Web3 Thoughts

– Technology

Where do I even begin? My opinion changes wildly, from taking a firmly anti-crypto stance inspired by Everest Pipkin’s environmental arguments—to thinking that I should buy some Bitcoin or even learn to develop for Web 3.

I’m pretty solidly anti-NFT, but mostly because it reminds me of Big Tech and feels exploitative. But also—whatever. If you need to make cash and you’re a digital artist issuing NFTs, I’m not going to hold it against you. I just don’t want to do it myself.

First impressions

Around the beginning of the 2010s, I heard about crypto from a bandmate, who is now the founder of Tokensoft. As learned more about Ethereum, I had a lot of romantic thoughts about creating a better society through smart contracts.

In the mid 2010s, I drank the startup kool-aid. I was pro-disruption, move fast and break things, pro-Peter Theil building an island, pro tech eating the world, and I really thought that digitizing the world would make it a better place.

Mining Attempts

In early 2013, I considered buying Bitcoin for around $80 USD. But I didn’t have the money to spare on a gamble. I was attending community college, awaiting a transfer to UC Berkeley, working in a restaurant, and money was tight.

I tried to mine crypto on my old Macbook. But it only had a single core CPU and stock Intel GPU, which overheated and shut down often. I researched Butterfly Miners (too expensive) and even signed up for a Litecoin Mining Pool in 2013, but I wrote the wallet key somewhere in a notebook that I lost. I think I have some Dogecoin too, but we’ll never know. (Well, we might know one day, if quantum computers are able to crack public wallet keys.)

So, whatever. I mined a little bit, I lost it, I moved on with my life, dropped out of UC Berkeley, and started working in Product Design.

My last semester at Berkeley, I remember learning about modular arithmetic and crypotgraphy.

Source: https://pi.math.cornell.edu/~mec/2003-2004/cryptography/RSA/RSA.html

We learned RSA cryptography, we converted things to hex and binary code by hand, and I just remember thinking—I UNDERSTAND COMPUTERS NOW! Wow, this Satoshi guy was really smart to think up this Bitcoin thing.

And so, I simultaneously became a privacy nerd (due to knowing more about encryption) and a crypto head (because I saw the technical value in the blockchain concept).

Tech Fallout

After working in tech for a while, I lost faith in its capacity to help people.

Mainly because automation is a myth. Even if the interface is designed to make it look like computers are doing things for you, there’s a person in the background making everything work. Apps are run by people who use technology, not technology.

And they’re not paid very much, despite being integral to the success of the product. I began to feel like I worked for the colonizers—someone who comes in to an industry, builds something that puts a bunch of people out of work, and then employs them for a fraction of what they would’ve made before. It was the ugly truth underneath the “tech saves the world” rhetoric1. It took me a while to accept this conclusion, because Product Designers are paid well. I had student loans to pay off. But once I did, I no longer found the salary worth the high emotional toll.

Then there was the #metoo movement. The Uber sexual harassment scandal broke in 2017, and I wasn’t surprised. Something similar happened to my coworkers back in 2015. At a different company, I was unable to report harassment because our HR person was at Burning Man. All of this on the heels of the infamous email sent out to Zenefits employees in 2016:

“Cigarettes, plastic cups filled with beer, and several used condoms were found in the stairwell. Yes, you read that right. Do not use the stairwells to smoke, drink, eat, or have sex.”

Okay, I realize that this has nothing to do with crypto. But it definitely colored my opinion on crypto-bros I met in the SF startup scene.

Investment

I invested in ETH, Ripple, and BTC on Coinbase around 2018. I think BTC jumped to around $6000. I sold a few months later when the price started to drop a little bit, afraid it would go back down to $800. (It didn’t, LOL)

I was on the losing side of that transaction. If you don’t have large amounts of cash to invest, you probably shouldn’t buy crypto. Personally, I don’t know many individuals who got rich off of crypto—just the ones who bought in really early on.

One interesting thing to note is that Citibank bought in to crypto as early as 2016. So it’s seen as something advantageous to institutions with a lot of cash and an impetus to keep transaction costs low.

But this is all written from the perspective of me, a US citizen. If your country’s currency is unstable, crypto might be a good choice. I don’t know.

What’s Web3?

