But Is There Still Time to Make It More Ethical?

Learning about an ethically conscious Web3 from Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal and Micaela Mantegna

They say history repeats itself, and yet, there’s cause for optimism, that we’ll learn from the mistakes and false promises of Web2. How do we go about that? How do we address the issues that are ingrained in the current infrastructure, that mirror the inequalities, the injustices, and shortcomings of the societies that we live in? What are the policies needed for an ethically conscious, sustainable shift built for inclusion and intersectionality?

Big words, big dreams. To tackle these, Monika Jiang, head of Curation and Community at the House of Beautiful Business spoke with Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal, philosopher, computer scientist, and research associate at the Technical University of Berlin, and Micaela Mantegna, video game lawyer, TED Fellow and affiliate at the Berkman Kline Institute for Internet and Society at Harvard University based in Buenos Aires. Read the transcript of their conversation below.

Monika Jiang:

Hello, my name is Monika, I’m the head of curation and community at the House of Beautiful Business.

Jess and Mica, first of all, thank you for being here and for taking the time to join us! I would love to start with learning a little bit about you. So do you both remember the first interaction that you’ve ever had with the web, the internet? When was that? How was it? How did you feel about it?

Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal:

Yes, sure! I was kind of privileged, because my dad was actually a nerd. So he really wanted to install the internet as soon as it was available. I experienced it as a teenager — I think I was 11 or 12 years old. And it was this time where you had to buy the internet by hours. And the first time I used it, it was to chat with my best friend from school whom I was seeing basically every day, and it was limited to 15 minutes by my parents. I remember that I was really impressed to be able to talk with my friend, but at the same time, I was wondering: what is the purpose of that? Because when you’re 11 years old, you can’t really type fast, so we were taking ages to have a conversation of 15 minutes. I had this weird feeling of being extremely impressed, but at the same time, not being able to figure out the purpose of this new thing.

Monika Jiang:

Love this! What about you, Mica?

Micaela Mantegna:

I was laughing, because when you’re telling this, it’s like you’re giving away your age. I don’t remember the first interaction, but I remember the feeling of not having internet. I was born and raised in Patagonia in Argentina, so my access to knowledge and culture was really limited to the books you had in the library, or the books that you could borrow from a friend. I was 15 years old or so, and I couldn’t order a book online. So for me, this sensation was like the world opening up. And the access to the internet was really slow and not so common. My parents actually sent me to “learn the internet” — as you would send a child to ballet classes, or, I don’t know, other activities; but they sent me “to the internet”. And the best thing about that place is that I had unlimited access to it after the courses, so I could stay the whole afternoon, browsing the web. For me, accessing knowledge — and, as a copyright lawyer, I shouldn’t be saying this — but downloading books was the best thing for me! And that’s why I kind of became an internet activist, because we should defend this access to culture, to knowledge, and open up the worlds of little girls around the world.

Monika Jiang:

I love that! Thank you both for sharing. And I was thinking about that as well, because both of my parents studied computer science, and the internet was very much “a thing,” as were computers! And I remembered entering all of these random chat rooms and thinking: “What is this! I can just talk with people?” It was so much fun, like this Harry Potter themed chat world, and I thought, “Oh, my God, they’re all like me; but who are they?” And then there were definitely some weird moments, when you’d start exchanging photos, and you’d realize: ok, that’s definitely a real person. And you exchange a lot, but you don’t know them…Anyway: odd! We’ll talk about the evolution of that, I guess, which is the metaverse now.

I want to bring us to this moment of Web3, and the conversations around it. You both work in the field of research around tech policy intersecting with larger questions of society and culture. So I’m wondering, in this conversation that we’re witnessing, that you are following and shaping, what are the most significant misconceptions that you are coming across right now?

Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal:

I think the biggest misconception that I see is not even related specifically to Web3, but to what we call “the” internet. It gives the impression that we experience the fundamentals of the internet all in the same way, because, technically, it makes sense to speak about one internet, but then we have very different experiences. Depending where you are in the world, you don’t have the same speed of access, the same reliability, and even the same interface. We have a very different experience of “the” internet. That’s why I think it’s a bit misleading to make it singular.

