Will Anything Change With Web 3.0?
If 2021 was the year of NFTs, 2022 could be the year of Web 3.0. If that’s true, what might it mean in terms of innovation and social progress, both in the metaverse and our physical world, or soon, an augmented version of both? And how do we not wind up with just the same-old, flawed internet, just with a shiny new label?
We asked Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal, who spoke at Concrete Love, this year’s four-day gathering in Lisbon and online (where, by the way, we minted our own NFT, with the help of artist Jonathan Rosen and his “Dream Machines”).
Jess de Jesus De Pinho Pinhal is a research associate and PhD candidate at Technische Universität Berlin (Berlin Institute of Technology). They have worked as an engineer at Amadeus, as a consultant for Hannover Re, and at early-stage startups. Their research focuses on ethical behavior in machines and humans, and algorithmic fairness, critiquing the discipline from a social justice perspective in particular.
Monika Jiang: What’s your gut reaction to hearing “Web 3.0” and “The Metaverse”?
Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal: Adapt or die! I insist on “adapt,” not “adopt.” But the question is not if or when anymore: both are already reality today. Perhaps the most important thing is understanding that we are not talking merely about new technologies, but rather about new socio-technical paradigms. I say paradigms because the era of systems is over. We sometimes speak of “open systems,” but it goes further. With Web 3.0 and the metaverse, we are no longer confined to browsers, whether on a computer or a mobile. It is not about a handful of web applications or social networks, but a plethora of ecosystems where user-generated content enables new social cooperations along with new economic models.
Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with developments in the physical world: a new infrastructure enabled by blockchain technologies, sensors, the Internet of Things, and always improving computer performance. But the key factors are human ones. The adoption of these new paradigms will change our societies reciprocally. We can expect effects on human psychology, cognitive abilities, moral norms, beliefs, politics, economies, social behaviors…and many other areas. Some of these changes will be positive, some negative. It remains to be seen whether the positive ones will outweigh the negative ones.
What’s the best-case scenario you can imagine?
The best-case scenario would be that we manage to avoid the mistakes made with the advent of Web 2.0. Of course Web 2.0 has had positive effects. Users became more active, able to interact with one another, publish and share their own-created media, and got new services and experiences. But these interactions have been enabled by higher centralization of the data, which consequently led to economic monopolies from companies whose size is historically unprecedented.
My point is not to say that private actors do not have their place in Web 3.0 and the metaverse. On the contrary, as much as I am a longtime supporter of open-source technologies, I am realistic about the fact that capitalism remains the main economic model, and there is no reason to believe the virtual world will diverge from this by itself. Indeed, the people and organizations populating these digital realms are the same people populating the physical world. Developing new technologies requires high resources in time and money, and non-private actors are generally more limited than their private counterparts.
But we should not end up with only the latter shaping these new virtual spaces. So-called “Big Tech” has become too powerful, with some of these companies representing real socio-political threats, such as Facebook, which admitted its responsibility in inciting the violence that caused many people’s deaths in Myanmar, among other atrocities. Web 3.0 and the metaverse should remain decentralized, and allow smaller private actors but also new forms of cooperative communities to take part. This is essential not only for a better distribution of power, but also to ensure a global design and overview of these socio-technical paradigms.
Users are moving away from these centralized and exploitative data-extracting services towards more privacy-sensitive ones, as we saw with the adoption of messaging applications such as Signal or Telegram, or search engines like DuckDuckGo or Qwant. This is even more true with new generations. If all this is done right, we could seriously augment humanity’s capacities. More people could research, create, play, or even simply “be” together, with “being” and all these verbs getting other meanings, as cognitive or physical barriers get removed. If human collaboration scales worldwide, surely, our creativity would be enhanced. But this comes at the condition that we successfully avoid the missteps made with previous technological innovations (Web 2.0 but also older examples such as cars, the nuclear bomb, or industrial agriculture). In the end, we should avoid making the same mistakes we made and continue making in the physical world!
The worst-case scenario?
Perhaps the highest risk is the environmental one. We build new profitable technologies much faster than we enact laws to regulate them or imagine ways to limit their negative impact on nature and, in turn, us. Pushed by the market economy and almost religious faith in innovation, we scale up digital applications, connect ever more devices with an always shorter lifespan, and constantly flow the information stream in a multi-directional fashion. However, in order to do this, we scale down natural resources, privacy and other ethical values, and at a much higher rate. The problem is that the digital appears immaterial to us. This is deeply rooted in the supposed dichotomy we perceive between the mind, the consciousness, the spirit, or whatever you wish to name it, and the body, the material and physical world. We can trace this back to Descartes, but we also easily see how our intuition forged this belief in us. But this dichotomy is an illusion, there is no mind without a body, and no digital world without a physical one. In the case of the digital realm, the physical counterpart is extremely costly and is not biodegradable.
