It’s almost unthinkable to imagine a time when the writers and works of ancient canon—Cicero, Quintilian, and most famously, Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things” amongst many others—whose rediscovery inexorably awakened Europe into its Renaissance, were nearly lost in time—not just from papyrus decomposition, but from the abbots in the libraries of monasteries who guarded and controlled the pagan and irreligious texts during the aptly named Dark Ages.
These works’ reintroduction into the world, through meticulous hand-copying (this preceded Gutenberg's Press), was possible due to the collective imagination and yearning of the Humanists, a group of 14th- and 15th-century teachers, scientists, poets, and theoreticians who’d heard or read of grand works from Ancient Rome and Greece, and were hungry for critical thought.
Collectives have always pushed the needle forward and always functioned deliberately due to the assortment of beliefs and opinions articulated within—be it Humanists, Enlightenment philosophers, even Dadaists. The message is sewn with the same thread: taking precedent from others before, and revising.
Verses, a self-avowed “multidisciplinary collective co-imagining, writing, and building towards a better collective, digital future”, is a rich example of individuals coming as one to acknowledge previous expressions and offer new interpretations: open-source drops called “artifacts”. Spawned from an artifact revisiting John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, the core stewards were joined by others who were moved by the vision. Whereas Barlow was addressing governments’ authority in a highly individualistic context, the “Declaration of the Interdependence of Cyberspace” is addressing the general, corporate hegemony of Web2 in individual, but also mutual and plural, foundations.
Liam Casey (ZORA): What has transpired in Web3 so that collectives like Verses ought to exist?
Jasmine Wang: The Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace came together very organically as precipitated by Facebook's rebranding as Meta, which I think folks not just in Web3, but also who have been working in the decentralized web, reacted to quite viscerally.
Divya Siddarth: I actually started working with Verses post-Declaration, and what drew me to the project is, on one hand, feeling a sense of possibility through my early work in decentralized tech and blockchain governance and these green shoots in Web3 around democratization, and on the other, a concern that the broad excitement around the tech wasn't paired with thinking about meaningful shifts in power and agency, which means we may not end up actually building something different from the digital space we already have. I think Verses can be a part of navigating this tension and putting forward some language and frameworks for meaningful alternatives, alongside many others across this community.
Alejandro García Salas, Jasmine Wang, Spencer Chang, Raymond Zhong, Saffron Huang, Daanish Shabbir, Divya Siddarth
LC: So what did you feel was lacking in the space as an impetus to develop Verses? To fill that vacuum so to speak?
JW: I think that it requires a lot of space, time, and privilege to be able to make statements about values, to think through an artifact like this, and to put something like this together. Someone told us afterwards, ‘I've been involved in the decentralized web, working in it full time for years, and when I saw the rebranding, there was something visceral that happened to me. I wanted to say something substantial about the Meta rebranding but didn't have time—I have three kids. But when I saw this Declaration, it felt like’—and this was their language—‘that there was some light that we were collectively orienting around. I saw that other people cared in a similar way as me.’
There's an author I really admire, Jenny Odell, in ‘How to do Nothing,’ who traces the history of student activism and points out that in particular we often see people who have space putting in extra time for other people who can't easily express a set of beliefs. I think as a space matures, conversations that might have occurred at the genesis of such a space need to be continuously revived and re-centered. These are not new ideas.
Saffron Huang: I think, a lot of the time, people talk very abstractly about politics and speculative visions for the future in Web3, but in terms of how you actually use the tools more specifically, there's a missing niche in the space for that.
Daanish Shabbir: Form and content are inextricably tied in this work. As Saffron said, it’s not enough to critique software with words or in the abstract; we see ourselves as part of the tradition of ‘Rhetorical Software’—interventions and experiences that enact the critique, instead of merely stating it.
This engagement with form also pushes our critique to be rigorously and more aware of the conditions in which technology can be produced today. We release our codes along the way so that others can re-use, and so that this labor contributes directly towards creating conditions for freedom on the web. We’ve grown up learning and using open software that others have written before us, and we write back into that conversation. Our initial work demonstrated new ways for authors and readers to engage around a text using forks, signatures, and Twitter verification and distribution. We released the software recipes so that anyone who wants to create something similar can do so. There’s immense liberatory potential in code and in language, a gift of time and mental labor from many, to many.