Micaela Mantegna:

I totally agree with that. Back in the days the internet was like the information highway, the World Wide Web… It hasn’t yet been set what the internet was, or what the internet could do. I think right now some people are overlapping the metaverse with Web3, and thinking about them as the same thing. And that, for me, is a huge misconception. Another one that I particularly fight a lot is the commercial narrative about the metaverse. I come from the internet governance space, and I see the same debate that we’ve already had in those spaces. We are kind of converting to this new space, but at the same time everyone is talking about the metaverse as Meta’s metaverse. We are not talking about open metaverses, about the possibility of public metaverses, or different versions that don’t have to do with scarcity — which, for me, as a Star Trek fan, is core to my ethical beliefs. How can we create a society that is not based on scarcity? If you are in the physical world, everything has a cost to replicate. And that is tied up to supply chains, to how much everything costs. But when you are in the digital space, the cost is really different, because once you produce something, you can replicate to the infinite, and everyone can have a copy of that. So why are we talking about NFTs, and scarcity, and creating artificial means, when we need to shift the paradigm and start thinking about a post-scarcity world? One where, once you produce something, you can replicate it, and a lot of people can have access to that. So for me that’s the biggest kind of misconception: everyone’s talking about the metaverse as Meta, and the commercial metaverse.

Monika Jiang:

Jess, you are a philosopher and a computer scientist, right? Just so explain to us a little bit how these two things go together, and how you bring them together through your work.

Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal:

I used to work as a computer scientist. At this time I was doing very boring things. It was called “big data” by marketing people. We were just crushing a lot of data to optimize the price of plane tickets, which is ethically concerning too, I think. And then I switched to AI. I got very interested in machine learning, and I tried to build my startup twice, and it failed, twice. I learned a lot through that. My biggest learning was that when you are a software engineer, you are a bit naive, because you create digital worlds the way you want it. You have all these big ideas, and you really think that you’re gonna change the world. And then you are confronted with investors who do their job, so they have to make the product profitable. And it’s not always compatible with your big, ethical ideals. So after these two failures, which were mainly related to that to different conception of what the technology should do, I decided to stop that and to, to help technologists to do more ethical work, and also help policymakers regulate these things, and really do the work that I wish would have been done when I was trying to launch my own startups. And so my computer skills helped me to read computer science papers, to understand it. I think it’s very important and sometimes lacking in philosophy. And then, of course, the philosophy allowed me to understand these bigger structures, and to try to think how we can make it more ethical. I also think we focus a bit too much on ethics, but we should actually look at political philosophy. That’s what I’m trying to bring to the topic. Because a lot of these problems are actually political problems, rather than ethical matters.

Monika Jiang:

And Mica, you’re a video game lawyer, amongst other things. What does that mean?

Micaela Mantegna:

I have been doing different work, and I came to this area from different things. People tend to think that being a video game lawyer is something weird, but in fact, it’s a very specific field of law that you need to have a really good grasp of in the video game industry. Let’s be honest, I started because I’m a gamer at heart, I’m a geek, I’m a nerd, and I wanted to kind of transition my profession into that. But what I discovered was a fantastic world. I was super bored, as Jess was saying, with the legal work that I was doing, I felt that it wasn’t meaningful. I’m prone to creativity, and I found this intersection, when you have creative products on the one side and copyright law on the other, which protects and regulates creativity. So that’s when it started to make sense. I started working with beginning developers, helping them understand some of the legal aspects related to intellectual property. In my research, the first approach was related to internet governance. I have a background in understanding checks and balances of internet policy works, something that is unregulated, or semi-regulated around the world.

Talking about freedom of speech, that kind of emotionalisation is not only about the liberal ideologies, but also the gender, because the people that are making Web3 are a particular set of people. And yet again we are replicating the lack of access, the technical barriers that minorities have, to create this world. So we are seeing these crypto spaces dominated by male (a particular subset of male!). Sorry for the digression…

And the other moving piece in my career was my interest in ethics of AI. About seven years ago I received a fellowship in Google, so I started to develop a framework to talk about AI ethics and think about ways artificial intelligence impacts society. And the conversation tends to go to many places very quickly, which is why my framework tries to explain it as a sequence, from how you go from being aware that these systems are in place around you, to how they end up impacting equality, fairness, and inclusion in society. It’s gradient: you go from being aware that these systems are there, which means you cannot opt out of these systems. Being aware of the bias, the lack of transparency, and the particular obfuscation, not only technical, but also legal, because you have intellectual property devices that can obscure how this technology works, and can obscure the access for researchers to know how this technology works. And this is connected with the video game copyright, and from there everything gets converted into the metaverse.

