Decentralization on the web: The ethical implications of invisible barriers

Amidst the current hype and optimism surrounding the emergence of a new way to operate on the internet lies a strain of criticism that ranges from benevolent skepticism to outright condemnation. Some, most prominently Twitter’s former CEO Jack Dorsey, call bullshit on the new wave of technological change embodied by token-based economies and decentralized autonomous organizations. These opponents call decentralization a “rhetorical trick”, a way to get people excited and drawn in about the promise of ownership of their data without ceding any of the concentration of wealth and power that plagued Web2.0. In this post we will examine not the technical aspects of decentralization on the web, but rather a dimension that has been underrepresented in the conversation: the ethical implications and invisible barriers that lie beneath Web3.0’s utopian sheen. 

A major driver of criticism is the market-focused ideology informing its uses. There exists a massive chasm between decentralization as a utopian ideal and current practical applications. As many have pointed out, the current profit-centering of decentralized technologies is simply an “obedient continuation of ‘market-ize all the things’”. The moral issues that arise from using this software solely to increase profits have yet to be addressed meaningfully. Rather, and what I argue is more dangerous, decentralized platforms are being put forth in terms that idealize them as a fix for some of the issues presented to modern society while no actual steps are being taken in pursuit of this goal. 

Another issue is that the idealization of decentralized platforms as ‘permissionless’ obscures invisible but significant barriers to entry that currently exist. The argument being made by leading tech entrepreneurs, which maps perfectly onto the broader conversation surrounding technology’s impact on society, is that they can be used by anyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The reality however contradicts this: in practice, it requires an abundance of resources, time, and access to the internet to build a successful entry into Web3 spaces. 

This discourse is idealistic to the point of being harmful. A recent interview with the father of Web3.0, Gavin Wood, illustrates this disconnect perfectly. When asked about the reality that most individuals likely would not be able to teach themselves how to succeed in these spaces, Wood responded that “You can be in a random little village in India, that just happens to have an internet point, and you can learn JavaScript in a week”. As someone whose grandfather came from one of these ‘random little villages in India,’ I can tell you firsthand that there are likely no individuals who, between keeping a roof over their heads and their children fed, are banking on their entry into the world of crypto being the solution to their problems. On a note closer to home, most Americans right now, are not focusing on getting a piece of this admittedly exciting, new pie. They are instead trying to afford groceries, gas, insurance; the list goes on. 

The current demographic distribution of entrepreneurs involved in these spaces does not reflect a new, dramatic societal shift, which is the vision evoked by the language thought leaders in these spaces use to describe decentralization. Rather, the distribution mirrors offline social dynamics. While there are some impressive uses of the technology to uplift individuals from marginalized backgrounds such as DEI initiatives on the platforms and the use of DAOs as mutual aid funds, these remain dots of color in a sea that is predominantly white, male, and wealthy. 

Tech idealists present decentralization as a remedy for the ills of society. They point to a new power being put in the hands of the people, both socially and economically. In their haste to declare Web3.0 the future of healthy democracy and economic equality, they conveniently ignore the fact that it is this environment that they were created in and thrive upon.

This criticism of Wood and his brainchild is not to condemn Web3.0 as another exercise in capitalism that’s built-to-fail. It is, however, to warn of building a future based on the theories of benevolent tech dictators without a clear and persistent effort to orient these technologies towards the segments of society that need it. Zuckerberg’s fantasy of the Metaverse was his own. He mistook his monopoly on power for popular support. We must challenge this power, and channel it into avenues that actually address our failing democracy and the persistent plague of poverty and hatred that rising inequality has brought forth. 

While many are trying to solve the technical barriers facing Web3.0, few have presented meaningful solutions to address these invisible barriers or their ethical implications. Part of this is due to the fact that decentralization on the web is still in its infancy, but a good deal lies in the fact that discourse around these platforms doesn’t see these immaterial limitations as valid. This fixation on ‘making it work’, though obviously crucial, detracts from thinking critically about who we are making “it” work for. It is time to reject the idea of innovation for innovation’s sake. 

When pressed, tech idealists will acknowledge these limitations, as Wood does in the aforementioned interview, but on the whole the tendency is to frame decentralized technology as infallible. This idealism fosters an unwillingness to consider any practical application of decentralized technologies to address inequality or the current breakdown of democracy. It is both unethical and deceptive to purport a piece of technology to have a wealth of social opportunities without ever taking meaningful action in pursuit of these opportunities. Put simply, where we look shapes what we find. 

I have hope that this new wave of decentralization could be meaningful, that it could change the way we see each other. I see a world that gets better, one in which we have trust in and love for each other. My own personal cynical tendencies, along with every single year of life that I can remember, tells me it probably won’t. What I’m realizing though is that sitting back and analyzing a world that could be, while at times helpful, doesn’t do anything. It’s time to chart this path ourselves.