Barrett Lyon, The Opte Project. Mapping the Internet. 2003. Digital print from photo file. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer. © 2022 Barret Lyon

Lately, it seems like you can’t open Twitter or the New York Times without reading something about Web3. What first began as an experiment isolated to tech-savvy communities has now grown to encompass all of us—including artists, like Refik Anadol, who are turning to new technologies as a creative tool for their work.

In Unsupervised, Anadol’s new installation at MoMA, the artist makes use of a core part of the Web3 technology: blockchain. But what is blockchain technology and how does it relate to Web3? If there’s a Web3, does that mean there’s a Web1 and Web21 as well? Even more importantly, why should we care about any of this?

In this month’s Ten Minutes podcast, we explore these questions with Tricia Wang, a tech ethnographer who studies the ways technology shapes our humanity. For Wang, Web3 offers enormous creative potential. In this new vision for the Web, we can tell new stories, explore our identities, and build more equitable communities.

Barrett Lyon, The Opte Project. Mapping the Internet. 2003

Barrett Lyon, The Opte Project. Mapping the Internet. 2003

To hear more about Web3, blockchain technology, and the future of our online identities, click on the SoundCloud audio below.

See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.

Tricia Wang: I’m Tricia Wang. I am a global tech ethnographer. This means that I like to watch how people use technology and figure out better solutions. A lot of my research is really providing a new framework to think about personhood and how we express ourselves online.

I came in at a time when social media exploded in the world and what I found out was that people were using social media to create these anonymous identities, playing with their gender, their sexuality, their stories. There was a proliferation of elastic selves.

Since 2015, I still have been going back to look at how people are using social media, but also I’ve been doing a lot of research into Web3.

The framework I like to use that’s often cited is: Web1 was just all about read. You can read information that was posted online. And then with Web2, you could read and write—meaning you could read information and then you can write things, you know, like blog posts, you can write stuff on Facebook, you can post it online. It was read and write.

But the thing that was fundamentally missing in Web1 and 2 was a mechanism to own what you were writing and posting online. So that’s the third word that really describes Web3. It is read, it is write, and it is own. You get to own that data and you can control it.

So I was like, well, actually, can you? That’s what I started asking. And when I looked around, I was like, this is incredible. You know, the ideals of Web3 are all about returning us back to, really, the goals of Web1, which is decentralization.

So the idea of decentralization is super important in technological systems, because what it explains is that there is information stored in multiple places, and it’s not all stored in one area, one database.

And the reason why decentralization is important is that when you centralize all your data in one place, you become more susceptible to top-down control. Information is much safer when it lives in decentralized ways.

So the idea behind Web3 is that we’ve developed all these new ways to manage that. And the blockchain is a core thing behind Web3. It’s one of the core parts of the technology stack.

So the blockchain is like an accounting book. If you write down what you do, like your diary or an accounting book, you write down: these are things that have happened.

So imagine if you’re like, I wanna put my diary in like 20 places, so that in case my current diary or my current accounting book burns down, there will be transactions or, like, memories that were written in 20 places and all of those 20 places had the same copy.

It’s just a way of recording information that makes it really hard to change, so that even if one of your diaries or one of your accounting books goes away, there are still 19 other copies of it.

And so that’s really the idea behind blockchain, around decentralization. That the information that is being recorded—whether it’s financial information or whatever kind of transactions—it’s on chain. On chain meaning it’s stored in enough places where if one node goes down, there will be more. There’s gonna be a whole network of computers that still have it.

One of the first places you saw that playing out was around cryptocurrency saying that “we can solve for financial inclusion.”

So much of the world is not allowed into the current financial system; Web3 is gonna solve that. We’re gonna use these decentralized mechanisms to enable more people to be able to participate in the financial economy, right?

And so my question was, like, is that really happening? And I was really worried that it wasn’t happening. Because you saw that the same players that made money from Web2 were going into Web3. But also, at the same time, there was a lot of new players. There was more people of color that I ever saw than Web2.

So I realized that I wanted to be at the forefront of Web3 and not be in a more passive state, as I was in Web1, and in more of a research state in Web2. I really wanted to make sure that I was helping set that agenda and asking the most important questions up front, before things became mainstream.

And so that’s my work in Web3: to really understand, what is the benefit of blockchain for society? How is that impacting our identity?

The promise of blockchain is that it’s unchangeable. Once data is on the blockchain, you can’t take it off.

