What Happened to the New Internet?2023-11-08
Lately, I've been asking myself a question – what happened to the New Internet?
By New Internet, I'm referring to the reformist and reactionary technology movements that began to bubble up in the early 2010s and could be unmistakably felt over the last five. I'm talking about the pushback by various groups of actors against social media, tech monopolies, platform capitalism, and the attention economy; the counter proposal of an indie web, a decentralized web, a Peer-to-Peer web, a permissionless web, even erasing the web entirely. Of course I am also pointing towards the whole monolith that is crypto. On an even more diffuse level, I'm thinking of the cultural backlash against 'tech bros' and startup culture; the call by many for slow, open, and humane technology. I'm thinking of the people who likened computers to gardens.
To be clear, these things were never one thing. They were fractured and messily interconnected from the jump. But insofar as the enemy of my enemy is my friend, even cryptobros and humane technologists stood on common (not necessarily firm) ground. Instead of a singular thing, we can think of the New Internet as a series of trends and movements that at times found themselves aligned over the same basic sentiment – 'the internet is broken' – even if the means they chose to do something about this heavily diverged. The thingness of the new internet is therefore closer to an archipelago than it is a continent. It may not be perfectly discrete, but you can more or less point to it, at least I think it's productive to do so.
It's also worth clarifying that the New Internet is in fact not new, at least not in the historically unprecedented sense of the word. Whether Cypherpunks or Net Artists, actors have proposed alternative visions for the internet since virtually its inception. So then what establishes the last decade's version of reform as a distinct era?
It's during this time that the internet 'ate the world' at the hands of Big Tech. In the process of becoming an intermediary for all aspects of society's hierarchy of needs, the internet's problems evolved from techno-utopian pet-peeves to literally an epidemic-scale public health crisis. The evolution was slow at first, then all at once. It's tough to establish a clear start date, similar to how it's tough to establish a clear start date for when we all became more online than not. Once the internet's problems reached a certain threshold of opacity though they became impossible to ignore.
It's under the confines of a post-Big Tech era that I think it's worthwhile to distinguish a new set of reactions to it. Like our archipelago metaphor, the goal here isn't precise cartography (or chronology). I merely care to say that the 'New Internet' is a thing and at some point became a thing. If not for entertaining these blurry boundaries I worry that this history might never get told at all.
If the New Internet is sufficiently a thing, and a contemporary thing at that, what's the value of pointing towards it and asking what happened to it? The ongoing project of reforming the internet continues to be vitally important, even if its problems are beginning to converge on accepted truths. Powerful companies, perverse incentives, all-consuming digital environments. We all know the tune. Together these conditions have brought us to a place of casual dystopia. We use the internet constantly everyday, but rarely without distress, be it conscious or subconscious. This is not to say it's not still capable of wonder, beauty, and bliss. It's just that these moments have become the exception before the norm. The internet works but not for us. This much is painstakingly obvious and has been for years. And yet, where are the better alternatives?
As it turns out, not long ago there was a whole generation of technologists who aspired to fix the internet. Now, many of these individuals, a portion of which I'm lucky to call friends, don't seem to be very interested in the reformist game anymore. It feels like an entire vibrant movement has been smothered and memory-holed, and nothing has proven satisfying to explain why. I want to get to the heart of what actually became of the only real attempt in my lifetime to push back against a dystopian internet. Even if it's just for personal reasons, I want to arrive at a more robust explanation than simply saying "people moved on," "markets changed," or god forbid, "it's a systems problem."
On one level the story of the New Internet is a story of crowds and markets. The technology industry moves in cyclical waves. Zealotry towards any one trend is relatively short-lived as entrepreneurs and investors instinctually clamor around the Next Big Thing. Sometimes, a trend crystalizes into a sector, whose staying power lies in the easy liquidation of hype for investment capital, which in turn is spent on tangible things like salaries, ads, offices, corporate lunches, etc. In this well-trodden game of tech venture capitalism, concepts that fail to drive or retain speculative behavior tend to disappear from public consciousness. Perhaps the New Internet suffered the fate of VC immateriality.
On another level, the story of the New Internet is a story of individuals and their psychologies. Over the last decade, technology workers have opened themselves up to a tremendous amount of value drift (the process in which previously steadfast values are compromised over time). For the subset of tech workers who strived towards the conceptual utopia that is the New Internet, this value drift was particularly extreme. While island hopping from one frontier to the next, it seems as if the original charter might have gotten a little muddled. As I like to say, we all got a little lost in the sauce. Many of those invested in the New Internet, a group I include myself in, are now in search of solid ground. We long to find a way to unite our utopian sensibilities with our pragmatic ambitions, and as time marches on, this search feels at once abandoned and yet deathly urgent.
The tech industry currently stands at a crossroads. At the twilight of social media, adtech, and crypto bull markets (bubbles?), tech workers and consumers are simultaneously exhausted by tech and starving for more. Shiny trends like Artificial Intelligence and Mixed Reality stand on the sidelines ready to transform latent frustrations into newfangled desires. The hype cycle so desperately wants to begin once more but the dust from the previous hasn't quite settled yet. In the vacuum of this interim period we're offered up a brief window of reflection. Before another cycle of froth and evangelism sets in, perhaps it's a good time to ask ourselves about what we just went through?
I'm writing this piece because I want to rediscover the lost values that surround the New Internet movement. I want to dust off and conjure the same feelings I felt in 2017 – the intense belief that another, better internet is possible, and that there are people like me who want it too. Maybe this conjuring is for the sake of resurrecting momentum. Maybe it's just for the sake of recollection going into whatever new era lies ahead. In either scenario, my ambitions aren't a product of some overly-nostalgic pipe dream. For myself, and I'd imagine others reading this, reclaiming the plot and ethos of the New Internet is the only way I can think of remaining excited about working in the technology industry without committing a careerist LARP. The goal here isn't just measuring value drift, it's realignment.
A Brief History of the New Internet
The New Internet that's in question here probably began to coalesce in the early 2010s. At first, it emerged slowly, stewing in the public discontent that grew out of an increasingly powerful and extractive tech sector. Just as much as it was a professional stance, the reaction was a visceral one. Many users of the internet were beginning to notice how it felt different to use. It had changed from something that in the early 2000s was reliably home-brewed and weird, to something increasingly frictionless and consumer-friendly. Entrepreneurs had always been using the internet to make money but during this time, the gospel of Y-combinator-styled startups supercharged e-commerce and advertising's profit potential. For the startup crowd, the pursuit of disruption was exhilarating, but for a certain set of end-users this transformation felt more like devolution than evolution.
Latent discontent towards the internet began to materialize into direct rebellion. Eruptions of undersea volcanoes were giving way to tiny islands peaking above the ocean. As is the case with most progressive movements, first came the artists, activists, hackers, critics, and theorists. We saw the construction of new frameworks and buzzwords for rallying detractors around. Platform capitalism, surveillance capitalism, the attention economy, the stack, cybernetic theory, fully automated luxury communism – each of these phrases would have their moment in the sun, as would the provocateurs who would sling them around in tweets, essays, and downtown parties. Theorizing didn't just emerge from the political left either. As was evidenced by creeping accelerationist and neo-reactionary movements, a darker vision of technological reform was desired by some who saw the internet as a means of not increasing equity but swiftly consolidating political power.
