The social experience of Zuzalu

I just returned from two and a half weeks at Zuzalu. It was the most interesting event I’ve attended in years, leading me to think more new thoughts than perhaps any other event post-covid. I will attempt to explain Zuzalu as best I can.

Zuzalu is the brainchild of Vitalik Buterin. Inspired in part by the idea of network states, he wanted to experiment with new forms of living together. Conferences bring lots of people together for a week. Hacker houses bring a small number of people together for months/years. Is there a way to bring a large number of people together for several months?

Zuzalu is located in Lustica, a resort town, in Montenegro. There are 200 permanent residents, people staying for the whole two months, with several hundred people coming and going for different sub-events, including ethereum, public goods, synthetic bio, longevity, AI, ZK, and new cities and network states, which I organized. 

Beyond the specific sub-events, Zuzalu has an element of ‘make your own adventure’. People organized to hike, do cold plunges, cook together, party, etc. The community figured out what they wanted to do and did it. One example, a well known singer came for talks on biology and longevity. On his last night, folks set up a mic at a beach dinner/bonfire because they wanted to hear him sing. Luckily, he obliged. 

The agglomeration of talent at Zuzalu was fascinating. The quantity and quality of interesting conversations was unlike anything I have experienced beyond short conferences. The dynamic of living in close proximity also encouraged a type of closeness and openness that rivals festivals like Burning Man and Ephemerisle. 

Typically talent agglomeration is thought of at higher scales. Cities agglomerate talent, nations agglomerate talent. What Zuzalu proved is that talent agglomeration matters in local contexts as well. It is now possible for hundreds of people, maybe dozens, to have a huge impact on culture and new technology, simply by effectively coordinating. 

Another framing is as an internet community instantiated IRL. The internet is a great sorting mechanism. It has allowed numerous subcultures to emerge and evolve. Zuzalu is one of the first attempts to bring one of these subcultures in person in an extended manner. Similar experiments are likely to spawn as a result. 

One day of my sub-event was focused on network states. I have always found Balaji’s definition to be a bit rigid. Zuzalu proved that a network state was possible, if we accept a degree of flexibility in the definition. A community was built around a shared set of values, not a single person or purpose, but a general sense of curiosity and ideas about how to make the world a better place. As Zuzalu and similar communities take more shape, I don’t expect them to negotiate directly with governments for sovereignty, but instead work with governments to improve certain services or regulatory environments. 

Zuzalu did have some political engagement. Milojko “Mickey” Spajić, the former Minister of Finance and leader of the Europe Now party was often seen having lunch and chatting with Zuzalans. Zuzalu served to bring together interesting people that could help shape Europe Now’s agenda after the parliamentary elections in June. A small, flexible country near a large, sclerotic trading block has many advantages in attracting talent and experimenting with new technology. 

Lastly, one of the interesting elements of Zuzalu was the change in status dynamics over time. There was no promotion of Zuzalu, it only spread through word of mouth. In the beginning, given the location, you had to want to be there. This, combined with Vitalik’s personality, created an openness, a degree of anti-hierarchy. However, as word spread about Zuzalu, high status people came. 

Of course, for any movement or event, attracting high status people helps spread awareness. However, there is a tension if the event is defined by openness, as Zuzalu is. Status necessarily creates a scarcity of access. Now that the word is out about Zuzalu, keeping the unique culture intact, while allowing high status people to attend, will be a unique experiment in community building. I look forward to seeing what Zuzalu does next.

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