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February 8, 2024

Praxis and the promise of a tech bro utopia

Praxis claims to be creating 'tech-powered, values-driven cities of the future'. But is there any substance behind the buzzwords?

By Joseph Bullmore

Are you affiliated with Open AI? What about ‘any Elon Musk company’? If you would like to apply for a ‘Residency Visa’ with Praxis – which claims to be creating tech-powered, values-driven cities of the future – then these are just some of the things the company would like to know about you. Conversely, not a huge amount is known about Praxis itself.

[See also: ‘Unknown billionaire’ accused of making false claims about his wealth]

What seems to be apparent, though – judging from its website and the pieces of information that have seeped out across social media and elsewhere – is that the start-up doesn’t want to take over the world so much as make a new one; to forge a sort of utopian, libertarian and generally pretty vibey city state, with its own rules and values and a thriving populace of mini-Musks, somewhere in the Mediterranean. Or possibly North Africa. Or maybe Turkey, actually. They haven’t quite decided yet. (The name Praxis comes from a word that means putting theory into practice. But, so far, there has been very little practice.)

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Putting Praxis on the map

The company was set up in 2019 as Bluebook Cities by twentysomething finance bros called Dryden Brown and Charlie Callinan. In 2021 the pair raised about $4.2 million in seed funding, most notably from Pronomos Capital, a city-building fund backed heavily by PayPal co-founder and outspoken libertarian Peter Thiel. The Winklevoss twins are among other early backers too. In a $15 million series A round in March 2022, Praxis was funded by Apollo Projects (run by the OpenAI/Chat GPT founders), Robot Ventures (which backs crypto start-ups with ‘contrarian worldviews’) and Sam Bankman-Fried’s now kaput Alameda Research fund – bringing the total war chest to $19.2 million.

[See also: Why this generation of billionaire tech barons is a danger to the planet]

This fundraising seems to have been step two of the general ‘Plan’, as sketched out on the Praxis website. (This follows step one, the ‘Launch Community’ phase, i.e. the throw a lot of parties phase, which we’ll get to.)

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From here, the theoretical road map runs as follows (and I paraphrase). Find a suitable site. Convince the local government to let you have it. Lock in some founder-residents. Get some companies to agree to put offices there. Carve out a ‘special economic zone’ (SEZ). Raise a hell of a lot more money. Get building. Cut the ribbon with the first 10,000 residents. And then… well, get on with doing whatever one tends to do in a synthetic crypto-utopia.

If this sounds completely pie-in-the-sky, then maybe it is. But there is at least some kind of precedent for Praxis in the shape of SEZs. These are essentially micro-enclaves within existing countries where the trade or possibly tax laws are different from the rest of the nation, often to attract foreign direct investment and enterprise. SEZs date from the 1950s, with the first, rather prosaically, being Shannon Airport in Ireland’s County Clare. In 2012 the Cayman Islands launched an SEZ called Cayman Enterprise City, focused on ‘attracting knowledge-based and specialized-services businesses’ to the country. Until recently, SEZs have been pragmatic and narrowly business-focused rather than ideological or cultural. In 2019 the IMF stated that there were ‘nearly 5,400 zones across 147 economies’. Many, particularly in East Asia and Latin America, have been accused of acting as pseudo-regulated dark zones in which workers are hugely exploited for corporate gain.

For its part, Praxis promises prospective host governments $100 billion of foreign direct investment, 400,000-plus new jobs and $45 billion in capital investment. What it does not say, however, is how its culture, governance, laws and infrastructure would work or be implemented within the framework of an existing nation state – to say nothing of a potentially displaced local population.

Curb appeal

Away from a thin sketch of how Praxis might work, there emerges a discombobulating collage of how it might look. In a 2021 interview, Brown, the company’s CEO, said the general look and feel of the future city of Praxis would be a sort of ‘hero futurism’ with a ‘neo-Gilded Age kind of aesthetic’ – though from clicking around the website and through Brown’s highly active X/Twitter account, the vibe seems to be more ‘Tesla does Ayn Rand’. There is a love of 1930s futurist painting and classical statues, often ones that celebrate the muscular male form. There are clockwork babies for some reason, plenty of knights in medieval armour with big swords, and lots of Doric columns, while the logo itself might be perfect for a college math-rock band. If it all sounds a bit confused, then that’s because it is.

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At one point Brown might tweet about how ‘the future should look like the future’ and post renders of glowing space-age buildings; at another he fawns over neoclassical apartment blocks and art deco brickwork. On being hired, according to an article in Mother Jones, employees at Praxis are allegedly provided with 11 book recommendations, one of which is an openly racist screed by anonymous far-right influencer Bronze Age Pervert. Brown himself is said to be obsessed with Napoleon and Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher whose ‘Decline of the West’ is a classic in the Libertarian/right wing canon.

