Web3 as a "speculative community"
This new book provides an interesting framework for thinking about platforms and crypto
Last winter, in an attempt to marshal some theoretical resources to understand what the fuck was going on with web3 and why all these people were buying cartoon animal art, I picked up a book called Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World, by the University College London sociologist Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou. I ended up writing a review of it for Bookforum, which appears in this most recent issue, and uses the book's theoretical framework to understand Elon Musk's attempted takeover of Twitter. I encourage you to go read the essay, which has the benefit of being "coherent" and "orthographically correct" because it was "edited" by a "professional editor," but I also wanted to write a quick newsletter about how I think Komporozos-Athanasiou's work is useful for thinking through the phenomenon of web3, as well as its importance in understanding social media.
Komporozos-Athanasiou's title, I think, explains why this book seemed appropriate for attempts at grasping what was happening online in 2021. Taken as a straightforward phrase, "speculative communities" is nicely abbreviated description of web3, tying together as it does many of web3's constitutive qualities: its growth as a market for financial speculation, its supposed potential as an architecture of an internet of the future, its appearance as many overlapping, fiercely committed communities of enthusiasts and believers, and so on. (The subtitle — "Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World" —feels like a good default answer to the question "what have you been up to during the pandemic?" "Oh, you know, just living with uncertainty in a financialized world. Also, we had a kid!") But the book is not specifically about crypto. Rather, it attempts to examine a number of political, economic, and cultural developments of the last 15 years or so (from Trump and Brexit to dating apps) and assemble a theoretical framework for understanding them.
The basic thesis is that, in the years since the global financial crisis, in response to the weakened legitimacy of global institutions and rising market volatility and political uncertainty, people at all levels of power, and in ever-increasing spheres of life, make use of the logic of financial speculation. From the Bookforum review:
Where prediction once reigned, speculation now dominates. You can see this at the most literal level in the rise of gig-platform apps like Uber, where the once-simple acts of hailing or driving a cab become adventures in speculation—wagers on whether the price of a ride will rise or fall in the next five minutes—but you can also see it on a discursive level in social media, where users stake out speculative positions (called “takes”) on volatile reputational marketplaces. You even see it, Komporozos-Athanasiou argues, in the success of “populist” politicians and initiatives from the Greek bailout referendum to Brexit to Trump, votes for which can be understood as speculative wagers on “possible, yet uncertain, outcomes”—and, for some, as endorsements of a chaos from which a political gambler might profit and take power. [...]
Komporozos-Athanasiou’s point is not so much that every sphere of life is programmatically ordered as a speculative market, but that we find ourselves assuming—sometimes by choice, sometimes by default—the attitude of speculators in everyday life. If the world in the years before the global financial crisis was defined by the business-minded rationality of the entrepreneur—save and invest now, reap and profit later—activity in the years since is better characterized by the creative imagination of the financial speculator, who embraces, seeks to profit from, and perhaps even attempts to intensify volatility. John Stuart Mill’s infinitely rational, “risk-taking, entrepreneurial agent” homo economicus is giving way to a new species of hominid, which Komporozos-Athanasiou names homo speculans: “a politically disoriented, speculative subject who accepts rather than averts the future’s radical uncertainty.”
I think anyone who's lived through the last decade has an intuitive understanding of what Komporozos-Athanasiou is suggesting here, and “speculation” is in some ways a more useful framework than, say, “surveillance capitalism” for understanding the nature and goals of the mega-platforms. While there’s no doubt that Facebook and Google and their kin conduct user surveillance at astonishing scale and precision, it’s important to recognize that this surveillance isn’t put to use with the goal of absolute user control — or even, for that matter, of absolute user knowledge. As the stewards of immensely profitable advertising marketplaces, Facebook and Google prefer managed volatility, and the data they gather is more like a stock ticket — a snapshot of market sentiment — than like a police dossier.
This framework further helps connect the rise of app platforms with the rise of chaotic populism in a way that pushes beyond the crudely mechanical (i.e. "Facebook is the reason Donald Trump became president"). Facebook and Donald Trump are both creatures of speculation in an age of volatility, at once beneficiaries and producers of chaos and uncertainty. It's not (necessarily) that one emerges from the other, but that both are consequences of a particular, financialized approach to the world — one that seeks to profit from, rather than eliminate, chaos.
That's the "speculative" part, at any rate: Where does "communities" enter into it? Again from the Bookforum essay:
[H]omo economicus is an isolated individual, while homo speculans, in Komporozos-Athanasiou’s formulation, is a member of a “speculative community.” The delegitimation of neoliberal reason not only increases volatility, it also undermines the previous regime’s insistence on atomized individuals and family units. “Struggles of speculation and insurance,” then, “are experienced more intensely but also more collectively.” Here Speculative Communities draws on Benedict Anderson’s famous study of the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities, which argued that the collapse of anciens régimes around the world and the rise of print-media capitalism in the wake of the industrial revolution created new uncertainties around which the “imagined communities” of nationalism could coalesce. For Komporozos-Athanasiou, a similar process is at work in the early twenty-first century: the recent collapse of neoliberal legitimacy and the rise of a heavily financialized digital capitalism have produced new uncertainties, out of which grow speculative communities, bound together by shared precarity and a stabilizing account of the future. [...]
Komporozos-Athanasiou is clear that, as finance’s logic colonizes other spheres, “speculative communities” can and do arise well beyond the narrow confines of markets and trading floors. He suggests that France’s gilets jaunes, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, and Black Lives Matter each have aspects of speculative communities, even if they are not literally speculating on assets, as all “endorse uncertainty as a condition of possibility,” and generate “a renewed sense of synchronicity and narrative” among participants. The adoring fan base that has sprung up around Musk and Tesla, vehemently defending him and excusing the absurd faults of its electric cars wherever they are besmirched online, is a kind of speculative community as well. After all, nothing says “endorsing uncertainty” and “embracing the unknown” like getting behind the wheel of a car with brakes that might malfunction due to a firmware update made the night before.
The book is pretty academic, and I'm like 30 percent too dense to grasp all of it, but I don't think you need to be a Ph.D. to see how the story Speculative Communities tells can apply to the crypto craze of 2021: many people facing (financial, residential, epidemiological, etc.) uncertainty coalesced around a stabilizing narrative of a decentralized, democratic future, undertaking a shared financial risk and in so doing forming a speculative community. That's not to say that the risk was evenly shared — it wasn't — or even that every single participant earnestly or fully bought in to the web3 promise. But I think it’s good to be reminded that web3 isn’t (simply) a Ponzi scheme or a16z scam: It’s a communal response to volatility and chaos and a wager on a possible future. Importantly, what’s being voiced isn’t necessarily a desire for more stability or a return to the status quo ante, but an entirely new future, in which the participants have a real stake.
Komporozos-Athanasiou isn't the first person to notice the speculator's attitude being adopted in political, economic, romantic, etc. life, but he's the first I've read to recognize (and to begin to theorize) the important relationship between speculation and community. Seeing (literal and metaphorical) speculation as an activity that necessarily builds community, and seeing the communities as necessary components of the speculative activity (rather than seeing the communities as a kind of accidental development coasting off of a separate, “real” core) helps us get at the core of the web3 dynamic — both to understand it, and to overcome it.