Around the year 2015 and soon thereafter, theories of change started to take shape into material solutions. Namely, the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) software movement, which had existed for decades but stepped into the background after the decline of torrenting networks like Limewire and Napster, came back to life as a full suite of internet applications that allowed enthusiasts to self-publish their own data and content online. This was the moment that we saw the most specific conception to-date of an entire new internet. Dat, IPFS, Scuttlebutt, and their counterparts were not just one-off apps and protocols but a discrete 'P2P web' that was different from the web you access Instagram on. Be it a naive fantasy or a grassroots revolution, the P2P web replaced the era's cynicism with sincere excitement. But just as this sub-movement felt like it was gaining momentum, attention shifted elsewhere.
Promptly sucking up all the oxygen from the P2P movement was what we now call crypto. From roughly the years 2017 to 2020, technological reform became inextricably connected to and consumed by various blockchain networks and their contained projects. The details of this cannibalism are complicated. The condensed story is that free-flowing, ideologically-supercharged investment capital captured the attention of young technologists who otherwise would have carried the torch of the P2P web forward. In crypto, an entire generation of alienated tech workers saw potential to have their cake (create a better, decentralized internet) and eat it too (get very wealthy).
The recent history of crypto has been defined by surreal highs and crippling lows. When cryptocurrency prices were up, it seemed as if crypto was poised to take over the world. When prices were down, crypto precipitated historical acts of corruption, fraud, and eventually prosecution. Even if it can find a way to crawl out of its latest downturn, the story with crypto over the last several years remains the same. It's not a story about coin prices themselves but the mania that can come out of obsession over coin prices. The more the crypto industry leaned into a self-described 'degen' sensibility, the more its focus seemed to shift from revolution to modest reform. Decentralization turned into Decentralized Finance. In the process of doing so, crypto captured an entire generation of tech workers and lured them far away from the values that attracted them to crypto in the first place. Ultimately the broader new internet movement, which had become nearly inseparable with crypto, was left stranded in a place it never intended to go.
In the present day, the Real Heads of decentralization are still around, still carrying forward the torch originally lit by the cypherpunks over two decades ago. But this crowd increasingly feels like its efficacy is structurally compromised by tokenization logic. 'Governance tokens,' which only a few years ago seemed to usher in a new era of funding for open-source technology, turned out to be more of a trojan horse than a panacea.
It remains to be seen whether any of crypto's well-intentioned tribes can regain control of the narrative. At the very least, can crypto produce a popular consumer application whose popularity isn't connected to finance and specifically, the buying and selling of crypto tokens? At the very most, can crypto still usher in a decentralized internet that's used by more than just purists?
Despite its gravitational pull, the story behind decentralization and the rise of crypto was just one island in the new internet archipelago.
Another island was reform via regulation. In the US and Europe, big tech saw itself periodically legislated, yet these reforms only occasionally had something to say about core concerns of social media and adtech. Fittingly, the small amount of legislation that was passed in the US was mainly concerned with tech's impact on US democracy. In spite of the occasional financial penalty (which, even at a billion dollars would only ever amount to a slap on the wrist for blue chip tech companies), lawmakers across the western democracies continue to fail to protect against the most acutely harmful aspects of internet technologies, not to mention proactively protect against future harm. In lieu of having much to say about the design of technology itself, one area where legislators did try to make progress was around antitrust regulation. Currently the US Department of Justice is suing Google in what is shaping up to be the highest profile antitrust case in decades. How this case exactly will shape the internet remains to be seen, although it’s hard to imagine even sweeping regulations on search results having a material effect on the underlying attention crisis.
Attempting to fill the gaps left by meek legislators were a handful of nonprofits and philanthropic actors. Right around the same time crypto took off the ground, this disparate group of evangelists started to wave the flag of big tech alignment around the issues of data privacy and the attention economy. While they were successful at seeding mainstream narratives about negligent internet corporations, having large swaths of the public parrot talking points they already intuitively knew – 'Facebook bad' – hasn't necessarily corresponded to structural change.
Speaking of Facebook, it's worth mentioning that tech to some extent reformed itself. We saw the largest tech companies all to various degrees release updated versions of their products that claimed to value the protection of end users. Personal computing companies like Apple, which, relative to the search and social media companies, didn't have their fingers in the honeypot of adtech, particularly espoused their newfangled pro-consumer morals. Largely though, these actions were taken only so far as they accomplished PR or compliance objectives. Despite improvements like Apple's App Tracking Transparency causing a temporary shakeup in the adtech economy, the fundamental experience of being online hasn't changed.
Big tech had another island of detractors whose concerns were cultural just as much as they were structural. In the late 2010s, it became not only popular to loathe big tech, but to criticize tech culture. Part of this lambasting emerged from class conflict. Tech was crowning billionaires at every corner. More visibly though, it was minting an entire new class of young, privileged, white-collar workers with ample amounts of disposable income. The main street and interstate economies seemed to shift overnight to cater to these upwardly-mobile tech workers, often to the detriment of lower economic classes. For some, tech's second order role in gentrifying the urban core of the US was just as problematic as its privacy practices. In wake of the emerging stereotype of the tech bro, New Internet reformers attempted to decouple tech's technological and cultural paradigms. Young romantics working at the "intersection of art and technology" launched endless criticisms of big tech's overreach and in the process created the foundations for an entire scene of left-field internet aesthetics. Compared to the politicians and philanthropists, this scene had real exports including art, books, games, schools, and communities. But like all reactionary milieus, it wasn't clear if the main output of this scene was an antithetical vibe before it was new institutions or even an actual new internet.
Finally, there were those who saw the New Internet as no internet at all, or at very least a severely scaled back version of it. Spinning out of a digital interpretation of both the resurgent back-to-the-land and Degrowth movements, technologists imagined what a simpler, more constrained relationship to technology could look like. They espoused 'dumb-phones' and 'brutalist' websites under the premise that there were no amount of superficial improvements or controls that could sufficiently protect users from the internet's ever-encroaching tendrils. Like the degrowth movement it took inspiration from, the legacy of the anti-tech tech tribe remains mixed. Is wide-scale consumption of non-consumption a paradox? Is it realistic to ever expect a world built around catering to maximalism to meaningfully accommodate minimalism? If mainstream change isn't actually the goal, can advocates of low-tech still exist alongside high-tech the same way that forest communes and strip mall suburbs do?
In 2022 when the 2010s tech bull market arguably came to an end, tech giants across the board experienced economic fallout and laid off significant portions of their workforces. Big tech's control over culture and civic life remained virtually unchanged though. Of course, this control was not something that could be unrooted by temporary stock devaluations. It was and is deeply habitual.
In the off-chance that, at the end of the 2010s bull run, another decade of old internet dominance was held in doubt, along came a flurry of developments in artificial intelligence. In the rapid growth of DALLe, Midjourney, ChatGPT, and the like, we saw the immediate re-centering of tech companies as the powerbrokers of society and societal change. Further evidence of this inertia can be seen around the sudden reemergence of mixed reality computing surrounding Apple's soon-to-launch Vision headset and software.
The power that will be bestowed on the winners of the eminent AI arms race, and if it happens, the re-upped 'spatial computing' arms race as well, suggests that the old internet — that is, a centralized, winner-takes-all, oligarchical internet — is here to stay. What better time then to inquire into the question at the heart of this post. What happened to the challengers that stood to impede business as usual? What happened to the New Internet?
A Personal History of the New Internet
I'm familiar with the above history of the new internet because to some extent I've lived it. My nearly decade-long career has landed me on many of the islands mentioned above. I got into startups while still in college in 2013. I got whipped by design thinking, kanban charts, and the siren song of disruption. I unironically loved Slack. Not soon after I found myself drawn towards 'civic tech' and using the tools of tech for achieving social impact. I was a member of an infamous group chat where young tech designers disavowed tech culture all together. I was at the first and only Cybernetics Conference and first public receptions for the School for Poetic Computation. I was there in a dusty East Williamsburg warehouse as a friend gave a demo of Beaker Browser. Then crypto happened and took over. Before the shitcoins came around, my friends and I congregated to crypto (at the time, just called "blockchain") because there was an earnest belief that its structural improvements were the only thing that could heal the endemic problems of the internet. I remember excitedly scrolling through the Ethereum.org launch page in 2015 and talking to endearing hacker-types at the first NFT conferences in 2018. Obviously, things would change.
In hindsight I think my experience with the new internet can be broken down into three phases. As a wide-eyed, recent college graduate, my first exposure to the new internet was defined by angst but ultimately romanticization. There were tall aspirations for technological reform, be them naive or not. From here, my romantic ideals were channeled into action throughout a period of professionalization. I had to get a job, maybe even a career, and compromises to early aspirations needed to be made in order to achieve this. Most recently, the new internet has been defined by disorientation. The movement feels more fractured than ever and it's not clear who my allies are, nor what we collectively desire in the first place. I'll use these three periods – romanticization, professionalization, and disorientation – to tell different stories about what it meant to be wrapped up by the New Internet during this time.
In 2017 I was living in Portland, OR, doing what many early twenty-year olds in that city do – just hanging out. I had a decent job working in the philanthropy sector. It paid ok; it felt meaningful enough. Life was good, but it distinctly wasn't great. Portland had plenty of creature comforts but it felt like a city where nothing important ever happened. Because I was stuck there for the time being I looked towards the internet for some stimulation.
In hindsight, the terms of my search query were awfully vague. I was attracted to the worlds surrounding tech and design, but not their corporate archetypes. From my outsider's perspective I got the sense that the venn diagram of startups and tech was mostly overlapping but increasingly giving way to a sliver of mutual exclusivity. In small doses I stumbled across organizations and individuals who seemed to adopt all the skills and savviness of hackers, without any of the cringe of startup grifters. There was a sort of dark-arts-for-good energy to this crowd and in addition to seeming cool, they seemed virtuous. I wanted my way in!
I eventually came across a Slack group chat called Learning Gardens which confirmed that there was plenty of ground to stand on at the intersection of technology and hating on technology.
An early website for Learning Gardens
The ideological content of Learning Gardens proved quite fertile to me. The broad premise that we came together around was that the internet was increasingly broken, and that we – twenty-somethings who grew up on it – could do something about it, even if that meant just confiding in others the desire for change. We collectively wanted the internet to be safer and more fun. We wanted to hang out online with our friends in a way that preserved our autonomy and dignity. We didn't want to feel like our brains were melting every time we opened a browser tab. We wanted to experience technological simplicity without becoming luddites. We were exhausted by 'Apps,' even though their preeminence was still a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the internet. Instead of a shopping mall, we wanted the internet to feel like a garden and if a garden wasn't realistic, maybe just a little more like PBS or Runescape.
Most importantly, Learning Gardens signaled to its members that there were other people like them and maybe even an entire scene of like minded folks. Over time, Learning Gardens grew to a couple hundred members, of which about thirty logged on and talked to each other most days. Many of them I would go on to consider not just internet friends, but friends.
The first ever Learning Gardens wedding
As a community, Learning Gardens initially grew on the basis of attracting a certain type of young internet progressive, but it blossomed when this pool of rebellious energy coalesced around a romantic vision that lied beyond mere reaction. This is where I was exposed to what I considered to be the first inklings of the New Internet. The vision was slightly scattered, but it felt pure. We would talk about subjects like mesh networks, up-and-coming 'tools for thought,' or just a nicely designed website. The reimagined computer interface project known as Dynamicland was a constant source of intrigue and inspiration. We meticulously cataloged references on Are.na – the golden child of the New Internet, and hotbed for meeting fellow reformists outside of Learning Gardens. Ted Nelson, the creator of the Hyperlink and prophet of interconnectedness was appropriately revered by us, as was creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand. Everything remained firmly speculative; we weren't trying to start a company or take down Facebook. But there was the feeling of forward momentum nonetheless.
We would find an outlet for our romanticism in 2017 when our group collided with the ideals of the decentralized web. During this time, perceptions towards 'the blockchain' transitioned from some arcane technology that underpinned Bitcoin to a complex global computational network that could do things far beyond buying and selling made up coins. At the same time the blockchain was taking off, a whole ecosystem of enthusiast Peer-to-Peer networking projects were also beginning to materialize for the first time since the Napster era. It felt like we had a front row seat to a battle for the internet's soul that was just beginning to break out.
Learning Gardens was heavily polarized over the value of blockchain technology, even if the consensus towards the decentralization ethos that undergirded it was more universally favorable. Some saw blockchain as a vehicle for scams cloaked by techno-utopian drivel. Others saw a system of trustless logic that offered structural solutions to the modern internet's low-level pitfalls. The basic argument was that by removing intermediaries, the internet could break free from business models that incentivize extractive behavior. Even if this logic wasn't bought into, most of us in Learning Gardens at the very least entertained the thing for no other reason than it being new and interesting.
For me personally, I was more enamored with the decentralized web than I was skeptical of it and this charitable curiosity extended to blockchain. It seemed to provide a lot of the things I was looking for – something equally toothy and deep, fresh feeling, and prone to forming community around. Critically, it laid claim to a good amount of silver bullet logic, which I think I was pretty amenable to at this point in my life. Notably, my initial attraction to it wasn't on the grounds of technological primitives or protocols. It was ideological.
It seemed like there were plenty of others that shared this tentative interest. In the summer of 2018 the Internet Archive hosted the Decentralized Web Summit in San Francisco. I remember jealously watching from the east coast (I had since moved to New York from Portland as many of my friends from Learning Gardens were there). The summit felt like a coming out party for a particular brand of decentralization-curious technologist, as well as a calm-before-the-storm for what was to come. The popularity of the summit showed that there was plenty of newfound momentum behind peer-to-peer networking, but how much of this was attributable to spillover hype of what was beginning to be called not blockchain, but 'crypto?'
In his write-up of the summit, which in hindsight, poetically took place at the Old San Francisco Mint, Jon-Kyle Mohr said:
"There is always palpable energy coming off a gathering of people this size who share a common goal. It creates a sense of infinite possibility, which I believe to be accurate. But what happens the next day, week, month, or year? What do we do with that inertia?
When I read this back in 2023 it feels terribly ominous. The key phrase seems to be "common goal." Did members of Learning Gardens or Decentralized Web Summit attendees have deeply shared values or just a loose fascination towards a shiny new thing? Was the 2018 Decentralized Web Summit the announcement of a new movement of decentralization sans-crypto? Or, like Woodstock '69, was it simultaneously a marker of the beginning and the end? The following years would seemingly confirm the latter.
The year was 2018 and blockchain was now colloquially referred to as crypto. The two words essentially meant the same thing, but the new label conferred an extra dose of abstraction and therefore marketability. The arrival of crypto signified an underlying transition of a small scene of enthusiasts into a full-blown industrial vertical.
It was around the time that blockchain became crypto that Learning Gardens started to change too. Many members of the chat were moving past their young romanticism. On some level, I think that they found the stance of perpetual technology critic exhausting. More simply though, the kids were beginning to grow up and settle down. Among other things, this meant leaning into a career and leaning into a career meant less time for the group chat.
In the ascendent crypto job marketplace, young designers and software engineers with a penchant for unconventionality found ample work that paid well. In the span of a year it became very common to hear about Learning Gardens friends leaving their trad tech jobs to go work for crypto-adjacent startups.
In the early days of these ventures, particularly in and around the Ethereum network, their salaries were covered by a unique financing method called initial coin offerings. Coin offerings allowed for highly speculative ventures to quite literally mint operational capital via the selling of bespoke cryptocurrencies. Over time these 'ICOs' would come to be interpreted as dubious violations of securities law, but similar to Facebook's 'move fast and break things' ethos, the risk of illegality around ICOs was either perceived to be nonexistent, or just the cost of doing business. Once a few prominent crypto projects successfully raised hundreds of millions of dollars in token sales, other projects saw this as precedent and followed form, often using the same sale contracts, lawyers, brokerages, and exchanges to facilitate the sale of their tokens.
When I look back on the early Ethereum years, it's hard to put into words just how impactful the downstream effects of ICOs were to the viability of all of crypto. Much can be written here about the nature of investment marketplaces that converge on mania, or the snowball effects of pile-on tech trends. But since this is the personal history section, let me put it in personal terms. In the span of a year, crypto became a major source of gravity in my life. I wasn't even that whipped over its core ideas, and to be entirely honest, my understanding of the architecture of blockchain networks was mostly based off of parroting the talking points of a few introductory YouTube explainers. Yet crypto and its surrounding command of capital bought its way into my life and wouldn't let go.
Enter Other Internet.
Other Internet is and was many things to many different people but to me, it was my employer. It came to my attention from its two original members, friends from Learning Gardens who had chartered a company to house their shared consulting work. They had ambitions for Other Internet to go beyond this – still a strategy consulting practice but also a glorified blog for hosting critical essays about culture and technology, a professional peer-support group for a small pool of like minded technologists, and a 'product studio' for developing and launching bespoke side-hustles. On a rainy day in 2018 not long after Learning Gardens ended, the Other Internet duo invited me to a pizza spot in deep Brooklyn to pitch me on the idea of the organization and being its first hire. I didn't bat an eye at their lofty ambitions. If anything, I was charmed that they thought of me as the person who could help pull them off. Before the meeting was over I had already made up my mind that this was the big opportunity my short career had been working up towards.
One of the first assignments I worked on was researching and writing about an emerging niche within crypto called Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs). It's difficult to pin down exactly when I first heard about NFTs but it was probably in the immediate wake of the early 2018 viral phenomenon that was CryptoKitties. Despite having the concept on my radar, I didn't pay close attention to NFTs until that summer when I learned about a project called FlowerTokens. Orchestrated by a group of artists and technologists in Berlin called Terra0, FlowerTokens were a wall of 100 live dahlias linked to individually owned tokens on the Ethereum network. The flowers implemented similar code to CryptoKitties but went beyond the 'digital collectible' meme. Sensing equipment aimed at the wall of living dahlias relayed state information back to the tokenized dahlias. It was never meant to be more than a heavy-handed demonstration of digital-physical symbiosis, but the project awed my friends and I. We each bought our own dahlia and watched it grow from seedling to flower half way across the world. It was one of the first times in the short history of crypto that the abstract notion of tokens felt alive and real. At the same time it also felt like we were seeing a glimpse of the future. FlowerTokens had pointed towards a fundamentally novel idea – liquid ownership of digital objects – with implications for every corner of the internet, and maybe even the living environment too. My friends and I swallowed the whole thing up.
From here the small Other Internet crew of three began researching NFTs in earnest. We would make our way around the first NFT conferences to witness the ground floor of a growing, but still objectively tiny, scene-within-a-scene. At this time a room full of people interested in NFTs meant nerds before TikTok investors, largely fixated on the notion of digital collectibles. More or less this meant CryptoKitty derivatives, but occasionally we'd run across a kindred spirit working on a project that seemed to mutually grasp what we were beginning to call our 'digital objects' thesis. Increasingly we were of the opinion that there could be a whole range of internet-native objects – be them files or photos or songs or software licenses – that had potential to be NFTs. Wanting others to see what we were seeing, we set out to try and find someone to sponsor us to write a long form report on the subject.
Nobody we talked to, which mainly included crypto startups with many millions in VC funding, was interested in funding our research. The charitable reading is that we were probably just too early. Still, we took the rejection hard. It seemed a message was being sent that there wasn't space for our critical style of work within a tech environment that prioritizes shipping code and funneling revenue above all other things. We soon after abandoned the NFT project and Other Internet shifted into hibernation
I would land my first true crypto job, in the sense that I had a job title and salary, not long after. The role was at a gps-competitor blockchain startup based out of a converted ship factory-turned tech hardware incubator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I did marketing there, which basically amounted to drafting tweets that promoted a hypothetical product in unflinchingly positive terms. I remember on several occasions being reprimanded for not using enough emojis in my tweets.
It was at this job where I first saw how the sausage of a crypto startup was made. We weren't quite building vaporware, and I think that's what made me stay for the year that I was there. But we weren't building something very graspable either. The short term business model for the startup was either genius or broken depending on how you viewed it. An amalgamation of crypto VC firms and accredited investors had purchased 'governance tokens' (legal term of art to avoid securities law) from an initial coin offering. Valuation of the tokens was based on hypothetical ideas posed in a 'white paper' – basically a pseudo-scientific pitch deck masquerading as a graduate level computer science preprint. The governance tokens were advertised as something between a native platform currency and voting shares. Once in the hands of their owners, they also implicitly served as stock options. By acting as an atomic unit of exchange in a future protocol, token holders could speculate on, not quite the value of the underlying firm building the protocol, but the value of the protocol itself. Companies like the one I worked for did not have sales teams or customer support staff; the only product was the software equivalent of a spec house on an empty cul-dé-sac. The only staff needed were those that could build this one house and market it to investors.
This business model template would be repeated across many crypto firms in 2018 and following years. It prompted a common line of critique which was that crypto did not have any real users or products outside of token exchanges and day-traders. Despite this, crypto companies smoothly sailed forward. The once-in-a-generation viability of the token sale model meant that even in economic downturns there was plenty of cash to burn on all the same luxuries that came to be expected of incumbent technology companies. There were polished offices, catered lunches, and corporate expense cards. Most importantly, crypto startups could pay handsome salaries to poach talent from bigger, well-established tech firms. Periods went by where it felt like every other day an engineer at Stripe or Uber penned a twitter thread to announce their entry into the world of crypto. What these converts often failed to include in their announcement posts were the hefty, six-figure compensation and token packages that were offered their way.
My relationship to crypto around this time began to change from curious bystander to insider-critic. I at once grew closer to it and more skeptical of it. My time at the geospatial crypto startup had uncovered an unsettling disparity between how firms portrayed themselves to the public and their culture behind closed doors. Among other things, I felt as if crypto was becoming synonymous with money. When a new entrant converted to crypto it was mostly still on the grounds of being drawn to the challenge of reforming the internet, but this rhetoric was heavily diluted compared to only a year earlier. It was around this time that the term DeFi, or decentralized finance, was coined. DeFi claimed all the reformist zeal of the New Internet, but instead of setting its crosshairs on Facebook it aimed them at JP Morgan. The increasingly accepted stance towards profit-seeking behavior that came along with DeFi attracted a new crop of converts who cared less about cypherpunks and the Decentralized Web and more about personal wealth.
With all this talk about money, you might be wondering just how rich I got. To this I say: do you think I would really be writing this piece if I had made off well in the crypto boom? I don't mean to come across as harboring bitterness. My point is that I didn't and don't have personal skin in the game, which affords me perspective that others around me lost. I believe that the crypto industry inadvertently bought silence and encouraged value drift. More than the distributed ledger, I believe this to be its singular killer feature. By yielding a generational wealth creation opportunity that was a strange hybrid of a lottery jackpot and self-made fortune, crypto created an ideological hold on its early entrepreneurs and workers. It had all the euphoria of a gold rush and all the self esteem of high tech meritocracy. There were suddenly thousands, if not tens-of-thousands of individuals in their twenties who in the span of a few years became multimillionaires this way. They were not multimillionaires in dollars though, at least not yet. They were millionaires in $ETH or their company's native governance token. In order to fully materialize their newfound wealth they had to also internalize a story about their held token's ongoing value. Increasingly this story – one about taking down big banks, liquidity, 'yield farming,' and ‘hodling’ just for the sake of it – grew perpendicular to the original story that engendered many individuals to the ideas of decentralization. Like in so many other industries that started with a small group of purists, the influx of large amounts of capital changed things.
Observing these changes first hand made me averse to continuing to work in crypto but my proximity to it all ultimately kept me around. For better or worse, it was my network and world. Also, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I still had desires of making some money too. The feeling that all my friends were getting fabulously wealthy and I wasn't had some effect on me, no matter how much I wrote it off as delusional. It still does.
More than making money though, the sentiment that kept me around was that I had an opportunity, and if not that at least an obligation, to change things for the better. It feels ironic calling this out as notable considering crypto's basis of attraction in the first place was reforming a broken internet. But it clearly had forked into its own thing at this point and I was deep enough inside it to observe and potentially influence it. At this juncture in crypto's history, it had not entirely grown into what it would become. There were no Bored Apes nor Slurp Juice(s) yet. FTX hadn't been incorporated. No one was really talking about the potential for Proof of Work mining to lead to outsized carbon emissions. Lingering around was still the sincere feeling that crypto could amount to something positive; it just needed to be nudged back into the right direction.
Once again, enter Other Internet.
Other Internet came out of hibernation not long after I quit my job at the geospatial startup. We tried working on another project unsuccessfully [FOOTNOTE - A comically early pre-pandemic online zoom class startup] and after that, landed on operating closer to the primordial soup that we all originally met each other in – a group chat.
Still to this day, the most common question I get about Other Internet is "what is Other Internet?" I wish it was a question that had an easier answer. At times I think we intentionally resisted narrow definition. It served a tactical purpose. Outsiders never want to admit they're not privy to understanding how an enigmatic thing actually works within. You may never make it big if others can't figure out who exactly you are, but you also might afford yourself an opportunity to coast indefinitely in the space created by charting a wide domain.
If I was pressed to give a single answer to what Other Internet was around this time, I'd say it was a small group of like-minded friends who talked with each other, and occasionally worked on projects together. Picture something between a networking club and a group chat, all held within the container of an illusively cool brand and public website.
Together, Other Internet and Learning Gardens revealed something interesting about what happens when you get a group of ideologically fervent young people together in a chat. You start with small acts of solidarity and shitposting, but over time the latent desire to precipitate free flowing ideas gives way to more serious interpersonal connections. Some people in the chat might start dating, some might start working on projects with each other. The dating couple might get married. The project collaborators might become business partners. Perhaps some of these more formalized relationships fail and after a period of stewing in nothingness, the same thirst for common ground that started the chat in the first place brings everyone back together again. The cycle of rupture and repair, shitposting and startups, begins anew.
In 2019 after Other Internet reverted back to a group chat, there were about a dozen of us. We were all friends from Learning Gardens days, but it was clear that professional ambitions, maybe more so than friendship, were the thing that brought us together. Some of us were approaching our thirties and wanting more power and money. Others craved the reputation boost that could come with doing interesting, higher-profile work. We all at the very least wanted more impact, and saw each other as a supportive 'squad' of collaborators and peers that could yield mutual benefit, even from just chatting with one another.
The formula worked, and throughout the course of that year it seemed like the young romantics who originally met on Learning Gardens were all of a sudden coming into their own as head-of-departments, conference speakers, and twitter thought leaders. Some of them had made life-changing money, more often than not through working early positions at crypto protocols with an underlying governance token that appreciated in value. Around this time, a subgroup of Other Internet published a popular essay on our site called Squad Wealth. The piece argued squads could be, not just friend groups, but functioning economic units that were greater than the sum of their parts. The prototypical squad at the center of the piece was of course Other Internet itself. But like so many of the exciting ideas being proposed around crypto during this time, Squad Wealth's central example was more aspirational than many would have liked to believe. The members that compromised Other Internet were indeed getting wealthy, but the problem was that Other Internet as a standalone entity was not.
Other Internet, an S-Corp owned by two partners, was not actually materially successful, or even in decent health. There was very little wealth being shared between the squad and the container it sat within. Our only victories came through association and Other Internet's leadership (which at this point was just one of the two original founders) desired to go beyond success via transitive properties. To do this, we would need to do more than maintain a group chat and website for thinkpieces. To scheme what was next, we decided to get the entire squad together in person.
In October 2021 we hosted a retreat in a Southern Portuguese tourist town. It was the kind of destination that was logistically inconvenient enough to inspire appreciation for our collective, physical presence. The chat might have been cheap and easy but our strange, offseason vacation rental in a B-tier Portuguese beach resort community was costly and difficult, and that was maybe the point. (FOOTNOTE - Ok it actually was disturbingly cheap for a villa that sleeps 16, but point stands).
A late night beach visit at the Other Internet retreat in October 2021
My memories of the retreat are a blend of domestic chores, sweeping sunsets, and overzealous conversations about the future. What Jon-Kyle Mohr pointed out about the Decentralized Web Summit in 2018 – the "palpable energy" and "sense of infinite possibility" – applied to this in-person gathering too. The recurring theme of the week was one of imminent moral responsibility. It seemed like all of us had been noticing the wider devolution of progressive values taking place throughout crypto. We also recognized that Other Internet was in the rare position of being both deep inside an increasingly powerful industry, and respected as a voice for its reform. We were thought of as the good guys in a way that outsider-critics (read: crypto skeptics) were distinctly not.
Still, our brand of reform up to that point had been talking before doing, which put a limit on our ability to guide the crypto industry towards more impactful outcomes. Many people would come up to us and say they loved the higher moral ground we took in our pieces but there was little evidence of the prescriptions contained within these pieces actually being followed.
In the last days of the retreat, an opportunity for direct action presented itself. Behind the scenes, the Other Internet founder had been in talks with a representative from the Uniswap Foundation – the nonprofit entity that stewarded a leading cryptocurrency trading protocol simply called Uniswap – to receive a large grant for open-ended research around the topic of decentralized governance. The proposed grant was technically unrestricted but it came with the implicit understanding that part of our research would specifically focus on how governance worked in the context of Uniswap. At the retreat, news of these talks was shared with me and the rest of the group. We would use our last moments together to decide if we should take the money.
The decision we were mulling over went something like this: On one hand, the Uniswap Foundation was proposing a grant to us of a million dollars. Maybe that wasn't a lot of money in terms of what else was being thrown around in crypto at this time, but to the core group of Other Internet researchers who weren't working full time jobs, and were generally more aligned with starving artists than tech earners, it sure felt like a lot. In exchange for the money, we would do our best to help analyze and strengthen the way that a tiny slice of the internet was governed. The catch was that this slice of the internet wasn't exactly a wellspring of altruism. The main stakeholders in the Uniswap governance ecosystem were largely wealthy tech investors and cryptocurrency traders. The protocol publicly espoused values of financial inclusion but wasn't seemingly making much of a dent around this issue. To further complicate matters, the for-profit entity that created Uniswap, Uniswap Labs, was wrapped up in an ongoing investigation by the SEC around the matter of securities fraud. Prosecutors were looking into whether Uniswap Labs illegally created a security when they 'airdropped' (think ICO, but automatic and free) users of the exchange Uniswap governance tokens. These governance tokens on paper were the voting power behind the governance of the open source trading protocol. But they also, like so many other governance tokens, acted as a massive wealth creation opportunity for employees of Uniswap Labs who could sell tokens they issued to themselves on the open market. In this way, $UNI tokens arguably took on the role of company equity despite having an entirely different stated function. The question that everyone was wondering was whether the Uniswap governance body was just an elaborate loophole for selling these securities, or if the system of governance actually served a purpose around maintaining a decentralized internet protocol. The underlying assumption behind Other Internet being given a grant to study governance was that there was in fact a system of governance to study.
We ultimately were caught between badly needing the money while also feeling impressionable to the reputation boost that would come with it, and on the other hand, not wanting to be a tool for virtue-washing, or worse, fodder for a defense against securities fraud. On one of the last evenings of the Portugal retreat, the small group of six that would be getting hired as full time governance researchers if the grant was to go through stood in a circle and talked about its costs and benefits. We kicked around a soccer ball, taking turns to voice personal sentiment around a decision that was clearly bigger and more complex than any one individual's shrewdness or morality. I remember the feeling of nervous excitement that hung around in the air that night. We were giddy and apprehensive in a way that can only emanate from the subconscious of a good kid who fears they’re about to sell out.
In the end we decided to accept the grant. We thought the risks were worth the benefits, especially one benefit which didn't have anything to do with reputation or money. By working with Uniswap we saw an opportunity for altruistic reform. Uniswap, despite being only a few years old, was already moving hundreds of millions of dollars around daily. There was a conceivable chance that it would only grow more influential over time, not just in DeFi but in finance. Uniswap governance controlled how fees from these billions of dollars of transactions were spent, and we were being offered a small amount of influence over this system of governance. The tall aspiration was that we could use this influence to redirect protocol spending towards impactful outcomes such as our expansive definition of public goods.
Back in New York, the Uniswap project kicked off with a promissory press release. Our initial payment (in cryptocurrency) for the grant landed in our wallet and after exchanging tokens for dollars Other Internet was, for the first time, a proper employer with six full-time, salaried researchers. Things were finally beginning to feel real for a squad of collaborators that had never quite been given a seat at the table. Unfortunately, this celebratory feeling wouldn't last for long.
It didn't take long for doubt to begin to seep into our initial aspirations for the project. Upon diving deep into the working reality of the protocol our suspicions around potential for reform were revealed to be warranted. The governance of the protocol resembled an oligarchy before a democracy. Suggestions we made that aligned with the interests of holders of large amounts of governance tokens (namely VC firms) were taken in stride. As soon as this order was questioned though, our intent was seen as adversarial. Maybe more unsettling was that it seemed like most people just didn't really care about what we were doing, not even out of disinterest but out of apathy. This supported the hypothesis that 'governance' in the context of a cryptocurrency trading protocol was something of a misnomer. There wasn't actually a whole lot to govern, nor an engaged constituency of voters. The notion of using our influence to precipitate wealth redistribution was almost immediately thrown out the window.
Similar to my experience at the geospatial startup, it felt like there was an inescapable two-facedness amongst the peers we would deal with working in and around crypto. Publicly, individuals and firms projected careful messages that defended crypto as a bastion of the New Internet and financial freedom. In private conversations though, there was a frank embrace of the medium as nothing more than a game of wealth accumulation with underlying systems of governance that were intractably broken. Like a lot of software work, there was very little detailed discussion about the philosophy behind why we were doing the things we were doing. The catch-all banner of 'decentralization' was justification enough. Over time, this motivating force grew tenuous and the more that it became clear that decentralization wasn't any tangible goal, the more we wondered if we were in fact the bad guys, or at the very least, being employed by them.
Despite confronting the reality of our work, we were still committed to carrying out the terms of our grant, and throughout the year continued to do whatever limited set of actions we could to make an argument for Uniswap's positive impact. Nevertheless, it felt like the clock was ticking towards the end of our time attempting this kind of influence. Despite being as deeply 'in the room' as we'd ever been, we once again had largely struck out on our ability to enact change outside of writing nice words and paragraphs.
For me personally, it was hard for the Uniswap experience to not feel like a deathblow to the viability of working in crypto, and maybe even technology. I felt like a sucker, not just for playing someone else's game, but for playing it under the guise of making the world a better place. Not only had we not conceivably accomplished much of any good, we'd arguably made things worse in granting legitimacy to a crypto trading protocol that abetted financial mania. It's actually laughable in hindsight – the thought that a crypto currency trading website could have ever been included in the same sentence as social change. But this is how I saw it, how we saw it, and how people we trusted described it to us. It's important to acknowledge no matter how naive it might feel in hindsight.
My last serious project I would work on at Other Internet was a long research report on the topic of crypto philanthropy. I was drawn to the topic because it was a way of more directly confronting an increasingly prevalent theory of change for crypto. If crypto itself was heading in the direction of moral neutrality, could it reclaim some argument for making the world a better place via the redistributed wealth it created for individuals? In a way, this was the underlying thesis for our involvement with Uniswap as well. Ultimately the report was a chance for me to come up with the clearest answer I could for the simple question of – is crypto good? After spending hundreds of hours researching and writing, the answer I landed on was actually slightly leaning in the direction of 'it can be.' In a poetic twist of events though, several months later the Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX implosion occurred. SBF's philanthropic work was heavily mentioned in the piece as an aspirational example of the second order positive effects of crypto. The report was in its entirety far from a puff piece, and still mostly stands up today. Yet with a FTX-sized hole in its sail, it's tough to feel as proud of it as it did back when it was first published.
It probably goes without saying that the crypto philanthropy report and the Uniswap project together buffeted my conviction towards Other Internet's positive influence model of change making. 'Guiding the space' felt like a losing strategy. There might have been some domains where it could have worked, but to the extent that the space we were trying to influence was crypto, it felt like there were structural blockers to our effectiveness. Our faith in others was constantly punished and my personal interest in continuing to trust good intentions was waning. Working at Other Internet, a job that only a few years prior felt like the opportunity of a lifetime, began to feel like a mistake. My time at the company and in the squad would come to an official end shortly after the Uniswap project concluded in 2023.
