If you type "Elko County" into Google Maps, you'll come across a square of land right beneath Idaho and to the left of Salt Lake City, Utah. Zoom in closer, and you'll see swathes of dry, barren desert and snow-topped mountains. Look up the area itself, and you'll find the odd news story about a passing tornado or drug-related crime – but not much else. In other words, Elko County is a place where nothing really happens. It's also the fourth largest county by area in the USA.
The reason I'm talking about Elko County is that 3,000 acres of it is about to become Bitcointopia, capital city of The United States of Bitcoin, a brand new country you can buy into for half a Bitcoin (around £2,558 right now). Or, at least, that's what a group of cryptocurrency enthusiasts who have bought up that land are hoping for. According to a series of articles on Medium titled "The Blockchainist Papers", this country would be formed under the legal standard of the Treason Act of 1495 – a medieval law that says you can secede from America under certain circumstances – and ideally constructed by the first 30 to 45 residents.
This might sound like something dreamt up by a load of dreadlocked white dudes who've watched too much Wild Wild Country, but it's worth looking at the website and appreciating the sheer scope of the idea. Have you ever tried to imagine what a Hackers-inspired Disneyland might look like if it was designed by Elon Musk? Me neither, but conveniently this does all that work for you.
This isn't the first time a group of people have tried to a) start their own Libertarian paradise, or b) build their own self-sustained cryptocurrency community. Earlier this year, for instance, some wealthy crypto bros moved to Puerto Rico to launch their own "utopia" in a former children's museum. Before them, it was Liberland, which still sort of exists on a river between Serbia and Croatia. And before Liberland was Bitnation in Antarctica, where one VICE writer became a citizen in 2016. But none of these projects have ever become more than some men – because it's nearly always exclusively American men – moving somewhere remote.
So how is Bitcointopia different? And also, why have so many people become enamoured with the idea of creating their own blockchain-based mini-nations? Will any of them ever lift off? To address these questions, I spoke to Bitcointopia founders, Morgan Rockwell and Chris Rice.
VICE: Let's start with the basics. What is Bitcointopia and where did it come from?
Morgan Rockwell: Here in Las Vegas, I was lobbying to push Bitcoin into the casino environment. A lot of places in Nevada now embrace Bitcoin as a way to get tourists to gamble. It hasn't reached "slot machine level" yet, but there are around 50 Bitcoin ATMs near the strip. Originally, Bitcointopia was the name of the facility that I was forming in Nevada to further push Bitcoin use in the city, but it was a very slow process – [Las Vegas] is an old world city with people who don’t care about the internet.
So, in the last year, I've decided to focus on building this new town, and it comes from the realisation that maybe Vegas is never going to become a Bitcoin town itself. I wanted to bring a community together where Bitcoin becomes the government instead of these old mobsters. Simply put, Bitcointopia came out of this other town that I love, but that just isn't acting fast enough.
Walt Disney had an unfinished concept for a similarly designed city called EPCOT. Bitcointopia is also based around that, right?
Yeah, I'm from San Diego, so I went to Disneyland heavily as a child. EPCOT really influenced my dreams of the future, of seeing a city full of technology. I loved this idea of having an experimental community – like in the movie Tomorrowland – where all the innovators and dreamers live together in one place. When I was a teenager, Vegas was advertised to me that way. After years of living here, I became disappointed that it wasn’t.
What I look to are Walt's actual designs of the round city he wanted to build within EPCOT, with the hotel in the middle and the apartments around it, like a wheel. I believe a design that isn't the square cookie-cutter grid that we see in the USA needs to be embraced, and I think the Bitcoin community is full of people like Walt Disney.
This is very ambitious. What about the materials? The labour? Where are you going to get all that from?
Having a vision is one thing, but to paraphrase Walt, you can design and dream and create, but it takes people to get things done. So I’ve tried to find the right people to coordinate this project. Me and [my business partner] Matthew are coordinating our budget to allocate materials to local Elko County construction workers, because there's an abundance of out-of-work labourers.
We're building this in a very compartmentalised, step-by-step way. Right now, the funding is out of my pocket, land sell revenue and investment from others, but eventually we're going to try and make partnerships with technology companies like Amazon, Google and Tesla that want to showcase their products in Bitcointopia. They can come to open, fresh land and try out their research and development projects without a mob-run city telling them how to do it. It takes effort, but we're hoping that, as we build it, they will join us.
