Will Web3 cultivate individualism?

I used to think 'Interoperability' was boring. Today I realized that I was wrong.

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March 15, 2022

Interoperability might be one of the most boring sounding words I know. It used to make me think of dumb, unconnected systems that are unable to communicate with one another. About protocols and data compatibility. About databases that are unable to communicate. Things that don’t exactly excite.

Today I realized that I was wrong. It’s not just a technology term. Above all, it’s a human word.

First of all, because our inability to link our systems in ways that they can interact properly, has to do with culture, with pride, competitiveness, distrust, inefficiency and a lot of other highly human characteristics. Second because many of our biggest current problems have in fact to do with lack of human interoperability: with the inability or even unwillingness to listen with an open mind, communicate and reach a mutual understanding:

1.      Polarization: there’s this huge, and growing disconnect between people who seem unable to listen to each other anymore. A lot of people blame Web2 (which is what the cool kids are calling social media now) and its filter bubble for the increase of this problem.

2.      A Gzero world: Ian Bremmer talks and writes about the growing “Gzero” power vacuum in international politics where no country or group of countries has the political and economic leverage to drive an international agenda or provide global public goods. Now that’s a problem, seeing that we’re facing many challenges like climate change and migration that don’t stop at country borders and require the interoperability of nations.

A world that is not interoperable doesn’t function

Web3 is supposed to solve some of these problems: in a decentralized web, where people own their own data, Big Tech companies won’t be able to trace us anymore. Therefore they won’t be able to use our data in ways that work against us. Result: bye bye polarization.

Yeah. Maybe.

The thing is that we’re still building Web3 - it’s why so many people are saying so many different things about it - and that it could still go in any direction. The fact that companies like Facebook are investigating how they can use it too, doesn’t’ give me a lot of confidence.

Systems will atrophy and die if their natural flow is obstructed.

Also, a lot of the metaverse platforms are currently not interoperable. If you buy a sword in Roblox, you can’t use that in Horizon. And as long as users can’t take their stuff with them from one “place” in the metaverse to another then it will never be a fully functioning place. I’ve referred quite a few times in this newsletter to Adrian Bejan’s Constructal Law: that “systems will atrophy and die if their natural flow is obstructed”.

Well that same dynamic applies to the flow of data and possessions online. To compare: that flow of property happens a lot more freely IRL. You can take pretty much anything - except illegal things like drugs or disease carrying animals as Johnny Depp and Amber Heard learned the hard way in Australia (their apology clip to Australia has got to be one of the cringiest and funniest forms of footage on the interwebs) - with you anywhere in the world. That will become a lot harder if we go to Mars, but that’s a problem for later.

Even Mark Zuckerberg put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Meta’s metaverse wants to achieve interoperability and that’s saying a lot coming from such a closed medium. It is why Meta will be looking into Web3, because decentralized metaverses, where users own their identity and data (through SSI or a cryptowallet), should allow people to take their belongings from one metaverse platform to another.

More individuality, not less

The ownership economy

Yet at the same time, I wonder if Web3 will not increase individuality (and along with that, the Gzero dynamic and polarization) in an entirely different way. Up till now our online identities were spread across the different platforms. We shared our data with others, which sometimes lead to good results, sometimes to bad ones. But we were operating in a shared world. If our identity will be centralized in a crypto wallet or an SSI environment that’s uniquely ours, could this increase our individuality? Because in crypto what is ours will always remain ours, unless we choose otherwise.

Image: Bilal Bin Saqib from "Web3 is a societal level metamorphosis — here’s why"

In fact, it’s pretty telling that some people are calling Web3 the ownership economy. Bilal Bin Saqib describes it this way: “To this end, ownership is a prominent feature of individualistic Web3. With Web3, we own the bits of the internet we operate on.”

An unlimited number of very small Gods

And I wonder if that love child of Web3, the metaverse, might push individuality as well, albeit in an entirely different manner?

What we call reality is pretty solid. Yes, our perception of it is colored by our senses, our character, our emotions and our intelligence and what I see is never exactly what another sees. But the fact remains that we adapt to our environment more frequently than it adapts to us, as individuals. If a museum is closed, it won’t open its doors only for you. If you like the food in a restaurant, but are bothered by its interior decoration, they won’t change that for you.

How will our behavior change if we become Little Gods that can change anything at will?

The metaverse, on the other hand, has the potential to be completely fluid and adaptable. It is not that just yet (for the bigger part), but residents of the metaverse could one day completely orchestrate their own world. They could continuously change their spaces. Or adapt the color of the sky. Change night time to day time. Have a pet dragon. Modify their avatar whenever they feel like it. The boundaries of the possible will keep stretching and adapt to the whims of the individual. What will that do to our behavior, I wonder, if we become Gods that can change anything at will, even ignoring the basic laws of physics?

Mi metaverse no es su metaverse

My metaverse might not be your metaverse. So what will that mean for cooperation, polarization, sharing and all things that are characteristic to human operability? And what will it mean for our behavior IRL? The bigger the gap between our godlike identities in the metaverse and the constrained ones IRL, the more frustrated, even angry people might become.

One could argue that some parts of Web3 - like DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) – are specifically created to enhance community and collaboration which might counterbalance the individualism enhanced by its other parts.

Intent and design are sometimes different

Sure. Then again, intent and design are not always the same thing. Web2’s purpose, too, was to stimulate relations and community. And yet its algorithms were designed to show the individual what (s)he likes most. I don’t understand the blockchain enough to make a judgment here, but wanting a complex and highly interlinked system to do one thing, is never a guarantee that it will.

So, what? Am I saying that we should ignore Web3? To the contrary. It has a lot of potential and I am for instance really intrigued by the potential of this DAO phenomenon. Also, emerging technologies that have already developed to reach a certain scale, can’t just be stopped, even if we know that they might have unintended nefarious consequences.

So what I am saying, is this: let’s be a bit more critical about Web3 than ecstatically shouting that decentralization will solve all of the problems that Web2 triggered. Let’s investigate it a little bit closer than we did when Web2 surfaced. Let’s make sure the design does not obstruct any crucial flows or stimulate rampant individualism.

This article originally appeared on Laurence’s personal newsletter The Questions: find more here.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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March 15, 2022