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Abstracting Meaning Away (AMA)

Thoughts inspired by a dAppcon talk

Gm,

Wednesday morning. It's time to write a few thoughts inspired by the dAppcon talk that Illia, the Founder of NEAR, delivered.

I do not know where this is going to go, nor have I made up any conclusion I want to draw just yet. Maybe there isn't one altogether. All I hope to do is stir people's thoughts into a direction I feel is often neglected in crypto as we get hung up on all the fantastic things AI x Crypto can do.

My story with NEAR

For a little background on my relationship with NEAR (it might be beneficial), I started getting into that ecosystem in 2022 as I was trying to build a product with friends. In the early days, as the only non-tech person on that team, I figured the best I could do was build some clout.

I started writing threads and blogs covering NEAR projects and eventually reached some sort of "fame" in that ecosystem. The project we were trying to build fell apart - but I stayed around and was even hired by NEARWEEK to contribute occasional blog posts. It was a small enough ecosystem that your voice would be heard.

As a joke, I even started an intern account, which became somewhat successful in NEAR terms. I still run that one and even got some retro donations. It's still common for people to ask if I work or get paid by the foundation (I don't).

I made some great friends, many of which became disillusioned over time. The tech was/is great. The way they went about community building and narratives was not so much.

But enough of my background, let's get into the talk.

AI-Proof the World

Titled "How Chain Abstraction can AI-Proof the world" - hello buzzword bingo - in it, Illia, talks about the start of NEAR as an AI project that aimed to pay people all over the world to label data. No chain was up for that task, so they built a blockchain that could.

Good lore.

After outlining what's wrong with the current Big Tech winning the AI race and a lack of alternatives outside of web3 x AI, he moves on to the concept of User-owned AI.

NEAR is building the Self-Sovereign OS to enable that. It's basically a rebranding of what the previously called BOS (blockchain operating system), which they grandiosely mismarketed first as "just decentralized frontends" - a solution looking for a big enough audience to care before pivoting to marketing it as the whole stack for modular chains, adding to more confusion. Because yeah, wasn't this a monolithic Alt L1?

Anyone with too much time on their hand, pls feel free to study their constant pivots and the confusion.

Anyway, the moment I started completely drifting off during this talk into my own world of thought on what isn't mentioned was as soon as Illia mentioned the problem of not being protected from manipulative/misleading content.

I recently re-read "This is not propaganda" and have been thinking a lot about the supposed freedom of speech value of Web3, so this obviously landed. It's nearly impossible nowadays to know what's true and what isn't.

The biggest issue isn't anymore that big media and governments are limiting our access to information. It's that they, as Steve Bannon would say, "flood the field with shit." It's straight from the Russian Propaganda Playbook but can be used by anyone with the resources.

One of my ex-boyfriends (yes, I have horrible taste in men) once got involved in a shitcoin project, and when I asked, so what if someone asks legit critical questions? He stunned me by explaining that they had a bunch of shill guys operating multiple accounts that would just drown it out with enthusiasm.

Sounds awfully like a lot of Web3.

The point, though, is that propaganda isn't what it used to be. Operated by big media or a government cabal.

We might have just democratized it inadvertently with the creation of LLMs available to anyone.

Babel

But this happened way before with the thriving of Niche media. And don't get me wrong, I get a lot of the most interesting essays from niche media. Technically, I am probably a niche media myself.

However, I don't claim to have all the answers, nor do I actively try to convert people into patrons. If you want to mint my posts, great; if not, also great.

The internet enabled the flourishing of multiple subcultures and gave rise to the niche propagandist. It doesn't pay off for that niche person to cater to the broad public. Quite the opposite. The more outrageous a stance, the better - as long as you can gather enough other people to sign up for your paid subscription.

It's a little how I imagine the aftermath of the fall of the Tower of Babel. Humans built a tower trying to reach God. For their arrogance, they were punished with the tower failing, and everyone suddenly spoke different languages.

The information ecosystem online is highly fragmented.

The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.

Jonathan Haidt

Now, this user-owned AI and blockchain combo is supposed to help us at least surface further information if it is available.

Like community notes, but for the entire internet.

I wonder if that can work if you start from scratch. How can you differentiate a legitimate person from someone you shouldn't trust? Sure, the idea is always to tie reputation to that person—but what if they do not have any on-chain reputation just yet?

