An essay by Evgeny Morozov
Back in 2012, when I was working on my long essay on Tim O’Reilly and Web 2.0, I came to reflect upon the role of language in structuring how we think about digital technologies, their politics, and their inevitability.
Was the "Web 2.0" buzzword salad that was being weaponized by Tim O’Reilly merely reflecting, however badly and inaccurately, some pre-existing reality? Or was it also bringing a completely new reality into being - for example, by insisting that there were no alternatives to the self-evident but unstoppable chimera of “Web 2.0”?
For all my criticisms at the time, I recognized O'Reilly as a master of linguistic manipulation second to none. My extensive research on O’Reilly revealed that he was intimately familiar with the discipline of general semantics. While today it languishes in obscurity, it was very popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The founder of general semantics, the Polish count Alfred Korzybski, is now chiefly remembered for his pithy saying that “the map is not the territory.” I was doing some archival research on the history of general semantics at the time – one day, it might even get published – so it was fun to apply this more formal intellectual lens on one of Silicon Valley’s thought-leaders.
It didn’t much matter what “Web 2.0” was about as long as O'Reilly remained its chief interpreter, boosting his own publishing and conference ventures along the way.
In the end, the argument of my O’Reilly essay did not pursue the path of what academics might call “performativity,” i.e. the idea that language creates realities rather than merely reflects them. Rather, I saw O’Reilly’s intellectual activities as a form of linguistic and analytical pollution: having read almost everything he’s published or said in public, I came to see him as a deeply opportunistic character. He would often change his definition of Web 2.0 – and the concepts that it was linked to – depending on where the market was going, mostly to suit his own intellectual and business agendas.
In short, I did not see O’Reilly creating a new map, which, in turn, would create or reveal new territories. Nor did I see him creating new territories - so as to sell us new maps. Rather, I saw him as a humble “meme-hustler” who wouldn’t hesitate to alter a perfectly fine existing map to secure a more profitable turn for his business. It didn’t much matter what “Web 2.0” was about as long as he remained its chief interpreter, boosting his own publishing and conference ventures along the way.
It’s important to note that while his Web 2.0 advocacy had some success with the general public, the tech companies that were lumped under the “Web 2.0” label didn't much much care for the yarns that O’Reilly was spinning. Nor was there any “Web 2.0” premium added to their valuation. The viability of that term as a coherent cultural and economic trend was never a serious factor in how they were valued by the investors and the stock markets. In fact, everyone was expecting these firms to fully embrace “Web 3.0” – which, at the time, meant mostly semantic technologies.
With Web3, things are different. The link between language and reality is much more immediate and direct. Here, we are no longer talking about linguistic, intellectual, or analytical pollution, even though they are, of course, present. No, we are finally talking about performativity, with new realities being born out of the very language itself. The advocates of Web3 are quite explicit about this: we’ve got this beautiful map on our hands – all that’s missing is the territory it is supposed to refer to. Perhaps, this is the right mindset for the Age of the Metaverse: if there's no reality, we'll create one by talking it into existence.
But what is the right materialistic analysis of this strange turn to idealism, with venture capitalists leading the way? What is the political economy that has produced this stunning but territory-free map? For one, the business model of most Web 3 ventures is self-referential in the extreme, feeding off people’s faith in the inevitable transition from Web 2.0 to Web3.
The Web3 advocates remind me of those annoying vulgar Marxists who, for all the evidence to the contrary, kept insisting that the objective developments within capitalism favor the inevitable transition to socialism
The value of the tokens that underlie many of the flagship Web3 projects is directly tied to the expectation that Web3 is here to stay and that things will become only more liquid and interconnected (or “interchained”): tokens from one DAO universe will be valuable in another one; even more activities and processes will be fractionalized and tokenized; even more institutions will turn into DAOs and more objects, from books to films, will turn into NFTs.
This is why all the true Web3 believers have forgotten how to use present and past tenses, let alone modal verbs: every statement that they make about Web3 is not about what it is or what it might be. No, their every statment is – almost invariably so – about what it will be. The transition is inevitable; better stock up on the right tokens – or the fear of missing out will eat your soul.
The Web3 advocates remind me of those annoying vulgar Marxists who, for all the evidence to the contrary, kept insisting that the objective developments within capitalism favor the inevitable transition to socialism – only then to spend decades elaborating sophisticated templates, with plenty of vivid, utopian detail of what that inevitable arrival of socialism would be like. As a result, we have plenty of fascinating templates, but, somehow, the objective conditions for that transition are no longer there (if they ever were).
The self-referentiality is not to be underestimated. In the end, Web3 is mostly about Web3; there is no “there” there. For all the talk about off-chain events and oracles, there’s no real outside to it: even the very concept of something being “off-chain” presupposes a certain kind of chain-centrism, with the assumption that everything, everywhere will eventually be fractionalized and tokenized and brought onto the chain.
Given these two rather prominent features – self-referentiality and performativity – one would think that the very concept of “Web3” – and the broader historical and political narratives that it enables – would merit far greater critical scrutiny. For example, if one doesn’t accept that “Web 2.0” was ever a valid analytical term, why embrace a deeply political narrative that seeks to fix the problems of a non-existent paradigm by ushering us into a new one?
