View from Washington: Web3 – where social engineering meets digital engineering

Amid all the hype around the blockchain-led revisioning of the internet, wider ethical and cultural implications are being overlooked.

Web3. How do we see it in engineering? Much of the community around it leans towards libertarian ideals. For them, the promise of a ‘decentralised’ internet that wrests control from ‘Big Tech’ has an obvious appeal. But it is hard to get beyond the ideas that many in the business see it as the next big chance to make a pile of money (both crypto and real), and that there is a great deal of FOMO – ‘fear of missing out’.

Some big investors are on board, including Andreessen Horowitz, the VC fund part-founded by browser pioneer Marc Andreessen. The crypto sector is the most active, attracting an estimated $30bn from various sources last year. There remains fast-growing traffic in non-fungible tokens (NFTs), primarily used to buy all or part of a digital asset like art. Early-stage Web3 businesses across these and other areas are thought to have raised more than $1bn more this month alone.

The core idea behind Web3 sounds attractive on the surface. Typically, by using blockchain-based distributed ledger technology, proponents say it would pass ownership and control of the internet back to individuals and groups with shared democratic authority. So, say you are sitting there fuming over Facebook’s, Google’s, or Twitter’s continued failure to control what appears on their platforms, what if you could move to an alternative where you yourself could be an active participant in content moderation. Rather than waiting for them to correct their failings or respond to a ‘report’, you could do-it-yourself.

That example, however, illustrates the big problem with Web3 and, as with so much else we see as being wrong about today’s Web 2.0, the issues are as much participatory as technical. Social engineering alongside digital engineering.

Consider an old but still relevant example. In 1970, some of the UK’s leading satirists – among them, Peter Cook, and 'Python''s John Cleese and Graham Chapman – collaborated on a notorious but prescient box office flop, 'The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer'. It charted the progress of its eponymous anti-hero from spin doctor to authoritarian Prime Minister.

The trick Rimmer uses to complete his ascension does not involve force. Instead, his government offers true headcount democracy and installs an alarm on top of every TV. When its siren goes off, the public must vote on a ‘critical’ issue that would normally have been dealt with by a Parliamentary vote. What happens? People get tired of participation, of the direct influence being offered, and cede decision-making. “President Rimmer – 82 per cent say Yes,” declares a newspaper hoarding as the man himself is last seen processing through London in a regal motorcade.

The film does not land all its jokes, but its points about apathy and just how engaged people are prepared to be are worth noting. While the Brexit vote achieved 72 per cent turnout and the 2019 General Election reached 67 per cent, local elections usually struggle to get past 35 per cent. Engagement and the perception of importance are relative.

But let’s look beyond politics. Artificial intelligence is often said to be one of three big ‘digital’ waves set to reshape our world alongside Web3/blockchain and quantum computing. After a series of controversies around bias but also poor early implementations, there is a growing feeling that civil society is only just starting to grapple with AI’s ethical and social implications – and a fear that the technology may already be so advanced that society may never catch up.

That hopefully overstates the case. Within technology itself, efforts to bind ethics and performance standards into AI are under way. Companies like, for example, Rolls-Royce deserve credit for having open-sourced an ethical template, The Aletheia Framework, to help secure trust from its customers and society at large, and to help others do the same. Formal AI regulation is also advancing in the UK, US and EU. But this is itself relevant.

AI primarily seeks to exist within a traditional context where commercial and governmental players take on much of the responsibility for ensuring that it is deployed in an acceptable way. That acknowledges social responsibility and that it cannot be devolved to an individual level, not solely because of engagement but also complexity. Web3’s ideals appear to stand in direct opposition.

Crypto directly challenges the control of governments over money. The wider philosophy would seek to effectively swerve around technology’s biggest players. But what could we get in return? Groups within social media have already highlighted the risks in self-forming communities which can become echo chambers that promote misinformation and even violent direct action. Even on more broadly based platforms, organised troll farms can swamp what is meant to be open debate by, in the words of the infamous political activist Steve Bannon, “flooding the zone with s**t”.

Web3 promises decentralisation but within its philosophy one can see the potential for the opposite. It could itself concentrate power and influence within cores made up of those who are prepared – or more to the point capable – to capture them. Remember Michael Rimmer: it shows the public not ignoring headcount democracy but becoming gradually fatigued by it.

Hopefully, that does not need to be the case. But right now, all the action is around enablement (e.g., make cryptomining less power hungry) and potential applications beyond digital money and gurning apes (e.g., portable verifiable CVs based on what you have done rather than what you claim to have done). There are some clever ideas knocking about. And technology can deliver them. But how many can or should society absorb?

Unlike the social debate around AI, that around Web3’s potential impact is overwhelmingly within the largely-libertarian community behind crypto. And it is about reshaping how we live. Contrary views are heard on the fringes, or within governments concerned about the challenge to their currencies and the subterranean activities of criminals. The unavoidable truth is that civil society needs to engage at a high level at least – and soon, because cash is flowing freely and innovation is advancing rapidly.

Ultimately, you do wonder what the makers of a 2014 documentary extolling the virtues of crypto had in mind when they chose a title. They went with 'The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin'.

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