In the transition from old-school institutions to the new consortium of tech oligarchies, the latest and shiniest free/open alternatives seem to lie on an ephemeral horizon.
If we can’t quite touch the ephemeral, let’s start with what we can see.
Visuals speak louder than words, and established institutions have long been in the seduction business, reassuring us with respectable-looking interfaces that speak to our needs and desires. These institutions, now at the apex of a long-nurtured crisis of public legitimacy, have taken to rebranding themselves in the flavor of the hour, promoting themselves as “greener”, “friendlier”, and more “inclusive” by the minute.
Web 3.0 may signal a break from the present digital economy, eschewing its propensity for data and resource concentration, and promises a genuine pathway to make alternative economics viable. And while the promise of resistance within this alternative tech paradigm remains to be fulfilled, what we already see is the rapid co-option of these liberatory technologies into speculative market vehicles by a tech-savvy investor class. Where the latter has leveraged the discourse to spin off ever more marketable offerings, many diverse and rich alternative economic models, which could benefit from decentralized tech, have conversely become invisibilized and further obscured.
Unpacking the Comprehension Gap
If powerful actors have ably exploited the messaging and narrative of the alternative digital paradigm to push products and services, it is because the Web 3.0 space continues to be saddled with the same issues that a lot of open source projects have suffered from: the front and back ends are often incomprehensible to the general public. This critical literacy and comprehension gap is visible at several layers.
Web 3.0 may signal a break from the present digital economy, eschewing its propensity for data and resource concentration, and promises a genuine pathway to make alternative economics viable.
Firstly, critical thinking to challenge general assumptions about the secure institutions we’ve historically relied upon, has not always been so palpable. Despite evidence of failure and collapse, their bedrock stability continues to be broadly accepted at face value. For instance, today, workplace standards, salaries, savings, spending, credit, and other financial literacy topics have become online webinar courses targeted at adults. They are often framed in self-help or even spiritual terms. “Heal your relationship with money,” is the message. But programs for healing one’s relationship with capitalist mainstream work/financial practices, or opening the ability to DIY one’s working life outside of the ‘golden ring’ of salaried employment/retirement, or the ‘freedom’ of freelancing (aka precarity, for most), are as rare as they are needed. The message implicit here is that if you’re broke, in debt, and unemployed, the fault is yours alone, there’s no systemic crisis here, move along.
Furthermore, personal financial management that is critically oriented, let alone an understanding of larger economics, is absent in early education efforts. People exit schooling and enter the workforce, modeling their behavior on how their parents/guardians handled work and money in the generations preceding, a pattern that embeds a passive but deep and abiding trust in institutions. This continued currency of public confidence cannot be easily displaced.
Of course, for decades, military-scale budgets have been spent by financial institutions on advertising and branding to assure people that banks, insurance companies, etc., are solid, reliable, and stable. In contrast, it is not easy for low-budget DIY, tech-first projects to achieve legitimacy with anyone outside their tech-literate circles. Any ostensible “cool factor” is easily exploited or co-opted by bigger fish, subsuming their original counter-culture aims and politics.
This is illustrated in the aftermath of the crash of 2008. The subsequent protest movements of 2011 and beyond, highlighted a segment of popular opinion and anger about the untrustworthy nature of the entrenched financial and political systems. This spawned a new wave of projects focused on economic alternatives, albeit with a rather shaky start. For all its obvious flaws, which are evident in hindsight, the ‘sharing economy’ made itself out to be an accessible and well-resourced first step on the way to new economies. But, it was hijacked by the mainstream and jet-started a new era of hyper-capitalism.
Today, a lot of new-economy headline projects — the social/solidarity economy; the commons/p2p; Web 3.0/decentralization — try and appeal to people, who know that the ‘system is broken’ with the promise of ‘alternatives’, that are incomprehensible but somehow promise secret and effortless riches. Nothing exemplifies this trend more than the recent rise and fall of crypto currencies.
The potential for exploiting financial/political illiteracy has only increased in a situation where mainstream institutions are deeply dissatisfactory, but alternatives are bathed in deliberate allure and intrigue, a phenomenon egged on by a similar lack of critical skills development around the messaging in politics and economics, and capacity deficit among institutional educations to keep up with the needs of citizen education.
Blockchain, for instance, was a marque-level economic response challenging the status quo. Some called it a solution in search of a problem, but with Bitcoin, it launched a parallel universe of Big Tech deployment and set off a completely unregulated financial rollercoaster. The general public was not equipped to understand the point of blockchain in the first place, beyond the promise of Bitcoin as a shiny financial “freedom” scheme, let alone the mechanics of its technology. Then came Ethereum and smart contracts, opening the gateway to a ka-ching/coin generation. In all of this, the true political implications of blockchain got side-stepped.
If powerful actors have ably exploited the messaging and narrative of the alternative digital paradigm to push products and services, it is because the Web 3.0 space continues to be saddled with the same issues that a lot of open source projects have suffered from.
While self-enforcing auto-contracts can be instrumentalized to improve accounting in a ‘trustless’ environment, they also bypass difficult conversations about technology and avoid the need to address trust and accountability among humans, especially at a beyond-critical moment of looming planetary reckoning and the urgent need for conversations around the most difficult of issues, e.g., climate justice. In effect, glossy solutions to persistent global problems are promised via these technologies, but without a change to the power structures and logics that lurk beneath.
New Tech Bros, Same as Old Tech Bros?
