Reflections on "Web3"

Revolutions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are worthy of the name and change the world forever, while others fizzle out and become mere footnotes in the great book of History. Where exactly “Web3” will land on this continuum is, as of this moment, still to be determined, and, as such, the subject of much debate. On one hand, we have the “believers” - the apostles, evangelists, and high priests - who claim that Web3 will be the internet’s (and thus humanity’s) saving grace. While there are many lofty ideas floating about their heads, such folk view the set of innovations - both social and technological - that Web3 represents - i.e. property rights, “decentralization”, programmable money, and community-driven products/platforms - as a kind of grand exorcism being performed, in real-time, on the sins of Web2 (of which, certainly, there are many). On the other hand are the skeptics, the nay-sayers, the “old-guard”, the Web2 sympathizers. Such critics, who come at the space with varying backgrounds and priors, push back on the religious fervour of Web3 evangelists; some even going so far as to dismiss the whole enterprise as entirely mistaken - less revolutionary than a ponzi scheme-fuelled collective hysteria, a fantasy borne of a most peculiar, blockchain-based Reality distortion field. So, which is it? The Second Coming, for real, or just a bunch of pollyannas gone mad?

Before we get to the substance of things, we ought to ask, how did we even get here? How, that is, did we end up in a world where, suffixed to every apparent iteration of the web, is an oddly convenient number? Is innovation really so clean and discrete? Do things really move so linearly - as in, one, two, three? Or are things in fact far messier than all that? Is there, in the end, just the “web” - a most dynamic, ever-evolving system that defies such neat labels, however pragmatic? These are the sorts of impractical things that I, a self-diagnosed “philosopher” - a most unfashionable class of citizen these days, to be sure - find myself inclined to ponder. However, such questions demand far too much of our dying attention, all for what seems like far too little reward, so we must put them aside (at least for now).

To be clear, it’s not my intention here to dissect the technological architecture of Web3, to explore its pros and cons and contrast them with those of Web2 (see here if that’s what you’re looking for). Instead, my interest is in the overarching philosophy/sociology of the space. The human dimension, you might say. The “layer 0”.

The first thing one notices about Web3 is the grandeur - the sense that a genuine revolution is taking place, that we (“we”, being the human species) are at the footsteps of a most consequential moment in human history. There is, among the believers, an unmistakeable sense that we’re just now, after millennia of subjugation, unshackling ourselves from the tyranny of bad incentives, the oppression of centralization. Or so at least the story goes.

In this particular story, another flavour of the eternal tale of Good vs Evil, the villians are the tech giants - Facebook, Amazon, Google etc. - and their extractive business models that malign our minds and erode the very fabric of society, while the noble hero is, of course, Web3 - the amorphous collection of people and ideas and values that comprise it (or simply the one that comes after 2). With the power of blockchains and cryptocurrency and open source software and DAOs and NFTs, Web3 arms us with the power to slay the Siren Servers that have so perverted the web we once apparently loved so dearly (the web before it became corrupted by the number 2).

It’s all too easy to make fun of this whole affair. It is, after all, a story where people spend millions of dollars on pixelated JPEGs, all while singing songs of revolution. What’s more, for all the rhetoric around decentralization, all this fervour is being fanned through the ultimately centralized platforms of Twitter and OpenSea. The irony is indeed thick.

Irony aside, the cultural movement that is Web3 - and it is a bona fide movement, to be sure - is a genuinely interesting one, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a conversation about no less than the very power structures that define the present moment, about the ways in which society and technology is strung together. It’s a conversation about money, too; what it is, who controls it, what makes a good one good and a bad one bad etc. It’s also a conversation about technology and the responsibility inherent to it; the problems with the current platforms and what better ones might potentially look like. Above all, though, Web3 is a most potent display of manifest optimism; an expression - indeed a yearning - for a better world. And that’s nothing to be scoffed at, however naive it may or may not turn out to be. (It’s also worth noting here that naïveté isn’t itself grounds for dismissal. All human endeavours - certainly all worthwhile ones - entail some amount of naïveté. Indeed, one might even go so far as to say naïveté is the enabling principle of human accomplishment; that is, a gross miscalculation, or outright denial of, the statistical reality of any given yearning.)

