Amid the Hype over Web3, Informed Skepticism Is Critical

Without a critical perspective, familiar harms will not only be replicated; they will be exacerbated.

January 14, 2022
Mark Zuckerberg playing in the metaverse during a live-streamed conference announcing Facebook’s rebrand, in this screen grab from video released October 28, 2021. (EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect)

As the notion of Web 3.0 or “Web3” — the third generation of the internet premised on “decentralized” technologies — has captured the collective imagination, those skeptical about it are often chastised for offering criticism rather than alternatives. If you don’t like Web3, its promoters say, just build something better. This must-be-building ethos is rampant in the tech industry, as encapsulated in a recent essay from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. “Instead of attacking my ideas of what to build,” he writes, “conceive your own!” The answer, it would seem, is to build yet another something.

This attitude manifests in the built-in obsolescence of tech products and services that requires us to buy the newest iteration or download the latest software update, lest our connected things stop working (thankfully, there is growing resistance to the notion of technology obsolescence through the “right to repair” movement). It also manifests in tech executives’ continual calling for new laws and regulations, even as they skirt and ignore existing ones.

And increasingly apparent in the Web3 discourse is a kind of imaginative obsolescence: As one vision of the future rapidly replaces the next, the technologies and systems now in place suffer decay and disrepair. Our imaginations and resources are once again diverted from fixing or rehabilitating what exists. Meanwhile, familiar problems, inevitably, resurface. Imaginative obsolescence also upends efforts at effective technological governance — and perhaps that is exactly the point.

Like its predecessors (Web 1.0, “the era of static webpages,” and 2.0, the internet of social media and user-driven content), Web3 is imagined as being apolitical, open, decentralized and inclusive, its proponents even using the same rhetoric as the cyberlibertarians of John Perry Barlow’s day. This ethos — characterized by free speech absolutism and free market ideals — has enabled all manner of online harms, including rampant mis- and disinformation, racism, discrimination, hate speech and harassment, concentrations of power, toxic business models and limited accountability. While it may be early, Web3 is quickly encountering many of the same challenges, even as it purports to be immune to them.

Take, for example, OpenSea, a leading platform for non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which is already embattled over racist content, rampant copyright infringement and other content moderation problems; or, as another example, the stories of female users in the metaverse, who have been groped and sexually harassed by strangers. Observe how the same internet shutdowns that frequently limit activists’ access to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can just as easily cripple large-scale cryptocurrency or “freedom money” mining operations, as they have recently in Kazakhstan.

For digital artists whose livelihoods are threatened by unmitigated copyright theft, “decentralized” Web3 platforms are likely to offer limited recourse. Women and minorities who already face disproportionate abuse on legacy platforms will likely bear the brunt in virtual worlds, where embodied aspects will make these experiences more traumatic and psychologically closer to those in the “real world.” If Web 2.0 was predicated on selling our data, Web3 will have us sell ourselves as it doubles down on extractivism, turning every interaction into a commercial transaction. Without a critical perspective, familiar harms will not only be replicated; they will be exacerbated.

Increasingly apparent in the Web3 discourse is a kind of imaginative obsolescence: As one vision of the future rapidly replaces the next, the technologies and systems now in place suffer decay and disrepair. Our imaginations and resources are once again diverted from fixing or rehabilitating what exists.

But even as criticism of existing technologies is at a fever pitch in the form of a widespread techlash against companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, we are urged to remain open to the promise of new Web3-style technologies. Calling for a more nuanced and less binary approach to technology criticism, Wired’s editor-in-chief, Gideon Lichfield, writes, “A hype cycle that makes quick billionaires and leaves a trail of failed companies in its wake may also lay the groundwork for a lasting structural shift (exhibit A: the first dotcom bust). An online platform that creates community and has helped citizens oust dictators (Facebook) can also trap people in conformism and groupthink and become a tool for oppression.”

But we cannot “both sides” every new technological innovation or invention and fail to anticipate what the problems will be. While we may not want to throw the Web3 baby out with the bathwater, we must take lessons from how the internet’s earlier iterations unfolded. As digital policy expert Francesca Bria observes, “People pushing the Web3 agenda have learned very little from the experiences of all the other movements, from free software to Indymedia to the rise of digital democratic cities.” In fact, it is precisely because we have been here before that we need a critical perspective. To ignore the historical context and allow the same patterns to emerge around Web3 would be negligent and even reckless.

Learning from the past and applying those lessons requires a critical perspective. Without such perspective, proposed “solutions” can only be cosmetic, papering over root causes. Computational or technological attempts to “decentralize” power without addressing the social, political and economic enablers of concentrated power and wealth, such as decades of neo-liberal policies predicated on the illusion of individual choice and control, are bound to fail.

Criticism is the hard work of accepting the reality of what is, understanding how and why it came about, and addressing the deeper issues and forces involved. It is the opposite of the “building” ethos of continually punting to new tech or the next thing, as if on a blank slate of human nature and culture.

We cannot hope to meet the challenges posed by digital technologies with the same uncritical techno-solutionism and optimism that have failed us in the past, or by continually believing that the solution to technology-related problems is new or more technology. In fact, had we heeded the perspectives of critical thinkers such as Safiya Noble, Mar Hicks, Siva Vaidhyanathan and others sooner, we could be further along in addressing some of Web 2.0’s failings by now.

There is a time to build and a time to repair. Repairing what is broken is difficult and important work that requires contextualizing technology and working within creative constraints. As technology critic Sara M. Watson writes, “Acknowledging the realities of society and culture, constructive criticism offers readers the tools and framings for thinking about their relationship to technology and their relationship to power.”

If we just keep building without repairing what exists or applying lessons learned along the way, we will continue to spin our wheels as the same problems accumulate and amplify. In this way, our technology may evolve, but our relationship to it (and to each other) can only degrade.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Elizabeth M. Renieris researches the ethical and human rights impacts of technology as a professor at the University of Notre Dame, a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, and a senior research associate at Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI.