Albert’s Fun Facts Science Corner: Blockchain Eats the Internet or Dies Trying

In his 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” Neal Stephenson coined the word “metaverse.” To Stephenson’s characters, the metaverse represents a sort of egalitarian ideal. Separate from the constraints of material reality, what you can achieve in the metaverse isn’t limited by your wealth, but by your ability to arrange information, to program, to innovate. Sure, if you have a beefier computer you can get some fancier graphics for your avatar, and some places in the metaverse have started charging money for entry or use of their services, but who cares about graphics? And if you’re really skilled enough, you can just create for yourself whatever great attraction is being held behind a paywall. People can copy code, share data. Information flows freely, at least when people don’t go to great lengths to encrypt their precious files or disallow access to their little corner of the internet.

30 years later, the metaverse is pretty familiar to most of us, but it inspires more groans and dread than it does dreams of technological anarchism. What’s happened is that the idea of property ownership, oh so important to maintaining the capitalist stability which the original metaverse was meant to subvert, has become central to the idea of the metaverse. The only people who seem stoked about it are Zuckerburg and an army of NFT diehards who manage to blend all the worst qualities of a finance bro and total loser computer science nerd. To understand why we got here and how NFTs have ruined the metaverse, we’re going to have to rewind a bit and understand why bitcoin and blockchains were invented in the first place.

Satoshi Nakamoto, or at least someone who went by that name, was very interested in moving money around on the internet. Electronic money transfers are basically a contract, and banks oversee these contracts to make sure that no one’s committing fraud by spending money they don’t have. Nakamoto didn’t like this system. Having a bank in between to adjudicate issues like double payment seemed too cumbersome. Banks incur costs, they have to pay salaries to their employees and so on, so fees get added on to transactions like this. What Nakamoto wanted was a way to ensure that everyone involved in the online marketplace had access to the exact same information about the history of transactions without having to have a centralized authority like a bank keeping track of it all. What Nakamoto came up with was blockchain.

The blockchain is this unified record (nerds call it a ledger) of all transactions. The beauty of the blockchain is that it’s not a program, it’s not like there’s one computer out there keeping track of all the bitcoin commerce, instead it’s a protocol. It’s a way of sending information which ensures that everyone is on the same page. It includes its own history and synchronizes it across people using the protocol in such a way that to hack the ledger and make changes to it requires having control of the majority of computing power in the market which, if lots of people are making bitcoin transactions, becomes very hard to do.

NFTs are an offshoot of Nakamoto’s original blockchain. NFTs also exist on a blockchain, but instead of each block holding information about transfering money, each block can store arbitrary data. You could have a block contain a little message, an image, a piece of code. These items, or “tokens” aren’t interchangeable with one another like bitcoins are. While one bitcoin is always equivalent to any other bitcoin, each NFT is a unique digital object. That’s where the “non fungible” part of “Non Fungible Token” comes from.

Any NFT bro fresh out of Twitter’s Blockchain Academy will tell you that NFTs are exciting because they’re decentralized. Keeping track of ownership is out of the hands of the big banks and now the community maintained ledger is in charge! What they gloss over (or neglect to understand) is that the blockchain part isn’t what makes NFTs decentralized, it’s what makes NFTs about ownership. Information on the internet is decentralized all the time. If you read Riley Shahar’s recent piece in the Quest, “‘Protocols, Not Platforms’: A Mantra For The (We Can Only Hope) Post-Twitter Internet,” you should be familiar with the myriad methods of decentralization that protocols can provide. All NFTs do is tell you who “owns” the token (the concept of ownership here is just barely meaningful) and makes sure that everyone on the ledger agrees on who that owner is. Finally, the Zuccs of the world have a way of enshrining ownership and capital in the digital world that had for so long subverted such concepts. Ownership, exclusivity, wealth, have moved into the metaverse.

There is, however, another reason that the metaverse has become so tied up in NFTs and Crypto, and that’s because they’re all massive scams. Blockchains have huge problems as far as being an actual way of doing money. I could spend a lot of page space with boring details, but at the end of the day, these technologies aren’t all that useful to most people, and instead they’ve become speculative markets and places for grifters to con terminally online libertarians into investing in a digital world that will never exist.  The metaverse is sold to these suckers as what will actually bring value to their digital assets. Once we all start living in the “web 3.0,” they’re told their stupid monkey pictures will be a hot commodity. In reality, we have no need for decentralized digital ownership. If the NFT gospel of the metaverse is fake, then all who invest in it are pouring their money into the hands of shameless grifters. If it’s true, then the concept of ownership the internet was meant to escape comes crawling back into it. What worries me is not the latter scenario coming true, but that so many people are willing to kiss their money goodbye on the off chance that doing so will bring it about.

By Albert Kerelis.

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