Zooming in on the Reality of the Current State of a Decentralized Internet
From March 10 to 13, FIBER organized a four day meeting place for artists, designers, creative coders, technologists, researchers, energy experts and policy makers who are committed to, or interested in, working towards a fossil-free and fair internet. The aim of the Natural Intelligence Lab was to fuse existing practices, skills and knowledge, and to form new alliances. In order to start addressing these questions, the lab explored four interdependent and sometimes overlapping research areas: Energy Literacy, Everyday Technologies, Collective Infrastructures and Fossil-Free Imaginaries. Ola’s piece connects to Energy Literacy by looking at how to include a new energy awareness in design practice. How to work from, and collaborate with, natural cycles, ecological ethics and de-colonial computing?
The excitement that carries the implementation of Web 3.0 forward is clashing with prevalent visions of techno dystopia. Mainstream media try to unpack some of the usual suspects connected with Web 3.0. Blockchain, NFT, crypto — you heard about it already. Should you, or rather, are you able to care about it? The stacking complexity in our day-to-day lives is starting to weigh on us. Whether talking about the pressure instilled by the surface digital world with its never-ending scrolls of content, notifications, and unescapable interfaces or when we turn our attention to its physical components such as miles-long server farms, pilling up hardware, and carbon pollution. Being a part of this system is not optional. By now, most of us are inescapably entangled in the digital world, though we might cope with it differently. Some give in to the fascination with the tech world and what it has to offer, while others experience climate change anxiety fueled by the constant news of impending doom. You can also find yourself on the fence, unsure where to direct your attention yet nudged by a persistent feeling that things must change.
During the Reassemble Lab, this sentiment was shared amongst the attendees and speakers. That “something needs to be done” feeling starts with questioning the status quo. Is there another way to take up the conversations about the future of our digital and non-digital realities to discuss viable ways in which we can regain the necessary power to tackle these issues?
H2 — Promise of the new
First, let’s try to unpack the popular claims surrounding Web 3.0
The proponents of Web 3.0 claim that its blockchain-based infrastructure will enable individual users to take power away from Big Tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Thanks to its decentralized nature, we will no longer have to rely on infrastructure and safety protocols provided by centralized platforms. In theory, a wide adaptation of blockchain will allow internet users to take control of their assets and have more creative choices in shaping online spaces. Blockchain requires multiple users to participate, establishing a chain of nodes and allowing everyone in the said chain to trace back transactions and other changes. In a less financially oriented example; trust and accountability ensured by this technology have a major potential to foster democratic practices. Being able to retrace and secure all kinds of user-performed actions would eliminate concerns about the security of, for example, online voting. Having no third parties involved in the process means that, foundationally, the internet would regain its grassroots feel. In the example of online voting minimizing chances of fraud could empower online communities to direct energy in supporting projects that actually address shared causes. These types of scenarios will appeal to those who have awaited the return of more peer-to-peer-based interactions and pay tribute to the vision of the internet as imagined by pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee (one of the founders of the internet).
That’s where we would like to be.
H2 — Claims and reality
In practice, the shift to a more decentralized internet is and will continue to be more problematic than what tech enthusiasts would like us to believe. Right now, much of what is discussed as Web 3.0 is still very much centralized. In terms of online transactions, centralized platforms are still entrusted with overseeing these processes. Newbies to crypto will likely go to platforms like Binance or Coinbase to start trading. Most NFTs are being sold via OpenSea, Coinbase, and Metamask, all of which are centralized platforms. Many creators of decentralized apps (DAPs) continue to use providers such as Infura, Truffle, and Alchemy which are platforms often running on centralized servers.
Playing a major role in the NFT trading hype is the famous platform Discord, also claiming to be decentralized. A quick search will show that Discord falls short of its promise and, just like many other seemingly decentralized platforms, ends up relying on large centralized servers, in Discord’s case, rented out by Google.
These examples show that some of the noble-minded claims of the Web 3.0 proponents are nothing more than just claims. That is not to say that the efforts made to decentralize the web can’t be gradual. Relying on some of the centralized infrastructures is perfectly reasonable, at least in the beginning stages. Ultimately the change from platform-centric internet to that of decentralized, community-run networks is neither easy nor can it be done in one go. So why not be honest about it?
What about the literal power that Web 3.0 will need to run?
The main transaction verification process in, for example, trading NFTs is considered ‘extremely energy hungry. Up until recently, in the span of one year, Ethereum (the primary vehicle for NFT trading) used as much energy as the whole country of the Netherlands. This immense electrical consumption and following environmental pollution prompted Ethereum founders to seek alternative solutions. They were able to shift the type of validation (from proof of stake to proof of work) required to establish a block and by that claim to reduce energy usage by 99%. This is great news and, in theory, should encourage similar actions from other cryptocurrencies. Founders of leading currencies are skeptical about moving away from what they consider to be tried and tested models. Bitcoin, responsible for more energy consumption than a few European countries and Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft combined, is one of them . Most experts agree that Bitcoin is likely to stand by its mining model as this form of operation is too closely tied to its core model. Moreover, significant changes in processes take painstaking work and engineering power while the number of daily crypto transactions keeps growing.
