The Radiant and the Grim

On the slippery potentials of Web 3.0, and transcending crypto-bro technocracy.
Playground for which architect Aldo van Eyck and painter Joost van Roojen received the Sikkens Prize in 1961.Courtesy of DPG Media B.V.

In 1997, the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck wrote an essay titled “The Radiant and the Grim,” in which he outlined two opposing tendencies in art and architecture. He called the design sensibility of modernists who prioritized vernacular forms and worked on a human scale “the Radiant.” An example from his own work is PREVI, a social housing project just outside of Lima that was completed in 1973. With a very limited budget, Van Eyck created houses that drew on architectural traditions in Peru, taking into account both local climate and social dynamics. Although PREVI’s houses were initially identical, their designs were adaptable; after years of use, the project’s dwellings were no longer uniform, but had been shaped by the character and habits of their occupants. What Van Eyck conceived as “the Grim,” in contrast, was architecture that privileged grand scale, uniformity, monotony, and standardization—buildings that imposed their own structure onto their inhabitants, rather than responding to them. In short, the glass towers and concrete blocks of most contemporary cities.

While Van Eyck was writing about physical architecture, the dichotomy of the Radiant and the Grim might also be applied to the internet. Web 1.0—the web of the 1990s—was a series of static HTML sites created by individuals, where hyperlinks took users from one page to another, guided by chance and serendipity. Each page was built by users, adapted to their needs and desires in a way similar to Van Eyck’s social housing project. Web 2.0, comparatively—the web that has existed from the 2000s through to the present—is dominated by social media platforms and online marketplaces. The few corporations that run these platforms optimize filter bubbles and impose oligarchical controls to maximize profit, and navigation between sites is determined by a dominant search engine with an opaque algorithm. Web 2.0 closely resembles the Grim city of uniform skyscrapers and privatized space.

If Web 1.0 can be imagined as the Radiant, and Web 2.0 as the Grim, what will the emergent Web 3.0 become? The current conversation around Web 3.0 is dominated by two opposing sentiments: the exaggerated claims of start-ups looking for seed money, and an outright rejection by those wary of technocratic capitalism. The truth lies somewhere in between. The dialectic of the Radiant and the Grim offers a way of thinking through this new web, providing a frame for imagining possible futures outside of the two extremes.


The term “Web 3.0” (or “Web3”) has become a catchall phrase for clusters of emergent technologies, including artificial intelligence and the Semantic Web, blockchain and NFTs, VR, AR, and limitless, immersive online worlds known as “the metaverse.” But in its first usage—by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood in 2014—the term referred exclusively to blockchain as the architecture of the new web. The advent of blockchain is usually dated to 2008, when the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto published a white paper introducing Bitcoin to the world, with blockchain serving as the public distributed ledger for cryptocurrency transactions. In the decade that followed, blockchain was embraced by a number of different demographics. The ones who caught the media’s attention in the 2010s were the so-called “crypto bros,” known for channeling their newfound wealth into ostentatious yacht parties and the gentrification of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Occurring simultaneously, though not attracting as many headlines, were attempts to use the underlying technology for more than just new currencies, but as the architecture of a new web.

If Web 1.0 can be imagined as the Radiant, and Web 2.0 as the Grim, what will the emergent Web 3.0 become?

There had been conferences, mostly in San Francisco, devoted to “the decentralized web” since that initial white paper. But the first conference to use the name Web 3.0, and to position this technology as a successor to the existing web, was the 2018 Web3 Summit in Berlin. I was in the city at the time doing research for an art project on biotechnology. Despite making work with and about new technologies, my experience being cornered at parties by Bitcoin evangelists who lectured endlessly on blocks and ledgers had left me with little interest in blockchain. But a trusted friend assured me this would be a different crowd, and so, curiosity winning out, I went along.

