I don’t know about you, but the “Web3” (née Crypto) propaganda engine seems to be in overdrive. Seemingly overnight everyone on Twitter/LinkedIn with a passing interest in Blockchain has agreed to the discursive capture that this is the future.
Discursive capture is when people believe a particular, often polished, story (discourse) to the extent that it limits what they think is possible (capture). It can be harmful when myths built on limiting beliefs, stereotypes and superstitions form the basis of decision making. It can be fun when memes provide a new mental model for connection. And it can be helpful, when it promotes positive public health outcomes – wear a mask please, and trust us on the science. In other words, it’s a story that’s very good at hiding its edges – that it is a story at all.
Discursive capture can occur naturally from the synthesis of many self-reinforcing discourses that remain unchallenged (conspiracy theories), it can be intentional (languaging), developed in reaction to contact (schismatogenesis) or inherited wholesale as a value system like organised religion, cults, taxes, etc. It can become essential to how we view the world and what stands between us and thinking critically – not accepting what we’re told.
Discursive capture is a desirable goal for organisations that want to dominate and reap monopoly-like benefits from the marketplace – when we believe that there is nothing quite like an iPhone. The story about new technology is as important, if not more important than the technology itself. It’s not about tech fitting into your life, it’s about how it shapes your life – what you can do now that you seemingly couldn’t do before.
Web3 divides the history of the consumer internet into two prior phases: (1) static orphan websites mediated by AOL, early search engines and browsers with shaky payment and privacy architecture (2) the rise of enclosures: interactive platforms like Facebook where data is arbitraged for advertising revenues and payments taken through secured layers. It frames the problem through identity and payments. In that view, the internet has demanded greater data from the consumer in order to do the very basic of things: make an account attached to an email address, give us details to prove who you are (know your customer), trust us to use this data responsibly, bring your friends to stick around to make the platforms more valuable with your attention and purchases.
Intellectual historians look at Change as a dialogue between reactions, a pendulum swing from one thing to another, with the result, a new middle ground between factions (materialism). Then, Web3 is framed in reaction and evolution to what came before in a tack-on approach. Web3 stans look at the bundling of internet services into mega-platforms (especially servers on AWS) as private centralisation equivalent to the oligopoly of private banks and state monopoly on money creation. In an ‘us versus them’ arena, they argue that value is only extracted out of the system (internet) because the value is entirely user-generated by creative activities (development and data) which are largely voluntary. Instagram creates a negligible amount of content, while influencers are chronically underpaid. Almost all core technology innovation arises from free and open source code developed by hobbyists and professionals in their leisure, but commercialised by large companies.
Don’t forget the nostalgia! often a feature of revisionist history. Seeking out something retro, an anchor in the remote (no longer contemporary) past to declare legitimate heritage. Seen any Greco-Roman architecture in Modern States lately? Web3 ‘goes back’ to an internet where identity is wholly abstracted behind handles like [favourite movie] + [string of numbers], a pixelated 16-bit avatar, and you don’t know who’s a dog. Some of these references are explicit in NFT art (digital images that you can prove ownership of) and .eth usernames (wallet aliases).
The argument has merits. It points to a lot of what makes the internet unfair or safe, with a large asterisk. Consent doesn’t really exist we don’t have a lot of say in the way things are made despite ‘customer-centricity’. Regulators (operating on our behalf) have been slow to react because they don’t (want to) understand it and are reticent to use their powers to sculpt the market. It’s a larger discursive capture of ‘private is better than public’ reinforced by lax tax collection, underfunded services, overpaid contractors, behavioural incentives and ugly architecture years and dollars overstretched. What little regulation there is has not been able to secure net neutrality – that access to different parts of the internet should not be metered so you’d pay a larger data bill for Netflix – platform moderation, or pass a data ordinance that’s more than a checkbox exercise. How many GDPR banners shake you down everyday? How easy is it to manipulate platforms with duplicate accounts for reviews and cyber bullying? How easy it is for a site to be hosted in another country to avoid local subpoenas (as in Wikileaks)? How easy is it to repost without attribution?
Web3 is a rule-creating exercise, deploying code in the mental model of “measure twice, cut once”. The phrase comes from carpentry: to make sure you’re taking the right action, because there is no undo. Once computer code is set and committed to the blockchain in smart contracts, it is immutable, absolute law. It means that attribution and proceeds are baked in. We should take an active interest in this, because these rules are created on small sample sizes, embedding bias and ideological discourse about how things should work and for whom.
This is important because this might be this century’s standardisation of weights and measures, governing what we can and can’t do online, in the way previous eras endured the introduction of paper money, decimalisation, and metre sticks.
Pay attention to what stays the same. The knee-jerk reaction is that everyone should profit from the system, without questioning if we’re happy with the system. Are we happy being bombarded with hyper-personalised advertising and cajoled to buy, if we get a cut? Do we want to monetise our hobbies and our lives? Are we liable for how a large company behaves if the font we designed is how they communicate? Are human relationships online simply a slot machine, literal 50 cents for 2 cents’ knowledge? Should we pay for the emails we send?
The political alignment is Anarchist (seeking out alternative forms of organisation), Capitalist (seeking accumulation of wealth in all its forms), Liberal (free to do whatever you want so long as you don’t intend to harm others), Opportunistic (value is derived from exclusivity and arbitrage of opportunities), Segmented (including only those who believe, not citizenship or populations), Libertarian (distance from institutions, especially State and Society) and Disembodied (that Identity and Lived Experience don’t matter and questions of Equity and Justice are irrelevant). With those ‘distractions’ out of the way, users are free to transact entirely unencumbered and without the ‘need to trust‘ one another. Users become Wallets. It sounds like a poor substitute for loving care and motivation, when we know that monetary rewards have a poor track record of promoting creativity or positive outcomes for people and planet.
The front-of-house for Web3 are the Metaverse(s). Plural because many are being developed by different parties, with shared authentication similar to Single-Sign-On. They vary in definition from The Matrix to a virtual reality video game that allows us to live out our commercial and leisure lives to more limited modes of representing the real. Metaverse development has been ongoing as long as we have had internet, with Second Life being the most ambitious and long-running.
The running joke is that this is “not actual game footage”. A disclaimer tag that video games had to append to their trailers by the regulators to declare that the production values of the trailer are far higher than the game itself. In the same way music videos are far ahead of concerts and the façades of buildings and brands tell you nothing about what’s going on inside. It is still very much a work in progress, luring in developers, like homesteaders to unceded frontiers.
The Metaverse is more about degree than it is in or out. We are all in it — as I input and publish on a sheet of glass responding to my touch, over airwaves and undersea cables to yours.
The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. – William Gibson
Technology adoption is necessarily a blend of legacy and new technology – how many of you still use Word or Excel at work, when there are superior, cheaper collaborative options with version control? Similarly, we know the feeling when Wifi and 4G drop-out and we’re stuck at a crawl, loading .gif’s on the 3G setting. Internet access, smartphone adoption and eCommerce use are not total or universal, and it’s likely that Metaverse adoption will be similar. Niche, with high negative externalities, significant enough to create problems that, at scale, exacerbate injustice and entrench systemic outcomes.
I’m looking forward to the convergence between imagination and the technology to make it real, when ‘not actual game footage’ becomes actual, but not to the exclusion of others or to the rigidity of systems that aren’t great to begin with.