The Skeptical Third Eye (Proverbially Speaking)

Aspirations, angsts, and standards (plus financial shit)—emotional trajectories for Web3

Text Courtney Malick
illustrations Mary Zet
Published 01 Sep 2023

For most of us, self-awareness is arguably always in rather short supply—and even more so for the young, the entrepreneurial, the vain, and of course, the multitasking. Funnily, the further we delve into the netherworldly abyss of the ever-evolving phases of the internet, moving from the ad-ridden, multi-tabbed labyrinth of Web2 into what has recently been christened Web3, it seems that more and more of us end up, whether by default or necessity, falling into all of the aforementioned categories … simultaneously! Among other things, this “Eddie Pie Hands” syndrome can clearly cause all kinds of attention deficits that may lead to even (horror of horrors!) MORE unawareness of one’s online surroundings and how they may be working for or against your own interests. And of course, “Eddie Pie Hands” refers to the riotous character from the show Absolutely Fabulous, Edina Monsoon, a 40-something British divorcée who runs a PR firm, deals in old African ceramics, produces fashion photo shoots, and regularly parties like a pill-popping lunatic at the hottest of nightclubs, all while redecorating her living room and kitchen on a seemingly daily basis.

This fracturing of our informational intake inevitably bleeds out into different aspects of our lives. For many of us, a typical day starts—first thing in the morning, before even getting out of bed—with a quick check-in: emails, Instagram (mostly stories, because they’re at the top and it somehow seems faster and less committal just to skim through them before mustering the will to get up and get going), maybe a quick swipe through Facebook or Twitter. Then, as we suck down an iced coffee or a smoothie, mid-transit to work/ school/internships/studios, comes the first of the deeper dives: actually scrolling downwards on Instagram into the mains, dashing over to Discord to check the unread messages, maybe even screen-grabbing things to remember and find the time to read in more detail later on. Not long after arriving at wherever it is we go comes that desperate feeling of needing to “take a break.” But we all know that “break” isn’t actually a rest, or a respite: most of the time, we’re filling it with images and slogans that have been dispatched straight into our eyeballs by teams of practically telepathic robots that know our every fear and desire. This does not necessarily mean that we, haplessly unheeding individuals that we are, will end up having no sense of what we do or say, whether online or off. We are so used to it by now that we don’t stop to consider the reality and toll of everything that our minds are absorbing as we jump from app to app and site to site—and from one form of content, displayed within one visual and experiential interface, to another. Despite this plainly tumultuous modus operandi, surely we can contend that just because our minds are not merely “elsewhere,” but are often in many different (if interconnected) places at the same time, that isn’t a reason to cognitively count us out altogether. Nonetheless, it is certainly worth recognizing that unwittingly living and breathing the internet creates the ideal conditions for a lackadaisical kind of informational screening process, a faculty that is all the more critical when operating within such an immersive and immodest environment.

If, for example, we think of the internet, overall, as basically encompassing the entire fucking world, Web3 likes to imagine itself a small town full of little village dwellers, urging us globetrotters to return back to the simple comforts of local life.

Web3, though inherently tied to crypto transactions and exchanges—that of NFTs in particular—is still more a state of mind than a fully fledged new world. It purports to re-domesticate, in a manner of speaking, the vast and all-powerful corporatized platforms that dominate the omnipresent internet we have come to accept as the norm. If, for example, we think of the internet, overall, as basically encompassing the entire fucking world, Web3 likes to imagine itself a small town full of little village dwellers, urging us globetrotters to return back to the simple comforts of local life. It purports to be the humble Mom & Pop to the Googles and the Metas lording over us all, and often refers to itself discursively as an intentional “decentralization” (or redistribution) of the wealth amassed by tech conglomerates.

With that guiding M.O., Web3 does its best to hark back to the hippy, DIY mentality that so resolutely grabbed the attention and shifted the lifestyles of the young and the restless when the Boomers were coming of age and defining it for themselves by their vehement opposition to the Vietnam War. The connection between the two time periods is understandable enough, the hippy movement having gained steam in large part as a response to the 1960s “madmen” and their commercialization of the shiny veneer of a “wholesome” American way of life, which began to crack under the weight of political and global strife. Today, the real world is looking less and less shiny, so we exist more often online, through a scrupulously tailored set of subscriptions and plans that we buy into. These apps, memberships, and fraternities (for all intents and purposes) have replaced, for example, the chipper, spotless aisles of the neighborhood grocer, where housewives used to chat and relay the day’s gossip. Now, instead of businesses and media promoting these spaces as places to socialize and participate in discourse, they sell us ways to simplify interactions and lifestyles through the rampant, blob-ish universality of Alegria design. It is only natural that as the structure of our digital habitat continues to develop in this way, a counterculture motivated by reclamations of autonomy, such as those that Web3 fashions itself to espouse, would materialize.

