Trying to be fair to web3

I have, obviously, said a number of skeptical (or sceptical, what’s up with that?) things about NFTs and blockchains and The Metaverse, and cryptocurrency and “web3” in general. Including pointing out with some evil glee the extent to which web3 is going just great.

Recently Daniel Ritchie, who is apparently a friend of Grady Booch, wrote a piece decrying how negative people have been about web3, and basically imploring such people to give it a chance: Web3 has an Identity Problem. It’s short; I urge you to read it and reflect upon what it says.

I replied to the Twitter post that announced it, and this led to a little tree of discussion with the author, in which I expressed a desire for examples of web3 things that are actually good / interesting / exciting, and the author urged me to look at the ones listed in their piece (and not be so negative about them).

I also wrote a brief answer to my own question (of whether anything in the web3 space is new or useful), viz:

Just wanted to get that down, so as not to seem like a total old grump. :)

I thought it might be interesting to go through the dozen or so things that are listed in the article; as the underlying claim is that critics of web3 are ignoring things like those on this list, consciously not ignoring them can only make our ideas about web3 more accurate. But as I started to do that, it became apparent that talking about all dozen of them would make a long and likely tedious post.

So I’ll urge you again to look at them all yourself, but for now I’ll talk about just one that specifically caught my eye: “proof of humanity”, which is a link to I looked it over and found the idea both unworkable, and terrifyingly dystopian. The idea is that there would be a distributed blockchain-based system that would maintain a list of (blockchain addresses associated with) actual living humans, with mechanisms for people to challenge each other’s humanity or livingness, ways to prove that you are (still) human/alive, and so on.

If this were to be actually used for something that matters, the Black Mirror episode is obvious: in some sort of straits, the protagonist attempts to obtain help, only to find that someone has challenged their humanity, and they have to find a video camera and a recent blockchain hash, so that they can satisfy the network that they are still human and alive. Meanwhile, bad guys have bribed a few registered humans to vouch for the humanity of a few bots, which have vouched for more bots, and the percentage of actual humans in the official list of humans is slowly sinking, and all the big state-level actors can basically put the humanity of any dissenter into perpetual limbo, while running a network of certified-human bots and minions for their own ends.

When I expressed these worries, Daniel Ritchie linked me to an episode of the Green Pill podcast, which is an interview with the person behind Proof of Humanity. (“greenpilling” is another term on his list, referring to this podcast, and it looks like this same podcast person coined at least one more term on the list, “regenerative cryptoeconomics”; small world!)

Despite my personal dislike of podcasts (can’t I get a transcript?), I listened to the episode, and it did not address my dystopian worries at all. It also added a bunch of new worries about the “$UBI token” which is automatically given (one per hour) to everyone currently officially recognized as a human.

It seems obvious to me that a small private group isn’t going to provide the world’s humans with a Universal Basic Income by just minting electronic coins with no backing (talk about “fiat currency”), and sending them out to everyone; indeed the current value of $UBI is about $US0.04, so that’s four cents an hour, which I would imagine is completely dominated by transaction costs in any realistic scenario.

Now of course this is just me being negative again! Giving every human on the planet a regular income is a great idea, and maybe they will figure out a way to in fact make it work! Why should I assume that they won’t? The intent is good, even if the impact is not-yet.

(The “that’s a nice thing to want to do” feeling points to something that shows up a lot in the listed projects: web3 projects that want to do nice things, that have salutary intent, but that so far have not actually produced good results, or in many cases even suggested plausible mechanisms through which good results might eventually be obtained.)

My best answer to that, I think, is that the probability of this working seems really, really low, and the time and effort being put into it could be instead put into things with a higher success chance. Of course, what do I know?

The currency of the United States used to be based on gold, which is pretty and useful and limited in supply, and so in some sense has inherent value; even if people stopped caring about dollars, you could get gold from the government for them, and make gold things. Now it’s based on the US government promising that it has and will continue to have value, paying people in it and accepting only it for tax and other payments, and so on. That is a kind of value that is perhaps less inherent; US persons, at least, will not stop caring about dollars at least a bit, because they will need some to pay their taxes (and get government payments in it, and etc).

What would it take to get $UBI to work as a currency, without its value going to zero in the obvious way? Some institution or billionaire could promise to honor it at some minimum exchange rate with US$ or gold or something, but that’s not very scalable. (This is what “stablecoins” do for say Bitcoin, but that works only due to massive fraud.) What if everyone, for some large value of “everyone”, just liked it, as an idea, and the minter behaved and continued to mint and distribute only an amount per person-hour that roughly reflected the amount of actual value produced per person-hour? Could it continue to be accepted by everyone, just because it’s accepted by everyone?

This sounds like a risky thing to base a universal currency on :) but I should read more advanced theory of currency before I decide that it’s infeasible.

It does bother me that the website and podcast and so on don’t at all address the obvious potential problems of using a big complex distributed system to decide whether people are human, how the system could be abused, and so on. This does not in general give me big faith that they’ve thought through everything else thoroughly.

Arguably the world just needs a balance between “it’s a good idea and maybe it can be made to work somehow” optimists, and “it may be a good idea, but I see no way it can work” skeptics, and Daniel is the former and I am the latter, and that’s fine, all is working as designed. I worry, though, about the number of people who get hooked on the optimistic statements, and end up losing tons of money to bad actors, the amounts of energy that crypto is wasting, etc. If there were no downsides to web3-optimism, I might well not bother being a vocal skeptic. But as it is… well, there are definitely downsides!


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