Jumping into Web3

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Into the Pluriverse

I’m kicking off a new blogchain to journal my explorations of Web3: the strange world of NFTs (non-fungible tokens), DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), domain names ending in .eth, and so forth. I wasn’t going to get into it quite yet, but events in the last week dumped me unceremoniously into the deep end.

I’m chronicling the play-by-play in an extended Twitter thread. There is also now an NFTs page for ribbonfarm. I’ve already sold two (on mirror.xyz and on OpenSea.io).

As I write this, a 24-hour auction for my third NFT, is underway on foundation.app. I’m thinking of it as my first serious minting, since it’s a piece that a lot of effort went into — the ribbonfarm map of 2016 (if you’re interested in bidding, you’ll need the metamask wallet extension and some ether).

I’m still pretty down in the weeds and haven’t yet begun to form coherent big picture mental models of what’s going on. But I did make this little diagram to try and explain what’s going on to myself… and then made an NFT out of it.

I’ll hopefully have more interesting things to share after I have some time to reflect on and make sense of the rather hectic first week.

Beyond the fun game of making money selling artificially digitally scarce objects, the broader point of diving in for me is that it’s clear Web3 is going to drastically transform the way the internet works at very deep levels. Not just in the sense of deeply integrating economic mechanisms within the infrastructure, but also in terms of how content is created, distributed, and presented. If this develops as it promises to, Web2 (what used to be called Web 2.0) activities like blogging and writing newsletters are going to be utterly transformed. So this is as much a sort of discovery journey, to figure out the future of ribbonfarm, as it is a dive into an interesting new technology.

The highlights of my first week (details in the Twitter thread):

  • Minted and sold 2 NFTs, participated in a 3rd via a minority stake
  • Got myself a couple of .eth domains, including ribbonfarm.eth — which led to an unexpected windfall
  • Set up a Gnosis multi-sig safe for the Yak Collective, and helped kick off plans to turn it into a DAO
  • Entered something called the $WRITE token race to try and win a token for the Yak Collective to start a Web3 publication on mirror.xyz (you can help us get one by voting tomorrow, Wednesday, Nov 10)
  • Signed the Declaration of Interdependence for Cyberspace, my first crypto-signed petition
  • Presumably pissed off about 20% of my Twitter following going by this poll (Web3 is a very polarizing topic)

There’s a lot going on, as I’m discovering. Every hour I spend exploring this, I discover more new things, at every level from esoteric technical things to subtle cultural things.

If you, like me, have been thinking that being roughly familiar with the cryptocurrency tech scene of a few years ago means you “get” most of what’s going on here, you’re wrong. The leap between the 2016-17 state of the art and this is dramatic. There’s a great deal more to understand and wrap your head around.

I’ll update this blogchain with summaries and highlight views as I go along, but the devil really is in the details on this one, so if you’re interested in following along without getting lost, I recommend tracking my twitter thread too.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hi, I really have an infinite respect for you, your work, your opinions. This might be the first time I comment, and I’m sorry that I don’t have much positive to say about this blog post. I bet you’ll be back with saner stuff soonish, but for the record, NFTs, ethereum, blockchain, bitcoin are all shit. There might be some theoretical situations where they might make a little sense, but in the real world (TM) they are basically only Ponzi schemes.

  2. I’ve been diving into the web3 space myself, trying to get a feel for what is actually happening there, whether it means change for the future, and what kind of attention should I invest into it (money, code, effort, etc.).

    I dipped my toes into the crypto scene a few times of the years, mainly to play around with the tech, and always found it constrained. It always seemed like an interesting piece of tech without too much utility. Kind of like network protocols in the 60s or 70s.

    Now, it feels like there’s something different happening in this space. There appears to be much content less about finance and a lot more about coordinating. Reading a post titled “Ethereum, Slayer of Moloch” (https://newsletter.banklesshq.com/p/ethereum-slayer-of-moloch-) made me jolt upright and drop other things and start reading up on this immediately.

    I’m still wrapping my head around all of this, but top of mind for me are questions like: if bureaucracies are basically giant computers made up of humans, then could DAOs/other crypto tech replace and scale them? If we’re going through a great fragmentation, could DAOs/other crypto tech become the coordination layer between millions of tribes (ala Snowcrash)?

