To understand Web3, one needs to recognize not only how it aims to differ from the previous generation of web-based services, but also the functional equivalence between traditional and digital bureaucratization, or manual vs. automated bureaucracies. Both are based on formal rules of procedure (protocol) but whereas the former relies on human intermediaries (‘middlemen’) to perform administrative functions such as keeping information records and facilitating transactions in reference to these records, the latter pushes humans to the edges by replacing manual administration with computers and software. This results in more technological intermediation or, as I’ve come to call it, middlemachines.
Middlemachines are not original to Web3. The history of technology is also a history of the gradual rise of middlemachines, although the pace of innovation was relatively slow prior to the Industrial Revolution. Early forms of modern middlemachinery, such as pneumatic tubes and mechanical calculators, have a narrowly defined purpose and limited capacity, and require a lot of manual work to integrate and interact with their surroundings. More advanced middlemachines are based on digital information and communications technologies (ICT), and are organized into networks of increasing complexity and automation. In this view, early intranets, the World Wide Web, centralized digital platforms, and Web3 are all part of the same techno-administrative revolution centered around digital ICT.
Not all middlemachines are created equal. It matters how the underlying protocols are governed, whether users have the option to opt in and out of the system without incurring significant costs, and how much control users have over their data and transactions relative to various administrators and intermediaries that may emerge as the middlemachinery evolves. Web3 aspires to empower individual users within the confines of software and social protocols that determine the nature, scale, and scope of possible interactions. Again, this is comparable to traditional institutions, except that Web3 is more natively digital, global, and at least principally committed to the ethos of decentralization, open source software, and censorship-resistance. Combined with the incentive and coordination mechanisms enabled by blockchain-based tokens, Web3 is therefore an attempt to reimagine how digital infrastructure and services are financed, built, deployed, governed, and consumed.
What is the societal function of middlemachines? What do middlemachines produce? A key purpose of all recordkeeping and administrative procedure is to produce and institutionalize knowledge. Knowledge is closely intertwined with power because it is often through legitimate records and means of interpreting information that social relations are institutionalized. What and how a society remembers is foundational to how it is structured, and control over the production, storage, and processing of official or otherwise authoritative information has always been a hallmark of powerful institutions. Whether Web3 joins government agencies and corporate digital platforms as one such institution while staying true to its core principles is not a foregone conclusion. But, as long as the number of people relying on this emerging middlemachinery both as a legitimate source of information and a coordination tool grows, the amount of resources allocated toward its growth and reproduction will also keep increasing.
How Crypto is Shaping the Digital Revolution (October 2021)
The Evolving Landscape of Digital Governance (February 2021)
The Great Automaton (December 2020)
On Autonomous Software (March 2020)