I often get the sense that outside of the crypto industry most people are still skeptical about all the things grouped under the “Web 3” brand. More than skeptical, sometimes, but also downright antagonistic.
Yesterday, Jared Holt, the Atlantic Council's resident expert on domestic extremism and digital culture, and the brains behind the “SH!TPOST” Substack newsletter and podcast, tweeted the hope that American consumers would band together to reject next-gen, crypto-based web technologies.
“It is my sincere hope that we can come together enough to forcibly reject [Web 3] as the hyper-commodified disease that it is,” Holt said.
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Strong words from Holt, a reporter turned talking head. I don’t know much about Holt’s politics, other than he has built a brand covering right-wing extremism and misinformation, but if they veer anywhere close to his employer’s it’s the establishment norm.
The Atlantic Council pushes the “neoliberal” line, a word that, like “Web 3,” is often used but lacks a coherent definition. Essentially, neoliberalism is the mainstream political posture in the U.S. – the pro-markets, anti-regulation, strain of capitalism that took hold after Lyndon Johnson’s push for a “Great Society.”
Neoliberalism is about consumer choice, so long as mega-corporations are in the position to present those choices. It’s about austere public-private partnerships rather than expansive government-provided services or purely competition-derived solutions. And, perhaps ironically for Holt, in fetishing privatization it leads to commodification.
As always, it’s worth asking “cui bono?” Who benefits from crypto? Earlier this year, bitcoin advocate Jack Dorsey suggested “crypto” markets have already been cornered by venture capitalists and other major crypto investors. That’s not a question Holt raised; he questioned the very idea of technological progress.
“There’s always this talk about growth and development as if it’s innately good. That framing needs to be aggressively questioned. ‘Growth’ can be bad,” Holt added. We already live with a high degree of technological sophistication and convenience – like the smart phones in our pocket, he said. When is enough enough?
Web 3, still in development, wants to give power, influence and monetary rewards to regular internet users. It does this, by and large, by decentralizing the internet stack and adding tradable crypto tokens. Instead of top-down corporations shipping products, token holders would have influence over a platform’s management and share in its upside. It’s “commodification,” adding another element of monetization to the web, but for a purpose.
Web 3’s solutions may not ultimately be desirable, but it seems like an experiment worth undertaking. Someone who studies disinformation ought to know how contemporary economic models play a hand in boosting extreme voices for engagement. Such maladjusted behavior may not be the case when advertising is no longer the end goal for internet platforms, or when users have an explicit economic stake (something to lose) tied to their identities.
In a reply to Holt, Bellingcat investigative reporter Robert Evans said, “We killed 3D TVs. We can kill this,” referring to Web 3. It’s an illustrative example.
According to Livewire, 3D TV became television’s “next big thing” after the success of James Cameron’s 2009 film “Avatar” – in what’s now called the “Avatar effect.” Big entertainment studios and manufacturers started preparing for a world of embodied televisual experiences. But the trend was dead on arrival.
It was a combination of expensive equipment (goggles, remotes, etc.), the number of consumers upgrading to HDTVs and reports the holograms created caused nausea that killed 3D TV. Most importantly, there was a lack of genuine demand. Samsung and Sony stopped releasing 3D tech in 2016, according to Livewire.
This might be a trend “metaverse” builders should study, but it also has bearing for Web 3. It’s already an issue that people like Evans and Holt, and likely average Joes, see Web 3 as something being forced on them. There may be benefits, maybe even better consumer experiences, but it still appears like a trend that’s mostly coming from the top down.
Despite the fact that Andreessen Horowitz is leading a “Web 3” charge to get governments to support (or at least not regulate out of existence) crypto development, there’s no group or agency that can make this shift happen. Web 3 is neoliberal in the sense that it’s all about open markets, about competition at the protocol level and private solutions. But either consumers will adopt it or they won’t.