June 16 20 minutes published 20 Mint, the edition devoted to Web 3 and metaverses. On June 28, Primavera de Filippi, a researcher at the CNRS and the Berkman-Klein Center at Harvard, presented a keynote address on the metaverse at USI events. To push the reflection, we went to ask him a few questions.
You are involved in the Open Knowledge Foundation, which aims to promote knowledge and open data, you are a member of the Creative Commons association, which is committed to more open solutions than intellectual property… How do blockchain and the Can Web 3 help to promote a free culture?
In today’s internet, it is the platforms that manage the resources. Today, when I post something on Twitter or Facebook, I create value for them, but get nothing in return. The blockchain makes it possible to develop reward systems for our digital productions. In Web 3, one can create a tokenization system (a token is a token, monetary or not, issued on a blockchain) where because I have created something, I receive something else in return – money if we use a method of financial compensation, it right to participate in the governance of the platform if we take the perspective of decentralized autonomous organizations, etc. The Web 3 creates a form of ownership on our works and allows a very interesting disintermediation.
Isn’t there a contradiction between the search for commons managed through decentralized networks and the most visible uses of the blockchain, crypto-assets, NFT, which seem to be precisely related to the expression of a proprietary right to elements that were previously shareable?
The problem is rather on the speculative side. The big difficulty with the creative commons is their business model: artists who use these licenses and want to live off their art have to rely on the real world – organizing concerts, selling merchandising – or else using non-commercial licenses to raise financing. withdraw their copyrights. However, with the blockchain, NFTs make it possible to sell copies. This is the revolution: anyone can sell and exchange copies of digital works, while the artist retains their intellectual property. It’s like with books: anyone can buy a version of the text, but the author retains his rights to it. And if we want an authenticated and signed version of the creation, we approach the model of photographs or lithographs, which are sold in several copies, but of which only a limited number are numbered and signed.
In fact, NFTs make it possible to create a system where content can circulate freely, but where artists can hold rights to digital copies and maintain control over the mind’s work. For example, Beeple is a creative commons artist: his works are accessible to everyone. But what people definitely seem to want is the Beeple-signed one-of-a-kind copy, which even pays $69 million for it. It’s very good for the artist, and it doesn’t affect the freedom of distribution, freedom of reuse, etc.
What do you think the ongoing crypto crash says about trust in technology, in the web3 universe?
In my view, the crash mainly reflects the problems of environmental financialization. It’s a matter of trust that people can agree on: if we expect our neighbors to sell their crypto assets, we’ll sell ours a little sooner and so on… But that doesn’t show anything special about the technology itself, it is just a speculative bubble that has burst. What this crash mostly reveals is the vulnerability of certain systems in the area of decentralized finance (DeFi). We realized they were very well built for periods of rising prices, but they didn’t know how to deal with sudden drops. It fixes things, but it’s really an application problem, not a technology problem.
Some Web 3 applications, video games like Axie Infinity, have given the impression that they can lift underprivileged people out of poverty, but hacks and the current crash have only made things worse for these people. How, in this case, consider Web 3 as a space of liberation? Isn’t it more likely to increase inequalities?
Liberation, inequality… It’s like the internet, both are possible. The fundamental question rests on adoption: who is going to research the blockchain, who is going to exploit its potential and in what direction are their applications going? The Internet, for example, we cannot criticize everything: it has allowed a real democratization of information. On the one hand it is great, but in other areas there is fraud, manipulation, you cannot escape it. It’s the same for Web 3 and metaverse. It is mainly a question of: “how do we know for sure that we are going in both directions? †
For now, it is clear that it is the profit that attracts new players. By the way, it’s kind of ironic to have these theoretically infinite digital worlds, which allow abundance and sharing, and that the first use you find there is to create artificial scarcity, ownership, exclusivity. We need to explore the new modalities these technologies offer us, invent new ways to participate and share rather than detect the same limitations as those of the physical world in metaverses. But the two poles are connected: it’s also the profits that make things happen. Once we achieve wider adoption of blockchains, we may see new applications emerge.
If adoption is driven by questions of profit accumulation, how could Web 3 not look like “Web 2” from the start, where much of the monetary value is captured by a small number of actors?
In conversation with founders of today’s internet, people who campaign for free culture, I see that many are against blockchains. But it’s a shame! They are the ones who should grab these technologies! I think it’s this hyper-capitalist image, this aura of speculation that makes them react like that. But it’s precisely because they’re working on commons issues that they need to get into Web3, the metaverses, and create the applications they want to see there. There are super interesting communities, like DADA, a collective of artists launched in 2017 in NFTs who are thinking about creating an ‘invisible economy’ precisely to escape the speculative logic of the medium. For me, in order for Web 3 to become like Web 2, as many players as possible should participate, anyone interested in questions of free and shared culture should explore the possibilities of the blockchain.
How do you view the environmental costs of the technologies behind Web3 and metaverses?
Historically, we can understand that blockchains worked through proof of work like bitcoin: nobody knew then, so there was almost no energy consumption. But today, it’s clear that if someone tried to recreate a blockchain with this validation model, no one would adopt it. The perspective of the proof of stake, on which Ethereum wants to succeed, is more interesting, it strives for a form of CO2 neutrality. What should catch our attention next is the positive blockchain experiments in carbon emissions: those that encourage sustainable activities, that test carbon tokens, that provide transparency about the energy consumed…
For example, there is a whole reflection on impact NFTs, which aims to integrate into the blockchain economic incentives aimed at protecting the environment. This type of project is interesting because it infers speculative strategies to increase the value of NFTs when the natural resources to which they are linked are in good condition. Initiatives like this bring together the two values we talked about earlier: speculation and the commons.