Dirt: The Gen X Guide to Web3
Is this wave of internet idealists any different from the last?
Joy Howard’s career has taken her from a band called Seely to marketing for Converse, Patagonia and Sonos, and now to her outerwear brand Early Majority. Today, she dives into the subculture of Web3 idealism and its intellectual antecedents.
The year was 2008: Lehman Brothers collapsed and an anonymous figure (or figures) known as Satoshi Nakamoto created Bitcoin as a thought experiment. By 2011, Zuccotti Park was transformed by the protestors of Occupy Wall Street, including the late writer and academic David Graeber.
Bitcoin was an ideological undertaking, more philosophy than finance—“a crusade in the costume of currency,” if you will. Born out of disillusionment with the financial system, its founding documents are fundamentally political. “The root problem with conventional currencies is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust,” wrote Nakamoto at the time. Attracting both libertarians and anarchists over the years, Bitcoin has come to be associated with a right-leaning ideology of Peter Thiel types.
If Bitcoin maximalists are libertarians, then Ethereum (ETH) represents the ideals and aspirations of communitarians. Created by Vitalik Buterin in 2015 as an open-source public service that uses blockchain technology to facilitate smart contracts and cryptocurrency trading, ETH has emerged as the bedrock layer of what advocates say will be a new, open-source, decentralized internet. Pointing toward a variety of existing use cases, like crowdfunding for Ukrainian resistance, ETH’s proponents see it as a launchpad for progressive sociopolitical experimentation, like fairer voting systems or urban planning that will serve as a counterweight to authoritarian governments and disrupt Big Tech’s monopolization of our digital lives.
True believers also feel that David Graeber, whose inspiration Vitalik has acknowledged, provided evidence of the project’s feasibility and the inspiration for its undertaking. Graeber’s explosive bestseller The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, written with David Wengrow, replaces the dominant grand narrative of history that culminates in the modern regime of bureaucratic capitalism enforced by state violence. Instead it offers an exploration of a human past replete with political experiment and creativity that could still result instead in “mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality [and] simply caring for others.”
The distinctly feminist ring of these societal characteristics may explain why many feminists, such as Pussy Riot, find themselves at home in this communitarian blockchain movement, amid renewed interest in the thinking of the Italian feminist Silvia Federici. Her historical narrative Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation sits in resonance with Graeber’s own views on the origins of patriarchy as a fundamentally wrong turn in human economic history. Federici describes the enclosures of the commons—the privatization of public lands in the 18th & 19th century—as the root not only of women’s oppression, imperialism, and slavery, but also as a key shift away from solidarity and toward division.
This brings us to an unexpected artistic intellectual progenitor of Web3: Prince. It’s no coincidence that so many influential leaders in Web3 share a background in music, and will remember the mantra of DIY Gen-X’ers to “own your masters.” Creators in general and visual artists, in particular, have propelled Web3 culture forward, single-handedly creating the most monetizable use case in NFTs based on the hope that blockchain-based smart contracts can guarantee better distribution of royalties and the ability to register original ideas like scripts and songs as your own.
While many are too young to have lived through Prince renaming himself, that most radical act of protesting the artists’ forcible alienation from his work prefigured the greatest art heist of all time: Web2. Creators not only built the audience, but also created the content while reaping minuscule proportions of the gains.
If it’s difficult to discern ideology— that glue that holds culture together— then describing an emergent subculture, especially when living in it, may be even more difficult. When my own band got signed as part of the post-Nirvana indie major label gold rush and subsequently squeezed as Napster put an end to all that fun, I would have loved for someone to explain to me what in the hell was going on. It would have been especially useful to understand the ideology of our digital conquerers, in order to shape a counter-offensive. So that we can launch more unified counter-offensive to the crypto libertarians, I set out to describe Web3 ideology as a participant-observer, a process that has been described as trying to explain water to the fish. (I ask forgiveness from the fish, to whom there’s nothing lamer or stranger than talking about water.)
