/ The Personal Blog of Basil Labib / blog

Web 3.0 and The Metaverse Mania

November 9, 2021

There is a shot in Steven Spielberg’s 2018 science fiction “Ready Player One” where the protagonist, Wade, sitting in a shack in Columbus puts on a VR headset and is transported to the planet of Incipio where all avatars are born when they enter the OASIS. They can morph into any characters, cartoon, or monster. Customise how they look and sound and smell. Buy virtual assets and fight in hunts on a planet called Doom (Watch the movie if this is lost on you). Although these are mere imagination spewed from the mind of a 80s culture maniac, how would you feel if I tell you this is exactly the place we are headed?

The future? Credits: @sama

The future? Credits: @sama

Definition and background

Web 3.0 – this is the term being pushed to describe the next generation of underlying architecture that would run the Internet. The 2000s saw the advent of Web2 which emphasised on the development of full-fledged web application when the simple, bland webpages (sometimes spiced up with CSS) served globs of static data. Web applications led to the development of Cloud computing – the idea of outsourcing computation to an outsider agent and AWS today is the biggest player which generated $16.11B in Q3 2021. Eventually, everything began being offered as a service, hence the terms SaaS (Software as a Service), PaaS (Platform as a Service), and even TaaS (Talent as a Service). But as these new technologies provided a new found avenue for the expansionist capitalist corporations, everybody knew something was lacking and that was integrity and failproof. (1)

How it came about

The traditional client-server architecture suffers from the obvious shortcoming of what is lovingly called the “central point of failure”. Nobody has ever liked this idea for obvious reasons. It was not until 2009 that an anonymous person(s) by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto figured a way to reliably decentralised transactions. They described a method that allowed transactions without the need of a central clearing house and in essence, threatened to endanger the financial fabric of society. They called it Bitcoin. The builder community jumped at the idea. Then, a Russian-Canadian 19 year old saw these ideas in a much bigger tapestry. He envisioned a global computer being able to compute and unanimously agree on a given state across billions of computers or “nodes” spread across the world. These “blockchains” could be used to compute and store non-tamperable data and not just transaction history for a piece of imaginary crypto currency. The fact that these ideas and technologies have developed in just the last 10 years is what should be mind boggling.

Why should anybody care?

Blockchains promise a failproof swarm of computers that maintain untamperable data. This means perfect financial transactions and zero fraud (provided the number of good nodes > number of malicious nodes). Anything that can be computed (which is pretty much everything) and stored can be put on a blockchain consisting of thousands of computers, each an equal node having equal access and right over the data. This decentralised technological haven free from the shackles of tech giants today is what web 3.0 promises. It plans to create a utopia of perfect technological democracy and cooperation. At least that is what the early proponents of this idea had intended.

The conflicted philosophy

A week or so back, Facebook announced that it would rebrand itself as Meta to emphasise their new agenda of “metaverse-first, Facebook-second”. What is metaverse? It’s a perverse realisation of the perfect utopia I described above. Almost all software that enabled blockchains to flourish in its infancy was open sourced and developed mainly by hackers and rookies in their free time. Tech corporations, facing their greatest fear of staying relevant, have taken a plunge into this arena to combine AI, blockchains, fed by gangantuan mountains of data (“Big Data”) accreted for decades, to bring products that mimick the open ethos that have drawn people. But it’s not gonna happen. By definition, any product that corporates build is to make profits because that is what keeps them going and that is the exact antithesis of what web 3.0 means – to decentralise the reliance on a few tech corps and relinquish control and autonomy over our digital presence.

The point is metaverse is definitely the future of the internet as it promises grounds for expression, exploration, and empowerment. But it won’t suffice in the face of totalitarian control by a central organization and definitely not when it’s built by profit-driven organisations whose goals are unlikely to be any different than that. This would incite competitors to build their own metaverses and eventually there would be a pool of tiny “metaverses” which would jostle for consumer base and profit maximization, reducing the entire effort into a capitalist rerun of the web 2.0 scenario, albeit, in a fancier cover.

