Is this Internet worth saving?
A multiplicity of sovereign internets
web3 technologies, broadly speaking, imagine a new internet. Effectively, they pose a question: is this internet—the one you’re reading this on—worth saving? Projects like Cosmos suggest an answer: that it’s better to have a multiplicity of internets than one that rules them all. Less a network of networks and more a syndicalism.1
First as tragedy, then as farce
In the 1990s, a small but influential group of techno-utopians planted a liberatory flag in cyberspace, their ideology rooted in 1960s counterculture. You may remember them. But it was a blip. A bump on this internet’s road from military experiment to tool of U.S. interests. Somewhere along the way, the U.S.’s deference to private enterprise got the better of it: today, tech companies, the private fiefdoms the American internet minted, compete for power with the state that birthed them.2
web3 technologies, even the bad ones, have given us the first meaningfully international alternatives to this internet’s stack.3 But a dangerous technological determinism courses through the web3 community: from better tools, it reasons, a better future inevitably springs. Will it re-live the last techno-utopians’ mistakes? Without rigorous social practice to undergird its tools, I expect web3 will deliver its technologies to the same masters.
How can we make the next internets more robust against capture? Through rigorous social practice. But there’s one more idea: to red-team their governance. To foresee attacks by attempting them in sandboxed environments.
More on that another day.
This internet’s original designers envisioned a network of networks. Something that would connect, interoperate between, the local networks of the world.
But “the original network of networks was empire,” Ethan Buchman says. Before empires, he reasons, small communities replicated norms and values to create a stable society. Empire made those communities interoperate with one another (by dismantling their cultural norms, replacing their languages, enforcing religions, or other means). By provisioning that interoperability, the empire extracts value—rent. A disruptive innovation. A platform play.
This Internet is feudal: public life happens in private domains, within which there are no market relations.
Now, Mark Zuckerberg wants to build a metaverse. Neal Stephenson coined that word in Snow Crash (1992). In the book, the U.S. government has fallen to a cabal of private corporations, who’ve divvied up the country’s governance. I assume Zuckerberg looks at that world and thinks, “Hey, we could be one of those corporations.” Similar to how Jeff Bezos reads Dune and thinks Amazon could be CHOAM.
Indeed, think of the growth for shareholders.
At a certain size, the only way for corporations to deliver growth will be to challenge the state. To usurp their functions. To become states. Whether nation-states can withstand the challenge will, above all else, dictate the limits to economic growth.
web3 applications toss out this internet’s application layer. They rely on IP alone. Consider: you can access a web3 app’s webpage via IPFS, log into it using your wallet and read or write data to it by issuing signed transactions. No DNS, no CAs, no CDNs, no OAuth (no passwords)! Nothing from today’s application stack.
A related note: Cosmos’s Inter-blockchain Communication Protocol is a model, in miniature, of how a multiplicity of internets could work. What IBC does, interoperating across the application layer of different technical stacks, could in fact happen at any layer: the physical layer, the protocol layer…