CIG: Amid Web3’s Imaginative Obsolescence, Informed Skepticism Is Critical

CIG | Elizabeth M. Renieris | Jan 14, 2022

Zuckerberg playing in the metaverse - CIG:  Amid Web3's Imaginative Obsolescence, Informed Skepticism Is CriticalAs 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.

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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.

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.

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.”

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But we cannot “both sides” every new technological innovation or invention and fail to anticipate what the problems will be. 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.

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.”

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