Take for example the recent hype around NFTs.

Crypto exchanges and markets are volatile and unregulated because they are such a new and misunderstood tech. This has led to many malpractices including blantant market manipulation. Moreover, the danger is people who understand nothing about blockchains or crypto are investing in these markets and hence falling prey to veteran bad actors.

Human behavioral psychology is heavily influenced by others and watching others share news of becoming millionaires can hardly stop our humble crypto uninitiated average man. This is the exact scenario playing out in the non-fungible tokens (or NFTs) economy. People became excited about minting and cashing in millions for their “artworks” and memoribilia because impulse is hard to control.

In reality, an NFT token is an immutable record that decrees ownership of a particular digital asset to an individual. A digital asset that has no physical value or purpose other than being a money-making machine for the ultra capitalists.

Teenage psychology and business

Today, Instagram, a subsidiary of Meta, appeals to the youth and teenage populace because they understand well how youth psychology works. Millions of kids today spend hours customising their “profiles” and masquerading behind their ideal perception of themselves. It is the basic teenage desire to feel inclusive and belonged to a group they admire. Imagine metaverse avatars and the frivolous, untangible economy it will give rise to.

Economies are one of the most unstable systems on this planet (which would have been fine if it were one of the most critical too) because it is an emergent property; an outcome of the individual actions of billions of tiny beings wholly unaware of the actions of almost everybody else. Nobody has an idea of what is valuable and worth spending their money on but modern financial systems rely on the behavior of these ignorant individuals to define what is valuable and hence produce more of it. This is a recipe for complete economic collapse if you think about it and also happens to be the definition of capitalism. Who will regulate these companies? Which brings me to . . .

Govermment regulations

Anonymous by design

Govermental or third-party regulations of blockchain transactions are virtually impossible due to the inherent design of such systems. Blockchain transactions are designed to be anonymous and untrackable. It was one of the reasons why bitcoin was used as a payment method in the infamous Silk Road. Moreover, unrestricted financial transactions can give a stupendous advantage to terror groups, criminals, and drug peddlers, making the job a lot harder for law-enforcing bodies. It is one of the reasons why nations are wary of legalising crypto.

Unregulated hate content

Facebook / Meta, has been prosecuted countless times for their failure to regulate hate content on their platforms. I am not against content creators because they genuinely add value to society. But as social platforms have reduced the bar to become celebrities to almost nothing, everyone has found a corner on the internet to preach and inject their thoughts into the societal thoughtstream. India is a primal example of this paradigm.

A study last year showed that India leads in the origin and propagation of fake information about the coronavirus and its “remedies”. Underdeveloped and developing countries are shown to be correlated to misinformation on social sites. Non-English content pose a greater problem because of lack of sufficient clearing houses in the respective languages, cultures, and / or disciplines. The impeding question remains: Who is responsible for the resulting violence and crimes? What is the definitive solution to this mishap? As it can be understood, these are challenging questions even for policymakers.

My personal belief is that the power resides with the masses. Ethical education, digital etiquette and financial empowerment (this is easier said than done) are the sole factors for these people to act responsibly. Corporations move towards profits driven by demand and that is all they will do in the future.

Where we going?

Web 3.0 is, no doubt, a suite of impressive technologies that promise mind-boggling sovereignity and independence. Yet, as we have tamed forces of nature, from lightning to information, we have been gravely aware of our growing responsibility for our own well-being. The consequences of what we choose to do right now can be either disastrous or rewarding.

Footnotes

(1): Note that the development of assymetric key cryptography made it possible for stranger parties to securely transact over a foul network and hence help make internet economy feasible.

Basil | @itbwtsh

Tech, Science, Design, Economics, Finance, and Books.
Basil blogs about complex topics in simple words.
This blog is his passion project.