She’s a million miles away drinking the same Bud, watching the same game. Makes me feel like we’re watching it together.”
“Ain’t that the case,” the other Raiders fan laments. And then, recalling the commercial from halftime, begins to speculate, “Imagine what’ll happen when we get those computers in every household. Every bar, even. The NFL can bring their broadcast to every damn person in America because we installed these tiny little screens on the wall. If these computers are anywhere near as popular, that’s some powerful infrastructure right there.”
Their beers are served. The Raiders win. The team won’t again appear in the Super Bowl—this time as the Oakland Raiders—until 2002, the year Urbit is born.
Stay tuned for Part Two and the birth of Urbit.