Who might live there? Demographically at least, Praxis seems vaguely aligned with New York’s Dimes Square scene – the perma-podcasting reactionary set, flush with what some call ‘Thielbucks’, who seem to smoke a lot and think it’s funny to convert to Catholicism. Drowning in inordinate press coverage throughout 2022, Dimes Square is (or perhaps was) a nano-neighbourhood made up of three blocks in downtown Manhattan, populated by pseudo-intellectuals, poets, skateboarders, artists, political provocateurs, hangers-on and Substack journalists. It has its own modelling agency and a radio station, and in 2022 it spawned a sold-out theatre show in which people played themselves. In the press it is mostly seen as a petri-dish of transgressive and often ‘anti-woke’ political thinking.

Party people

At the moment, a big part of Praxis’s marketing strategy seems to be parties (or perhaps salons) at which the top-line vision is pitched, a few philosophy quotes are tossed about, and the good times can roll. For most of the people tangentially involved with Praxis, this seems to be the main draw – free champagne in nice locations with other twentysomethings who seem to be doing interesting things.

Near the end of each of these bashes, Brown, who is said to wear custom Balenciaga suits and very thick-soled shoes, often stands up and talks a lot about the ‘shared values’ of this future nation – without ever being at all specific about what these values might be, who might share them, or even where the future nation itself might sit. He has commented before that the Mediterranean coastal climate is ‘ideal’ for ‘productive work’, which suggests he’s never attempted to fulfil a prescription during siesta.

Previously, Brown and Callinan explored Nigeria and Ghana as potential locations, and ‘networked our way into the upper echelons of multiple African governments’, according to an earlier Brown tweet – one which saw the pair widely ridiculed for their neo-colonialist naivety. But Brown remains adept at dropping little breadcrumbs that give the impression of momentum: such as an apparent internal email of ‘wins’ – including an alleged ‘term sheet’ from a nation state – with all the essential information blacked out.

[See also: A rising tide: how Vanguard is making its presence felt in the UK]

For all its vagueness, the start-up is bizarrely specific at times. ‘When we open Praxis Embassies, they will have a gym, library, and cafe serving only austrian water, celcius [sic], diet coke, and coffee, and fresh croissants,” Brown once tweeted. Austrian water (whatever that is) and croissants? It’s as if a rudimentary AI had been asked to describe the Mediterranean diet.

The posts penned by Brown on the Praxis site’s ‘Journal’ seem similarly robotic: ‘Our values imply our vision for the future. Values tell us what technology to strive for, and how to use it. Technology is a scalar, and values make it a vector. Technology is inextricably linked to our values.’

Indeed, the general aura of Praxis is one of style over substance and buzzwords over basics. A note on the website says how ‘organically contoured blocks give each resident access to a shared garden, evoking the charm of London’s Notting Hill’ – another name-drop for a location that has proven to be great Insta fodder in recent years.

At times, the Brown-Praxis tale feels reminiscent of that of Billy McFarland, the Fyre Fest grifter who knew how to sell the dream to the influencer-adjacent chattering classes but had not the slightest idea of how to make that fantasy real. Either way, judging by the bemused reports from inside Praxis’s parties, most of the people who have dropped into the events don’t seem to believe much will happen any time soon. To them, Praxis seems to be a fun thought-experiment around which to have some negronis and talk about the inevitability of the adoption of crypto. The visas (which are said to involve a ‘$5,000 deposit’ to acquire) are reminiscent of shiny NFT trading cards or dog-tags. It is Burning Man with timeshares. On the Praxis website, they sell monochrome baseball caps and hoodies, and, for some on-the-nose symbolism, branded hammers. It’s a bold move to flog the souvenirs first.

A New York Magazine story from last year reported how, after attending a Praxis event, a guest was banned for ‘asking too many questions’. Attempting to pierce the fug of esoteric references (Machiavelli, de Tocqueville, Hobbes), they had asked the organiser, not unreasonably: ‘What would you do about something like crime?’ ‘You would have a monopoly on violence,’ came the somewhat foreboding reply. It seems a naive way to approach a new nation state.

One might consider further prosaic queries too. Who will return the dumbbells to the rack in the Praxis gyms? Who will take the bins out from the art deco skyscrapers? What does day two look like, as the fireworks fade and the Casamigos hangover kicks in? I am reminded of a New Yorker cartoon that features a couple sitting on a pair of sun-loungers on the first day of their holiday, in what appears to be an idyllic paradise resort. The husband looks up from his book with sudden, horrified clarity. ‘Oh, no,’ he says. We’re still us.’

This feature was first published in Spear’s Magazine Issue 90. Click here to subscribe

Illustration: Cat SimsIllustration: Cat Sims

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