Under the rule of exploitative tech giants and surveillance states, the term “decentralization” has surfaced as a lightning rod of kaleidoscopic alternatives. This transitional moment is as dangerous as it is powerful: mass exasperation without clear values becomes easy target for new forms of oppression to further entrench us into capitalist logic and colonialist legacy. With no interest in pseudo-solutions, we must ask ourselves: will the proposition of Web3 lay fertile ground for the liberation we need and deserve, or libertarianism with a borrowed tongue?
I am not writing from a position of expertise. I’m writing as a tired and concerned user of digital technology. I’m writing for those of us who are constantly mandated to get on board with a plan of the future drafted without our input or consent, yet who know in our bodies and spirits of technologies far wiser than products of Silicon Valley. I’m writing for those trying so hard to listen to the Earth and each other so that we can act in right relationship in every aspect of our collective lives, including our digital ones. It’s on us to reclaim and reimagine everything.
“The struggle to understand and steer the interaction between the bitsphere and the biosphere is the struggle for community in the broadest ecological context.”
— Ursula M. Franklin, The Real World of Technology (1989)
The fever pitch of Web3 is driven by money. With the dawn of Bitcoin in 2008, cryptocurrency was born as an incentive mechanism to accelerate the adoption of blockchain technology at the scale and speed befit for a globalized world. This combination of on-chain ledgers with speculative token markets has since been eagerly ushered in by elite engineers, venture capitalists, opportunistic miners alike as the foundation of the “next web”. Dapps and DAOs seem to pop up overnight, each exclaiming they will “change the world” by setting up creator economies, making social media ownable, or building new carbon markets. Yet what’s really different about the slew of sleek interfaces that kick laptop fans into high gear and metaphors of space exploration not-so-subtly hinting toward a new era of conquest?
Under its shroud of novelty and complexity, Web3 sets out to hard-code the Internet with free-market economics, which has proven time and time again to exacerbate social and ecological injustices. Only, this next metastasis of hyperfinancialized global coordination under the guise of “decentralization” enables the technocratic elite to recentralize wealth and power while further abstracting themselves from the many layers of negative externalities that they are responsible for. To understand the true costs of this Capitalocene development, we must bring our criticality beneath the abstraction layer and investigate the social and geopolitical considerations that underlie Web3.
The many faults of this system must not be excused by its early stage of development but understood as the deliberate design of ongoing systemic oppression:
Web3 is vastly inaccessible by barriers of technological literacy, Internet bandwidth, and exorbitant fees alike. For those who can afford to pass through the gates of a DAO, low voter turnout tends to be a common phenomenon. Members in these scaled structures often find themselves delegating to a few decision-makers on questionable bases of social cache and technological expertise, thereby further widening the digital divide.
Building directly on the blockchain network is so complex to set up and manage that most DApps have resorted to storing user information via centralized servers and outsourcing on-chain transactions to intermediary API providers like Infura or Alchemy. Thus a next wave of platform oligarchs is calcifying around blockchain management, not excluding traditional corporations like Amazon stepping in for their share of the market.
To make an on-chain transaction, the user must pay a “gas fee”. This incentivizes miners to validate Ethereum and Bitcoin blockchain transactions through energy-intensive computational problems under the proof-of-work mechanism. Tokens are set to grow more scarce and valuable over time, so miners are encouraged to get in early and set up gear wherever energy is cheapest and regulation is lax in order to maximize their margins. Meanwhile, local inhabitants watch as their towns get taken over and become dependent on a singular volatile industry. When the miners move on, residents are left to contend with the rampage of energy and economic extraction as the latest victims of digital colonialism. Proof-of-stake is often suggested as a solution on the horizon. Still relatively unproven after a decade in development and thus much less implemented, its general criteria is no less alarming. In this consensus mechanism, the larger one’s existing asset holdings, the more likely they will win transactions and earn rewards, again carrying out a scheme of the rich-get-richer.
Meanwhile, decentralization holds radical roots and applications far beyond crypto-powered blockchain. Peer-to-peer structures like mesh networks and distributed file-sharing have been in development since the 1990s, and grassroots political movements, unions and co-ops since the dawn of time. Beyond the imagination or concern of the privileged class, decentralized technologies come into necessity where centralized systems fail. Moxie’s claim in his musings about Web3 that “no one wants to run a server” only further perpetuates an individualistic worldview while sidelining whole communities of collaborative neighbors, refugees, abortion-seekers, digital hacktivists, witchy femmes, and others targetted or neglected by dominant systems who must and indeed have learned to uphold technological sovereignty together.
“We believe that the feminist infrastructure, which is found underneath and on the sidelines, is often precarious and sometimes difficult to see. But it is widespread and disseminated, and at its core is the value and affection that the people, machines and ecosystems that constitute it offer each other.”