Five themes provide the ideological glue that holds this movement together:
1. Own your masters
Across every artistic medium, creators are using blockchain to take back control of their content and the audiences they’ve built. With artists leading the way, brands and communities will rapidly follow by embracing new forms of ownership, whether it’s ConstitutionDAO seeking to buy an original copy of the constitution or ManorDAO pooling its resources to create the leisure destination of the future.
Web3 builders seek to model their DAOs to prefigure the formation of new societies and institutions. They see DAO governance as the gamification of relationship building for better collective outcomes. Think of it as a new way to restore and manage the commons. In this new commons, creators hold power to decide whether to contribute or not. Similarly, knowledge can become a shared resource through applied social practice. A vision of a “knowledge commons” characterized by abundance drives the free and open source software movement, which has been at the heart of the regenerative finance movement covered below.
Collectivism has emerged as a dominant theme in sharp reaction to disillusionment with “MarketWorld” ideology—the belief that businesses can and would solve all problems. High-profile journalist and pundit Anand Giridharadas coined “MarketWorld” to describe an elite charade, whereby corporate leaders, following the lead of Silicon Valley, redefined social progress to suit their own interests. In Gen X terms, we saw do-goodism layered over me-generation acquisitiveness.
No wonder Web3 folks are obsessed with urban planners and utopian architectural movements—both of which brought art and engineering to bear on the task of building a more empathetic, beautiful, and vibey world. They’re actively engaged in statecraft for imagined communities.
A belief that the money will follow is implicit in all of these projects. But by meeting old needs in a new way, Web3 hopes to wrest financial value away from big tech incumbents. It reallocates it to builders and communities instead—a belief that animates the transformation of everything from golf clubs to nightclubs.
3. Kind vibes
Boomers love the History Channel’s version of societal transformation rooted in violent conflict and the struggle of organizing or campaigning. In contrast, Web3 embraces a kind of playfulness with occasional stoic overtones.
It's not doing well by doing good (more me-generation, MarketWorld vibes), but simply feeling good by doing good. As Wired writer Gilead Edelman observed of the conference, ETH Denver:
I came with a sense that for all the big ideas about social transformation that permeate Web 3 discourse, folks are, at bottom and without realizing it, using idealism about the common good as a pretext for searching for more personally fulfilling experiences. That is, they desire to *feel* more empowered + connected & seek experiences that *feel* invigorating-even if these experiences are ephemeral & can’t plausibly create the structural change social transformation requires.
In other words, even if it’s pointless, we’ll have fun and feel better doing it. Against the criticism that the exclusive nature of these groups runs counter to ideals of inclusion, proponents argue that it also serves to create a much-needed sense of identity and belonging. To counter financial exclusiveness, many, if not most, run vibrant grant programs (FWB, Gitcoin), focusing on mutual aid and support.
The term “regen,” itself a play on “degens” (which is short for “degenerates,” a term of endearment for crypto badboys), describes people who are using blockchain technology to to advance positive environmental impact. Because Regens believe that our current financial systems make it too easy to get away with producing negative externalities and letting the commons foot the bill, they’ve created regenerative finance, or ReFi. ReFi uses the tools of Web3 to price externalities, and charge or reward stakeholders based on whether outcomes are negative or positive. Regens often talk of climate change as a coordination problem. Says Gitcoin founder Kevin Owocki, “Ethereum is the ultimate substrate for human coordination.”
But there’s a deeper embrace of the regenerative powers of nature itself. Enthusiasm for the Wood Wide Web was sparked by the bestselling 2018 novel The Overstory and gave way to Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s surprisingly popular ethnography of the global matsutake supply chain: The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2021) and made the biologist Merlin Sheldrake into a celebrity.
Much like biomimicry aficionados in the late 90s, again today we find a deep belief that nature can be a model for the technologies and societies that we’re currently forming. It’s as if the new back-to-the-land movement is happening online. This explains the pervasiveness and resurgence of Whole Earth Catalog imagery that was so influential for Steve Jobs, and it’s why today’s Web3 leaders have more in common with someone like Tim Berners Lee than they do with Zuckerberg and Dorsey.
