15 November 2022

But, aren't you folks web2?

It took me several seconds to parse the casual quip “But, aren’t you folks web2?". I probed further and they continued—“Isn’t Zerodha[1] web2? Why don’t you convert it to web3?". For the next few minutes, I struggled to explain how technologies, processes, people, regulations, laws, industry, and the entire legal and societal foundation that underlie an organisation, no matter how imperfect, aren’t “web2”, and that they can’t just be converted to “web3”, whatever that meant. To my question as to why they called a whole bunch of things web2 and why they think it should be converted to web3, they didn’t have an answer. This interaction happened a few months ago with a young developer in their early twenties working for an American web3 startup. Since then, I have had a few more interactions including a few startup pitches, all eerily similar. All young people in their early twenties right out of college working on web3 things, all dismissive of everything non-web3 as web2. This conversation came up again this week in light of the new meltdowns unraveling[2] in the crypto world.

Now, web3 is a broad wildcard term that seems to revolve around a large number of concepts including decentralisation, self-sovereignty, privacy, free speech, censorship, security, BigTech, BigGov, democracy, human rights[3], monetisation, royalties, art, trust, digital rights, ownership, assets, property, proofs, cryptography, wallets … all somehow connected to a blockchain. One would be hard pressed to think of another technology term that refers to so many diverse, deeply interesting concepts. Do techno-optimists truly believe that a specific distributed ledger technology, in one fell swoop, can solve the most fundamental problems that have plagued humanity since its inception? I have left out climate change from the list for obvious reasons.

For the term web3, no two people seem to have the same definition or the same understanding to the point that I am certain I remember someone saying “It is whatever you want it to be”. There is a possibility that some of these experiments may turn out to be meaningful and practical. There is some technology R&D after all. However, so far, the frequent cascade of mega failures, shams, rug pulls, and schemes that have been unfolding, causing massive collateral damage to people, is damning. Of course, one could rightly point out that centralised web2 institutions (yep), despite web2-style laws and regulations (yep), do also collapse and cause massive collateral damage, for example the 2008 financial crisis, but that would be a whataboutist argument. The web3 world is supposed to be immune to the pitfalls of the web2 world. That is its very purported purpose. There is a sense that the non-blockchain world—institutions, governments, technologies, life, universe, and everything—is “web2”.

What is concerning is precisely that, the labeling of everything non-web3, which in itself is a vague term, as web2. Many young people right out of college, who in all likelihood have not experienced the pitfalls of the web2 life, seem to be convinced that it is bad and that it needs to be fixed with web3. The world is a mixed bag of good, bad, evil, and chaos, exactly as it has been since the very beginning, and it will continue to be so far far into the future, irrespective of web2 or web3. Then, what exactly is a freshly graduated developer referring to as web2, hating something that they are unable to even describe? There seem to be massive marketing efforts to sell the idea that web3 is good and web2 is bad to young people without telling them what exactly web2 and web3 are. One just has to trace the flow of the good old non-DeFi web2 venture capital US dollars flowing into the ecosystem to see where this may be originating from. In the web3 crypto world, big venture capital is the biggest champion of decentralisation, self-sovereignty, free speech, and anti-BigTech efforts?

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

There is great irony in the fact that a number of popular figures and organisations advocating most vocally for decentralisation, web3, and their crypto cousins have coincidentally amassed huge centralised fortunes from these schemes in a short span of time. Have we collectively become so blind so as to not see that, or is it the gold rush induced cognitive dissonance?

The term web2 (not Web 2.0) didn’t exist until recently. It is a stylized version of Web 2.0 from the 2000s, which itself was a fad of a term that referred to a hotchpotch of random things—social networks, tags, web apps, XMLHttpRequest[4!], responsive pages … Company names that ended with ly and shiny logos in funky typefaces and copious amounts of reflections and gradients[5] (which I also made in large numbers) were the hallmarks of Web 2.0. What it never referred to, however, were banks or regulations or state institutions or the fickleness of the global economy or all the flaws and evils in societies. It also did not cause massive financial damage to a large number of ordinary people, and it stayed on the internet. I do not remember anyone ever saying that web1 was a societal evil and that it needed to be replaced by web2. It was just a software/internet fad.

But today, it seems that the term web2 is being perpetuated as a strawman to encompass all the follies of human nature and civilisation with some vague underpinning of centralised finance and some blockchain integrations in the fold. A marketing and PR effort to rewrite history and to redefine the internet and the WWW with an arbitrary hard line—before and after blockchain. The implication is that everything in this world, software or otherwise, that isn’t somehow connected to a distributed cryptographic ledger, is web2, and that it is bad.

web3 is a part of a long series of internet buzzwords from the last two decades—Web 2.0, Big data, IoT, IaaS, PaaS, Edge, 5G, Quantum, Serverless, AI/ML[6] … All legitimate but overhyped umbrella terms, but none that are as expansive and overarching as web3. And definitely none that have been so divisive, triggering derisive reactions and visceral hatred, creating huge us vs. them camps. Maybe the web3 crypto stuff just happened to emerge at the cusp of a growing global societal discontentment. Or maybe it is so visceral because the entire thing is based based on coins and monies.

Either way, dismissing all non-blockchain institutions, pretty much everything in the world, as “web2”, is senseless and dangerous. It is equal parts techno-absolutism and techno-solutionism. If technology could solve human follies, with the amount of technology, resources, and wealth that exists out there, the world would be serene with no inequality, war, or environmental destruction. Needless to say, our reality is nowhere close to that. Far more technologies that exploit humans and nature at scale have emerged than the ones that save. One just has to look at the extremely high proportion of scams and shams perpetrated using these new technologies compared to any legitimate usecases, and technologies that were created with the best of intentions which have now been weaponised.

To think that web3 (whatever it really is) or any other technology will fix deep rooted human and societal problems is to delude ourselves and to rob ourselves of valuable energy—like some distributed ledger technologies do—that could be used elsewhere meaningfully. We need to put human-first thinking way way above technology-first thinking lest we develop a dangerous tunnel vision that reduces and abstracts human problems into mere technology features and transactions, reduce humans to mere numbers and hashes stored in databases. This is already happening at a large scale around the globe with states and corporations increasingly deploying bigger and bigger technologies for (on) citizens. We really ought to apply critical thinking and common sense and read a bit of history to truly understand ourselves before we look to distributed ledgers to fix us.

“Any sufficiently marketed technology is insufferable” - Not Arthur. C. Clarke