H2 — Two different stories
If the saying “knowledge itself is power” is still true, armed with the right data and facts, we should be able to force change through legislative actions. Some countries have already taken action to regulate energy use of Web 3.0 technologies, but public opinion remains divided. It is because of conflicting information that one might encounter when trying to learn more about for example cryptocurrencies.
I asked a bunch of friends to search “bitcoin energy use,” and the sources of the news articles that they saw on the first page of Google were very different. Interestingly enough in the group of about 20 people almost half of the top links led to the same article discrediting the debate on bitcoin’s energy consumption as a whole. Another half of results presented information about the actual consumption of energy by crypto mining, often comparing bitcoin’s energy use with other cryptocurrencies.
H2 — The marketing powers of crypto bro culture and Instagram influencers
Not surprisingly, there is a lot of confusion and, what follows, wild west tactics deployed at this stage of implementation of “the New Web”. Crypto startups rushed to be the first to control the narrative. In consequence, the marketing noise made the concept of Web 3.0 more obscure and turned it into a buzzword encompassing everything blockchain-related. Environmental aspects are pushed to the side while users are constantly nudged to invest in NFTs and start trading cryptocurrencies. The hype train is run by ‘crypto bros’ and influencers fueling the pressure with messaging that the time to board is now, and now only.
Users accustomed to platformed Web 2.0 are targeted by advertising campaigns featuring familiar celebs like Matt Damon in not-so-subtle, colonial-themed advertisements.
Meanwhile, across different platforms, feeds are packed with sponsored content. Youtube vlogs by wealthy tech enthusiasts promise more freedom and financial gains that await if you choose to invest. Influencers native to centralized platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are adding to the confusion. Their content often presents imaginaries in which access to Web 3.0 wealth is up for grabs.
If this looks like the perfect breeding ground for get-rich-fast scams, it’s because it is.
Since the world of crypto trading is a relatively new and undefined environment, there is not enough understanding and appropriate regulation to prevent abuse.
At the point of writing this article, there have been several cases in which people followed the encouragement of one of the celebrities investing in what they thought was a legitimate crypto trading platform, only to lose large amounts of money.
The world of Web 3.0, at least through the lens of crypto influencers, appears to be the new frontier with its promise of decentralized and distributed power accessible to those “brave enough”. If you are not tapping into that forever-abundant source of wealth, you are missing out and probably should learn how to use the digital space “correctly”. These greed-fueled marketing campaigns dilute the original assumptions and real possibilities behind Web 3.0.
Luckily there are viable alternatives. Actually decentralized, open-source movements like Mastodon or Minds, present high-potential alternatives to grassroots community building and are more in line with the original promises of Web 3.0. Financial communities such as Celo provide an open-source platform aiming to use blockchain to distribute wealth to those who have been historically marginalized. Climate Dao and the KLIMDao help individual investors use their digital assets in ways that force public companies to start operating with environment in mind.
H2 — Where the true power lies.
Yes, the decentralized web shows a vast potential to distribute power and wealth amongst people. But right now our attention, most valuable commodity these days, is targeted and hijacked by those who only claim to represent decentralized internet. In reality, their actions exhibit attitudes inherent to that of the profit-obsessed, monopolized web. Their stories presenting “the new web” as a source of wealth accessible to everyone distract publics’ attention away from the ever-so-urgent environmental issues.
One thing is clear; we won’t find empowerment in creating self-destructive realities.
As Marloes de Valk in her speech points out; as of now, the narrative on how to tackle climate change is currently led by the very same agents caused it and ultimately profited from it. While web transformation will not slow down for us to consider and peacefully evaluate this shift, we can still retain the power to reimagine and question our digital practices. But to do that, we must reassign the power to words we use and alight the alternative pathways to futures we can accept. We witness nascent movements and initiatives that still carry the ideas real power distribution as imagined by the pioneers of decentralized web. That’s why efforts must be put into highlighting alternative voices and initiatives that steer public perception and practices toward regaining agency.
More About Ola
Ola is a researcher and storyteller working on topics exploring concepts such as digital monopolies, platform labor, implications of AI used in policing, digital habits, various meme vernaculars, and more. She has an experience in the field of New Media, Digital transformation and Interactive Performance Art; a combination of which she uses in her practice. Her expertise in research, copywriting, and collaboration led her to create proposals that reach a wider audience at events like Dutch Design Week, The Next Web, IAM weekend, Ars Electronica, IMPAKT, and The Hmm. In her recent work, she began to explore the applications of AI technologies in various layers of society, focusing on underrepresented groups and those typically left out of the conversation.