What might be the most mansplainy thing yet written about blockchain technology appeared last week on the blog of fiction writer and former Twitter executive Robin Sloan. The author describes himself as “not merely a skeptic, but a full-fledged enemy of Web3,” though in the essay that follows, he proceeds to hedge like crazy:
Web3 is best understood as a game, or a game of games. I don’t intend that as a dig: it’s a really good game! Vast and open-ended, deeply social, with lots of scores to tally … AND you can win real money?? I mean, that’s terrific.
It’s for kids. I mean that in a good way! I think Web3 has resonated powerfully with young people because it feels like something genuinely new, and it feels like it can be theirs. Who could argue with those feelings? Not me.
I’ll close with credit where due: Ethereum should inspire anyone interested in the future(s) of the internet, because it demonstrates, powerfully, that new protocols are still possible.
The whole thing is more like a pose than an argument, with the author wildly backpedaling and then forward-pedaling again, like a man on a unicycle. The main idea I guess is to stake out a perch loftily above the young people and their silly games.
Sloan’s jocular remarks about all this being “for the kids” made me extra grouchy, because I am old, and I like many thousands of others have been working on Web3 blockchain projects and writing about them for the better part of ten years. There is nothing newfangled about it!! It’s just that nobody knew what any of us were talking about for the longest time, and that’s finally changing.
The idea that blockchain is about “winning real money” blinded tons of people like Sloan from the first, and kept them from being able to see the real benefits of creating indelibly accurate public records. (In this, Sloan and I are agreed: “The money thing confounds evaluation; it’s like trying to look at a star next to the sun.”) The sudden appearance of colossal, ridiculous, instantenous wealth drives people a little crazy, understandably, and all the more so when it seems to drop out of the sky because of memecoins or Beeples. But there were get-rich-quick schemes, and there was Damien Hirst, and there were Beanie Babies, long before the first bitcoin was minted. In truth the benefits of indelibly accurate, publicly available records are capable of making the world a lot fairer and better, and that’s already begun to happen. Or, those benefits could be torpedoed by any number of opponents, and blockchain systems exploited and commandeered by profiteers and authoritarian governments; the story is yet to be written.
The Web3 project I’ve been working on is a cryptoeconomy for journalism. It produces archives of published stories, and secures commenting systems, and provides for microtipping and microfunding journalism projects. We started working on it in 2017 under the auspices of a startup called Civil, which folded in the crypto winter of the following year. My project is not meant to make anyone rich, it’s meant to provide a safe haven for sustainable independent journalism. We ancient and stooped elderly persons kept at it, despite the failure of Civil; we’re still at it, four years later, and we are grown people who’ve been super serious and working insanely hard the whole time. There are so many serious, useful Web3 projects out there, as I’ve mentioned before.
There’s another misapprehension in Sloan’s essay worth correcting:
I feel like this simple premise is often lost in the haze: the Ethereum Virtual Machine, humming heart of Web3, is a computer that charges you many dollars to execute a very small program very slowly. It does so in an environment with special properties, and in some cases, those properties are worth the expense. In others … it’s like running your website on a TRS-80 with a coin slot.
If Ethereum does not manage to complete its shift over to proof of stake (PoS) in 2022, it will lose its business to one or several of the new, rival PoS chains that are already online — rivals that operate, not very slowly, but very very blazing fast, and for infinitesmal amounts of energy and money relative to today’s Ethereum. Either Ethereum improves its product, as most observers appear to suspect it will, or Ethereum will fail; either way, the current version of Ethereum is already obsolete; the above description doesn’t really make sense as a criticism of Web3.
To change the subject a bit. As ever I urge readers to view blockchain technology from the point of view of our real situation, namely, from within a catastrophically broken financial and economic system that is, at this moment, harming everyone and everything. Only people who are (a) “doing fine” within the existing system and also (b) willing to overlook its defects are able to write essays like Robin Sloan’s, because in general they are an airily superior dudebro who is doing great, as they often make a point of saying, and they like having an expert opinion.
Today’s internet sinks its hooks very deeply into modern life: banking, work, buying things, watching films, listening to music, reading the news, making travel plans, sharing photos and texts and blabbing with your friends. Provided you have reliable electricity and a stable connection, all of this has been made ridiculously easy for you, simple, painless and low in cost. You don’t have to think about it at all, and indeed Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai and Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Apple would vastly prefer that you not think about it or write about it or address it at all. The internet is Customer Centric and 24/7, and you are encouraged to luxuriate in the warm bath of frictionless, instantaneous convenience they provide. It’s all here and it’s all for you, all the time.
You’re encouraged, too, to ignore the environmental and social costs of that silky feeling of anything you want, whenever you want it. But in fact the cost is high, and though it may all have been made deliciously effortless, just for you, rest assured that some Amazon delivery dude is peeing in a bottle to make sure you don’t have to wait even five minutes longer for your new blender. Our modern internet is explicitly not a topic to complain about, because you should just relax and keep mashing the Add to Cart button.
Whereas Web3, and crypto, and blockchain, are deeply irritating, unfamiliar, uncomfortable and novel in an unpleasant way. People don’t understand it, and that makes it easy for opponents to lie and misinform, so that you can continue to just relax and keep mashing the button, you deserve it, Order Now!
It’s worth considering what the uncomfortable new thing like crypto can do for you, if anything; even more than that it’s worth considering exactly what each observer is arguing for, or against, and why. Sometimes there is an ideological agenda, sometimes a business one. Sometimes it’s just a visceral need to condescend.
Boom Times is a blog about gambling, luck, money, greed, investing, blockchain technology and cryptocurrency.