Inevitability, or Lack Thereof
Is the emergence, and direction of web3 determined?
I used to believe in something called technical determinism, a simple hypothesis: any technology that provides sufficient value to humans is inevitable. It wouldn’t matter if Steve Jobs never entered this world, if Apple had never been incorporated, or if Jonny Ive had never picked up a sketchbook. Technological determinism states that the iPhone, in some form, would have been born.
It would have been born because there was such a demand for an intuitive mobile device that leveraged the internet to connect us with friends, thoughts and services across the world. The market decides what technologies are adopted, innovators simply serve them up.
It’s a clean hypothesis—and when pondered on from the armchair level, seems common sense. Of course, the iPhone was inevitable, just look at the perfect storm of mega trends — mobile phones, the internet, microprocessors, and globalisation that harmonically brought it all together. These macro factors could only lead to one conclusion.
The reality is not so simple. In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow convincingly argue that looking back at history, connecting the dots, and concluding that any happening is inevitable is, at best a logical fallacy. Here’s why: first, the dots are connected retrospectively, and second, narratives are used to explain why a → b and b → c. But these narratives are just that, narratives. There is nothing deterministic about them, things just happened to be how they did—and humans afterwards try to assign explanations.
Throughout the 500+ pages of Dawn of Everything Graeber and Wengrow disprove one of the fundamental hypotheses currently in vogue with the anthropology crowd, a hypothesis popularised by Noah Harari in Sapiens.
The Deterministic Argument of Human Development
The argument goes something like this: The first iteration of our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Life was pretty good. Resources (for the most part) were fairly abundant. Sure we didn’t live as long as today, but things were simple. We spent most of our time lounging around and for about three hours a day we ‘worked’. Work was limited to satisfying base needs — time was spent in flow states foraging for food or hunting prey. Societies at this stage were, for the most part, egalitarian.
Then farming came along, and, for a period of time, was one of the most regressive technologies for life satisfaction. We had access to more calories than we required, which led to more children, supported on these excess calories. People were probably quite miserable. Farms had to be toiled for ten hours a day. Nutrition, although calorically dense, was of poor quality. The wheat plant then, domesticated us, optimising us for reproduction, while ignoring our happiness.
The emergence of farming led to two other quirks — private property and larger societies. Both these phenomena, so the theory goes, inevitably required hierarchical systems to govern. After all, surely humans can’t form flat societies with thousands of people? We need pen-pushers, we need middle management.
There’s even bountiful pseudo-science on the ‘natural’ size of human groups. Dunbar’s number, supposes that the maximum number of relationships a single person can hold is 150. Any more than and a society can’t function without the encoding of governing rules and behaviour.
Excess calories meant excess people, and specialised positions opened up. Not everyone had to work the land, and, rather than twiddle our thumbs idly the service sector was born. Bureaucrats, police, creatives, and other roles that didn’t directly contribute to ‘productive’ work became abundant.
This specialisation led to the free market, where certain roles, and therefore people, were viewed as more valuable to society. The master jewellery maker, although contributing less ‘productive’ assets, was paid more.
From then it's a relatively short leap to industrialisation and the computer age. The free market gave a huge advantage to automation (reduced costs) so naturally, the textile mill and eventually computers were created.
To summarise then, the deterministic model of societal evolution looks something like this.
Hunter-gatherers → Need for more calories → Farming → Calorie excess → Larger societies → Specialised roles outside of food production → Free market → Advantage to reducing costs of production → Machinery as automation → Computing as automation.
What Happened to Creativity?
The problem with the above model? It’s completely inaccurate. Over the last hundred years, there have been countless examples of societies that didn’t follow the above path. In The Dawn of Everything, examples are given of hunter-gatherer societies that number the hundreds or even thousands, farming societies that never formed dominance hierarchies, and hunter-gatherer societies that actively rejected farming and even animal domestication (indeed this can even be seen in many of the Amazonian and African tribes of today).
The extract below shows the extent to which different, pre-agriculture tribes arranged themselves — in this case, two adjacent tribes having opposite attitudes to adopting slavery.
If you take a proper look into history, what you see, rather than a deterministic path toward our socio-political system is a wide variety of experiments on how to arrange societies. Indeed, perhaps the core trait that unifies ancestors is their capacity for creative thought — the ability to experiment with different models.
The interesting question to answer then is not how human society developed into its current unfair structure, but why we have stopped experimenting with, or even discussing new ways of organising society outside of nation-state top-down hierarchies.
It's quite insane how we can’t answer the question ‘what would an egalitarian city look like? We can’t even picture a working world without the idea of bureaucracy, and laws enforced by a government with a monopoly on violence. A world without wealth distribution going through a centralised nation-state system. That is until everyone started talking about web3.