Of course, this dynamic begs further scrutiny: considering the murky waters within which we are all wading, can we really be so sure that Web3 actually intends to right the wrongs that continue to plague the mimetically capitalistic power structures to which the internet seems inextricably shackled? If we look again, back to what is so often hailed as the “glory days” of the countercultural defiance that characterized the 1960s and 1970s, an oft-forgotten and forever under-celebrated performance piece by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, titled The Keeping of the Keys (1973), comes to mind. The piece was staged at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, and as its title connotes, it involved Ukeles taking the keys to all of the galleries, offices, and archives away from the directors, curators, and administrators, locking them out of their respective roles.

By proving that the museum could function just fine without the head honchos in management, the performance laid bare the pillars of infrastructural power at the crux of such cultural institutions. In doing so, it highlighted the importance of the museum’s lowest-ranking and least appreciated staff members: the janitors, custodians, and conservators responsible for the daily maintenance of the artworks in its collection. In line with her seminal publication Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969), with The Keeping of the Keys, Ukeles’ point was that the longevity (and therefore overall value) of these works could not be sustained without the work of those who were entrusted to rather meticulously care for them.

Web3, and the growing crypto networks and cliques upon which its mores rest, clearly hopes to take up a similar mantle. The move away from the internet’s conglomerate overlords is meant to underscore the real source of their power: the people who use their products and whose data they garner in order to further their own ends. Seen through the most rose-colored of lenses, Web3 could almost be understood as a project that seeks to reveal who, in truth, holds the keys to today’s infrastructural value capture. The wager being that by explicitly crafting their brand as “path-treading,” they can siphon off a noticeable enough amount of the capital that streams endlessly into the coffers of the tech industry’s most nauseatingly profitable companies. If this were possible, they imagine, if they could corral a significant number of online badasses like themselves, then they would be able to prove to “the man” that without “us”—with our non-stop scrolling and clicking through their apps, feeding them the data that they can turn around and sell to trend forecasters, and without whose eyeballs they couldn’t sell their ad space—they would be nothing!

But, by the same token, the fervor surrounding the advent of Web3, and the hustle culture that buoys its casting of NFTs as a new and impressively dynamic art market, does not have much at all to do with art, per se.

The difference between Ukeles’ critical intervention and the mimetically righteous guise of Web3 is that the latter is actually yet another up-and-coming spiv. Admittedly, it is commendable to try to find proactive ways to utilize the practically universal hatred of the uber-rich, evil men who rule and ruin the world. But, by the same token, the fervor surrounding the advent of Web3, and the hustle culture that buoys its casting of NFTs as a new and impressively dynamic art market, does not have much at all to do with art, per se. Unlike The Keeping of the Keys, their project isn’t really about abstracting the acting out of an academic and economic convention. As of yet, the imagery and content of an NFT seems to be of little, if any, consequence, even to those investing in them. More critically, beyond those investing, what discourse (which, however antiquated the concept might sound, still tends to play a rather significant role in the valuation process of a work of art in the long run) is there to flesh out the potential meaning of any given NFT? Most of the writing surrounding their debuts, their rises and falls, focuses on the machinations of the tech itself or the circumstances surrounding their creation and dissemination.

Watching this scene unfold, proverbially speaking, through the skeptical third eye, it would not be unheard of to think of Web3, if not in every way, at least in many, as ultimately going through all of these energetic motions merely as a performative way of poking the internet gods that we love to hate in the eye, hoping to be subsumed by them like so many others—for the right price, of course. With all of this in mind, and all of the 60s jargon that it patently evokes, it is hard not to recall Whole Foods cofounder and ex-CEO John Mackey’s recent, audacious spewing of ridiculous gripes about how “socialists are taking over [the institutions],” by which, he went on to elaborate, so far has meant “[taking] over education…corporations … and the military.”

This endeavor, of branding Web3’s newfound mode of production (aka marketing) as something subversively holding the rabid capitalism of the tech industry to account, is as cyclical a ploy as any. I mean, we always start out loving something seemingly obscure. The more we come to love it, the more it ends up being pushed into the center of social consciousness as other people buy into it, bit by bit. And then, one day, we come to realize that it suddenly represents everything that we hate about “the mainstream,” “the man,” and everything else that is conventional and decidedly UNCOOL. So, without fail, we do our collective 180s and begin the circumventive process of forestalling our interests away from the thing that we loved and have aligned ourselves so closely with—be it a type of music and the communities that come with it, an art form, a celebrity, or a genre of some sort.

Web3, we could say, is a form of this backlash happening on a global scale, and in response to something as indelibly ubiquitous as the ways that the internet operates, and how we navigate our identities and interests within its (rarely regulated) jurisdiction. Through that anthropomorphic lens, we can view these portentous shifts as appearing noble enough. Clearly we can all agree that we hate Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and that the world would be a far better place if they were thrown into the blaring flames of hell and their massive fortunes handed over to the young and the underprivileged. They, undoubtedly, would know precisely how to divvy up such vast funds in order to fix all of the world’s enormous, self-induced problems.

