Life on the Virtual Commune

Posted at — Jan 12, 2023

The following is written as a sort of near future sci-fi short story, to illustrate life in a virtual commune.

Today marks my one year anniversary as a member of PUNCH (“People’s Union for Networked Communism in the Here-and-Now”, aka “Unión Popular Hipervinculada para Oberismo Realizado” or UPHORea — the org is bilingual).

I’ve already passed my Poli Ed and cyber-literacy tests1, so I finally have full rights as a member of the Commune.

In practice, I’ve already been pretty involved with the day-to-day democracy. Candidate members are allowed to serve on operational committees, make proposals to GODD2, live in PUNCH-owned housing, have certain democratic rights in their workplace, participate in debate, and generally in the whole social life of the organization.

Briefly: PUNCH is a virtual commune – an org that coordinates its members' work activities to try to meet all of our needs. We don’t all live in the same place (so it’s not a commune like the hippie thing or whatever), and we aren’t totally self-sufficient yet so we do have to engage a bit with the capitalist economy for now. We exist as a sort of parallel social world as much as possible. We each engage with the system to some extent, but we are not of that system.


Work this week has been fine. This quarter I’m doing a rotation on the organopónicos — the Cuban-style urban farms in the courtyards and roofs of PUNCH buildings. They provide most of the fresh produce we use, though we still “import” a substantial portion of our calories – i.e., buy them from outside the commune using USD. It’s been a heated debate about how best to construct farms far from the urban areas where membership is densest, but that are still integrated into the commune’s social life.

Your first year you work the whole metabolic loop, although not necessarily in order. One quarter on the organopónicos, one quarter in either a dining-hall kitchen or at a food depot, one quarter in waste-processing and reclamation (which includes fertilizer production). The fourth quarter you generally work on something you were already skilled for before joining. Personally, I used to be a programmer full-time, so I did a bit of work on GODD (optimizing the proof systems), and some work on an external facing project.

We can’t yet produce everything we need (e.g., certain electronics, some specialized machinery needed for waste processing), so we need “foreign currency” (i.e., dollars, Euros, etc.) to get some stuff from the capitalist economy.

That’s where external projects come in. Often this is just short-term contracting, but the project I was on is a canvassing and tracking system we sell to unions (it’s like VAN but less shitty.) Unions get their money from members, who get their money from working for capitalists, so we have a general principle of doing as little USD-work as possible, since it means indirectly working for Capital.

Some notes on scheduling

Any proposals for external work are deliberated and decided on by the group using the app. The way it works is as follows. You submit an external work proposal using the app. This includes the nature of the work, its expected income, any deadlines, and the number and skill sets of people required. If we are already on track to meet our USD targets within the periods the work is proposed for, it is put in a backlog (there, if we ever dip below our target, the proposer is pinged and asked to check if the work is still available.)

Then, An AI reviews the proposal to check that the work itself conforms with our values (e.g., we won’t work for militaries, landlords, etc.) so we don’t accidentally end up working for our enemies. After that, it’s sent to a random set of members to sanity check the AI. If they all approve, the AI scans our members’ schedules and proposes a set of individuals for the project given the skill requirements. Our database contains every member’s work history and skill sets, encrypted of course. The App stores each member’s decryption key on their own phone — when a work request comes in, they decrypt their data, run the language model locally and send back a ZKP if they are a good fit for the job.

Once a team is found and their interest and availability confirmed, the scheduler program sets up an initial project meeting, after which the team operates autonomously. The Regulator AI checks in periodically to ensure progress and builds a model of people’s working speeds, how to modulate peoples stated estimates, etc.

Things are similar for internal projects. They usually have a delimited lifetime, although some projects operate indefinitely, like running the farm. As mentioned, each project operates mostly autonomously, according to the Viable Systems Model. There are several measures in place to ensure working conditions within each project are compliant with commune standards. Managers are elected from among the members of an enterprise, and can be easily recalled using the app. If they are found to be abusing their position, they can even be ejected from the commune.


As mentioned earlier, PUNCH has housing, but I live in a non-PUNCH apartment with an old friend from college. My landlord is an old hippie named Bill, who is very nice despite being a landlord. I probably will try to live in PUNCH housing at some point, but for now I like my setup.

We would nearly have the capacity to house all of our members directly if we gave up a few other things in our production plan, but to keep a large social boundary with the rest of the working class, at least 30% of the membership has to live in non-PUNCH housing. We do this to help tie us into struggles happening outside PUNCH, to aid in recruitment, and to prevent the toxic social dynamics that come from being overly insular.