It might sound a bit convoluted, but this is my head 100% of the time. I’m super curious. I’m doing different kinds of research. In my current research, I’m thinking about ways brain computer interfaces are going to be implemented in devices that are going to allow you to access the metaverse, and the future of interfaces, and how it’s going to impact privacy, and, of course, self-determination. So that’s the bigger picture. And the last bit of it is: I have been doing research for the past four years on artificial creativity. And that’s my book on artificial creativity that’s launching next month, hopefully. (Unfortunately, it’s in Spanish.) But it talks about the intersection of computer creativity, copyright, and its future.

Monika Jiang:

Amazing! Wow, I definitely want to also learn more about those interfaces! But first, let’s come to the question and the statement that you just made, Jess, that we talk a little bit too much about ethics and are focused only on that, but that many of the reasons of how the current Internet is being built and how we want to move forward is a question of political aspects and political philosophy. So what does that exactly mean? Can you help unpack that a little bit, specifically for the context of Web3?

Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal:

Yes, that’s a bit what I meant when I was talking about these values of liberalism. I agree with you that it’s this particular demographic, Mica, who are building it and probably ruling it. I think that’s also compatible with these liberal values. When we talk about liberalism, of course there are values, and political theory, and liberalism as a political ideology. But it also has a materiality when it’s entering society, and when we look at the US, which is probably the paradigm example, but in the European countries it’s all the same, the people who are actually benefiting the most from this liberal system are white men with an initial capital above average, etc. And the metaverse looks like it’s produced by this system, because, as we mentioned, there is a problem of freedom of speech, that’s clear. They bring this anonymity as one as the value of Web3, but we don’t necessarily want people to be anonymous and have no censorship, because then the groups who are the most threatened have no protection, and this is what we see on Twitter, for example, with black women being harassed, having to shut down their accounts, not being able to speak in this on the space — these kinds of things are gonna reproduce in the Web3 space even more, if we have this anonymity possibility.

And what about DAOs, decentralized autonomous organizations? I mean, of course, decentralization sounds great: to not have one boss, but then who protects minorities, what happens to the antidiscrimination laws? From what I understood, Web3 wants to replace those who have the decision power with those who have coins, but then what is it? It’s, once again, the people who have more capital. It will not necessarily be economical capital, but like we saw with Bitcoin. Who became rich from Bitcoin? People who were tech savvy, who had some initial investment to do mining. But all the minorities, or people who are not as tech savvy, even if it’s not in terms of financial capital, they will be left behind again. So that’s what that’s what I mean: for me it’s more of a political problem. Ethics, it’s about thinking is a good life. And we have a tendency sometimes to think about technological artifacts as agents. And then it’s true that when you have this conception of an agent, you want the agent to behave morally. And that’s what ethics is about: to find the action that’s good, the action that’s bad. But it’s not really the case with these technologies. They are not acting by themselves. They are made by humans, for humans. It’s a complex web of interconnection. And I think it’s a bit misleading to believe that you can have these universal good ethical values that you can build Web3 with. I think it’s more a question of politics, in the sense that the people should be deciding how this thing will be organized, how DAOs or Web3 should be implemented and function. Because if not, it’s going to be minorities who are going to be the most left out. That’s what I mean when I say that it’s a reproduction of liberalism. But I’m not saying that we should throw liberalism away. I’m just a bit concerned that it seems to be the only ideology reproduced in this digital space. I think we really need the diversity of political ideologies to build this new form of the Web.

Monika Jiang:

Mica, would you maybe like to respond or build on that? What I hear you saying is basically, that the idea of the metaverse as it exists now and as it’s being dominated, and, again, monopolized, in a way, is the first version of replicating all of the patterns and structures that you’ve just listed, Jess?