The conference was held in Berlin’s Funkhaus, the grand East German broadcasting station where the Stasi once installed hundreds of intricate wiretaps—a history of surveillance that was repeatedly remarked upon by the guests. The aim of the summit, according to the website, was to create a “fully functional and user-friendly decentralized web,” and energy revolved around escaping the Grimness of Web 2.0—its standardization, exploitation, monopolization—by working to decentralize it. The speakers were names well-known in the civic web space. Wendy Hanamura of the Internet Archive gave a talk called “The Web We Want, the Web We Deserve.” Gavin Wood introduced the participants to Substrate and Polkadot, a blockchain and network respectively, both designed for non-specialists to build applications in Web 3.0. And Amir Taaki, who had attempted to take Bitcoin to the democratic confederalist revolution in Rojava and later started an academy to train hackers in revolutionary technology, led a “fireside chat” about post-maximalism. The conference attendees were mostly men in their twenties and thirties, in black jeans and black hoodies, clacking away on IBM laptops accessorized with stickers that read “Do no evilCan’t do evil.” The slogan intrigued me, as it sounded like a direct rebuke to Google, the former .org whose motto for twenty years was “Don’t be evil,” yet had come to represent the worst excesses of Web 2.0. The message seemed to be that, if centralized power corrupts even those who begin with altruistic intentions, then Web 3.0 must create a new architecture that prevents power from becoming centralized.

For Van Eyck, the decentralization of power was a core part of his theory of the Radiant: his aim was to create horizontal relations, “to open the center by avoiding a single, central dominant.” In a church he built in The Hague in 1969, he used spatial dynamics to “erode spiritual authority, breaking and scattering axis, establishing and then loosening control of the altar; eliminating any prescribed path to God.” At the conference, listening to Taaki’s talk, I was struck by the parallels between the spatial arrangement of Web 3.0—a network of peer-to-peer relations that allow for free interaction between participants, without the need for central monopoly structures—and the social arrangements of democratic confederalism, which is structured around grassroots organization and bottom-up decision making. Were these politics intrinsic to the technology? And if so, how could we explain the contrast between the values the speakers were espousing—those of public good and decentralized power—and the get-rich individualism of the crypto bros who were Web 3.0’s most visible proponents?


Five years after that first Web 3.0 conference, I spoke on a panel about journalism in the metaverse. I’d been invited on the basis of an essay I had written on the ethics of virtual reality documentaries. One of the other speakers was a journalist who wrote about NFTs—an indication of how these technologies are often lumped together under the interchangeable titles of “Web 3.0” or “metaverse.” NFTs are, along with crypto and DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), the most prominent of the applications built on the architecture of blockchain. The journalist described his experience within the NFT space in ecstatic terms, evangelizing the sense of community and mutual support he found there. Swayed by his enthusiasm and the promise of that initial conference, I joined the Discord channel for the NFT collection Cool Cats.

One of the Grimmest aspects of Web 2.0 is that its structure seems to incite or encourage aggressive and inflammatory ways of relating: social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter thrive off an attention economy, where generating rapid, reactionary outrage leads to the greatest response. The anonymity of Reddit and 4chan enables expressions of bigotry, racism, and violence to spread without consequences. Yet, although the demographics of Web 3.0-focused forums are similar to those of Reddit and 4chan, these communities are surprisingly convivial. Discord channels, where NFT and DAO enthusiasts gather, appear to have the potential for the Radiant. They allow for serendipity, debate, and collective decision-making in ways that Facebook and Instagram do not. The language in the NFT Discord channels is closer to what you might hear in mutual aid organizing circles than to the virulent racism or edgelord goading in 4chan. Members greet each other with acronyms like “GM!” (Good Morning) and “WAGMI” (We’re All Gonna Make It), and phrases like “We lift each other up” and “You deserve your flowers!” They espouse values of “community building,” and generally agree that “Web 3.0 is kind!”

But does this language signal egalitarian and democratic ways of relating? Or, in the typical NFT outcome of disproportionate financial gain for some, and loss for others, are claims of “community” and “kindness” mere cover ups for the inherent inequalities and injustices involved? Crypto can make an individual incredibly rich, and while NFT communities often get rich together, this does little to change the underlying inequities perpetuated by these groups.

Nathan Schneider, a journalist and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder critiques blockchain as the “expansion of economic logics”—the endpoint of the cybernetics aspiration for economics to “guide all aspects of society.” Cybernetics is another decentralized system, which was originally supposed to prevent fascism by taking decisions out of the hands of fallible humans, and placing them into the supposedly infallible and self-regulating market. Instead, it became its own kind of totalitarian control. According to Schneider’s logic, these NFT groups have turned community into commodity, where the language of the Radiant masks the underlying structures of the Grim.