Regens particularly diverge from Web2 in a rejection of self-serving enlightenment. Nature became a backdrop for Burning Man, whose liberatory ideals became a backdrop for Web2 influencers and tech bros hobnobbing and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Jack Dorsey-style meditation retreats became another form of commodified Silicon Valley self-care.
Web3 gatherings like FWB Fest feel more relaxed and like true cultural happenings than goal-directed theater. People listened to ambient music while lying in inflatable chaise lounges sipping mushroom tea or attended talks on the future of creativity in a world of AI (heads up: we only have about 6 months until people stop caring whether a work of art was created by a human or a machine). This brings us to the differentiation between Regens and both previous cohorts of tech utopianists: a rejection of the belief that the technology in and of itself will lead to virtuous outcomes.
But how can anyone working with blockchain hold a credible conversation about regenerating nature, given its carbon intensity? First, they can work only on blockchains with reduced environmental impacts, (Ethereum's merge, which will dramatically reduce its energy consumption, is one of the most hotly anticipated events in the history of cryptocurrencies). Second, one can use the tools of blockchain to avert the climate crisis, which is exactly what Regens, and a host of other Web3 entrepreneurs, hope to do: from Toucan, which is building a new carbon market infrastructure, to Provenance, which uses blockchain for supply chain traceability, to my company Early Majority, who is developing a community-centered apparel brand as an alternative to the supply-driven growth model that dominates the industry today.
5. Time is the next frontier
Many early builders will quip that their first experience with crypto was buying drugs off the dark web, and this may explain why the space still carries a whiff of vape store vibes about it. However, it’s also possible that drugs simply are to Web3 what porn was to Web2, when it became the early use-case that gave the internet irresistible traction.
By rooting their story-telling and experiences in the visual language of psychedelia, Web3 builders hearken back to such inspirational figures as Stewart Brand and Buckminster Fuller. In doing so, they position themselves as natural successors to the early web utopianists.
For generations steeped in the burn-out life of the precariat, the undiscovered place is just the time—for leisure and love. An embrace of mind-altering substances not only heightens that experience of time but also supports the dissolution of subjectivity required to connect with nature and the collective. In the process, consuming mushrooms becomes an almost sacramental celebration of the regeneration of nature.
Now that I’ve outlined the ideology of Web3 builders, we have to ask whether they can be trusted because of their financial backers. As a friend recently challenged me:
Isn’t Web3 owned by the same VCs and overlords of 2.0, and all that’s taken off so far is bizarro tech guy conspicuous consumption to throw around their money for cultural capital? If it's going to work, it needs to work as a commons, which means that it won't be led by start-ups. You have people who want to be rich and famous chasing a tech that can only be useful with different actors.
In response to this concern, the Exit to Community Collective continues to attract attention and foster innovation and experimentation. The collective promotes cooperative conversions as an alternative to IPOs and acquisitions, for startups and their investors. Although their attempt to buy Twitter and Meetup were unsuccessful, they continue to point to successful examples, such as multi-billion cooperative banks, as inspiration for those seeking scale and profitability.
Finally, as Austin Robey noted in an earlier essay in Dirt, it could also simply be the case that VCs have to understand trends and patterns before they’re obvious. If this is where the creators of culture want to go, investors may have no choice but to support its evolution, no matter how strange and indecipherable it may appear to outsiders. If VCs back technology and people decide that they want to side with Buckminster Fuller and shape technology as “the architects of its future, not its victims,” then that’s where technology will go. — Joy Howard
The Dirt: Yuppies on the blockchain.
Dewy Dudes is a cultural commentary show in which skincare is the conduit to conversation. Emilio Quezada and Evan Shinn bring on a wide array of guests to talk about their beauty and self-care routines before diving into cultural commentary and banter. Keep your inbox dirty and your face clean. ;)