PUNCH housing isn’t the swankiest in the world, but it does have character. Design and construction crews are given a wide degree of autonomy within certain structural, budgetary and aesthetic constraints. For example, all PUNCH buildings of 10 units or more have a public bath area — I’ve seen ones that are designed like Japanese sentō, others like Russian banyas, others that look like boring luxury gym locker rooms. The individual apartments tend as a result to have pretty dinky bathrooms with a minimal footprint prefab shower, or even just a shower head with a drain and a tile or glass partition.

With respect to the living spaces, there are some interesting aspects to call out. A long time ago the membership decided that every room must have a window with a moderately interesting view. This is enforced via MAGIC3 — a member can submit a photo of a window in a dwelling and if the view is judged boring enough (done with AI and spot-checked by a random subset of members via a MAGIC push notification4), the responsible crew is disciplined.

We have sort of a reputation (generated by the capitalist media mostly I think) for being like “1984” with big brother and all that, but it’s a minor marvel how our cryptographers have set things up to minimize unencrypted personal data existing anywhere other than peoples’ phones. Especially when you consider the “everyone has everyone’s data” model that the capitalist computer systems use. Every member’s data is encrypted with that member’s own key, so no-one but them can see it.


A nice perk of membership is access to the depots – a series of storehouses of supplies of all kinds, that can be used by any member. They contain

We encourage each other to be creative, and hold film-festivals and other kinds of exhibitions.

Each kind of good is subject to a slightly different distribution process. In general, the labor or USD required to obtain each item is maintained in a database, and distribution relates to the cost in some way. Some items can be checked-out on demand, and for some requests need to be made in advance to do some coordination.

With food for example, you submit your grocery request at the beginning of the week and GODD tries to satisfy as many requests as possible given our actual supply, subject to the constraint that no member receive an over supply at the expense of another.

Durable goods are generally checked-out on demand like a library. Each member has an account, and a cost is deducted from their account based on which items they have out and for how long. For example, if the expected lifetime of a camera that costs \$200 is 1000 use-days, and you have it checked out for 10 days, your account gets debited \$200 * (10 / 1000) = \$2.

We track the actual lifetime of every item we own, so our data is pretty accurate.

USD and labor credits are distributed to each member continuously, based on some combination of the floor provided to all members, with bonuses if you did some extra work. This is all verifiable given it runs on GODD so there’s no worry about wage theft or any other kind of unfair treatment.

Class struggle

We pride ourselves on our class struggle stance. Most communes blow themselves up with interpersonal conflict, or have no way of scaling past a few dozen people, and so are not a threat to capitalist firms or the state. PUNCH is different. Our open conflicts with the state have mostly appeared in the form of claims of tax evasion. Because we don’t deal very much with the capitalist economy, we generate very little taxable income, although the IRS does not see it that way, and we’ve involved in a long legal fight over it.

There’s also a history of infiltration, surveillance, and sabotage by state agents. Using ZKPs to certify the functioning of GOD4 is not a luxury, it’s an essential security measure to prevent corruption of our planning systems by state agents. This conflict — we believe — is primarily generated by sectors of capital with influence in the intelligence agencies whose profits we’ve started to eat into.

  1. We make sure everyone understands the basics of how our computer and bureaucratic systems work. This is essential since they plan our working activities, and we govern by collectively making changes to these systems. ↩︎

  2. GODD (“Governance and Organizational Decentralized Dictator” or maybe) aka DDIOS (“Dictador Democratico Incorruptible de Orquestación Sistematica”, or 4DIOS “Dictador Decentralizado Democraticamente Destilado de Inclinaciones para Orquestación Sistematica”) is our computer system that for collecting, voting on, and scheduling the execution of proposals for action.

    It’s implemented as an open-source state machine whose execution proceeds via a BFT consensus algorithm across nodes controlled by various independent subcommittees. State machine execution is also backed by a zero-knowledge proof that any of us can verify through the App[^app].

    Some people don’t like the “dictator” thing, so it’s been suggested we rename to “Governor Obtained by Decentralized Democratic Distillation of Desires”. ↩︎

  3. We use an app called MAGIC (“Mobile Accessible GODD Interface and Calendar”, no Spanish name AFAIK) for submitting consumption requests, work requests, policy proposals, etc. and receiving work assignments and other directions from GODD. ↩︎

  4. To prevent retaliation you actually submit a ZKP proving that the AI judged your image boring rather than the image itself, and send the random set of members a version of the image maximally distorted by AI, subject to the constraint that its boring score matches that of the original. ↩︎