Your Urbit is a personal server. It's a secure home for your digital life—and it's yours forever. Your Urbit can run applications, organize files, send messages, store your cryptocurrency, and even update itself. It's a private, encrypted home base on the internet. All available under one login.
Urbit is not a physical device. It is installed on existing cloud servers and you interact with it through your phone, laptop, tablet or desktop computer. It can be accessed from anywhere and should eventually cost the same or less than your favorite music streaming subscription service.
But to really understand what Urbit is and why you might want one, it helps to first understand what Urbit is responding to: the modern internet and the subsequent shortcomings of personal computing.
The original vision for the internet was that everyone would have their own computer that stored their data, ran their software and connected directly to other computers on a variety of networks (i.e. personal servers). Ideas and information could easily be shared directly with others without the involvement of third parties. The computer was going to be a bicycle for the mind, one that could be used in this radically new social way through peer-to-peer networking across the globe. Personal computing would open up entirely new possibilities for the individual and humanity as a whole.
However, this vision never came to fruition, in large part because the internet was built in an ad hoc manner over 30+ years—it is a frankensteined amalgamation of code, protocols and Unix systems that makes running your own software on the internet difficult, even for professionals. Instead, we leave the task to tech companies.
This led to the cloud model of computing that we have today where we connect to corporate servers in order to access software applications that would otherwise be too difficult to run ourselves.
When we "network" socially, we are really just connecting through these servers—not to each other. When I "send you an email" on gmail, that message is, in reality, just stored on a Google server and you and I are both given access to it. I don't actually "send" anything to you.
In the cloud model, corporations run software for us as a service and we pay for it with our money, our personal information and/or our attention through advertisements. This model is suitable for certain computing needs, but it has led to undesirable outcomes that make it a poor model for the internet and personal computing:
- Since it is so difficult for us to run our own software on the internet, we are reliant on tech companies who are then able to position themselves in the middle of almost everything we do on the internet, even simple tasks like messaging or sharing a file.
- Tech companies leverage this position as a platform to serve us ads and to own and monetize our data. They are incentivized to get us to spend as much time online as possible and to make sure we never leave their platform. We are being held hostage and increasingly manipulated at the expense of our well being.
- Our digital experience is fragmented and cumbersome. There is a cloud company for every service we might use the internet for (Dropbox, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Instagram, Snapchat, iMessage, iCloud, Office 365, ad infinitum) and none of these services communicate or share data with each other. This means hundreds of logins and passwords and constantly switching back and forth between applications.
- We do not own and control our data. Your Google account is Google's. You don't own the keys to the front door of the house you live in. You do the secret knock (your password) and Google lets you in.
- We have no privacy on the internet. Almost everything you do is being monitored and measured and used to manipulate your behavior. This is because cloud companies built much of the internet and they are incentivized to expose as much of our private lives as possible (i.e. surveillance capitalism).
- With the proliferation of internet-connected devices—televisions, home security systems, thermostats, watches, health monitors, etc—producing data, the cloud model forces us to let corporations deeper and deeper into our lives and disperses our data across their servers. This will become exponentially more cumbersome and difficult in the near future.
- We can be censored and kicked off platforms and social networks. Cloud companies like Twitter and Facebook decide who can participate in their network and what you can and cannot say. This is dangerous for democracy and puts too much power in the hands of too few individuals.
Urbit fixes this by making it easy to run our own software on the internet, thereby eliminating our need to rely on cloud companies and the applications running on their servers. With Urbit, we can perform common online tasks like messaging, editing documents and social networking yourself, eliminating the middle man. Instead, we can each have our own personal server that runs our online applications and connects peer-to-peer. Urbit enables new possibilities for software that serves our needs rather than the needs of advertisers and cloud corporations.
Urbit is entirely new software. Instead of settling for the compromises inherent in modern internet architecture that make it so complex, Urbit engineers started from scratch. They created a low-level combinator language and a functional programming language, and with those they built an operating system called Urbit OS.
Urbits connect peer-to-peer. You can make your own communities on Urbit outside of corporate control. Social networking is no longer an advertising platform or scheme to own all of your data. Instead, power is put in the hands of the individual and individuals that make up a community. Your data is your data.
You can trust your Urbit. The code is open-source and free of restrictive patents or licenses. There are no hidden backdoors that allow for any funny business.
Your Urbit is encrypted. Encryption is a technology that allows you to keep your data and messages private by providing you with the ability to control who has access to them.
Your Urbit can connect to and store the data from your internet-connected devices. In a future where hundreds of our devices are producing data, that data can now be safely stored in one place where you can use it for your own benefit rather than for the benefit of a tech company.
Each Urbit is a unique identity and only 4.2bn exist. This makes them scarce, valuable and disincentivizes spam and bad behavior on the network. It also means that as more people use Urbit, the value of your Urbit may increase. It is like owning a home, but on the internet.
You use Urbit like you use existing software. In the same way you access iCloud, Google Drive or Dropbox from your phone or laptop, you access Urbit from your phone or laptop. However, Urbit is your cloud.
Urbit was created to realize the full potential of the internet and to make personal computing better for the average user: simpler, richer, more intuitive and more naturally social. But it also answers some of the most important challenges of the 21st century: privacy, security and individual sovereignty—the things which are necessary for a free, open and democratic society. Our company, Urbit Live, was created to help make Urbit a reality and to promote and facilitate access to this incredible technology.
*Banner image is a rendering by architect Peter Zumthor.