    And to loop around to the network protocols in the 60s/70s angle, the space reminds me of that subculture, at least from what I’ve read about places like PARC and Bell Labs and phreaks, etc. There’s a kind of wild optimism about actually changing something for the better, of exploring a vast, new domain. And seeing the counter reaction, the surprisingly vitriolic crowd chanting “it’s all a fuckin’ scam!” brings to mind all those people who looked at computers in the second half of the 20th century and saw only awkward geeks fiddling with boring beige little boxes and thought that this whole computer thing will blow over soon.

    • Your post reads suspiciously like “We are the cool hackers of old, and those who dislike us are luddites!”

      Also, that Slayer-of-Moloch article is just so much fluff. How will Ethereum slay Moloch?

      • How will Ethereum slay Moloch?

        On each “coordination day” a smart contract will spam you with instructions on how to slay Moloch. You must obey!

        BTW are hackers still cool? Aren’t the cool among the hackers either dead, retired or cancelled?

    • > Reading a post titled “Ethereum, Slayer of Moloch” (https://newsletter.banklesshq.com/p/ethereum-slayer-of-moloch-) made me jolt upright and drop other things and start reading up on this immediately.

      You should read the post it is built on, “Meditations on Moloch”. Author of Ethereum post… misunderstood it. The original post shows the tradeoffs between decentralization and centralization (or libertarianism and monarchism). Moloch is very much a problem in decentralized world.

      > The libertarian-authoritarian axis on the Political Compass is a tradeoff between discoordination and tyranny. You can have everything perfectly coordinated by someone with a god’s-eye-view – but then you risk Stalin. And you can be totally free of all central authority – but then you’re stuck in every stupid multipolar trap Moloch can devise.

      > The libertarians make a convincing argument for the one side, and the monarchists for the other, but I expect that like most tradeoffs we just have to hold our noses and admit it’s a really hard problem.

      The only time Scott (slatestarcodex author) refers to crypto in the text is:

      > The latest development in the brave new post-Bitcoin world is crypto-equity. At this point I’ve gone from wanting to praise these inventors as bold libertarian heroes to wanting to drag them in front of a blackboard and making them write a hundred times “I WILL NOT CALL UP THAT WHICH I CANNOT PUT DOWN”

      > A couple people asked me what I meant, and I didn’t have the background then to explain. Well, this post is the background. People are using the contingent stupidity of our current government to replace lots of human interaction with mechanisms that cannot be coordinated even in principle. I totally understand why all these things are good right now when most of what our government does is stupid and unnecessary. But there is going to come a time when – after one too many bioweapon or nanotech or nuclear incidents – we, as a civilization, are going to wish we hadn’t established untraceable and unstoppable ways of selling products.

      And the post ends with analysis of how things could end up – and the non-catastrophic state is very much not caused by total decentralization. It is to create a friendly singleton.

      > Absent an extraordinary effort to divert it, the river reaches the sea in one of two places.

      > It can end in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s nightmare of a superintelligence optimizing for some random thing (classically paper clips) because we weren’t smart enough to channel its optimization efforts the right way. This is the ultimate trap, the trap that catches the universe. Everything except the one thing being maximized is destroyed utterly in pursuit of the single goal, including all the silly human values.

      > Or it can end in Robin Hanson’s nightmare (he doesn’t call it a nightmare, but I think he’s wrong) of a competition between emulated humans that can copy themselves and edit their own source code as desired. Their total self-control can wipe out even the desire for human values in their all-consuming contest. What happens to art, philosophy, science, and love in such a world?

      > Everything the human race has worked for – all of our technology, all of our civilization, all the hopes we invested in our future – might be accidentally handed over to some kind of unfathomable blind idiot alien god that discards all of them, and consciousness itself, in order to participate in some weird fundamental-level mass-energy economy that leads to it disassembling Earth and everything on it for its component atoms.

      ((I recommend Accelerando for… elaboration how this might look like; economics 2.0))

      —–

      > In the very near future, we are going to lift something to Heaven. It might be Moloch. But it might be something on our side. If it’s on our side, it can kill Moloch dead.

      > And if that entity shares human values, it can allow human values to flourish unconstrained by natural law.

      > I realize that sounds like hubris – it certainly did to Hurlock – but I think it’s the opposite of hubris, or at least a hubris-minimizing position.

      > To expect God to care about you or your personal values or the values of your civilization, that’s hubris.

      > To expect God to bargain with you, to allow you to survive and prosper as long as you submit to Him, that’s hubris.

      > To expect to wall off a garden where God can’t get to you and hurt you, that’s hubris.