Micaela Mantegna:

This is fascinating. For me, this is about geopolitical concerns — as in, when you’re thinking about the annexation of Taiwan and local politics. And we’re seeing the rise of different regimes that are based on an extremism of liberal principles: the rise of Trump, the rise of Bolsonaro… And in Argentina we are going to have elections, and one of the candidates is being dismissed, which is concerning for me, because he has a huge vote, and resonates with the kind of person that is building Web3. For me, it’s interesting to see how politics are connected to the issues we are discussing. But at the same time, even though we cannot agree on different moral philosophies about ethics, and can’t create “the correct” course of action, we already have an internet history, and some of the questions that have been posed along that history of the internet are popping up again now, because we haven’t solved them on Web2. So, for example, when we are talking about anonymity, this is a huge debate on Web2. When we are talking about access to Facebook, we are talking about net neutrality, and those who will have the power to give out access to not only internet connection, but also manufactured hardware. How are we going to access the metaverse or Web3? Particularly when we’re talking about the metaverse, if we see the metaverse as a virtual reality (which is another subset of discussion, because people think that could be AR and VR, or they’re seeing it as just VR.)

Imagine you are working for a company that provides you with a headset, but it’s kind of a lower quality. So it gives you headaches, nausea, which women are particularly more prone to. And on the other side of the spectrum, there are people from other parts of the world that have access to the same technology, and can access the same meeting that you’re in with different headsets. They are more comfortable, of better quality. So yet again, all the things lead to replicating inequalities. But there is a common ground we can build upon and it’s human right. We have the human rights framework. There is almost a common set of principles that we need to preserve. If we think about this as something completely new, we’ll risk losing all the things we have learned from the past history of the internet. So if we think of the metaverse and Web3 as something completely new, and we start debating about anonymity with a liberal mindset that encourages going the full route of unregulated freedom of speech, we’ll end up having the same problems, but enhanced. We’ll lose the safeguards that we already built in — and it took a lot of time to build those safeguards for the internet.

And the problem with unregulated internet is, it’s different jurisdictions, nobody has real power. In terms of legal power, the best framework for that was the data protection regulations. If you regulate access to data, you regulate the access to the field of the digital economy. So maybe we cannot regulate the internet, but we can cut access, and that can also create another huge problem of internet governance today, which is fragmentation. Because one thing that I foresee could be risky for Web3 is creating different silos and different kinds of subsets, where, if you want to access this, you need this token or that token. Fragmentation begins. Then there are websites like Reddit or 4chan, with new subsets of people and their own narrative, and algorithms can replicate it, and exacerbate that kind of thought. All in all, you end up going down the rabbit hole quickly. So it’s a really complex problem that we didn’t solve in Web3, and it’s coming back to bite us in Web3.

Monika Jiang:

I want to follow up on the whole commercialization part. This is something that we’ve touched on here and there, since the theme overall is Beautiful Business in Web3. So I’m curious to hear, you know, what that triggers in you, what you’re seeing currently, if people are benefiting off of this new-and-old, or, rather, something-in-between technology, both in positive and negative ways.

Micaela Mantegna:

For me it’s that we can see different business models. I’m super excited to see what DAOs can provide, because for me it could be the evolution of business models towards those based on crowdsourcing, which could be more fair and hold the concentration of power in a central entity. It’s like thinking about small business in Web3. For me DAOs could be like that bridge. The things I hate about the commercialization that we are seeing today are also poisoning the spirit of Web3. It’s like Budweiser entering the space selling NFTs, and people are spending a lot of money…And you have seen what happened with the that was sold for $3 million and now it’s worth $40 million, or something like that. I hate that kind of spirit, that I think is poisoning what people are trying to do. For me the hope relies on DAOs and businesses can interact more closely with their actual audience through those mechanisms.

Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal:

Yeah, I share your enthusiasm about DAOs. Of course, it may look naive — I remember, when Bitcoin arrived, I was really seduced by the idea. I thought, Oh my God, all the big banks are going to collapse. But it didn’t happen and came with a lot of problems — like environmental problems. At the end of the day, I see the people who earned the most from that, apart from some early nerds, were big investors who came just at the right time — and left just at the right time. So this kind of example makes me worried about commercialization. But of course, it’s a bigger problem, not just a digital problem. It’s the way capitalism works nowadays. It’s a very unregulated version of capitalism, with its core principles like tax redistribution, unfortunately, not functioning. And I think because of that, when you look specifically at the digital, it has strong impacts. When you look at the way that we build technology nowadays is very different from what you had in the 80s, or even before in the 50s, 60s. At this time, mainly academics were building technology. The very first steps of AI were an attempt to replicate the human brain, to understand how human intelligence functions. Now we are very far from that. AI decides if humans will get a job or not. We are not at all trying to understand how the brain is working, we are in commercial applications, and we save you the cost of an HR department telling you that the software knows better. And it’s these kinds of things. And with Web3 we risk having the same problem. The products are so complex nowadays… By yourself, even if you are a very gifted developer, you are not going to do much. You need a full team: you need someone to do the interface, the beautiful design, you need someone to take care of your database, you need blockchain engineers, etc. It’s always going to become more costly, more difficult to take part in Web3. And it will be a strong advantage for these tech giants that were supposed to disintegrate. I’m not so convinced about that narrative.

