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My Vision - A New City

A new city Photo Credit: Yu-Chien Chan


This article was published on July 16, 2020 by Alan Chan, co-founder of Heptabase, while he was still in college. It was written two years before he started building the early-alpha Heptabase.


In the first article of the series, My Vision: The Context, I gave the following public statement:

My goal for the next ten years is to design and build a truly universal Open Hyperdocument System and build on that system the next generation of the Internet.

What do I mean by saying “the next generation of the internet”? That is the question this article is going to answer. It helps if you’ve already read the previous article, but this article can also be read without any prior knowledge.

Internet as a City

Imagine our current internet as a city. Every city has public spaces, such as parks, museums, libraries, roads, train stations, etc. Some places belong to individuals, such as stores and houses on the street. For our current internet, there is also a lot of public spaces. You can treat Facebook and Instagram as parks, Youtube and Netflix as theaters, Spotify and iTunes as concert halls, Goodreads and Medium as libraries, and Google as roads that connect all places. Individual websites would be the stores and houses in the internet.

Every year, new entrepreneurs will come to the city and say: I want to build something here. They may start a coffee shop and let people come in and chill, or they may construct a fancy night club and try to attract the young generation to gather and party. They may also start a local business and sell shoes and shirts.

That’s how I see our current internet — a well-constructed city with all kinds of business, entertainment, activities, and everything you can imagine. It is the most prosperous and populated city in the digital world. However, I am not a big fan of it.

In Paul Graham’s famous essay Cities and Ambition, there’s this idea that some cities are centers for some type of ambition, and when you come to one of those cities, you can feel the message the city is sending to you. For example, the message that you can feel in New York is “You should be richer,” while Berkeley’s is “You should live better,” Paris’ is “You should do things with style,” Boston’s is “You should be smarter,” and San Francisco’s is “You should be more powerful.”

When I came to San Francisco, I knew that some of the most intelligent people and powerful companies were in my neighborhoods. I knew that the greatest innovations were happening around me. I wrote emails to people I admire and asked them out, and I’ve learned so much from these people. I felt like nothing can stop me from pursuing greatness. Not everyone came to San Francisco with an ambitious mind, but the city did more or less empower people with its ambition.

However, when it comes to the current internet we have, the city where we live digitally, I can’t feel any message of ambition. Yes, Amazon told me, “You should buy more stuff,” Facebook told me, “You should talk to your friends,” Netflix told me, “You should have more entertainment.” But the Internet itself has no strong message, but a lot of noise. This led me to decide to drastically reduce my Internet use.

This is not how the Internet should look like.

I’m not against e-commerce, social media, or entertainment. These are basic human needs, and they will always be there, whether you’re in a geographic city or a digital city. But a great city should be a center for a certain type of ambition, and the current Internet has no such ambition. This has made me uncomfortable for a long time in the past few years. I wanted to move to another digital city, a city that urges to augments humanity’s collective wisdom, a city that urges to accelerate the speed of the human’s intellectual and technological progress. Unfortunately, in the digital world, there is only one city — our current Internet. The city that I envisioned does not exist.

Not yet.

How to build a new City

In What your designs say about you by Sebastian Deterding, he said:

Whatever we put out there as a piece of design, into the world, has a persuasive component. It tries to affect people. It puts a certain vision of the good life out there in front of us. No matter whether we as designers intend it or not, we materialize morality. We make certain things harder and easier to do. We organize the existence of people. We put a certain vision of what good or bad or normal or usual is in front of people, by everything we put out there in the world.

What Deterding said can also be applied to the internet. The design of the internet does embody a materialization of morality. It is this morality that determines the ambitions of the digital city.

A bad internet makes meaningless events addictive and easy to do. It makes us feel that our needs are unsatisfied. It makes us feel that an instant reply is more important than a thoughtful letter. It makes us feel imperfect in every way and motivates us to pretend to be perfect. It makes us see only what we want to see but not what is good for us. It makes us overthink in short-term and micro-manage every hour we have. It makes us spend so much of our day on unimportant information that we end up regretting. It makes us feel disconnected from the real world.

A good internet makes meaningful events addictive and easy to do. It makes our behavior naturally align with our values. It makes us not only get the information we want but also encounter valuable information that we did not expect in the first place. It doesn’t disengage us from the real world. It makes us live better in the real world. We don’t need digital minimalism when the internet is good, just like we don’t need face-mask when there’s no virus in the world. The internet itself will serve as a tool system and will co-evolve with the human system, which augments the overall intelligence of the whole human society. That is what a good internet should do. A good internet conveys ambition, not anxiety.

