What Should Be Our Next “Platform”?
What does our technological future look like?
Recently, several visions have been competing to describe that future. The two dominant narratives are Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse pitch and the Web3 community’s smorgasbord of DAOs and NFTs. They have some overlaps, but are quite different, perhaps most notably in that the Web3 movement’s goal of “decentralization” is almost directly in response to behemoth companies like Meta.
The first vision has the backing of one of the world’s wealthiest individuals (Zuck, depending what hour you look at the stock market) and largest companies (Meta/Facebook); the second is fueled by more crypto-money than one can imagine. It seems both visions have abundant fuel.
Yet neither feels like a future I want to inhabit. How about you?
In the first one, God forbid you lose your Augmented Reality goggles! In the second, don’t let the smartphone or tablet that holds your crypto-wallet out of your sight!
I’m only half joking here, but the differences between the two visions go far deeper than those issues, and have far graver implications. Meta’s Metaverse smells like the rise of a surveillance state in which “sharing is caring.” Don’t forget to like this article!
In the other corner, today’s Web3, built atop “trustless” systems layered with smart contracts, looks like a Libertarian dystopia in which things that aren’t monetizable or contractually manageable -- like our many essential Commons -- decline and vanish. Web3 is a live-fire experiment with global governance, yet its participants seem to care mostly about themselves. Zuckerberg’s domain holds more people than the countries of China and India combined, yet its governance structure looks like WALL-E’s corporatist utopia more than anything out of Hamilton or What the Constitution Means to Me, if you’ll forgive my US-centrist examples.
This competition — and our conversation about it — is urgent right now, because these visions will likely shape our next decade, if not far longer. If you recently scrolled your feeds on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, the urgency may be more apparent.
Remember when you first experienced the Internet? Or when Steve Jobs showed us the first smartphone? It’s hard to imagine a world without the Internet or smartphones now, isn’t it? Well, major players are proposing their own visions of our future now, and if we don’t play an active role in their development, we’ll deserve the future we get.
The bigger picture
This isn’t just a technology battle.
Right now, humans around the world are involuntarily renegotiating the social contracts they are in with governments, companies and their fellow citizens. That’s what Occupy Wall Street, the Gilets Jaunes, Los Indignados, the Arab Spring, the US Tea Party, Fidesz, #StopTheSteal, Cacerolazos, #BlackLivesMatter, the Umbrella Movement, School Strikes for Climate Change, Extinction Rebellion and many more social movements have in common.
These groups would all likely agree that our social contract is broken, though they would largely disagree with how it is broken, never mind how to fix it. But they all feel strongly enough that they have stepped out of their normal, everyday activities to protest. Many have lost their lives in the process.
In 2122, historians will write about our time here, and with the benefit of some hindsight they will be able to say which of the ideas put forth in our time succeeded. Which of these movements gained ground and became our new way of living together.
Given this larger context, do you want that battle won by Zuckerberg or the crypto community? Or someone else?
My shorthand for this something else is “The Betterverse.” Partly in jest, I’ve bought that domain and started thinking out loud, with friends, what a Betterverse might be like.
In fact, my friends and I have been experiencing a sort of “My First Sony” version of this Betterverse during lockdown, meeting often in Zoom calls and sharing what we know online, in a community called Open Global Mind.
Born with the intention of helping humans make better decisions together, OGM has two complementary facets. One is about creating spaces in which humans might be willing to change their minds. As you can imagine, that involves personal safety, vulnerability, facilitation and many things that aren’t technological at all, but are instead very human.
The second facet is much geekier, and involves building a shared memory that might help anchor us as we drown in the info-torrent. I bring a strange gift to this conversation: I’ve been minding a single mind map for 24 years, so it can act as an example, or even a “starter,” for a collective memory.
OGM is focused on helping humans get through the many crises we face now, and maybe end up in a better situation than we started.
Let me be more pointed: Instead of wasting immense computing resources and human time and energy on unnecessary games, bad art and expensive devices, how about if we humans came together to learn to trust one another again and share what we know so we can apply it to improve our world?
I spoke at a conference in Iceland in 2015. Afterward, a few of us got a tour of a data center in Keflavik, on a decommissioned NATO base. Back then, two-thirds of the servers in the data center were mining Bitcoins.
There are many other critiques of blockchains and Bitcoin, including my favorite, which asks what blockchains can do that isn’t easier and cheaper to do with other technologies.
There are nuggets of value in the crypto and Extended Reality versions of a metaverse, but we’re not on a path to use them wisely. Let’s join forces and make this new infrastructure really sing for humanity.