Innovation Doesn't Work That Way

The technologist in me believes that the innovation that dominates is the one that's most needed. The rationalist in me knows that's a lie. Innovation, especially consumer facing innovation is driven only partially through need. The much stronger force at play is what social labels the new technology creates.

You would be hard pressed right now to go a day without hearing about web3. There are many opinions, for and against, all of which are vocal. Recently there has been a lot of discussion on the utility of web3. Do all of these proposed ideas need a global public ledger? Is the cost to the environment or the risk of scams worth the new value that web3 brings? Yet the long term viability of web3 depends less on the unique value of the blockchain than these arguments suggest.

The likelihood that web3 will become a real replacement for web2 depends more on the cultural imprint it creates. With any new product, whether the latest technology or some new remix of existing tech, a cultural imprint is created. Through a combination of deliberate branding and the currents of popular culture, associations form. Corona becomes a beer for people who are easy going, and wearing Nike becomes a symbol of athletic excellence.

Right now, we are in the early days of web3 and are witnessing the cultural imprint it leaves behind. Given the strong opinions for and against the technology the outcome is not set, but might be predictable.

The two major camps in web3 today are polarised. While the final cultural imprint will likely be a mix of the two, one side will dominate. Looking at models of the diffusion of innovation we are in the early stages. Most messaging on web3 and its pros or cons come from a small group of influencers. These groups have their own incentives and are, in many ways, fighting to preserve existing cultural imprints. The pro-crypto message is a mix of people disenfranchised with capitalist structures, techo-idealists and leeches looking to get rich. The anti-crypto message is one of avoiding scams and schemes, a concern for the very real climate impact of GPUs running crypto networks and a mild rebellion against the bastardisation of fundamental computer science like cryptographic signatures.

While both camps speak truth, the tactics of the anti-crypto community are unlikely to win. Why? Because the current zeitgeist against crypto is to bring its utility into question. An argument that is not getting to the core of what is drawing people into web3.

The cultural imprints of the pro-web3 camp breaks down to: "Yes there are scams, it sucks, but what we are building here is bigger. It's what's next. It's a chance to reset generations of economic inequality. Web3 means you're for the people and for the future". At least in the ideal sense. On the other side the message is often: "This is bullshit. We don't need web3 for this. It's a lot of scams and ponzi schemes. Stay away from this if you know what's good for you". Both of these are the inflated versions of reality. Nobody I know completely in one camp but most would pick one over the other if questioned. When the dust settles and one cultural imprint wins out, then we'll know if web3 stays or goes.

The anti-web3 angle is not enough of a new cultural imprint to stop it's growth. Much like people who are strongly against tattoos, it's hard to subtly send that signal. If you get a tattoo its visible and sends a message without words. If you don't like web3 there isn't an alternative movement you can support instead. You have to take the negative. The negative today is an argument for the status quo. In a rational world that would give both parties a fair platform. But culture is irrational. Imprints form because groups feel isolated and rebel. They look for a new tribe, or to create one.

When the choice is web3 or stick with what we know the grass looks greener. Until we see a viable, yet novel alternative proposed, web3 will almost certainly win.

The ideas here run deeper than today's new toys. They apply to more than web3 or any of today's startup buzzwords. When something enters the cultural arena, it's the imprint it forms, the signal it sends that determines its success. Even if the engineer in me sheds a tear admitting that's true.

Inspiration for this post — especially the title — came from the fantastic post Ads don't work that way.

thanks @pjlaurie for the feedback and review.

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