[Do check out our extensive bibliographies for more readings.]
There's much to admire about decentralised infrastructures, even if we recognise that they also carry costs and risks of their own. But it's as important to ask just what kinds of infrastructures are feasible in the web3/crypto world – and which ones are not.
As appealing as the idea of user-funded infrastructures sounds in theory, it's not obvious how this would solve the problems related to 5G, artificial intelligence, or cloud computing. It might be tempting to think that we have long shifted to the world of immaterial production, where material, bulky, and expensive infrastructures do not matter.
This is not the case, in fact, as one recent paper shows, Big Tech firms have become more material over the past decade - i.e. they carry fewer immaterial assets on their balance sheets today than they did before. Alphabet’s R&D spending in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 was $16,6 billion, $21,4 billion, $26 billion, and $27.5 billion respectively. In 2020 alone, Amazon spent $42.7 billion on research & development.
In comparison, az16, the largest VC company active in the web3 space, has a total value of $20 billion, its crypt-fund capped at modest $3 billion. It's a lot of money but it's not the kind of money that can meaningfully take on the remnants of Web2.0. They will keep investing into undersea cables and data farms, which might actually be powering so much of web3 already.
A good account of the capitalist dynamics in the conventional Web 2.0 space can be found in Cecilia Rikap's excellent new book on "intellectual monopoly capitalism." Here many papers, including the one on Amazon, are worth reading as well.
A useful counter-point to those insisting on the "blockchainificatoin" of everyting is the recent work that sees "Big Techification" of everything. Given the overall capitalist dynamics, it seems more likely the latter camp has it right. Big Tech has also become extremely financialised, ensuring its centrality to the global capitalist economy. Whatever the benefits of the Small Tech - with or without crypto - without radical political interventions, we could safely assume that Big Tech is here to stay (just to understand its role in contemporary capitalism, look no further than its relationship to Big Oil).
Mel Hogan has done some wonderful work on the infrastructures hiding behind the Web2.0 labels, including on the "data center industrial complex." There are also enormous inequities in the provision of infrastructure between the Global North and the Global South, which reinforce many of the other existing inequalities (see this recent study). Worse, the particular way that many of the current digital infrastructures in the Global South work is the result of the colonial legacy. It would be hard to fix that with crypto.