LC: Verses deploys the term ‘artifact’. There's this image of ancient, wind-swept stone tablets associated with it. Was there an explicit reason to call certain pieces ‘artifacts’, perhaps as a way in the future to record a time when there was consensus in the evolution of Web3 and decentralization as a whole?
SH: I'm not sure if there was an explicit agreement to call things artifacts; I feel it just evolved. For example, the Declaration: ‘artifact’ connotes these objects that are not just a statement or a petition—it kind of puts it in another category. I think we're trying to push the limits of what Verses is. The Declaration is not just a thing that you sign, because it's associated with Web3. There's all these cool things you can do with it that puts it beyond a regular petition: You can fork it, you can sign it, and you can do these things that make it very extensible.
It’s a thing to experiment with. The other thing I like about the potential of Verses is that it tries to germinate smaller, more experimental things—political and artistic—than these kinds of financially high-stake dApps that usually exist, e.g. for NFTs, governing treasuries, or token exchanges.
Spencer Chang: The reason a word like ‘artifact’ resonates with me more than say, ‘statement’ or ‘essay’, is because at its core, it feels interactive and participatory. That's a big part of the drops: Giving agency back to the people to decide. ‘Artifact’ could be about the principle of reclaiming this word for ourselves or the principle of reclaiming interoperability for ourselves.
JW: I had spoken with Yancey Strickler about Metalabel a few weeks prior, was nerd-sniped by that conceptual framework, and started using the term ‘artifact’ quite naturally afterwards in conversation.
Daanish Shabbir: There’s the artifact that’s released, and then there’s the entire ecology around that artifact— the numerous friends and communities who engage in dialogue around the construction of the Declaration text and software, folks who enacted the distributed distribution, and others who built the underlying software technologies that enabled our work. All this is a living, breathing crowd that comes into appearance when you engage with the artifact through signatures on Twitter or through traffic on the Discord, and through forms of acknowledgement. We want it to be not as much a tablet frozen in time, but more a lighthouse that invites others into dialogue and action in the present moment.
LC: Do you believe incorporating and declaring firm terminologies early on is a way to guide Web3 in the right direction as opposed to being potentially hijacked ideologically by venture capital? Is there something behind that?
JW: Yes. There's been a long-standing debate if Facebook is attempting to redefine or incentivize folks to understand fairness—something amenable to them. I think it would be a loss to have a static definition of any single term by an entity. We’re interacting with a Declaration, the Pluriverse artifact, offering an alternative term that we feel Web3 should commit itself to. What we’re interested in is looking at the history of terminology: What’s been the definition? The term ‘Pluriverse’ has a long history, and communities make meaning in different ways. We want to be respectful of that while also doing justice to certain terms and not completely relativizing meaning as something entirely socially constructed.
SH: It's not necessarily that we want to push out all of the venture capitalists, but I think holding space for other worlds and ways of thinking is important, and to have the passerby of Web3 know that it's not just about metaverses and lazy apes. One interesting thing that I've seen is people who wouldn't be attracted to, or don't see themselves as crypto people, interacting with Verses-type things more, potentially because there are parts that resonate more of an academic take on things, especially with essays like the Pluriverse.
The Pluriverse means 'a world in which many worlds may fit', so I think it’s a particularly strong counter to singular narratives from any corner, whether it be venture capitalists or not, although they might have more of a vested interest in particular single narratives.
Alejandro García Salas: Having a precise language is important, and it’s helped us orient ourselves and how we can dream about a certain space. For example, the term ‘metaverse’ originally started in the novel ‘Snow Crash’. And now when you say the word metaverse people think, ‘Oh, this from Meta, that's created by Meta, it's owned by this corporation.’ So once you try to redefine those terms or introduce new terms—like Pluriverse, which has a different world lineage—they're no longer bound by that definition. It's not about the word, the picture that people have about that word.
