In 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace", a poetic proclamation of victory in the battle for a free and open web; an affirmation of what the internet could mean both socially and politically. It was an important piece of internet history that still resonates today. But just a decade later, platforms like Facebook began their rise to power and the vision for an open, semantic web was quickly forgotten in favor of something as benign as an easy to use "like" button within a social walled-garden.
Over the years I’ve started to worry that the same thing is happening to web3. Over time it has, in some circles, moved slowly from a relatively grassroots movement aimed at transforming our relationship with money in a post-financial crisis, post-snowden world to a place where institutions are once again encouraged to grow systemically too big to fail. It has become a place where we can engineer our own disasters more openly and transparently.
SBF’s ‘fraud’ is not something that was accomplished alone. He was supported perhaps even unintentionally by people in web3 (and in the media beyond) who have forgotten, like those who have forgotten Barlow, what a new system of value could mean and why communities like Ethereum emerged in the first place. He was supported by people whose primary motivation for forking the existing system was to be on top. This is a disappointment, it is a tragedy, and it has caused a lot of harm. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for better ways to find a voice or make an exit, and it is not an indictment of web3 (or the decentralized web) generally.
What SBF has helped show more than anything is that even in an ostensibly trustless world, we cannot truly trust institutions. Instead, we need to learn to trust each other. We need new systems, not institutions, that help us achieve that.
Rather than proudly declaring that “crypto is dead”, we should take this time to reflect on our values and how these tools could help us towards the kind of world we actually want to see. Certainly, I am one of many who believe such a world isn’t very close to the status quo, which should come as no surprise with confidence in institutions at an all time low. Our voice and exit opportunity is to either take herculean efforts to reform the existing systems through decades of careful voting, or earnestly attempt to make new ones intentionally.
For my part, and for many others in web3, I am more convinced than ever that we can and should work towards a new world powered by open source, community owned infrastructure; towards a decentralized world where public goods for any local (even digital) community can be provisioned in a mutualist way that strengthens trust rather than diminishing it or abstracting it. Centralized exchanges and centralized philanthropic initiatives like effective altruism are often the antithesis of that. Perhaps the absurdists among us think it's actually +EV to have a massive centralized entity rise to prominence only to become this decade's Enron. Perhaps others want to see it all burn anyway. But the reality is we need less unaccountable institutions, whether in the form of FTX or in the form of legacy platforms being fought over by billionaires (maybe even with good intentions).
Once again, we need to remind ourselves that for our politics to be prefigurative we have to actually build new ideas rather than just criticizing existing ones. We have to remind ourselves that it is acceptable to build solutions to problems locally without the burden of expectation that all forms of intractable wicked societal problems are also remedied. And we have to get to work.
Let’s not write off a decade’s worth of effort because of bad actors, let’s not lose the potential to maintain our privacy, to create community currencies, or to build back trust with each other. Let’s build a future worth fighting for.