The “just break things”, DIY approach to creating Web 2.0, exemplified by a particular subset of Gen X technologists in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, only led to the entrenchment of a new power structure. Not only did this movement create the leading companies in market capitalization today, but also led to the ballooning of immense personal wealth, and the rise of a new breed of capitalist hero – the Silicon Valley Mogul. This is now followed by another generation of technologists with a similar profile at the helm of Web 3.0, speaking the language of decentralization. Amidst a dangerous intersectional illiteracy, a wide space for the glamor and feint of new promises and solutions with an appealing, punky, rebellious future-forward vibe has opened up, eager to be exploited.
So, the question remains: is all of Web 3.0 a case of, “meet the new bros, same as the old bros”?
We think not. There is no shortage of alternative tech projects created for, and by people and communities with richly creative, egalitarian, and inclusive aspirations. But in an attention economy that privileges a slick “Insta-ready” curation we’ve all been groomed to perform and accept, these initiatives struggle to be noticed.
This can completely obscure acknowledgment of work being done that, over time, has been steadily made more visible in larger-scale umbrella projects like platform cooperatives (coops), which seek to promote awareness of the advantages of participating in cooperative workplaces mitigated by digital platforms. Platform coop is a rather easily graspable idea, which does what it says on the tin. This is a definite plus when compared to most decentralized autonomous organization-sphere (DAO) initiatives, which are not immediately comprehensible, more so to anyone already hampered by inadequate know-how.
Making informed decisions about DAO may be impossible without investing in a steep learning curve and building resistance to hyped-up financial promises that speak the language of alternatives. But this does not mean that we think that projects centered on DAO principles or Web 3.0 technology are predestined to fail by dint of their inaccessibility, as the space widens into ever-more creative, we dare say deeply artistic, uses and explorations of the potentials. It can be tempting to offer reactionary shut-down responses to some newfangled technological solutions, as if they could only be scams.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) can be the driver towards engagement, but the underlying operating system could be called FOLD, or fear of looking dumb. Questions that should come up right away, such as “what is this?”, “how would I use it?”, and “why would I need it?”, might better be reordered, starting with an exploration of not just personal but also collective needs, and an understanding of the potential knock-on effects of the systemic solutions proposed.
However, a drawback remains that many examples of new digital-based projects are still so recent that they are relatively difficult to speak about with any confidence about their long-term potential, despite the intrepid academics working to implement and legitimize specific projects as proving-ground models for new ways of working, distributing value, and handling decision-making. Time continues to speed up around technology, but back on the ground, projects need time to ripen before any real analyses of long-term potential can mark anchoring way points to navigate by.
How DisCO Furthers the Promise of Web 3.0
We do feel that the Web 3.0 or DAO space holds worth, and we humbly appreciate the deluge of interesting conversations we’ve had in the last several months as we’ve been responding to people writing to learn more about our work, and how to engage with it, or rather, us. Our project, DisCO.coop, promotes a more human-trust-centered way of working. Our goals for the immediate term are to continue to bring care and appropriate scale to the Web 3.0 space (which really means people); to bring lived experience of alternative future possibilities that others can experiment with in safe online spaces; and to show that it’s possible to co-create a solid houseboat in the sea of decentralization.
Many people with a deep commitment to the academic process, as well as artistic exploration, are engaging with us to collaborate on their projects based on DAO or Web 3.0, and we see quite clearly that what they seek is the human element that we highlight in our work, and the sufficiency, specifically in technology, that we espouse. This is a good place for a joke about an old man sitting on his porch, talking with a neighbor. His (landline) phone rings inside his house, and he ignores it. His neighbor, thinking the man may be deaf, gently points out that the phone is still ringing, and the old man waves this away with a statement: “The phone is there for my convenience.” He feels no obligation to engage unless it suits his purposes, and he makes his own choices.
Similarly, DisCO is a support system for people to make their own choices, specifically helping them to create their own cooperatives and groups, combining coop-specific digital tools with methods for creating trust-based relationships, including governance for handling economic activities and decision-making within the group. We’re cultivating a growing community of worker-owned coops, informal associations, non-profits, and tech collectives forging the economies of the future right now, by helping people reinforce humanity at the heart of cooperative workplaces, reexamine the value of all efforts, and rewire economic thought and practice. DisCO is also designed to impart a sense of freedom to experiment and have fun.
There is more emphasis on enhancing the group’s interactions with each other and their chosen work, than on reverence for the tech that supports that work (without diminishing the importance of that same tech). As part of its history of influences, DisCO combines the best of worker-owned coops, the practices of the commons and P2P, the rich field of feminist economics, and without question, also includes cutting-edge federated DLT and Web 3.0 tech.
What makes DisCO stand out and attract a wide group of people is that it offers a critical, feminist alternative to DAOs. We’re in conversation with so many interesting people who want to collaborate and envision brighter, tangible futures that include all that we’re capable of doing together to strengthen our alliances and face our urgent challenges.
As part of its history of influences, DisCO combines the best of worker-owned coops, the practices of the commons and P2P, the rich field of feminist economics, and without question, also includes cutting-edge federated DLT and Web 3.0 tech.
What we, the DisCOnauts, want most of all is to show people that complexity does not have to equal exclusivity, and that human relationships can still be built on trust, even when using technological tools. Reaching out and creating trust among humans may be seen as a brave response to a once-bitten, twice-shy approach after seeing the contemptuous breaches of trust perpetrated by the giants of social media.
We believe and hope that once humans can reorient themselves towards appropriately scaled, trust-centered relationships, we can more swiftly transcend the divide created by our common practice of marginalization and othering, and instead, reach out and find common ground around shared values to commonly address the catastrophes of the Anthropocene, and rebuild our relationships with the more-than-human world in a more informed, participatory way. We want to help people learn, discern, and invest in creating governance for themselves; in through the eyes and out through the hands. If we can be a link in that kind of chain, we’re even willing to be just a little bit shiny.