Robin Sloan
The Media Lab
November 2021

Notes on Web3

Kvindedansen i Megara, 1888-1889, Niels Skovgaard
Kvindedansen i Megara, 1888-1889, Niels Skovgaard

It’s pos­si­ble you have, in recent months, seen peo­ple writ­ing with excite­ment (or curiosity, or consternation) about “Web3”. The term imag­ines the tran­si­tion of many inter­net services to a model built around cryp­to­graphic tokens, such that own­er­ship and/or con­trol of those ser­vices might be divided between their token-holders, a group that might include their users. The tokens would also have exchange value, so, as a user, you could always: cash out 🤑

Ethereum is the locus of most of this work — hey, who named that client library web3.js, anyway?—so it’s not unrea­son­able to read “Web3” as “Ethereum-powered inter­net”.

This message was emailed to the Media Lab committee. The assumed audience is subscribers who know roughly what Web3 is supposed to be, but aren’t sure what to think about it. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)

If you are already con­vinced that Web3 is the appro­pri­ate next step for the world’s inter­net­worked com­puter systems: this post is not for you. Go forth!

Instead, this is for peo­ple still sort of … cautiously curi­ous?

Cards on the table: I am not merely a skeptic, but a full-fledged enemy of Web3. I hope my ani­mos­ity can’t be instantly dismissed: “He’s a hater; he’s old; he doesn’t under­stand the technology.” I am, in fact, old — 41!—but, as mit­i­gat­ing evidence: I write sci­ence fiction; am deeply curi­ous about the future(s) of the inter­net; and even pro­duced a well-received NFT project.

I don’t intend any great rhetor­i­cal effect with the notes below; I just want to offer them as mea­ger coun­ter­weight to the grow­ing hype. I think Web3 speaks strongly to peo­ple whose thoughts bend often toward those inter­net futures … so, in a sense, I’m post­ing this for other ver­sions of myself. Hello!

Here are my notes on Web3:

I’ll close with credit where due: Ethereum should inspire any­one inter­ested in the future(s) of the inter­net, because it demonstrates, pow­er­fully, that new pro­to­cols are still pos­si­ble. I do not think Web3 is a desir­able or even tol­er­a­ble path for­ward for this web right here, but I take its les­son well. “Code wins arguments”, and so do clubs, and cults; time remains to build all three.

Sent to the Media Lab committee in November 2021