At this point in my personal history we're more or less caught up to the present, which for me, and to some extent the entire New Internet, feels like a moment of disorientation. Where did things exactly go wrong? Is the New Internet actually even dead? If not, where do we go from here? Who is "we"? These are the questions I've been asking myself. To some extent, my friends around the New Internet movement have been asking them too.
What Happened to the New Internet, Redux
It's about time that I revisit and give as clear of an answer I can to the question that was posed at the beginning of this piece: What happened to the New Internet?
As can hopefully be implied from my personal history section, one major answer to this question is that crypto pulled the New Internet in a different direction than its seminal P2P roots would have allowed for. By shape shifting between utopian global computer and Ponzi dispenser, crypto both indoctrinated New Internet practitioners and implicated them amongst a crowd of day traders that they otherwise would have been repulsed by. In crypto's effect on the New Internet, we see the subtle ways that access to capital can simultaneously accelerate and mutate ideology-driven technology movements.
A similar answer has something to do with personal motivations. Whether earnest career ambitions, growing up, or simply greed, these forces all can cause value drift, a process that slowly corrodes even the most steadfast of moral convictions. The New Internet failed to provide a clear enough plot, a straightforward enough of a product, nor legible enough of a movement to fend off the effects of value drift. Young people especially want to work on material things that pay well and the New Internet never really had a clear career path attached to it. This is what allowed crypto and its influx of capital to have the influence it did when the New Internet eventually came into contact with it.
It might feel reductive to say that ultimately money changed things, and it might be true that it's more complicated than this, but I want to intentionally embellish a version of this story that’s reductive. One of the most sinister ways that greed works is that it’s right there pulling the levers, and yet so deeply embodied that it doesn’t feel deserving of mention. It’s easy to feel the need to point to something more complex to explain certain behaviors. But in this case I don't think we should.
Another dose of reality might come from confronting what the New Internet had to say about the infrastructure that undergirds the internet itself. Just as much as the internet is superficial apps and interfaces, the internet is built upon low level networking protocols and programming languages. Even deeper, it consists of wires, servers, and data centers. These pieces of infrastructure that sit underneath the browser can't be ignored when attempting reform. They are not easy things to change or remake. They have been developed over decades and represent massive capital expenditures. In mainly focussing on the big talk and easy wins that can come from rethinking software and end-user experience, New Internet practitioners set themselves up to eventually run into infrastructural impasses. There's only so much you can change if Amazon still owns the server and Apple still makes the browsing device. I don't think this is something New Internet practitioners were ever oblivious to, but at the same time, they weren't entirely honest with how much work this would take to circumvent. Saying you want to change something, and actually changing it are two different jobs.
On the topic of Amazon and Apple, it's worth calling out that during its quest for relevance the New Internet faced a consistently formidable opponent – the old internet. Despite growing increasingly unpopular amongst young people, the old internet never really ceded significant power over the last decade. While at the onset of the New Internet it might have seemed like it was poised to replace the old internet (as emphasized in the Web2/Web3 construct), it quickly became obvious that the two would have to live in conjunction for the inevitable future. Now, during crypto's plateau (and if not that, decline), it's clear that even using the phrase old internet is misleading. Not only is the old internet still around, it's more relevant than it's ever been. In the course of becoming inextricably connected to modern life, both culturally and functionally, internet incumbents bought a form of invulnerability that the New Internet ultimately was not powerful enough not unseat.
For those who are interested in a New Internet, it feels like a moment of reckoning. Gone is the romantic vitriol of the late twenty-tens. Gone is a reactionary rhetoric of saving the web. Gone is the free-flowing venture capital and ICOs to back it up. As it always tends to be following a period of financial mania, now more than ever the name of the game appears to be slow, moderate, diversified change. Perhaps this isn't the worst fate.
Reclaiming the New Internet
I sent a draft of this story to a friend who comes from a different walk of life than the New Internet. He replied to me saying that it was kind of heartbreaking. The response caught me off guard. Surely the story isn’t over yet? How could it be sad?
A common refrain one might see if they spend enough time around crypto twitter (especially back in 2021) is WAGMI – ‘we are gonna make it.’ Contained within this phrase is the collective belief of, not just coin price speculators, but the greater New Internet that there was and is always light on the horizon. If v1.00 doesn’t do the trick, v1.01 surely will. Bear always turns to bull. It’s easy to applaud such optimism, but at what point does optimism turn into denial? At what point does romanticism turn into delusion?
To conclude this piece I want to talk about the ways that I think the New Internet (or at least something close to it) is still alive. But before I get to that part, I want to take a moment to sit with my friend’s feedback and linger in the heartbreak of whatever the opposite of WAGMI is.
In the late 2010s, New Internet romantics dreamed of comprehensively transforming the internet into something that was nostalgically fun, productive, attention-respecting, and socially-satisfying. Small victories were logged along the way, but overall the reformists, myself included, failed at achieving meaningful progress. This is sad. We should understand why before we move on to what comes next.
When I started writing this piece, my goal was to reclaim the plot of the New Internet. I didn't want to tell a story just for the sake of telling it. I wanted to reinvigorate the part of me that still believes in and strives towards a better version of the internet.
After years of playing the reactionary game, and after reflecting on that time above, I now feel like I'm in a position to understand what it might mean to entertain a more realistic ideal of whatever hot-headed version of the internet I aspired towards in my early twenties. Even if not successful, the work to-date hasn’t been in vain. It served an educational purpose.
The first thing I’ve come to learn is that pursuing something as open-ended as internet reform requires intentional scoping and goal-setting. The New Internet was never a single thing. It was fractured and messily connected from the jump. This messiness was used as feedstock to accelerate its consolidation under what became the crypto industry. It was in the process of conforming into an industrial vertical that much of what made the New Internet compelling was destroyed. What if the New Internet was to once again lean into the primordial soup of idealism that it was born in?
To pull this off, I've been thinking about what it might mean for the New Internet to persist as, not a full stack replacement, but a coexisting counterculture, at least for the time being. Maybe the goal is not _the _New Internet, but a series of internets that live alongside a more mainstream, lackluster counterpart. As opposed to a monolithic archipelago these internets could be thought of as autonomous island nations that users jump between. Some of these islands will provide things that others can't. Some will have trade lines and smooth ferries that run between them and some will be unnavigable to everyone but the most experienced of sailors.
Of course, the goal of the New Internet can’t be to just give rise to weird demos and provocative group chats. The goal is reform. Speaking towards this goal, the next lesson I’ve come to learn is that imagining the New Internet is not the same as building it. In my time around the archipelago of internet reform there have been no shortage of ambitious ideas. In the process of implementing said ideas, it was revealed time and time again that ambitiousness does not equal practicality. I don’t mean to entertain a tired, ad hominem trope about the difference between architects and engineers, or ‘wordcels and shape rotators.’ Clearly, both of these jobs are important, as are the people who are able to do them. An idea that fails to consider the constraints of the real world is nothing more than vaporware. An engineering solution that prioritizes breakneck progress over thoughtfulness can easily recreate entrenched mistakes of the past. I’m arguing for more than just balance between these two dispositions. There needs to be respect for the power they command, legibility into the psychologies that undergird them and sociologies that they feed into, awareness of the positions they occupy along the lifecycle of a product, and most importantly, ability for their mutual translation.
