The Internet Has A Problem, NFTs Are Not The Way To Solve It
What if Pink Floyd Re-released "Money" but called it "Crypto"?
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The Sun bursts through the clouds, a heavenly host of angels sings, trumpets blare, harps twang and timpanii bong, all proclaiming in joyful noise the wondrous news; the first Dang Dude, What the Heck of 2022 is here and it’s about NFTs! Lol, JK, I’m sure everyone thought this was finally going to end. Sorry suckers, I’m going to make you read more of whatever the hell this is for another year. At least!
This is going to be about NFTs/cryptocurrency though, so if you can already feel your eyelids drooping and your brain wandering, I promise you I will make this as interesting and engaging as any other thing I write on here. I swear. A note for the nerds out there - while I am very aware that NFT’s are separate and different from cryptocurrency, for the purposes of this article I will treat them largely as interchangeable. Don’t want to get bogged down by inane specifics. This, of course, will make whatever ecurrency pendants out there who happen to read this mad, but I’m fine with that. If you’d like more of an explainer on either of them just Google it. Or DM me about it. The quick rundown is this, both are essentially unregulated forms of internet-based gambling. Crypto is perhaps slightly more accepted than NFTs, but the point is largely moot. You don’t need to know anything else about it.
NFTs, non-fungible tokens, along with cryptocurrency, are the latest internet fad to reach the non-internet obsessed public consciousness. Most likely your grandparents have at least heard one of those two terms at this point. When Matt Damon starts appearing in ads for cryptocurrency betting markets, and Elon Musk makes references to it in the build-up to his Saturday Night Live gig, then you know they’ve spread into the public consciousness. Part of the reason for the seemingly sudden emergence of NFTs/crypto as a known thing is the massive amounts of money that have been gained and lost in various NFT purchases and crypto transactions. Billions of dollars have now been funneled into crypto markets, and the NFT market seems to be growing by leaps and bounds with every passing day. Wherever there’s a lot of money, there is sure to be public interest.
Fortunately for y’all, this newsletter is not about the various ins-and-outs of these highly unregulated markets. If you haven’t made a lot of money in either of these markets, then you are unlikely too now. You’ve missed the boat. Don’t put any money into them that you aren’t willing to lose. What this newsletter is actually about is how an underlying philosophy about the utility of NFTs/crypto is developing, and what it gets wrong.
If you spend any amount of time reading or talking to people who are heavily invested in crypto/NFTs, either monetarily, or emotionally, they will most likely talk to you about the “emancipatory” nature of these things. They might even mention the idea of a Web 3.0 or Web3. “Decentralized” will almost certainly be overused in this conversation. All these terms, and others, make up the interlocking parts of the developing philosophy behind these new technological applications. This philosophy is interesting because it does address a real problem with the current state of the internet, it just goes about it in a completely ridiculous and ultimately harmful manner.
To understand what people are talking about when they mention Web3, we must go back in time a little bit to the halcyon days of the internet. While the early internet was built on the back of government funded research, it was also constructed in many ways by amateur or semi-professional hobbyists. Folks who liked to tinker around on computers in their basements. In fact, critical parts of the internet infrastructure still rely on scripts and random number generators that some guy with a stack of computers in their garage maintains for little to no money. This sense of outlaw, cowboy, rebel, whatever development in a lot of ways pervaded the early internet. Soon, once home PCs were readily available and decent internet speeds at least somewhat affordable, anyone with a little bit of time, and willingness to learn could make and maintain their own online habitat. The internet was barely regulated, Google was just a kernel of what it is today, Facebook wasn’t even an idea, and Netflix was nowhere to be found. The internet in a lot of meaningful ways was democratic if ungainly. Anyone could access it, and for a lot of people interested in working with it, it felt like the beginnings of another industrial revolution.
If you weren’t around or on the internet much in those days, you can get a sense of this spirit from cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer, or Snow Crash where hackers of various stripes use cyberspace to take down giant corporations and governments, the Bloom County comic strips starring Oliver Wendell Holmes, or hacker movies where some punk kids beat the bad guys at their own game.
That is simplifying the story in a lot of ways of course. The internet was never truly democratic. Many people did not have the time or resources to get involved in those early days of the net. It was largely, though not always, white guys with free time and expendable cash who made up a decent portion of the early web. Government and corporate money was involved from the beginning, placing certain limits on what the internet could and would look like. It was only with time however that it became clear how narrow those limits were.
The internet today looks almost nothing like the internet of even just 15 years ago. In modern parlance we are currently in Web 2.0. This can mean a number of things to a number of people, but mostly what it describes is an internet that is run by basically six companies, and is barely democratic at all. Essentially all American internet traffic runs through Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon. You most likely have a computer that runs on iOs or Microsoft. Any website that isn’t run by one of those companies probably uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) as its host. Anywhere you go on the internet either has a paywall, shows you ads every three seconds, or silently collects data about you and sells it. News sources often find that their most read articles are the ones that go viral on social media. While billions more people use the internet today than they did in the 90s, it is a very different internet, an internet that is almost wholly controlled by corporate interests.
The Web3 proselytizers point to NFTs/crypto as a way of breaking that corporate stranglehold. Cryptocurrency since its early years has been sold as a path to libertarian freedom. The argument goes that if a digital currency that cannot be taxed by governments becomes the sole medium of transaction, than governments, not being able to make money, will fall and a sort of libertarian Eden will come about in their stead. This isn’t a new idea, Neal Stephenson developed a similar idea in his novel Cryptonomicon, but only recently has it taken off. NFTs, and the blockchain technology behind them, promise similar things, along similar lines, namely, the unfettered buying and selling of digital-only assets, and decentralized group decision making.
The idea that the current internet needs to change is very much worth pursuing. A corporate controlled internet is good for no one. We’ve already seen the echo chambers that platforms like Facebook can create, and the havoc they can wreak on elections, and the ability of this specific form of the internet to radicalize people to horrible ends. However, the solution is not to get rid of the internet, nor is the solution to invest in get-rich-quick NFT scams. The destruction of world governments through weird monetary schemes is not an admirable or feasible goal.
There is no need to reach for new technological solutions to the problem. The real answer requires a de-financialization of the internet. Uncoupling the internet from the profit motive. Placing the infrastructure of the internet not in the hands of a company like Amazon, which seeks to exploit its workers, and spend as little money as possible on maintaining its services, while reaping in massive amounts of profit, but in the hands of the people. This of course will be a long and arduous journey and will not happen overnight nor without changes in a hundred other non-online spaces. There is a very reasonable first step - public control of the physical aspects of the internet. That is, the internet should become a publicly owned utility. This includes both providing the internet access as a free service to everyone living in the United States, but also the maintenance and building of new internet infrastructure on a national level and the outright takeover of private services like AWS, and other huge pieces of internet infrastructure. This, not the selling of poorly-drawn pictures of monkeys, is the way bring about a Web3.
In short, NFTs are bullshit baby. Happy New Year!
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