The Inevitability (or lack thereof) of Web3
6 months ago I was a determinist. I thought the iPhone was inevitable. I thought capitalism was inevitable. By that nature, I also thought web3 was inevitable.
Just as it was macro forces that drove us towards the iPhone, I thought similar forces would collide to facilitate web3. The movement towards a more intangible world, further globalisation, and the increasing distrust of politicians and central authorities like banks.
Surely we would need a technology that enabled verifiable ownership of physical goods?
Surely we would need a technology that allowed us to transact tax-free as global citizens, without central nation-state regulated institutions?
Surely we would need a technology that would create legal systems and financial mechanisms, written in code, rather than rely upon the greedy and illogical nature of humans
While I still think in a better world, these problems would be solved, I no longer think web3 is inevitable. There is no such thing as technological determinism. Technology can’t develop without a desire from people to adopt it, without the complimenting social and political forces. The iPhone couldn’t have succeeded without the culture, and the socio-economic movement it was born into. Without US laws that favoured innovation of US companies, without a loneliness epidemic that created a need to feel connected, without the capitalist view of success that encouraged developers to build apps.
Likewise, we don’t know how web3 will turn out, if at all. Will it be the technology that drives society towards a more egalitarian, self-sovereign model, or will it just be the same old power laws, the same old exploitative system, dressed up in a new frock? The last couple of weeks might make you think it's the latter.
The Crypto Crash
In the last two weeks, the cracks have started to show in web3. The recent crypto crash was due to three major events.
- Luna Crash. Do Kwon, the dictator of the Luna platform ignored all threats from nay-sayers about how the Luna system could fail. His close-mindedness and over-confidence in his algorithmic stablecoin led to $60bn of value being lost pretty much overnight. While this loss was financially devastating it worries me the least of all the most recent major events, mainly because the issue was with the code and tokenomics of the Luna project. No one will try and make an algorithmic stablecoin again, and in some cases, you just have to learn the hard way.
- Celsius Illiquid. Celsius was one of the largest centralised crypto exchanges. Centralised exchanges are the worst, they provide all the downsides of TradFi, and none of the upsides of DeFi. Celsius effectively took customers' money, slapped it on red, and when it came in black couldn’t afford to pay customers who tried to withdraw. You couldn’t write it.
- Three Arrows Illiquid. Zhu Su, once crypto wonder boy, has again shown us how crypto is just as privy to good old-fashioned greed. There’s nothing mysterious that's gone on here, Three Arrows, one of the biggest crypto hedge funds, overleveraged and got rekt to the tune of $30bn
Two out of the above three factors that have contributed to the crypto crash were the result of systems or individuals, making poor decisions. Exactly the problems decentralisation was meant to solve.
Web3 is (rightly) getting a battering right now, the blatant Ponzis, the reckless greed, the insane speculation, all these are the same old problems we’ve faced in the last hundreds of years of systemic exploitation and greed. We had a chance to create a technology that could contribute to a wider societal shift away from top-down hierarchies. Instead, we (for the most part) dressed up the same old exploitive patterns as something new.
I’m personally glad web3 is taking a beating, if it had gone on the way it was going, it could have only continued to exist to serve the few organisations and individuals who wielded control of the ecosystem.
The Dawn of Everything
We are now at a crossroads, during this bear market, will we continue on the same course? Will we fail to think outside the paradigm of our capitalist, nation-state model? Or will web3 become a virile breeding ground for new ideas, new modes of resource and labour allocation, new systems of governance and perhaps, even completely new paradigms for how we think about life and success?
I’m not sure, and anyone who says otherwise is full of shit. Web3 is a tool, and it's not inevitable it will be a tool for good. It’s also not a tool that can grow and operate independently from the current system. Web3, like the internet, the iPhone, the lightbulb, and every technology ever created will dance with culture, established institutions, meme-driven desires and everything in between.
One thing I do know is the current system we live in is not fair. Graeber states through history we have had three social liberties:
(1) the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings;
(2) the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others;
(3) the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones.
The majority of the population currently possesses zero of these liberties.
Americans can’t move abroad without punitive taxation, enforced via the nation-state monopoly on violence.
The majority of the population are wage slaves, unable to disobey orders from their higher-ups for the risk of losing their job and social standing.
Most citizens have completely lost the ability to even imagine new social realities, let alone shape them and move back and forward between different ones.
For what little impact I can have in this space, I want web3 to enable these social liberties, I want to build products that contribute to the space and write articles that make people think. Web3 is not determined, it is not a force for good or for bad, that decision, for better or for worse, lies with us.