If this had been the case, I don’t think that crypto would have taken root the way it did. Red flags would have been raised early and often. For me personally, it would have meant the preemptive realization that many of the ideas we theorized at Other Internet had little feasibility beyond the thinkpieces they were contained within, not because they were bad ideas, but because they never had the agency to be implemented.
If what I’m getting at here is the need for a more honest relationship to power, there’s an additional few final points to be made about how the New Internet needs a more honest relationship to money.
The New Internet must find a way to be more pragmatic about the business of technology creation – especially the costs of labor and low-level infrastructure. Efforts to reform the internet must reckon with the frustratingly simple fact that its designers and users both can have perverse, selfish relationships to money. There needs to be pressure relief valves for value drift that’s born from financial motivations.
Lastly, the New Internet must avoid rampant financial speculation on its future and the corrosive effects that this has on value-setting. It’s one thing to acknowledge that many impactful technologies have been funded by VC dollars in the past. It’s another thing to pander to the idea that cryptodickbutts were necessary collateral for seeding innovation around decentralized international remittances. It’s out of the scope of what I’ve written here to entertain the question of how good, honest ideas get funded. But I’m not opposed to pointing a finger at how technology funding probably shouldn’t work – specifically, retail investors making mob-mentality bets into unregistered securities masquerading as governance tokens. There has to be a better way.
If you’ve been reading closely you’ll probably realize that despite proposing some ways to reclaim the plot, I’ve still chartered quite a wide set of directions that things can go in. The truth is, I don't want what I’ve written here to end on a prophetic note. I don’t want to be seen as a trend forecaster. Nor do I want to offer up a singularly sweeping vision for reforming the internet. (That’s kind of the point).
The thing that excites me the most about the internet right now are all the weird, hard-to-define projects that linger on its fringes. It might seem like I’ve characterized the New Internet movement as being locked in a time of peril. While this might be true to the extent that the movement means DeFi, these projects show us that there are plenty of exciting things on alternative horizons, even within the realm of crypto.
I want to end the piece by briefly mentioning a handful of these projects, just to provide a touchpoint for deeper inquiry someplace else and some other time.
The Light Phone is what many colloquially call a ‘dumb phone.’ It’s intentionally the opposite of what an iPhone has become. It restricts its users to only the most essential utilities of a modern internet communications device. You can call, text, listen to music or a podcast, navigate to a location, write a note, and that’s about it. No apps. No internet browser.
I had the good fortune of working on the sustainability report for the Light Phone 2 back in 2020. At the time, I was vaguely familiar with the product, but didn’t understand who out in the world was actually using it, nor what it meant to them.
What I found was a rich ecosystem of real users, not in the millions, but hundreds of thousands. These were people who were equally let down as they were inspired by the changes the phone brought about in their lives. There was a compelling frankness to the community that’s stuck with me since.
The thing I appreciate the most about the Light Phone is how directly it confronts what is arguably the core grievance of technology for everyday people – it’s destroying their time and attention. In doing so it doesn’t provide cheap thrills or easy answers. Oftentimes its users adopt the product cold turkey and face frustrating growing pains while doing so. Afterwards they complain to the phone’s co-creator, a down-to-earth guy named Joe, who confides in their frustrations in a way that is incredibly unbefitting of a tech founder.
The Light Phone’s display is slow and clumsy to type on. It comes with plenty of quirks and bugs. But past these setbacks, Light Phone users who stick to the plan find a radically different life waiting for them. They read more, they go for walks, they call their parents. Their brains literally work differently. What other real world products from the New Internet can claim wins like this?
Many point to the monolith-within-a-monolith of ‘Web3’ as the saving grace of crypto and the collective New Internet. I won’t try to unpack what Web3 actually means or what’s good and bad about it in this limited space. I’ll merely say that I think there are more exciting and less vague things happening elsewhere in crypto.
To me, chief among them is Autonomous Worlds (AW). AW is the heady title for a set of computational concepts, demos, theories, experiments, and most tangibly, games.
The _autonomous _part of AWs has to do with the permissionlessness of blockchains, which is to say the ability for anyone, creator or otherwise, to add information or rules to them.
The world component of AWs has to do with the unique environment that is created when its substrate is a permissionless blockchain.
This is still quite abstract so let me get more specific. AWs are ways of challenging top-down computational paradigms through use of an appendable database. Practically, AWs are conceived of as games that have the same sort of openworld dynamics as MMORPGs, and yet few of the traditional boundaries. There isn’t really a set ‘map’ even if the world has discrete edges. Imagine a World of Warcraft where players can go anywhere and be anything so long as it’s interpretable by the consensus system (part game engine, part social construct, part gameplay rules).
My friend Arthur is working on one such type of AW game called THIS CURSED MACHINE which is set to release in November. He describes it mechanically as a circuit design visual programming game, and narratively as a body horror fulfillment simulator.
To me, the exciting thing about TCM and similar games is that they are emergently constructed and continue to be built after ‘launch.’ Players don't just consume and play – they also contribute interfaces, rules, and narratives. In doing so, AW-type games challenge conventions around how much agency game designers and players each have. While in the short term these experiments might read as obscure passion projects from Berlin theorycels, in the longer-term they have potential to play out the original promises of blockchains and decentralization.
It’s hard not to talk about the future of the internet without talking about AI. I say this with full awareness that many would have said the same thing about crypto five years ago. They also might have said, ‘no, but this time it’s different!’
In regards to AI, I fear that we are unknowingly locked in a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario. We’ve let technological boom and bust cycles convince us that the implications for AI on everyday life will fade as soon as its hype does. For better or worse, we’re already seeing how this isn’t the case.
In the last year AI models have already begun to change the way that a lot of things are created, especially art.
Outside of rationalist-adjacent AI safety organizations whose theory of change seems to inch dangerously close to accelerationism, Spawning is one of the few organizations that seems to be taking recent AI advances seriously, which is to say, not resorting to Luddism.
They do this by offering tools to artists that help them protect against non consensual uses of their original works. In doing so Spawning occupies a stance somewhere between cautiousness and guided encouragement, which feels appropriate for a forthcoming AI creativity paradigm that’s equally impressionable as it is inevitable.
It all comes back to Are.na.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the most compelling solutions in the short history of the New Internet have been those that are the most commonplace, slow, ambient, and avoidant of hype. Products that actually work and will continue to.
If that’s the case then Are.na is deserving of its unofficial title as golden child of the New Internet.
Earlier in this piece I described Are.na as a research platform that acted as a seminal Learning Gardens-adjacent community in the early days of the New Internet. Over a decade later, Are.na is not only still around, it’s still growing and now means many different things to many different groups of people. Today it stands out as one of the few financially sustainable, non VC-backed businesses to embody reformed values about how the internet can feel and work.
In acting as a beacon of hope, Are.na holds a cultural significance equal to its utility. It reminds reformists that not only is there a better way, this path forward need not involve technocratic gibberish or hand-wavy utopian speak. It can be both ambitious and clear as day.
In a blog post reflecting on Are.na’s 10 year anniversary, founder Charles Browkoski said:
Our ideal outcome as a company is not becoming the next Facebook (god forbid), it’s becoming the next Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, a hot spring hotel in Japan, and one of the world’s oldest businesses (founded in 705 AD).
What a fitting way to capture the punk steadiness of pushing back and creating anew.
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