Another underestimated risk lies in the appellation “Web 3.0” itself. It gives a false impression that the web evolves linearly, following an upward curve towards the vague notion of “progress.” The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital forms of social cooperation in many parts of the world. A plethora of technical tools to think, work, and produce together has emerged, and we have witnessed the surge of cryptocurrencies and decentralized finance. But we should not forget that this is not the case everywhere. We should pay attention and take care not to increase the already too large digital divide between Global North and Global South. We don’t want to increase the already dangerously large inequalities which exist in the “real world,” so to speak.
And even among the privileged parts of the global population who can access these new resources, people do not necessarily perceive these changes as positive. Misinformation about the virus and the vaccines has spread. Privacy rights are endangered at the workplace, at school, in the public sphere, because of hackers, but also because of the institutions themselves, as they were not ready to go fully digital in most cases. Both increasing technological surveillance and cyber attacks, happening in both totalitarian but also democratic countries, are serious threats to the development of Web 3.0 and the metaverse. And again, the digital divide increases, even within rich countries. The COVID-19 crisis turned this divide into a tangible reality. Small businesses closed while Big Tech companies experienced an indecent increase in value at the exact same time. Executives and middle managers enjoy the possibility of working from home thanks to digital technologies, while others had to ride their bikes to deliver them meals because of the same technologies.
These technologies can enable us to connect at a level never experienced before, and remove physical limitations of the real world, however not at the expense of widening existing social gaps.
How can we proactively build for inclusivity and intersectionality in order not to standardize Web 3.0 with similarly binary norms?
The reciprocal influence between society and technology needs to be taken more seriously. As I was explaining in my previous answer, there is no “one human” in this story, but multiple ones with very different experiences. Contrary to what we sometimes hear, namely that those virtual worlds are a place where everyone could be free of real-world injustices, the most likely outcome is that people who are oppressed in the real world will experience the same in the digital one, if they can even access it.
We do not build these new spaces from scratch, but embed our cultures and values in them. On the one hand, political institutions need to meet these challenges. Their investment in research about the ethical and societal consequences of these new technologies must increase a lot. This kind of research enables the drafting of laws which will protect the citizen-users. Of course, Big Tech should pay taxes allowing for this kind of investment.
Education should also be adapted. We must teach computer science differently, and integrate it with courses about tech ethics, user-centric design or STS, from primary school onward. We must provide adults from historically oppressed groups — women, people of color, with “disabilities” or queer, with professional training to allow those interested to work in the flourishing tech sector. New institutions must be created to manage the political, legal, economic but also environmental consequences of new technologies. These national institutions must work together globally as the technologies are operating at a global scale.
On the other hand, the private sector also has a responsibility towards citizen-consumers. The design, implementation, and monitoring of products and services needs to be informed by critical studies scholarship and oppressed populations experiences. To do so, companies must have software engineers who are sensitive about these issues. Recruitment and especially management must become more diverse. Moreover, virtual spaces must be safe spaces. This goes beyond Terms and Conditions and content moderation. People who are oppressed in the physical world are the same who are oppressed in the virtual ones. To address these issues, companies must take active measures to protect and defend these users at risk. How? Intersectionality teaches us that the experiences of people at the intersection of more than one factor of discrimination may strongly differ. In an always more connected and more complex world, chances that every single situation could be anticipated will always decrease.
For these reasons, users must be enabled to shape their own virtual experiences, rules, and moderation, and to interact only with whom and what they want. Consent is key. They should always remain the sole owners of their data, content, and digital traces. The use of those should always be asked for with a clear statement of the intention behind this use, with a permanent option of withdrawal. Users should be enabled to get a fair economic share of their contributions when they take part in any sort of tech-driven value creation. In other words, we need to make sure that responsibility and accountability are also present in the digital world, as well as the values of inclusivity and solidarity.
To quote from your talk at Concrete Love: “Can we afford it”?
We could if we would invest over longer periods! The real issue is the speed at which we develop technologies. Everyone rushes to become the first mover. It makes sense, as in many configurations web applications benefit from entering the market first. These applications need to reach a certain critical mass of users to profit from network effects.
But we should not continue to let first movers—whether a monopoly already or becoming one—launch their products and let the one who best circumvents laws or ethical norms to win the biggest share! Facebook won because we had neither awareness nor laws about personal digital data, privacy, and profiling. Google won for similar reasons. Uber, Lyft, and food delivery apps because they got around labor codes, and the list goes on.
I believe we need to invest in a new institutional apparatus dedicated to tech, that is more reactive, and operates at the international level. We should stop seeing regulation as the opposite of innovation. It is the contrary. We must forbid unethical practices and force companies to finance the real cost they inflict on society. And I’m talking about all the costs—the healthcare and the retirement money that workers of the gig economy do not get at the moment (and that we, as a society, will have to pay ultimately) as well as the environmental damage generated by all this server activity, among many others. This way we will foster real innovation — new products and services, which will benefit all of us in the long run. But this kind of mindset requires a shift at all levels. Nevertheless, we surely cannot afford to not address these structural issues either!