(First published via Mirror.xyz)
What follows in an excerpt from a forthcoming special collection initiative called “Defining Web3: An Off-Chain Collective Research Project”. Thank you to the editors for the invitation. I had such a ball writing this piece (and a good few years researching it).
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new. — Dan Millman in “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” (1984).
This piece offers an introductory playbook to researchers looking to enter the field of ‘Web3.0’. Web3.0 is a practice in participatory infrastructures of co-creation, through the ability to read, write, and own digital assets. First, I describe the field itself, where it is, and how to access. I explore Web3.0 origins, the serious and playful cultural aesthetics and hacker ethics of Web3.0, and outline some fundamental analytical lenses to aid researchers in identifying some of its core themes and unique features. Drawing on qualitative examples from my own research as an ethnographer in the field, I argue that the play, politics, and prefiguration that undergirds Web3.0 is one of “exiting” existing institutional structures. In light of this, I emphasize that one of the underlying challenges to Web3.0 is learning “how to infrastructure?”.
Introduction: Gaining Access
It was worth leaving the house for the local “WEB3 HACK” meetup that Thursday evening, despite my post-COVID social anxiety about being in crowds and having to make small talk. In reward for our interest and attention, each attendee got “airdropped” Zcash privacy coin to our digital wallet address. I chose the mobile wallet brand called “Nighthawk” to receive the equivalent of 18 cents in privacy coin. The transaction included a secret memo containing a “shielded love note”, that was cryptographically hidden from external surveillance or snooping.
I was late to register for the airdrop by providing my wallet address, somewhat desperately “DMing” (direct messaging) the well-known founder on Twitter in the middle of their talk to include me in their software script” that would drop to all the addresses at once.
“Hi! wave emoji. Please add me to your bash script. Wallet address: zs1tegqkd6ll92ktc2gxr874ljy7qjau5aa7pspp6rrktnaeyl82fgrdh6zxlr5pjznsdgpjmyqaef.
Ty! thank you hands emoji.
Also, I would love to interview you for a research article on the cypherpunks and origins of decentralised technologies to test some assumptions.”
To my surprise, they responded.
Check your Shielded Love Notes!”
Opening up my NightHawk wallet, the transaction memo read:
“Hi, Kelsie, nice to meet you! How did you think the meetup went yesterday? What assumption are you trying to test?”.
With the tiny amount of coin I had received, I could still afford to send micro transactions of cryptocurrency with a memo attached each time. The messages exchanged were shielded by “zero knowledge” cryptography on the Zcash privacy coin blockchain.
“I’m interviewing a well-known cryptographer and privacy coin founder, mediated by cryptographically shielded love note transactions on the blockchain they invented!” I thought to myself, writing:
“There are not enough characters in the memo or Zcash in my wallet…Also, I need your approval to interview”, referring to the ethics form I needed them to sign to consent to an interview to comply with University processes.
The decentralized, digital technologies that comprise “Web3.0” are born out of the idea that access to encryption technology is a right, and an essential one in the information age of computers. Sliding into the DM’s of Web3 personalities, pseudonyms, and managing numerous coins, wallets, and “seed phrase” passwords all part of navigating the boundaries of deep community participation between the online and offline domains in accessing and entering Web3.0.
This piece aims to demystify Web3.0 for researchers, by providing a working definition, outlining its origins, identifying a number of key themes and analytical lenses, and cutting to the crux of its political purposes and underlying challenges. I depict one lens of what Web3.0 is as “infrastructure”, where it occurs, and how to enter it.
I present Web3.0 as composed of the following attributes of:
(1) Permissionless (to access)
(2) Pervasive (participatory infrastructures and personal entanglement)
(3) Prickly (characters)
(4) Playful (aesthetics, such as memes)
(5) Political (origins and ambitions)
(6) Prefigurative (A bias towards action or “BUIDL”ing, a new world from within)
These themes of ‘permissionless’, ‘pervasive’, ‘prickly’, ‘playful’, ‘political’, and ‘prefigurative’ are subtly and deliberately threaded throughout this piece as “easter eggs” in theoretical explorations and qualitative examples for the reader to uncover, apply, and make meaning of. By analysing some of Web3.0’s key themes and politics, I argue that Web3.0 is about “exiting” existing institutions to build its own structures of self-governance from within the prevailing societal hierarchies and power structures. In conceptualising Web3.0 as infrastructure, it becomes clear that the fundamental contradiction of Web3.0’s ambition to build and create is figuring out what to build, or “how to infrastructure”.
What is Web3.0? A Brief Background
“Web 3.0” has been described as the next generation of the internet that will shift power away from corporates to individuals (Stevens, 2022). If Web2.0 gave people the ability to read, as well as “write”, digital media on the World Wide Web (for example, blogs), then Web3.0 is a platform infrastructure to “read, write, and own”. For ownership, the cryptographic properties of private key management in cryptocurrency, combined with the shared, distributed consensus of blockchain-based ledgers (basically, databases) provide the foundations for cryptocurrency tokens to represent property rights and ownership of decentralized digital assets and networks. As such, this piece largely focuses on blockchain as a foundational, enabling infrastructure for Web3.0, and blockchain communities as a field site.