What's to say that community notes can't be hijacked and used to undermine trust in legitimate information?

I do believe there is a benefit in signing the content you wrote yourself cryptographically, with a key that people can associate with you. Especially in a world where there's no honor among thieves.

If someone stole this post and I found it somewhere else, at least I can point to the hash on Arweave and prove that it was me. Not that this would change much.

Maybe someone would add in the community note that this was actually written by me. But would people even dig that far?

So far, one of the prime value propositions of having everything tailored to oneself is that it's a great place to feed your confirmation bias.

DYOR often just means finding more things to support your thesis. Not to actually go down in the pursuit of knowledge.

Instead, we tend to be trapped in echo chambers, propaganda or not.

I don't think we talk about this much in this space.

Also, Illia goes on in his talk to mention user-owned AI, which would aid us. Eventually, we wouldn't be having TikTok algo feed us content. No, it'd be all AI-generated feeds tailored towards us—and unique to all of us.

Isn't that like echo chambers on crack?

Plus, I do not know where the confidence comes from that people will opt into this vs. staying with their current provider. Sure enough, the Big Tech platforms have already ingested all my preferences so far. I'd lie if I said I never discovered a true gem thanks to Instagram (primarily classical music, books, and philosophers).

Telling people whose reward circuits are being hacked to get off TikTok and go outside and make friends is like screaming at an oncoming hurricane. There is no going back.

Miya Perry

Of course, they did not pay me anything for my data in return, and I do not have sovereignty over how they are using it. But they will also not delete it even if I start leveraging my self-owned AI tomorrow.

I do find the perspective of a world where everyone has their own completely AI-generated feed disturbing, regardless of whether it's powered by me opting in with my data and getting some magic internet money for it or not.

Already, everything that binds us seems to be disappearing. We don't have many shared values, symbols, or common narratives left. Where do we still derive purpose and meaning? It's hard to tell.

Having an existential crisis is en vogue, and much of the memecoin mania is attributed to financial nihilism.

Nietzsche alluded to the lack of shared meaning in life as "God being dead."

Against common perception, it wasn't something he'd say with Schadenfreude. If anything, it was something noted with despair and wondering what could fill the void created this way.

The fragmentation of the internet and the ease of finding your niche community without ever having to bother exposing yourself to the other - is that really all that desirable for the fabric of society?

It's easy to oppose things for the sake of it. Free speech is a noble pursuit, and I'm all for it. User-owned AI also sounds like a great thing.

But will it really help us manage information streams and our patterns? I doubt it'd eliminate binge-watching as a general mode of consumption in late modernity, as Byung Chul Han would say.

If anything, if everyone gets their personalized feed, wouldn't that make things worse?

And if it's everyone on their own, where are the denominators? The things we can still share? The fundament we can build meaningful community on?

I don't know.

And maybe crypto isn't exactly the right place to look for meaningful community builders. There are likely 95% of projects that refer to a bunch of mercenaries as "community."

How the future looks like, who knows.

Maybe I am the only one worrying about what this will do to society at large. After all, whenever I tried to pose this question to someone on an X space, they conveniently answered another one.

And maybe then, the place for people like me to hang out is going to be the cozy web—the one where I hang out with friends who I know are real.

Or the Hand Made Web.

In fact, I might already be halfway there. Most of the content I consume is not algorithmically curated. It's human-curated.

From writers I love and subscribe to, from Newsletters with a real editor, from magazines like Noema and Palladium I'm obsessed with. And the occasional recommendation I come across on Farcaster or Kiwi. Add to that librarians, and bookstore workers who curate the selection - and I can confidently say, at least 60% of stuff I read is selected by a human.

It's so weird for all the talk about empowering humans, how little we talk about what would be beneficial for the human.

Sure, getting paid for your data is beneficial.

But that isn't all there is to life.

I've strayed quite far from the start. I admit, I have no answers, just my own ways of coping.

To finish where we started, Illia was Co-Author of the paper "Attention is All You Need." For Google, it might have been about capturing as much of it as possible.

It shouldn't be if it's robbing us of something so important.

The essential element to recognize is how much of what we call “progress” is accompanied by and measured by the fact that human beings need less and less conscious attention to perform their activities and lead their lives. The real power of the faculty of attention… is one of the indispensable and most central measures of humanness.

Jacob Needleman in Time and the Soul


Thanks for reading.

Some sources that inspired me in this:

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