Divya Siddarth: Beyond even the firmness of the terminology, I think there's an expansiveness and self-determination that we want to enable and be a part of. The Pluriverse means 'a world in which many worlds may fit', so I think it’s a particularly strong counter to singular narratives from any corner, whether it be venture capitalists or not, although they might have more of a vested interest in particular single narratives. Then there's a question of how to organize behind that language, which is where I think our ethos of trying to create and support infrastructure for these pieces also comes from.
LC: What have collectively been your biggest challenges?
Raymond Zhong: A big part of Verses has been figuring out how to operate as an organization that’s open and allows for community input in a space where a lot of templates—legally and organizationally—come from very financialized institutions and organizations that require technical know-how.
SC: We’ve intentionally called ourselves a collective, and that means you’re open to however much participation you're willing to put in. I think one of the challenges with that is just coordinating logistically. It's not like a nine-to-five job where everyone’s on at the same time—we’re spread across time zones. So I think it's been finding ways to give grace in that asynchronous way of working, appreciating people for the time they are able to contribute, and working out how to collectively move forward.
LC: Web3 has a capacity to attract people all over economic, linguistic, and cultural spectra. Some see it as a simple side hustle. Some see it as an extension of their art, some want to live in it full-time. Some shun formalities and simply want to go with the flow. Verses, the Declarations, and Artifacts, feel very grounded in research and academia. Do you believe people in Web3 should conduct themselves more seriously, or be more politically-minded?
AGS: I think it's hard to consider the political, social, and cultural implications of a technology in a vacuum. To the extent that people can, or are interested in it, they should try to engage on a deeper level.
SH: People should do what they want, but I do think people talk about politics at a high level a lot, and I'm sure there's a lot of people who are interested in a more focused approach to it. I certainly enjoy more research, academic types of thinking. I don't think it's necessarily something that everybody needs to do, but I'm curious about what kinds of people will become interested in it, or what kinds of effects it would have if it became a bigger strain of influence in Web3 culture.
JW: I don't think Twitter as a medium is conducive to long, thoughtful citations through conversations. I think it would be pretty unfair to paint such a broad brush that, ‘Oh, folks in crypto are X or like Y.’ Another thing I've been most consistently impressed by in Verses is that there is such diversity, and to echo and underline Saffron’s point, it feels like an ongoing open question: How can we have many worlds? One prerequisite to many worlds is having many mediums for communication: One like Twitter that’s useful for me to dash off quick thoughts or share a line of poetry; and different forums where I want to engage on slow mode, do slow philosophy, and reflect.
LC: In your minds, what does the success of Verses and the Declarations look like as a whole?
JW: I think it's hard to make that sort of statement definitively; anything we say is a hypothesis… Within Verses, I think something that would feel successful would be a model or flexible container that works non-instrumentally to some outside goal—a container that works for us as a community to do the sort of work we find valuable, worthwhile, and deeply good.
RZ: Spencer was talking about how logistically we're so spread out that we have to find things that we're extremely passionate about—finding a repeatable process for discovering those things and turning them into real objects for the world. The Declaration of Interdependence was about signing a document using a Web3 wallet and then having those signatures relayed around the internet. Now we're playing with that pattern even more in a couple of the next two artifacts we're dropping. All of these are going to be interactive objects that’ll hopefully help push the bounds of what people can do in Web3. So if some of those ideas make it into the world, then I would feel pretty happy with what we've done.
SC: My hope is that Verses can be a channel for that energy and show that there are other people thinking about ways to push the boundary critically and thoughtfully, and provide an outlet for those to become a real artifact that people can play with and say, ‘Okay, this is what the idea looks materially rather than just sitting in my mind.’
JW: There's a thought that's been stuck in my head for a while, gifted from Ana Santasheva, framing 'crypto as an epistemological offering—a way of arriving at knowledge.' And when I think about how the artifacts under development currently interact with each other like Raymond said, I hope each one feels more complex, but also references the artifact that preceded it. One hope is that they might interweave and intermingle towards more beautiful, complex forms alongside us building up ways of being and acting together.