This quaint ideology is understandably looking pretty cute right about now. The contrast between artists trying to get their piece of the pie by selling NFTs to tech-bro-turned-connoisseur-wannabes, and the consumerism cyclone attributed to billionaires upon whom it is easy to lay all of the blame for our social ills, is pretty stark. But Web3’s wielding of its popularity as a means for cleaving out little niches amidst the interminable cohorts that make up the internet’s most widely populated sites and networks also makes room for a potential undercover gambit—one that all of those unassuming, online busybodies may be missing as they are, consciously or not, lured in by what has been designated the next cool thing.

In this climate, it can be all the more difficult to suss out the difference between altruism and the same tried and true profit-leaching strategies of “Neuromarketing” that have tyrannized the good ol’ internet for the past ten years. Neuromarketing rose to a new level of prominence with the advent, not only of the smartphone, but of the rapid expansion of social media and the ineluctable ads that drive its algorithms. The term itself was technically coined in 2002, but its propagandistic tenets date way back before that, to the 1920s and the work of theorist (and perhaps unsurprisingly, nephew of Freud) Edward Bernays, often called “the father of public relations.”

Companies exploit our neurological data not only to uncover our desires, fears, and drives, but in fact to foment them.

Long after his time, his revelations about how psychology and public opinion are linked seem pretty rudimentary. Today, we see our psychological tendencies melding ever more seamlessly with our online user preferences. Companies exploit our neurological data not only to uncover our desires, fears, and drives, but in fact to foment them. This kind of preemptive marketing becomes especially troubling when we consider that younger internet users, who are coming of age precisely as these tools are being honed all the more sharply, are cultivating far more personal relationships with these interfaces than previous generations. Having never known anything else, it is understandable that it would be almost impossible to tell whether a great deal of what is being presented to you is something that you are (even inadvertently) choosing to see, or is actually just the amalgamated result of one’s seemingly benign clicks, cursor hoverings, and general thumb-tapping activity. How will future generations learn to refine their powers of calibration in the face of so much ruthless inundation? How will they craft their identities or understand who they really are—especially as Web3 further intertwines our financial status and valuation systems with all of our other platforms and subscriptions?

It is no wonder, then, that the current self-help and personal wellness boom has become such an attractive and profitable paragon for companies and social media platforms alike. The persistence of the desire for this kind of content, the neverending quest to quiet one’s mind, and the newfangled ways that companies are finding to exacerbate said desire is a quintessential example of the chicken and egg conundrum. Case in point: The current TikTok “phenomenon,” within the niche but nonetheless incredibly popular subgenre of “wellness warriors,” wherein (mostly young) people appear to be diagnosing themselves with all kinds of mental disorders, including the presence of “alters.” The enthusiasm that these TikTokers exude in their psychological proclamations to all who care to tune in is a perfect example of this nebulous confusion.

It is not really the fracturing of our collective minds, in and of itself, that is likely the worst culprit of the ever more nuanced phase of digital life into which we are veering; humans are nothing if not adaptable creatures, and our ability to compartmentalize and keep a number of balls in the air, feeble as it may have always been, still persists. It is the increasingly clandestine ways that such fragmentation will enable others to prey upon the new reality that we find ourselves within, and with which our sadly outdated BS detectors will have to contend. As Web3 becomes the new norm, rather than something that many are still unaware of or can’t yet distinguish from the rest of our daily fix of news, memes, gossip, hashtags, hype, and virality, we can expect it to reveal new pathways into our aspirations, angst, and standards—while attaching new forms of financial (and therefore social) value to them as well.

Unlike the internets of the past, which have been grounded in attention and sharing, the niche quality that Web3 fosters will likely just push people further into their own information silos, built upon both their entrenched and assimilated biases. Web3, at this early stage, is decidedly not the melting pot of cultural commentary that 2.0 at least attempted, at one point in time, to be. We can only assume that were Web3 to become a full-fledged, pioneering, alternate marketplace for art and ideas, it would do little to expand upon the intellectual limitations of its predecessor.

With that in mind, the more that artists are drawn into working through Web3 platforms, whether it be for the convenience of sales or for the sake of not missing the bullet train to the future, we could be facing a pretty bleak field of artistic musings. Furthermore, Web3 can already be seen to be tethering the fervor of constant and ever-increasing momentum on NFT marketplaces to the ability for an artist to acquire any notoriety to begin with, let alone sustain the kind of viable career for which it claims to pave the way.

The feel-good vibes that Web3 so clearly wants to put out into the world mask just the kinds of corruption that inevitably lurk in the wings of any system that so closely ties psychological tendencies to commerce. Moving forward into the congenial, idiosyncratic clusters that Web3 exalts will only mean implicit and explicit messaging, encouraging us to exhibit the very feelings and behaviors that oblige the larger markets that it will always serve.

ZINE - The Skeptical Third Eye (Proverbially Speaking)

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