But if you think about it, then that becomes a question of like, well, if our data is forever on the blockchain and I want to play with my elastic self, and I want to be able to remove information, is that possible?

Or is it that, in Web3, it’s a world that promises pure anonymity, pure decentralization, and anyone can just say whatever they want and it will never be attached to their given identity?

So many of the builders in Web3 are anonymous, and decentralized identity is such a core part of the Web3 experience.

It is incredibly important for our democracy and for the health of our digital humanity that we preserve anonymous spaces. These spaces have always been critical to society, especially to democracy—for whistleblowers, for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. You need safe spaces that are free of judgment to work through things. And you often don’t know it until you are that person who needs that.

I think that the blockchain should be one technology in a data stack that allows you to have a personhood that is fixed and unfixed. It should allow for both. Meaning if you have data out there, it should be allowed to be forever there, but if you don’t want it attached to your actual given name, we have to find ways to manage that.

Which is why I think that we all should be looking at Web3 as a place where we explore how our elastic identities will be expressed in our digital humanity.

So my goal right now is to ensure that Web3 is an accelerant of equity.

I really felt like, with Web1, I was a bystander. You know, it happened and I was a passive user of tools. And Web2 kind of took us all by surprise. Where I was researching it, but I was not at the forefront of saying, “Hey, this thing is going to be dangerous for all of us.” I was really just observing what was happening and more so asking, “Huh? Are these tools going to, you know, really help our humanity? Or is it gonna be dangerous? Or what is this really gonna do?”

I was really a researcher at that moment and watching and building tools, but I didn’t have any kind of alarm bells for Web2.

And now it is clear that there is a collective conversation that perhaps Web2 is not delivering the promises and that putting all of ourselves and our data up online without ensuring proper governance and protocols over how our data is collected—that it has not only brought great things; it has also brought great dangers, from misinformation to the risk of our democracy being manipulated.

And so, what I realized with Web3 is that—now that I have the wisdom of seeing Web1 and Web2—is that it’s less about ownership and more about control of your information.

The big shift and the big, kind of, urgent plea that I have for the world and anyone who is interested in our digital humanity is that we have to stop being so narrow minded in our ask for, what is the solution, which is being housed under “we need more privacy for ourselves and for our data.”

And all of this was really relevant in Web1 and in Web2. But right now, where you have more and more of our humanity putting themselves online and putting their data online, privacy policies just fall woefully short at protecting us.

I think that when you are fighting for privacy policies and advocating for that, it’s actually a narrowing. And it’s actually enabling many states and governments to enact regressive policies that actually enable more surveillancing.

The reality is not that we don’t have privacy. But we have to rethink privacy in a world where we have so much of our data out there that is digitized. And that lives in hundreds and thousands of places. We have so many representations of ourselves out there that we have to ask ourselves, what is the meaning of privacy now? And, is that the right thing we should be fighting for?

And my argument is: no. I think we should be fighting for our personhood.

Our personhood is our ability to have agency and to have self-determination over our lives. This is the thing that matters the most now in a digital humanity, where we’re more digitally human than we are physically human.

And in a world where we’re fighting for our personhood, this means that we really need to be fighting for how we are represented. It strikes that balance where you are acknowledging that there are different representations of you, but you’re, at the same time, saying, I wanna have more right and determination to decide how I get represented.

How do we actually guarantee this right to representation? I think the beginning, even the foundations for that to emerge, is we need a new framework. We need a new language to even think about this.

Technology is imperfect. And with every development, you have to make decisions of what to work on and what to deprioritize. There’s a lot of criticism—rightful criticism—that Web2 went in the wrong direction. That it became commercialized so quickly. And because of this commercialization, it created this thing called “users” where user data was quantified, and then it was financialized. We became a market, right? Like our data—our selves—were being monetized.

And so you can imagine if Web2 didn’t go in that direction, we would have a very different kind of online experience.

There’s always this tension in technology. People either want to bring back some of the original intentions or—do we try and come up with a new solution? And I think that is why Web3—you see a lot of excitement around it.

Tricia Wang is a tech ethnographer obsessed with designing equity into systems. She is cofounder of Sudden Compass and CRADL, the Crypto Research and Design Lab. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @triciawang.

This episode was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez with sound design by Brandi Howell.

MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

  1. Yes, we’re fully aware of “Web 2.0.” It was a rhetorical question.