      > To expect to be able to remove God from the picture entirely…well, at least it’s an actionable strategy.

      > I am a transhumanist because I do not have enough hubris not to try to kill God.

      • Thanks for pointing this out. It’s forced me think what Moloch could look like in a far more decentralized world. It’s a more interesting exercise if you ignore the classic “libertarian utopia” cliches.

        But my gut reaction is “better than what we have now”, just because I see people in the web3 space specifically addressing problems like the tragedy of the commons.

  3. Nathan Summers says

    After the last ten years of corporate monopoly, technological stagnation (in the internet field, that is, there are other areas — like battery chemistry — where progress is happening), and the hell that is social media, I’ve all but given up on the dream of the early internet, the dream that technology was going to decentralize power somehow and make a flourishing of new possibilities. I would dearly love to believe in something like that again. That it’s still possible to invent new things in the internet space, maybe even take a second crack at that decentralizing-power idea, hopeless as it seems in 2021.

    However. The crypto boy has cried wolf so many times that I’m extremely skeptical. I am willing to believe that there are non-scam applications of blockchain, but I’d require a high standard of evidence.

    It’s possible that crypto is still in its “Pets dot com” phase, if you know what I mean — that while the high-profile failures and stupid ideas get the headlines, there is actually real work being done under the surface building something of value. It’s possible. But it’s been an unusually long “pets dot com” phase — blockchain is more than ten years old at this point — and it has an unusually high scam density compared to any other emerging technology.

    But, maybe there’s something to this idea of ethereum-enabled data ownership and portability? Once upon a time, that was the dream of how to break the internet monopolies, after all — right? That we’d invent a way to own our own data, and if one website gives us crappy customer service, we leave and take our data with us, bringing it over to a competing website?

    But, like, if you look at the reasons that never worked, it’s not for lack of technology. It was always technologically possible. It’s just that walled gardens made the ruling class richer, while interoperability does not make the ruling class richer, and we always get what makes the ruling class richer. Does an ethereum-based web, or Web 3 or whatever, actually change anything about that? Am I right or wrong in thinking that this dream of data portability is the potential non-scam application that’s got people excited? If so, how would that actually work? Why would an ethereum-based facebook replacement be less nightmarish than the facebook we currently suffer under?

    Similarly I’d love for artists/musicians to be able to make a living selling their work directly to the internet, without a middleman. That would really be exciting. But that doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening with NFTs. The well-known examples of NFT art are low-quality, mass-produced images that nobody, not even the people buying them, seem to like as art. Buyers aren’t supporting artists they like so much as they’re buying into them as a speculative asset bubble, hoping they’ll be the next bitcoin. But since an NFT doesn’t actually give you ownership over the work or anything like that — its connection to the work is quite tenuous and abstract, in fact — is any kind of resale market actually going to materialize? And without a resale market, how long will interest in buying NFTs of art actually last? How will this be better for artists than selling commissions or having a Patreon?

    Seems like all the blockchain applications I’ve seen so far are either something that’s just as easily done with existing technology (e.g. using blockchain as a slower, less efficient, more expensive database) or they are entirely driven by somebody wanting to pump-and-dump a speculative asset bubble to make a quick buck.

    But I’d love to be wrong! As I said, I’d love to believe in something again. Venkat, or Matto, could you do me a favor and explain an example use case? Not a get-rich-quick scheme, not a bunch of grandiose semi-spiritual hype, not “Slaying Moloch” (WTF) but a single, concrete, practical use case of something you can’t do, or that’s hard to do, with web 2.0?

    • I’m not going to sell you, but if I were to relate my view to your view then:

      “It’s possible that crypto is still in its “Pets dot com” phase, if you know what I mean”

      I think crypto is way before the “pets dot com” phase. Way, waaaay before. Think “early 80’s, working engineers or hobbyists with cash to spend on $10000+ glorified calculators that are underwhelming in every way” phase.

      Then, with this in mind, the question of ” (…) practical use case of something you can’t do, or that’s hard to do, with web 2.0?” is actually the wrong question to ask. What exciting stuff could you do with 80’s home computers? Make it beep and buzz a few times? Load up some 16-color graphics? Phone in to a bbs and watch as messages appeared on your screen character by character? What practical use could any of that have for the typical person back then when they could send a letter or buy a photo for 1/10000 of the price?

      So I don’t expect anything “big” come out of this space for at least a decade. But I found a few reasons to get involved right now.

