Web3 is Old News
Let’s not rush into the metaverse. It still doesn’t exist.
As we near the end of 2021, hype about Web3 is thick in the air. The term is being used so often by tech writers that, even if you have no idea what Web3 is, it’s hard not to have the sense that something important is about to happen with Web3.
You shouldn’t be nervous, though, if you’re among those who don’t know what Web3 is. The truth is that nobody really knows what Web3 is. That’s because Web3 doesn’t exist, except as a catchphrase. As a catchphrase, though, Web3 has a long history.
In Gizmodo this month, David Nield wrote that “the Web3 revolution” “is upon us”. A revolution! Should you be ready to join the Web3 barricades in the street?
Don’t rush to pick up your fife and drum. A revolution sounds pretty exciting, but in tech journalism, the word “revolution” is tossed out as easily as week-old avocado toast.
Like most of his colleagues, Nield is in the habit of declaring the arrival of revolutions that never actually materialize. Five years ago, he announced that delivery via flying drones was “sparking a transport revolution”. Flying drones actually never worked out as everyday delivery devices. Other revolutions Nield has heralded turned out to be minor tweaks. Last year, Nield wrote that “the revolution starts soon”, but the revolution he was talking about was nothing more than a switch back to Intel processors in Apple laptops.
Ryan Browne writes at CNBC about “a buzzy new movement in tech known as ‘Web3,’ which aims to create a decentralized version of the internet.” The fact is, though, that Web3 and its narrative of decentralization are not new at all.
The Web3 “revolution” is at least 17 years old. Google Trends shows that the online hype about Web3 started way back in 2004, when John Kerry was challenging George W. Bush for the White House.
Here on Medium, Web3 believers have been writing about the supposed revolution for about as long as Medium has been in existence. Medium started up in 2012, but Jabak Jolanputra uploaded a backdated 2011 article, which in turn was based on a 2010 presentation, celebrating the coming future of Web 3.0.
Back in 2010, Web 3.0 had a dot in it, and the 3 wasn’t mashed up against the B, but otherwise, there’s a clear lineage of Web3 hype. From 2008 on, a dash of blockchain has been sprinkled with libertarian ideology to create a Bitcoin souffle of puffed up promises. Some of the young people now writing about Web3 were babies when the revolution began.
Since then, there has been a steady stream of material written by the Web3 faithful. Three years ago, Bitfish wrote about how the decentralized future of the Web3 blockchain had arrived. It was here. It was now, back then.
The details of what Web3 is supposed to be change over time, and change depending on which Web3 believer you talk to. The core belief, however, is that Web3 is a revolutionary technology of blockchain decentralization that is about to erupt from abstract planning into actual existence as an irresistible force that wise people will invest in now… now in 2010… now in 2013… now in 2017… and now again at the end of 2021.
The various ideological bits and bobs of Web3 have a similarly long history of revolutions that are perpetually about to start, yet never arrive. Blockchain was invented in the 20th century, and its proponents have had generations to make it into something more than a tool for Ponzi schemes. Nonetheless, blockchain can’t seem to get past the stage of white papers and design experiments. There’s cryptocurrency, of course, which after thirteen years still isn’t a currency, and has failed to become anything other than a medium for criminal money laundering and dangerous blue sky unregulated securities trading.
As for the metaverse, it’s telling that we’re now getting a remake of The Matrix, a metaverse story from a generation ago, as a piece of nostalgia rather than an innovative vision of the future. Virtual reality goggles have been talked about for decades, but have never grown past the scale of a funhouse novelty. It turns out that people really don’t like to spend long periods of time with digital technology strapped to their faces.
The more that you look into the long past of the future of Web3, the more it sounds like the ravings of an End Times cult, always pronouncing that its messiah is about to arrive to change the world forever. The time is short, it warns, for us to get our affairs in order. It’s a limited time offer!
The Huckster’s False Urgency
You’d better invest in Web3 now, before it’s too late! Hurry up, they tell us, or you’ll miss out on your stake in the metaverse! Bitcoin is going to the Moon, so buy now!
It all sounds remarkably like the spam emails people get from Bed Bath and Beyond, excitedly promoting a discount sale that’s going to be over soon, and the time to act is now… before there’s another sale in a week or two.
It’s an old sales technique, born on the boardwalks of Jersey City, where hucksters would sell cheap products at high prices by convincing passers-by that there was a limited supply of things for sale, and the peddler would be gone tomorrow. So, it was essential to act now to get a great deal.
It’s a dishonest sales technique called false urgency. The tactic aims to compensate for a flawed product by disorienting potential buyers into feeling that they’ve blundered into a unique opportunity. The goal of the technique has always been the same: To temporarily disable people’s critical thinking skills by convincing them that there’s no time to think because the wonderful opportunity before them is about to disappear.
When someone tells you that you need to buy something immediately or lose out on the offer forever, it’s a sign that they can’t be trusted. Urgency is an inherently untrusting and untrustworthy frame of mind.
Compulsive Gamblers and the Rush of Revolution
The false urgency of Web3 is an artifact of a subculture that has become addicted to the idea of revolution. The revolutions of digital technology have indeed made a small number of people very rich, though they’ve resulted in the pain of income stagnation, or even decreasing opportunity, for everyone else. In popular media, the rare digital successes are highly visible, while the majority of people struggling just to make ends meet remains in obscurity.
The huckster’s story of sudden and easy wealth thus has become as easy to believe as it is illusory.
The consequence has been an expectation of opportunities to get rich quick, accompanied by a frustrating failure of those opportunities to materialize. People wonder why they haven’t achieved the amazing wealth and power they see embodied in the social media influencers they follow. They remain convinced that a revolution that will give them the money they deserve is just around the corner. They still believe in the imminent development of a new technology that will enable them to cross the border into a land of digital milk and honey, where all the frustrations of the past will be revealed as wise investments that paid out just as promised.
The emotional narrative of revolution promises that this time, things will be different. There have been frustrations, yes, but this time, we’re told, Gadget X will break all the rules, and make all our dreams come true.
This is the language of a compulsive gambler.
The track record of these sales pitches is there for us to read, if we care to look. It tells us that this time, just as before, things will not be different.
A few people might win big, but most people will lose this game of speculative investment. That’s the way a casino works.
We’ve been living in a carnival tent of digital hype, believing that we’re playing a game on equal standing. The truth is, however, that the house always wins in the end. The more you gamble, the more certain that outcome becomes.
One-fifth of American households are now gambling in the blue sky speculative markets of cryptocurrency.
They’re betting that, somehow, after years and years of failure to materialize, Web3 will somehow become real, justifying their bets.
Perhaps, this time, the ball on the roulette wheel will land on their tile. The chance is not zero.
The odds, however, are not in their favor.
The next time you hear an enthusiastic sales pitch about the limited opportunity to cash in on the imminent Web3 cryptocurrency metaverse revolution, keep this in mind: The person is selling.
They’re desperately trying to get rid of their Web3 NFTs, their fairy gold, their tokens of blockchain belief.
Ask yourself why they’re so desperate to sell.
If they truly believed, they would be buying.
Don’t bet on their revolution arriving in 2022.