Remember the metaverse? Not so long ago, it seemed like the future: Meta Mark Zuckerberg smiling on his Meta jet ski, the American Meta flag billowing in the Meta wind behind him. The future is never kind to past versions of the future, even when the past is only about 18 months ago. In the time since Facebook’s rebrand—at the time, it was under pressure for revelations about its use and abuse of user data—the hype has largely abated around the metaverse. “Web3”—an informal but increasingly ubiquitous term used to distinguish an internet defined by augmented and “mixed” reality technologies from “Web 2.0,” distinguished itself through interaction-driven media. This sets it apart from platforms like Google and Facebook, the economic model of which is based on value extraction from data.
As of 2022, less than 15 percent of US internet users were “very excited” about the metaverse, despite Super Bowl ads trying desperately to convince them to be. While the initial hype may have been something of a mirage, Web3 is continuing to be built, with many art world fixtures—not least Sotheby’s auction house— buying space in Web3 territories. If the rosy dreamcasts of 2021 have died down, it may be a result of a growing awareness that, for all the rhetoric of openness and—the key buzzword of Web3 culture—“decentralization,” the possibilities offered by the third wave web are less liberating than they would have us believe.
Casting one’s mind back to the early days of the mass internet, techno-utopian examples abounded. The 1990s saw cypherpunks and digital anarchists projecting a future of infinite possibility as enabled by the connectivity and/or anonymity afforded by the original iteration of the World Wide Web ((R)IP). In contrast, Web 2.0 took the world by surprise, only slowly becoming the creature we now know, feeding on data and attention; indifferent to the sources from which it draws, and the outcomes it produces. In theory, we enter Web3 having learned the lessons of the internet’s previous iterations. Gone are the nasty extractive platform overlords, and the all-encompassing web companies gatekeeping (often gaslighting, and occasionally girl-bossing) our experience.
According to the vision of Web3 optimists, the DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) is the guardian of our digital rights. DAOs are understood to be voluntary groups that rely on participation and consent (or at least consensus) in all decision-making, unlike the meta-star chambers that directed Web 2.0. (Only a justified fear of the grimmest kind of wordplay keeps me from writing, “...but a dark cloud has settled on the DAO’s horizon.”)
Words are chosen carefully among the architects of Web3, not least the Web3 Foundation itself, which states the (conveniently tripartite) principles of Web3 as being: decentralization; control over one’s own data; and the reassuring assertion that “global digital transactions are secure,” which really only draws attention to the fact that this wasn’t a priority before.
As Web3 advances beyond the TED Talk stage, it is worth unpicking the first, and most pervasive, of these priorities. What does it mean to “decentralize” something? It sounds good: no digital panopticon staring into all our lives and monetizing all our data, leaving us none the wiser. But decentralization is not the same as “democratization.” To decentralize is to disperse authority, perhaps, but it is not to overcome authority. As DAOs are not subject to centralized rules, there is nothing to prevent them from creating their own internal hierarchies. The centrality of cryptocurrencies in Web3 provides a useful example to explore the ways in which hierarchies in “decentralized” spaces can be just as oppressive as the ones we already know and hate.
Cryptocurrencies have a bit of a bad name at the moment given their tendency to flame out, incinerating the life savings of those desperate enough to rely on them in the process. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Crypto coins sold themselves as “decentralizing”—there’s that word again—finance (DeFi, as it was known in the circle of believers). Such decentralization didn’t stop the coins from being scams, or from funneling money upward, in a surprisingly centralized direction, to the early adopters. Even now, the rhetoric around “decentralized” DAOs fails to take into account what might be called the “company store” effect.
Fans of labor history—or at least the Merle Travis song “Sixteen Tons”—will be familiar with this term, which dates back to the early days of industrial capture of municipal governance. In those distant times—long before Amazon “fulfillment centers,” for example—huge companies were able to create “company towns,” in which employees lived in communities essentially created by their employer. Services and markets in that territory existed primarily to serve the founding company. In these towns, workers were able to shop at a “company store”—a general store—often on credit, with all the proceeds recuperated by the company that founded the town, paid the employees, and opened the store in the first place. Imagine, if you can, an online decentralized organization in which, to access its services, you must pay with a particular coin. Then imagine that that coin has investors who, of course, don’t control the DAO, but are nevertheless empowered and enriched by it through the magic of its internal, captive market. To increase the profits of your pyramid scheme, geometrically, why not add a (vicious) circular economy to it?
Ultimately, perhaps, the greatest danger in the advance of Web3 lies in its relationship to one of the main drivers of Web 2.0’s worst excesses: enclosure. Web3 space has the distinction of being perhaps the first entirely pre-enclosed space in economic history. Historical enclosure began at the end of the feudal period in Europe with the end of the “open field system” and the English Crown granting landowners the right to enclose territories and extract privatized value from them. This was a brutal process that lasted centuries. Physical enclosure, as violent as it has been, was at least a more honest process than digital or virtual enclosure. During physical enclosure, one felt that their land was being taken; one saw the results of the enclosure and alienation.
As material enclosure has reached its frontier, forms of structural enclosure have evolved. One may think of copyright as the 1.0 version of non-material enclosure. The process reached new levels with Web 2.0’s “platform economy,” which was driven by data enclosure. Web3’s rhetoric about decentralization and the liberation of data sounds like a potential vector of a kind of commoning—turning what was once enclosed into something accessible to all—but, in fact, the blockchain is merely a sophisticated repackaging of enclosure, potentially the most lucrative form ever devised.
When one thinks of the logic of the original enclosure process, one thinks of common land being fenced off and commodified for extraction. The enclosure process of Web3 is inscribed literally within the code and within the blockchain itself. Nothing in Web3 space can exist without beginning as enclosed. One may choose to give something away in Web3 space, or to make a space free to access, but the mere creation of space within Web3 entails its being owned. There is no “commons” in Web3, and transactionality is potentially infinite. This will be good news for those who feel guilty only paying rent to a single landlord.
The upside of this phenomenon of hyper-enclosure, however, is that any democratization of Web3 spaces is, by definition, an exercise in the process of commoning, turning an enclosed space into one that is commonly accessible. Though the spaces and relationships that may be “de-enclosed” digitally are only immediately relevant to those who already engage in them, they offer a blueprint to de-enclosing or commoning offline communities, presenting a rare opportunity for augmented reality to actually augment reality.