To have an internet that conveys ambition, making a website or an app is not enough. We need to rethink its fundamental design. It’s not about colors or spatial arrangements. It’s about how we can naturally contextualize information that grows exponentially, how we can create tools that enable us easily organize the information we collected into meaningful structures, how we can provide a space for people to think and imagine more effectively, how we can bridge the gap between thinking and creating, how we can encourage active collaborations and valuable discussions to promote collective intelligence, how we can enable people to explore, collect, think, create, and publish in a most effective, fun, and meaningful way. So when we come to this internet, we feel empowered, and we get tons of value and meaning out of it.

That, is the digital city that I have envisioned.

How to build this city, or this internet, or whatever you want to call it, is something I’ve been thinking about for years. And there are many different angles we can see this problem.

From the design angle, some important questions to think about are: How does human society interact with the world in terms of creating information? What is the life cycle of information in this interaction? In what role can the internet play in this life cycle? The answers to these questions are extremely important that can help us get a better understanding of what is the real problem we’re trying to solve, so I’ll write another whole article to discuss.

Aside from characterizing the nature of the problem, we also have to look at existing solutions. We need to do comparative analysis on the design of different existing solutions and identify their strength and weakness. Doing this kind of analysis can not only provide inspiration for our designs but also make us more sensitive to the current landscape of the field.

Linus Torvalds said, “A good system gives you the building blocks that are sufficient for doing everything.” Hence we also need to think about what is the best way to design the building blocks of the new city. Such design for the building blocks will be a strong foundation for the new city to provide its ambition and culture which is different than the current one, and I want to inject this ambition into every citizen living in it.

From the engineering angle, we have to think about what technology can do today, and what technology will be able to do ten years from now. Therefore, we have to research on the trend of science and technology in today’s world. Not only should we do research, but we also have to get our hands dirty and test our hypotheses on what technology can and can not do by actually developing different prototypes. This is one of the main reasons I chose to join a software consulting startup during my first gap year to put the skin in the game. It also resulted in me spending massive time research the trend and future of science and technology in my second gap year. I’d addressed some of the core ideas in this article.

In addition to understanding the power and constraints of technology, integration between engineering and design is also crucial. Many designers don’t understand engineering, and many engineers don’t understand design. However, different designs create different engineering problems, so understanding both allows us to design things that can actually be developed by engineers and develop things that can actually be used by humans.

From the business angle, as Peter Thiel addressed in Zero to One, we need to “dominate a small niche and scale up from there, toward the ambitious long-term vision.” It’s impossible to just build a city out of nothing and tells people to come. That’s like finding an island and put some buildings on it and tell people in San Francisco to all move there. That’s unrealistic and not how the real world works.

The way to create a new city is to find a special need that people are unsatisfied with within the old city. For example, some cities might have air pollution. So you start a city with the best air quality and find those people who can’t endure air pollution anymore and convince them to move in. Some cities might have gun violence. So you make sure your city is as safe as possible and bring those people who can’t endure gun violence anymore and convince them to move in. That’s how you gradually attract people. You have to get your first ten people, then a hundred, then a thousand, then a million. Gradually.

This is also why we need to understand the life cycle of information in the interaction between human society and the world. What we want to do is to design a better life cycle, hence we need to think about different stages of the life cycle altogether. However, how we attract people is by showing them how good we are doing at a specific stage of the life cycle compared to other competitors, which is the “market niche”, and so they’re willing to move in. And afterward, they’ll discover how this stage is also fully integrated with all the other stages, and get much more than what they expected in the beginning. Some people come to the city because of the clean air, some come because of the safe environment, but eventually they will realize what they get the most out of the city is the message of ambition and the power to support such ambition.

Above are just some of the angles that need to be considered, and the number of questions that we mentioned in each angle is far from enough. But the purpose of this article is to give you a general taste of what I’m trying to build, so I’ll stop here to avoid lengthy discussion.


The answers to many of the questions I brought up are already there, lying in the books and papers written by the pioneers of the internet. Our current internet is not what they envisioned in their time. So what I want to do is to fulfill their vision, to inherit their legacy, to help create the utopian city. There are also a small number of startups, research centers, and domain experts that approach these questions from different angles, and their invaluable experience of success and failure is extremely illuminating. What’s most important is, thanks to the exponential growth of technology, many ideas that have been unrealistic are now becoming feasible.

Tools are meant to empower humans. The Internet as a tool should empower humanity. The current Internet does that, but not well enough. After years of researching, learning, and testing, I realized that now is the best time to build this city.

But, before doing that, we need to first develop a system that can support such a city.