      • Sorry to butt in, but all of this just seems like analogy. You’re saying “it gets better”.

        I mean, on ’80s home computers, you did have things that were neat. Adventure games, for one, and they did make (very limited) 3D graphics even then.

        What I’m trying to say is, what could be conceivable effective use cases for blockchain techonology, assuming rapid technology growth? I apologize if this is asking you to predict the future. But I would just like to see some of the ” [a] few reasons” that you mentioned. I did read your previous post, but it seems to be based on hype rather than techonology.

        • My primary reason is that it seems that the people excited about blockchains this time are talking a lot less about money and a lot more about coordination problems.

          I see lots of experiments such as RenoDAO or CityDAO and it seems to me that these people are also tired of wasteful, inefficient governance systems that are strained to the breaking point, tired of “moral mazes” of infinite bureaucracies. And they’re trying new things, like quadratic voting, things that are practical in nature when you’re considering problems like “how do we get vastly different people, people who can’t even agree on the truth, to interact together in non-violent ways, given that the institutions put in place are hitting their scale limits?”

          And most of these experiments appear to avoid taking the high modernist, boot-stamping-on-a-human-face-forever approach and instead go for a more organic, less legible approach, with flatter hierarchies. The whole thing about having voting shares in DAOs seems to be anti-high modernist at the core.

          And to be completely open, I think most of these experiments will fail. Whether because of a bad idea, bad execution, or bad actors, we’ll see lots of wreckage. But my hopes lie in the fact that we only need one or a few of them to succeed to kick millions, then billions one step higher on the coordination ladder.

      • Nathan Summers says

        Interesting perspective, thanks.

    • … but a single, concrete, practical use case of something you can’t do, or that’s hard to do, with web 2.0?

      You can give your favorite Anon money for a coffee in some kind of digital reserve currency.

      I’m not much of a fan of the blockchain craze either but I get the feeling that your disappointed utopianism is an impediment. Progress nourishes frustrations. The techies do not deliver, the ruling class is greedy and evil and the masses are dumb. The betterment of mankind through shitposting on the internet is not going to happen even if it is totally liberated and self-determined and there isn’t the weight of civilization ( the black iron prison ) on all of us which has supposedly distorted our relationship with one another. The fall of civilizations is also not the sort of fun the stoners imagined. You’ll get over it and find solace in art or nature if you are not moving even further into religious territory but it won’t be that of programming boomers who were on weed or on acid and hated their parents.

    • “… but a single, concrete, practical use case of something you can’t do, or that’s hard to do, with web 2.0?”

      A multi-planetary civilisation needs a multi-planetary currency/financial system and crypto would be the best way of doing that?

  4. It’s nobody’s job to sell you on this 😂

    You either find a reason that works for you or you sit it out

    • Nathan Summers says

      You know what, that’s completely fair. I probably came off as more confrontational than I meant to be. I will do some research on my own.

      Thanks for all the writing you share here. It’s always thought-provoking and I always enjoy it.

      • Oh no worries. It didn’t come across as confrontational at all. I’m just highly resistant to being cast as an evangelist/explainer :)

    • That’s a very polite way to say HFSP. Going to use it in the future.

  5. Looking at web3 through Thiel’s definite/indefinite optimism/pessimism, web3 is firmly in the definite optimism quadrant. It’s acting like a magnet for everyone in that group.

    I bet it’s making indefinite optimists uncomfortable, maybe even upset because web3 means change and the need to make decisions and devalues indefinite life choices like high status education or riding mutual index funds. I suspect they will be the strongest anti-web3 voice because they would like everything to stay the same.

    Definite pessimists probably take it as another sign of human folly and gullibility and that the end is nearer than they thought before.

    Indefinite pessimists probably don’t care at all. For them, web3 is the orchestra playing while the ship is sinking.

    • I don’t know what “indefinite pessimist” means and I’m reluctant to look it up at Thiel.

      What I see in Web3 but also in Web2 is a strange brand, a nerdy but decidedly anti-intellectual movement, where some kind of community spirit – you just framed it in psychological terms – or scale effect substitutes for clarity of thought which is seemingly ineffectual; a nerdy populism, if you will. Cargo cults which work or the next big thing which predictably fails, might then mark the optimist / pessimist views on the same phenomenon. I also notice a third and stronger position than the pessimist one, in many comments on the web: Web3 shouldn’t exist at all. It is an anarchist and para-criminal scam and there might be a growing demand for going full China on it.

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