The promise of Web3.0 is a decentralized infrastructural base, that anyone can build on, and everyone can own. Web3.0 provides a next generational, peer-to-peer network for participatory self-organizing, and a new infrastructural “archetype” (Stefik, 1996). The unique components of public blockchains are the combination of distributed computing, cryptography, and self-provisioning public infrastructure (such as money) to coordinate without central intermediaries. This has given rise to what has been labelled as a new field of “cryptoeconomics” (the application of cryptography and economics for new forms of institutional infrastructure) (Berg, et. al., 2019). Grounded in the purity and infallibility of mathematics, cryptoeconomic systems combine cryptography and economics to “produce new methods of communication, cooperation, and organization” (Cowen & Tabarrok, 2022). Blockchains are a technical expression of the politics of “exit, choice, and loyalty” (Hirschman, 1972). They provide an alternative, free market response to the decline in organizations and nation-states. Adoption of this philosophy in the space has perpetuated the idea that blockchains enable freedom, through choice.
In response to these features, public blockchains have been described as creating “new institutional possibilities” and providing a “blueprint for a new economy” (Swan, 2015; Berg, et. al., 2019). In blockchain systems, the rules of collective governance are designed and encoded for software to enact these rules through ordered, distributed consensus. When applied to governance procedures, this purportedly offers institutional infrastructure that minimizes trust in existing institutions through computational processes, including transparent and verifiable software code and cryptography (Szabo, 2017). In theory, code reduces the need for third party regulators, as the system can regulate itself (Wright & De Filippi, 2015). This “input-processing-output” perspective on the world has been described as “blockchain thinking” (Swan, 2017). Manifestations of these decentralised systems include “Decentralized Autonomous Organizations” (DAOs), Decentralized Finance (DeFi), Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), “open” Metaverses and more (Nabben, 2021).
Where did Web3.0 come from?
Decentralised technologies offer an information infrastructure with unique attributes, in that it is participatory, open-source, and encrypted, suggesting the possibility of social coordination that is free from unwanted third-party interference. The combination of distributed computing, cryptography, and the idea of self-provisioned digital monies led to the invention of Bitcoin, the first functioning, “peer-to-peer digital cash” (Nakamoto, 2008). The concoction of this invention is largely credited to the “cypherpunks”, a 1990s sub-cultural group of cryptographers, computer engineers, and philosophers (Swartz, 2018; Maurer, et. al., 2013; Brunton, 2019). The cypherpunks have been described as key political protagonists in the engineering of Web3.0 political economies (Brekke, 2020).
Cryptocurrencies and Web3.0 emerge as an early but accurate reaction to the potential of computing to greatly enhance the surveillance state and surveillance capitalism (Nabben, 2021). The advent of public key cryptography enabled access to the ability for identities to communicate securely over insecure networks (Diffie & Hellman, 1976). The cypherpunks converged over the shared belief that public key cryptography was a powerful tool in re-structuring society. According to Timothy C. May, author of the Crypto-anarchist Manifesto and co-founder of the Cyphepunks Mailing List, cryptography has the ability to “fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions”, (although we know that public blockchains, as an instantiation of this vision, are indeed very traceable, with professionalised organisations offering this service) (May, 1992).
Web3.0 perpetuates computer subcultures of old by embracing the hacker ethic of participatory organizing. Hacking is about political re-ordering (Coleman, 2011). The cultural politics of Web3.0 are in many ways a continuation of hacker traditions, embracing political ambition through ‘playful tinkering’. Although serious in its underlying ambition, development is conducted playfully and for the “lulz” (laughs) (Coleman, 2014), as both a challenge and a game. Yet, in Web3.0, hackers are not breaking, but “BUIDLing”.
Web3.0 is evolving from holding its ground, to taking new ground. Web3.0 has emerged from encryption and anarchy, not for tearing down but for creating value networks that re-structure society in ways where people have more control. For hackers, “code is speech”, meaning a sphere for free speech and protest (Coleman, 2009). In Bitcoin, “code is law”, referring to the immutable, software code that acts as legal enforcement of the rules of the system (Lessig, 2000). In Web3.0, code is creation. Its playful origins that were once surmised in the meme phrase “HODL” (meaning, hold your tokens despite market bear and bull runs), are now described as large-scale infrastructure engineering projects, encapsulated in the surprisingly popular meme “BUIDL” (meaning, build). Creation speaks of ‘experiments’ in new institutional infrastructures and societal possibilities for self-organization.
In the study of infrastructures, one way to identify emerging ecosystems is by their master narratives (Star & Ruhleder, 1996). Blockchain, and by extension Web3.0, can be known by its political imaginaries and expressions (Husain, et. al., 2020). Blockchains configure our social reality by configuring social relations and constituting new social realities (Reijers & Coeckelbergh, 2016). The subliminal question behind Web3.0 is, what is being built, or ‘how to infrastructure?’.
To be continued in “Defining Web3: An Off-Chain Collective Research Project”…