The thing about Web3, and this seems to be lost on the many folk who disparage it, is that it’s just as much a value system as it is a concrete set of technologies. It’s just as much about how things ought to be, as it is an assertion regarding what already is. Critics of Web3 tend to concentrate on the practical challenges of implementing the values espoused by Web3 proponents and speak to the forces that tended the world towards the perceived horrors of Web2 (namely, centralization and economic extraction). But this misses the point. The point being made by Web3 folk - or the point that should be made, at least - isn’t that better technology is inevitable, nor that it’s here already, but rather that it’s necessary, however difficult. Here, Web3 is nothing but laudable in its aspiration - for a better internet, a better society - and not just its aspiration, either, but its actual striving; real work is indeed being done, even if some it does happen to be misguided (though isn’t that just life?).

In the end, how one responds to Web3, as a “psychological object”, comes down to a couple of things. First, and perhaps above all, is one’s general feeling regarding the notion of a revolution. If one’s conception of History is that progress comes about every now and then in a form of radical innovation - a printing press here, a steam engine there etc. - then one is far more likely to respond positively to the sweeping claims made by those within Web3, than if their sense of progress is far more incremental in nature. Second, it also comes down to one’s level of acquaintance with the historical Reality of technology, and society - the forces, for instance, that have tended things towards centralization to date. But here, it’s worth appreciating, that one’s acquaintance with the sense of how things have gone, historically, can be highly misleading in terms of predicting the way things will be, as the future unfolds. The past is often a reliable guide to the future, but it is just as often a bum steer. What the case is here remains to be seen, for the future is always an impenetrable mystery, until it arrives in the eternal Present.

Last, and perhaps most obviously, is whether or not one has any actual skin in the game (and which game, at that). There is, after all, nothing like having money - or a reputation - on the line to distort one’s sense of Reality. If you’re the beneficiary of a previous iteration of the internet, for instance, you’re naturally far less inclined to favour a radical overhaul of the status quo (for the status quo is, to your taste, doing just fine). Similarly, if you’ve made unfathomable riches buying JPEGs or trading different forms of magic internet money, you’re invariably inclined to consider the new regime rather revolutionary indeed. To be sure, this point doesn’t favour either side - it’s just a fact of human cognition; we are all helplessly biased towards worldviews that favour our particular preferences (and bank accounts).

Whatever Web3 gets wrong, it’s clear that it gets a number of things right. The essential point being that technology, as we know it today, is grossly far from optimal, and that better technology won’t come about until we have better (and more humane) economic models powering its creation. Moreover, it’s at this point clear that the platforms of the future will involve the users of those platforms in their economic upside - and not only once the meat of it has already been captured by insiders, however deservedly. The future is open and participatory, in all ways, even if it doesn’t turn out to be as architecturally decentralized - at the level of compute infrastructure - as some might like. And if the future doesn’t turn out to be open and participatory, it will only be because we failed to make it so. For the future is, as always, in our hands - “TBD”.

What Web3 “maxis” almost surely get wrong, however, is in their assertion that, in the future, there won’t be platforms - that the situation will instead be entirely peer-to-peer. Platforms are, it seems, inevitable - and I suggest that’s not at all a bad thing, for they are simply Schelling points. What isn’t inevitable, however, is that these platforms will suck quite as much as our current generation. It’s not inevitable, for instance, that their power will be so inequitably concentrated - or that they will have such deleterious effects on our attention or public discourse. Nor is it inevitable that they will be so dry and boring, so diluted of humanity. On the contrary, it’s entirely possible that the platforms of the future will be better, in material ways, across every vector we ought to care about. But only if we make them so, together.

For all that Web3 isn’t, the ways in which it contradicts itself or simply fails to meet its own standards, it is an obviously and indisputably worthwhile endeavour. For in the end, it is but a collective intention to create a better world. And here, as always, critics are needed, thus they ought to be most welcome - though critics of the constructive variety (“this is all just a ponzi scheme” is not, however partially veridical, constructive). The world unequivocally needs (and deserves) better technology. The world needs (and deserves) better economic systems. And even if Web3 hasn’t quite delivered on its promise, as yet, my bet - for what it’s worth - is that it does. For I’m naively bullish (and proudly so) on humanity, our collective potential. WAGMI indeed.

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