The term Web 2.0 was coined in the late 90s to describe the collaborative and social nature of web platforms such as Wikipedia, MySpace, etc. Nothing really changed technologically—except for the move away from iframe and table to div and CSS-based layouts, augmented by Javascript. Sites stopped using DHTML as much, but we still had tons of file types like WML for mobile and XHTML for XML purists. The era of databases began, powered mostly by PHP and MySQL. The self hosted blog wars started—and Wordpress won.

In my opinion, Web 2.0 was not really a paradigm shift—it was just a natural progression of more people getting online, more nodes in the graph of connectivity. Some called it the rise of the platform, which I don’t think really happened until the 2010s when Silicon Valley got super hyped about two sided marketplaces and products with plugins, integrations, and a whole ecosystem contained within them. I mean, that’s what I think of as a “platform” from today’s lens, but I suppose in the 2000s Facebook was also a platform. It had apps, after all.

Web 3.0 was supposed to be the semantic web, according to Tim Berners-Lee. Semantic as in, meaningful to machines. As opposed to endless <div> tags with no semantic meaning, the new HTML Living Standard “conveys meaning, rather than presentation”, which has advantages for accessibility, SEO, and cross device consistency. Semantic tags such as <main> and <header> have been documented by the WHATWG since 2019, but have still not caught on in the general web developer community (from my vantage point at least).

Web3, as a crypto buzzword, refers to decentralization:

Web 3.0’s decentralized blockchain protocol will enable individuals to connect to an internet where they can own and be properly compensated for their time and data, eclipsing an exploitative and unjust web, where giant, centralized repositories are the only ones that own and profit from it.

What Is Web 3.0? by Charles Silver, Forbes

While this might seem in line with Tim Berners-Lee’s original goals to create an open, decentralized, and universal space, is it actually going to work? There are still opportunities for exploitation in the crypto world, and early adopters (with better access to funds and hardware) were able to profit more at the beginning.

Plus, Berners-Lee has said that we willingly gave up our data to corporations [find quote]. But crypto companies are coming around and asking us to give our data to them instead—I think we should all really consider the implications before we take the plunge.

Is Web3 just another name for the metaverse? A descriptor for the increasing conversion of IRL –> digital data? The productization and data analysis of everything? Do we even want everything to be stored in a ledger, in an immutable blockchain? One with increasing computing cost to maintain, that will continue to damage the environment with every transaction decrypted and encrypted again? It almost makes cutting down trees for paper look like the better environmental choice for data preservation.

The Internet is in the Ocean

Submarine cables! They’ve been around since the 1830s. Sharks bite them. And they all run through central points—I assume blockchain data would also run through these points, which are controlled by just a few Tier 1 Networks.

All of this is to say that true “decentralization” and privacy isn’t actually possible unless you can build a separate network of cables on the ocean floor. But please don’t. The coral reefs are dying.

Reading List

2022-09-04 Thoughts

I’m not participating in NFT culture or creating/trading tokens. I also don’t jump on the hype of DAOs, since something about it smells really corporate (in the way that Instagram ads do). I’m not big on the metaverse, but I’m not going to take a militant stance against it. I’ll just wait and see how things unfold.

That being said, I am using Generative art tools powered by AI. While I am concerned about the energy cost of my computations, I don’t have any moral qualms with the technology itself or the ethics of the teams working on the projects.

My stance is similar to Sophie Auger’s in the Undeletable Image workshop at Index. Just asking questions, keeping an open mind, and experimenting with the technology directly before forming opinions on it. From the workshop description:

It is easy, with the digital tools we already have, to create a public archive. With the advent of blockchain, the question is: what happens when we have the power to make it undeletable?

I’m reminded of this rule from V. Vale’s Goals of Life2 under Some Principles & Thoughts:

First Technology, Then Culture!

Footnotes

  1. Read more on this in Web Design: The First 100 Years, especially the section on “FIX THE WORLD WITH SOFTWARE

  2. RE/SEARCH’s V. Vale hands out this single page printout called “Goals of Life” at pretty much every zine or art book fair in the bay area. I can’t find a copy of it online, but I’ve typed up this quote based on my copy of the sheet.

Here are all the notes in this garden, along with their links, visualized as a graph.