’Tis New to Thee
Years ago, when I first heard about “the cloud” in reference to data storage, I wondered what it really meant. A more tech-savvy colleague clued me in: “the cloud just means other people’s computers.”
I find myself in a similar position with regard to Internet 3.0 (or the Metaverse, if you prefer) and two of its rising manifestations: cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). I visited family in Southern California last weekend and they talked of little else. They are convinced this is the start of a revolution in money-making and don’t want to miss out.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard of these things; it’s that I’d heard of them and didn’t care. I don’t get excited by computer technology, and regard its contributions to society as mixed (as is the case with most technologies). Nor am I looking to get rich; I’m happy with the modest affluence I’ve attained through a lifetime of prudent spending, scrupulous saving, and conservative investing. When I hear bright shiny predictions about the great things Internet 3.0 will bring, I go back to Prospero’s weary response to his enraptured teenage daughter at her first glimpse of other human beings: “‘Tis new to thee.”
Still, my family is obsessed with the phenomenon, and since I no longer have tech-savvy co-workers to consult, I looked into it more closely myself.
As I understand it — and I’m by no means sure I understand it correctly — Internet 3.0 is a virtual world one can inhabit almost all the time for any activity and own your own data, monetizing it as you wish, as opposed to Internet 2.0, where companies like Google and Facebook own your data and monetize it as they wish.
NFTs are unique virtual objects, often works of art but hardly limited to that. Last week the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry offered 2,974 NFT replicas of the shoes he wore while setting the record for most three-point baskets by an NBA player (2,974, in case you wondered why the unusual number of NFTs) and they sold out — at $333 a pop. (He’s donating the proceeds to charity because Steph Curry is the most impossibly perfect athlete in the universe.)
Cryptocurrency — usually Ethereum, a prominent competitor of the most famous cryptocurrency, Bitcoin — is what you need to upload, sell, or buy NFTs.
NFTs are a speculative investment, just like stocks, bonds, gold, or Van Goghs, but the NFT market is (as yet) unregulated, as are the cryptocurrencies they’re traded in, so it’s definitely a caveat emptor realm, which I sense is what many of its enthusiasts prefer— I get a strong libertarian whiff from the whole endeavor. The unwary may fall prey to “rug-pulls,” where the purveyors of crypto investments run off with the money sent them. More likely they’ll fall prey to bad investments.
One family member has become a site moderator at OpenSea, a prominent NFT platform. He earns a small amount (in Ethereum) per week. He can see doing the same thing at multiple sites, and then, with the experience and following he gathers, become an influencer who drives business to Internet 3.0 sites in exchange for endorsement fees. Not the job he trained for, and not a job that existed five years ago (although influencers have been on YouTube and other Internet 2.0 sites for years), but a possible path to riches.
I wish him well. But I have reservations about Internet 3.0. In a way it reminds me of the finance industry: other than enormous profits for its shareholders, what does it actually produce? Won’t most participants, perhaps including my family members, end up losers as the industry evolves, shakes out, and consolidates? And what makes anyone think the proprietors of Internet 2.0 are going to take this passively? Mark Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s name to Meta to reflect his desire to carve out a dominant chunk of Internet 3.0 for himself. No doubt other Internet 2.0 titans will follow, if only because so many of their employees are leaving for Internet 3.0 opportunities.
We are all immigrants through time, as Mohsin Hamid put it in his novel Exit West. In the next few years, I suspect it won’t be just us old folks feeling displaced by the arrival of Internet 3.0.