Weekend Edition: Is web3 trying to pick up where liberalism (or neoliberalism) left off?
The debates we are having about the future of the internet aren't really about technology: they are most-importantly conversations about the kind of future we want and how we support it.
We don't know what web3 is in practice yet. (If you don't know what web3 is at all yet, you're not alone.) There are a bunch of good primers/explainers/contextualizers out there here, here, and here — but the basic idea is to evolve the internet away from the ad-driven, platform-monopoly-controlled world of Web 2.0 towards an internet that is driven by more equitable, more decentralized, and eventually more distributed systems by leveraging blockchain-based technologies. From its expression of principles, from the ideals built into it's foundations, we can see a craving at work. In the creation of these new technical standards, we can see the immutable technical expression of a social contract we have failed to bring to fruition through our politics.
This craving goes far beyond the evolution from Web 2.0's culture of attention and exploitation to a new internet culture of participant-ownership, durable expectations, and guaranteed integrity — a culture that is anti-monopolistic and generative.
Web3 might be technical attempt to do what we have failed to do politically.
On the heels of the individualistic liberal societies that flowed from the explosion of literacy post-Enlightenment, the industrial revolution gave birth to a liberalism more tuned to maximize the wealth and efficiency demanded by modern exponential capitalism than the equality of power and human rights envisioned by enlightenment-era revolutionaries.
As a result, we've ended up with a neoliberalism rooted in a deeply individualistic modern culture and haunted by an instinct for impartial prosociality that demands trust in institutions that are not designed to be trusted and are, therefore, not trustworthy. And that instinct has not been rewarded by a political liberalism that has failed to deliver on pro-social outcomes. Most modern humans are deeply guilt ridden by falling far short of our own best ideals and shameless by being so disconnected from each other that we are impervious to shared moral outrage. This leaves most of us feeling frustrated about current systems and without the broad, diverse networks needed to be creative about broad, diverse questions.
President Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop mentality toward “draining the swamp” was in many ways the natural successor to President Obama's promises, and failure, to change politics. In much the same way, web3, while claiming to be a technical evolution of Web 2.0, might in fact be the natural successor to neoliberalism's failures. Or more accurately the equal and opposite reaction to neoliberalism’s successes in hiding the intentional, and exploding, inequality in the guise of pro-social rhetoric. It may not be rooted in the technolibertarianism so often ascribed to Silicon Valley at all.
For all the technical talk about trustlessness, what I see and hear and feel in every hopeful conversation about web3 that extends beyond the frothy, speculative present is an abiding desire for an equitable social contract that we can trust. We need, and crave, a foundational political economy that is not rooted in exploitation and stained by corruption and capture. Perhaps I am just hearing what I want to hear and ascribing a broader political desire to a more narrow technical evolution. But if you listen for this at the intersection of technology and civic innovation, I think you’ll begin to hear it, too.
We still want to expect the best from an ever-broadening global community where all of humanity is our in-group, but we need an institutional infrastructure with integrity to make that possible and not foolishly naive. We need systems and community that create safety and shared power for everyone. Technology is not inherently safe, and headless protocols created and dominated by an overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, highly privileged tech community are just as unlikely to create a genuinely inclusive internet as the last set of founders were to create safe, generative digital social spaces. Web3's best intentions and principles may help us articulate with some conviction and optimism systems that support that kind of globalization and that validate and connect our impartial prosociality to community outcomes where we are genuinely invested.
The habits and expectations and culture that demand this infrastructure need both expression and embodiment. The technology is not sufficient on it's own. Without the clarity and conviction of our broader cultural ambitions becoming explicit drivers of our innovation and design, our ambitions will be left to the same engines of exploitation that bled the best hopes for community implicit in Web 2.0 out of our current media systems. Without clear expression, without talking about what we’re really talking about and what we need from each other and from our communities as the foundation for what kinds of technologies and infrastructure we need, we will be left to work on web 4.0 as our answer to the trustless society of gambling and meta-goldrush left behind on the wreckage of web3.
Liberalism (The Left, The Democrats, Progressives, et al) must take note of the real conversation at the root of the web3 debate and seize the opportunity to tap into this craving for more clarity about an equitable, inclusive, abundant future and start speaking directly to the divisiveness and the scarcity- and fear-driven uncertainty present in so many communities in America and beyond.