There have been a few other crypto communities popping up recently, like Liberland and Bitnation. Why has this trend come to be?
I think there’s a real motivation to fix the political and legal systems of the countries that we’re in. Forming this city is basically to motivate the US government to get their act together; to improve their designs, their technology and also the legal system. There are people around the world who are fed up. I’m a patriot, but I want to push my country to upgrade itself. The federal reserve can collapse, our dollar can tank – and I'd rather be at Tomorrowland.
Utopia's a heavy word, but we don't want to be living in a world where we're killing each other for water. I see Bitcoin is a way to protect myself. The rules can be written by people over their phones on the internet, using the blockchain to run the government, instead of having the government run the people.
How is Bitcointopia different to these other libertarian communities?
Chris Rice: I think what differentiates us from other communities is the fact we're so technology-driven. Morgan has created "Bit Congress", which is this idea of a blockchain-based voting system that decentralises government so that Bitcointopia sets the standard for how cryptocurrency can be utilised. A lot of communities are also trying to separate themselves, but we don’t want to be cultish. We want this to be a real city, where people can visit.
On your site, there's a part where you mention having a drone police force running things, which I'm very interested in. Can you tell me more?
Morgan: Do you know the company Knightscope? It's a security company that make these R2D2-like police drones, and one of their missions is to not replace human workers, but to give them the tools they need so that their jobs are safer. There’s been a wave of attention about police officers killing people and not doing their job properly, and I believe that if we had drones roaming around in our parking lots, malls and businesses, that crime would be deterred. Police can do something improper, but the machines can keep an eye on things, with less violence or threat to life.
But these technologies need to be tested. We don’t know how it will affect people, or how efficient it might be, so the reason I want to embrace a drone police force is not to cut out human interaction, but to show enforcement that there may be an easier way for them to do their job. I’m one to make sure that machines don't kill us, or tell us what to do, because there needs to be a sovereignty of humanity. I’m trying to find that balance by using a city as a petri dish.
So Bitcointopia is a tester for what wider society could be?
Yeah, and I guess that's what EPCOT was too – an experimental prototype. Current cities get locked in certain rules, and don’t move forward when something new comes out, whether that’s a new form of government, money or transportation. We have so many advanced medical technologies, but you don’t see them being embraced in hospitals because they don’t want to embrace new things, they’re expensive.
Can we also talk about your plans to secede from America?
Chris: It's a potential. It's not our focus, but we have plans.
Morgan: I was raised by the military – my dad was a Marine – and I personally teach the US army about bitcoin. The US military thinks about every possibility. I had to do a speech in front of the army about war in the year 2050, and it was about 3D-printed drones, bitcoin machines, cities becoming powerful and independent. Now, if something like that happens, the army is prepared for it. They don’t want the political environment to dictate their future. Technology, money and the community of Bitcoin has a strong position to be the leadership of the country. Not just the 435 representatives in Congress. We the people can be the representatives ourselves over the internet.
So I really think that, in the future, if the government didn’t do its job, as Americans we have our constitution; we have Article 5, which states that we have the right to dissolve an improper and dysfunctional government and form a new one. We've done this two times in US history. We need to prepare for our law system to dissolve in some form, and upgrade in some form, because nothing stays the same.
What would an "average" day look like in Bitcointopia?
If you’ve ever been to Silicon Valley, it’s definitely not an average day there compared to the rest of the United States. If you’re walking to your high tech palace of Facebook/Google/Apple, that’s a different life to the way the rest of the world live. So it’s going to have to be a balance between embracing technology as our comfort zones, but we're also building the city from the ground up, so it's hard work. It will be a mixture between living in the wild west and being outside, and living in a technological city like Palo Alto.
I want to see hard work done by the younger, computerised generation. If we could get a group of people doing labour interacting with smart people who do technology development, I believe that can be a new American frontier, whether you want to compare it to the 49ers digging up gold and building San Francisco, or the mobs showing up here in the 1940s and building Vegas, or the oil men of Texas building what is now Austin, it takes hard workers and smart workers. I want to see that happen again, rather than sitting in a city and watching it decay and hoping it’ll get better. It’s time to start afresh, and that’s why Bitcointopia, in my opinion, is an inspirational idea.