Ironically, many of the VCs who gave us the reality that O’Reilly served under the label “Web 2.0” are now leading the populist battle to give people the “Web3” they deserve.
Likewise, what kinds of notions of progress and modernization are we inadvertently accepting in normalizing “Web3,” with its immense – yet somehow invisible – historiographic baggage, as a valid analytic concept?
Yet, these are not the kinds of questions raised by the proponents of Web3. Perhaps, they see no value in asking them: as the transition seems inevitable, why bother with all these pesky intellectual debates?
Even if one does accept “Web 2.0” as analytically useful, one should then at least acknowledge that its relation to its own predecessor was not adversarial – it was a far cry from how Web3 relates to Web 2.0 today. People like O’Reilly didn’t oppose Web 1.0 – they lamented its premature collapse on the ruins of the dot-com bubble. The whole vibe of Web 2.0 was about *rebuilding* something great while making it even greater and more participatory; it was not about moving away from something awful.
At the time, no VCs were saying that we should move away from Web 1. Ironically, many of the VCs who gave us the very tech and economic reality that O’Reilly tirelessly spun under the label of “Web 2.0” are now leading the populist battle to give people the “Web3” they deserve. It’s all very admirable but shouldn’t they do some public penance for their earlier sins first?
If you ever listened to those inside the a16z universe sing praises to Web3, you would never know that Marc L. Andreessen sits on the board of Facebook (since 2008!) and he has coached its founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. If there are people to blame for how Web 2.0 has turned out, many of the a16z employees are surely high on the list.
Instead of such contrition, the VCs, with a16z in the lead, are busy launching publications, podcasts, and magazines to launder the new talking points about Web3. All of this is meant to convince the public that the overall terms of the debate have already been set and that the only outstanding issue is just how quickly everything is to turn into a DAO or an NFT. By now, their game plan is obvious: VCs aspire to privatize the future, forestalling any alternative conceptions of its institutional and political make-up. It’s not for nothing that the flagship publication of a16z is called – wait for it – Future.
Web3 think-tanks will inevitably follow. There’ll always be plenty of academics, intellectuals, and policy experts who would accept cash for lending their names and reputations to such dubious ventures; in that sense, Web3 would do exactly what Web 2.0 firms have been doing. If you thought that, by channeling insane amounts of money to academics, Alphabet and Facebook have completely poisoned the public debate on privacy or antitrust, wait until the proponents of Web3 weigh in on meritocracy, inequality, and creativity.
The cynics might simply dismiss such efforts as an organized campaign to spin a favorable narrative around Web3. They would be right. Such critique, however, would miss the most important point: there’s no Web3 outside of this narrative; it’s spin all the way down. This is not to deny that there are real projects and protocols being built by real and dedicated developers. But their value – and the reason why there’s money flowing into them – is unintelligible without the broader Web3 narrative that suffuses them with the nearly millenarian spirit of total and radical change. This was not the case with the companies that O’Reilly lumped under “Web 2.0”: some of their business models may have been ridiculous, but they were mostly shielded from his linguistic incontinence and the unpredictable destinations that it would bring him.
If we are serious about reversing the privatization of the future, our main preoccupation should, paradoxically, be with producing a critical account of the past.
How does one criticize a flawed, unrealistic, and extremely partial narrative that is, nonetheless, being rapidly turned into reality? This is not a problem that one can solve by adopting a more pragmatic, solutions-oriented attitude that many of the proponents of Web3 demand from their critics. The goal here cannot just be to find a more progressive use for DAOs or tokens or NFTs. I’m sure they exist – and many more of them can be found in due time. But what is the point of such search expeditions, when, in the end, such efforts are only likely to help in the left-washing of the Web3 brand, giving it the progressive legitimacy it would lack otherwise?
The problem with Web3 is that the self-referentiality of its discourse renders the arguments of its genuine and well-meaning proponents flat and one-dimensional. Most of their paeans are deeply ahistorical; they just accept a very twisted definition of Web 2.0 and move on to make some points about the inevitability of DAOs or NFTs. They lack any engagement with the political economy of global capitalism or even a cursory analysis of the many social movements that are still contesting it. They reason, primarily, by drawing on examples from the worlds of art and computer games, hardly representative of how most people live and work. They are unable to view the state as anything but a rent-seeking and surveillance-obsessed pathology that cannot be reformed or repurposed; one could only tame or abolish it. They cannot even hint at a future where capitalism is not the order of the day, seeing their task as inventing new – perhaps, decentralized – ways of making it more tolerable. This is why, in the best of cases, the Web3 crowd would only give us the kind of cooperative stakeholder capitalism the Davos Man has promised a while ago, but has, so far, been unable to deliver.
Now, should we trust these people, no matter how well-intentioned they might be, to guide society into the future, given that the future itself is being privatized by the VC industry? I’d say “no.” If we are serious about reversing the privatization of the future, our main preoccupation should, paradoxically, be with producing a critical account of the past. Had we succeeded in deflating the Web 2.0 narrative spun by the likes of O’Reilly, the idea of Web3 might have been hard to operationalize today. This is not an argument against periodization; “always historicize!” remains a powerful call to arms. But this is an argument against accepting spurious periodizations that are spun by the meme-hustlers of this world: they provide no solid foundation for political analysis, let alone political action.