— Spideralex, Underneath and On the Sidelines: Sustaining Feminist Infrastructure Using Speculative Fiction
Along these peripheries, low-barrier skills go hand-in-hand with political awareness and community organizing to bring about decentralization as praxis. When commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) deliberately neglect to provide Detroit’s low-income Black and brown neighbors with bandwidth coverage in a common phenomenon of segregation called ‘digital redlining’, local technologists and organizers rise up to steward the last-mile wi-fi infrastructures their communities need. When state authorities tamper with or shut down Internet access in mass demonstrations in Hong Kong or Myanmar, protestors sustain communications by activating their phones as mesh nodes like a synchronised flock of birds on the move. Turning against the oppressive bounds of patriarchy and Western communication norms, women and girls in villages like Mirzapur bring their own vernacular knowledge sharing practices to life by weaving white box community-owned network devices. These decentralized strategies are relevant across situated contexts of crisis and resistance not because they are scalable or commodifiable but fractal and relational, yet this is precisely why they are never centered as “emerging or innovative ” in the dominant capitalistic narrative of technological futures.
Decentralization as praxis is rooted in direct action, striving to abolish capitalistic economics and supply chains which encode mass oppression into large-scale systems with many actors and minimal accountability. To cultivate technological sovereignty is to dismantle the veil of neutrality, decolonize our imagination, learn alongside movements of food and land sovereignty, and support the collective struggle for a Just Transition. If we increasingly chain our lives to the institution of capital, we are tasked with devising ever more elaborate structures to police the symptoms of individualism.
To bring about abolitionist futures, we must redirect our collective attention, skills, and energy toward a relational web:
Address the actual needs of our situated translocal communities which often cannot be met by one-size-fits-all solutions
Rekindle skills of deep listening, intimacy, and trust-building to facilitate care-based organizing
Devise and maintain Appropriate Technologies (AT) that are low-cost and energy-traceable
Center accessibility as an essential criteria and not an afterthought of ableist inconvenience
Integrate practices of harm reduction and conflict transformation across our many modes of communication and exchange
Uplift ancestral, colloquial, frictional, reusable and decomposable approaches to technology
It’s past time for the technocratic elite to surrender the hubris of building ever more complex solutions for the entire globe over. If you dare call for decentralization, start by decentralizing your wealth and power.
Note: I’m not interested in critiquing acts of soliciting resources from the currently well-funded space of Web3. Though pragmatic and sometimes necessary, such strategies are nonetheless inaccessible to most people, unsustainable for those who find themselves with access, and thus cannot distract us from the long-term task of ushering in truly liberatory futures.
📚 See below for a library of expansive possibilities, from DWeb to Web0 to the Organic Internet to Decolonial Tech!
A Rant about “Technology” by Ursula K Le Guin
Feminist Server Manifesto from the TransH@ckFeminists in Calafou, Spain
Logic Mag: From the Bottom to the Top by Mai Ishikawa Sutton
The Organic Internet: Building Communications Networks from the Grassroots by Panayotis Antoniadis
Deem Journal: Other Networks: Infrastructure and Equity on the Decentralized Web by Taeyoon Choi
Teaching Community Technology by Mother Cyborg
The budding movement of Web0 and html.energy by Laurel Schwulst and friends
Compost Mag: Until the Cows Come Home: Aamne Saamne Pi by Shafali Jain
Prototypes as Agents of Transition: The Case of DIY Wireless Technology for Advancing Community Digital Sovereignty by Hagit Keysar, Elizabeth Calderón Lüning, Andreas Unteidig
Consensus Building: The Clash Between Governance and Everyday Life, a discussion between Nikiwe Solomon and Adrian Van Wyk
Governable Stacks against Digital Colonialism by Nathan Schneider
Community Tech NY's Journey Map
The Oracle for Transfeminist Technologies by Coding Rights and Design Justice Network
Digital Witchcraft by Danae Tapia
Mapping Access by Critical Design Lab
Max Fowler's Guide to Serving a Website from a Raspberry Pi and other resources
Shared Body, a cyberwitch coven by Cy X
Blockchain Chicken Farm by Xiaowei Wang
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
virtual care lab's Terms that Serve Us
Contribute your own readings, spells, recipes, quotes, and memes to the < Network Doula Library > open channel on Are.na. Let's learn together ✧
This is the first piece of a series of writing in which I set out to investigate, grieve, and help shift our relationship with networked technologies.
Thank you to Xiaowei Wang, Mai Ishikawa Sutton, Wassim Alsindi, Panos Antoniadis, Sultana Zana, Max Fowler, Bhavik Singh, Marcus Brittain Flemming, Jazsalyn, Rachel K. Simanjuntak, Alexander Babbitt and many others for your soulful guidance and solidarity.
This work was supported by 0x Salon as an output of my research residency in Spring 2022.