And another consequence of capitalism, in which Web3 is totally embedded, like the world nowadays, is that we don’t have a diversity of actors, and I find that very concerning, as well. Because now academics are totally out of the game, I don’t think that’s a mystery for anyone. If you just follow the academic Twitter, you can see all the academics leaving for all the tech giants, and I totally understand my colleagues, because it’s really tough. And when you see what you have, outside, it’s difficult to remain. So we definitely don’t have academics anymore. And like for small organizations, NGOs, it’s extremely difficult to come to this space, because the costs are enormous. That’s why I think that this commercialization has contaminated the space, just like you said. The space doesn’t have a possibility to open up communities that are a bit more ethically oriented, value oriented. Even these communities are not diverse, because the code is not accessible to most people. So that’s why I think that it’s a larger problem, and this lack of diversity is concerning for the building of Web3.

Monika Jiang:

Let me ask you both a closing question: diversity of actors. Whom do we need to bring into the space more in order to build this in a way that is actually more ethical and sustainable as well? We didn’t even touch on the environmental aspects of all of this, which is also very much conflated with the capitalistic system that we live in, and so forth. Whom do we need to bring to the space to actually create a more beautiful future of the Internet?

Micaela Mantegna:

That’s a tough one! I would say we should have every representation of people. So you can bring your own set of values, you can bring your own cultural context to this, to how these products are designed. But it’s really tough because it’s rooted in inequalities that we see in this world of transition. And we spoke about this the first time we met with the House of Beautiful Business: not everyone is born equal into Web3. It’s not like we are magically doing the transition, and the axis is completely different.

And another thing: I like to talk about this as like capitalism of cognitive surveillance, that is a perfected form of capitalism. And this is something we haven’t touched upon today, but it’s going to mean the end of ownership, even in the case of NFTs, and ways to move content around Web3, and ways intellectual property will work there. Digital products are different from tangible products, so it’s going to create a separate layer of capitalism, when you can control how your consumer is going to use these and how your consumer is going to kind of remix this content. So it’s a really tough conversation. And I strongly agree with what Jess was saying about how it’s always going to lead back to centralization, because these middlemen are already taking positions. I didn’t want to end on a sad note, but this is concerning.

Jess de Jesus de Pinho Pinhal:

Yeah, I totally agree. I think the answer is everyone, obviously. But we come back to the same problem that you were rightly highlighting, Mica: we haven’t solved any of the issues with Web2. And I would go further as to say: we haven’t solved the issue of Web1, and Web0. We are coming back to what we were saying at the beginning: to me, the first layer is this infrastructure problem. We cannot speak about removing inequalities in the web, when you have people who have to get internet through these undersea cables, while you have the US with a fiber optics network that is blocked, that is just reserved for them. This kind of materiality of the Web is already based on very strong inequalities. And then you have the other layer of the big tech giants, and those who control the data etc. And then of course, in Web3 all of that will intensify, but also because the diverse digital divides that we have are just getting wider. We have done nothing to reduce the material digital divide of the infrastructure, but also the digital divide of being tech savvy, of being able to code, of growing technologies, etc. We haven’t solved that at all. I think we are just widening that up, and now we also have the capital, which will heavily contribute to widening these gaps, because it becomes more and more costly. So I really want to say: we need everyone, but I think the reality of Web3 is that we will leave even more people behind, if we don’t do something to bridge this digital device.

Monika Jiang:

Thank you both so much for all of your time, your perspective, all of the really crucial questions that we need to ask ourselves now, and also stick with them, and try to solve them from the back, rather than already being so excited about the future that we become lost in the reason and the purpose of why and how we ended up here. Thank you both. I think there’s a lot of overlap in your work, you’re both embodying the personas and the critical thinking that I would love to see more of. So thank you again! I hope to see you soon.

This is a transcript of a conversation that happened on Discord. You can listen to it .

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Katia Zoritch, writer at the House of Beautiful Business

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