The work that Van Eyck is best remembered for is a series of playgrounds, designed for the public works department in Amsterdam. This was in the years directly following World War II, and Van Eyck designed them in the bombed out, ruined, or otherwise interstitial spaces of the city. One of the key features of Van Eyck’s playgrounds was that the objects within them did not prescribe their use—no slides or swings or animal shapes. Instead, every feature was an “indication for play, tools for the imagination.” What the arrangements encouraged, however, were certain types of interactions: serendipity, imagination, communication, collaboration. Raised blocks were arranged in circles to face one another, and the walls around the sandpits were the right height to be chairs or tables between children, to bring them together, face to face.

While Van Eyck was designing playgrounds in Amsterdam, Robert Moses was doing the same for the children of New York. Both of these men designed over seven hundred public playgrounds in their respective cities between 1930 and 1970. But this is where the similarities end. In Robert Moses’s playgrounds, rows of children sat on swings, facing the same direction, pushed by identical rows of mothers and nannies. The lines of children were closed off from each other, and the playground was closed off from the rest of the city by a fence as tall as the children.

A “free market” can never be free in a world where unequal distributions of power already exist. The Grim cannot be used as a means to achieve the Radiant.

Both men’s playgrounds are decentralized, public, open. But they encourage very different kinds of societies. What means of relating are designed into blockchain? Is it truly as neutral as the metaphor of a “block” suggests? What kinds of society does it move us towards? Does blockchain offer the potential for decentralized, grassroots organization, or is it an extension of cybernetics, a misguided attempt to achieve a Radiant society through market logic, totalitarian, and Grim controls?

The ubiquitous sticker at that first conference promised that, with blockchain, evil would not be an option, being prevented by the very architecture of the new technology. But the specific evils those stickers referred to—surveillance and data gathering—are not in fact thwarted by the architecture of blockchain. The artist Burak Arikan, who invited me to that first Web3 Summit, created the NFT artwork Social Contracts to highlight this very problem: using blockchain as a method of critique, these NFTs trace their collectors’ collections and their shared connections to other collectors, using data to project future acquisitions. Although there is no corporate data collection as there is in Web 2.0, the transparency of the blockchain means that more data than ever is available in aggregate. And those who are able to access this data will be able to make predictions based on it and accumulate power from it. Arikan gives the example of the company Chain Analysis, which scrapes blockchain data for the FBI and law enforcement. “I’m sure Google and Microsoft have the capacity for this kind of work,” he says. “I’d be surprised if they are not doing it already.” The downfall of Web 3.0 may, in the end, be the same downfall as Web 2.0. A decentralization of the architecture does not automatically create a decentralized society, or prevent the accumulation of power. A “free market” can never be free in a world where unequal distributions of power already exist. The Grim cannot be used as a means to achieve the Radiant.

The way that blockchain is being used now seems very different from the intentions of those early architects. But that could be because the majority of people in this space so far are coming from a start-up, market driven perspective. Messy confrontation with the realities of existing societies leads to hybrid systems, and this might be where the most interesting blockchain experiments happen. As the legal scholar Primavera De Filippi writes in the book Blockchain and the Law, blockchain technology isn’t merely useful as a way to bypass institutions; it “can be injected into the institutional fabric in order to help them transition towards a more accountable system.” De Filippi points out that, “There's such an obsession with creating a decentralized system. But, if you use a market-based mechanism to govern that system, obviously it's going to centralize itself. So, what's the point? Why are you building a decentralized system in the first place?” An example of the “different governance structures which are not market-based, but which will ensure some sort of decentralized power within the community” is a DAO like Black Swan, an experimental digital initiative in Berlin which subverts the flow of capital and power in the art world by channeling resources from established institutions to artists. Black Swan has also created platform-specific funding and voting systems, such as its governance experiment Cygnet, a consensus-building tool that applies a digital quadratic voting system to award grants. New efforts by groups (with intentions other than making money) might change the way that the structures are being used, and bring about other ways of relating.

Aldo Van Eyck had cautionary words for those who believed that society could be fixed through totalitarian means, by preventing the possibility of evil and chaos through protocological order. His words are an anachronistic rebuke to the “Do no evilCan’t do evil” stickers: “Cities are chaotic and necessarily so. They are also kaleidoscopic. This should be accepted as a positive credo before it is too late. Order has no function, this side of evil, other than to make what is essentially chaotic, work.” Unlike Robert Moses—who separated the playgrounds from the city with a fence, and the children from each other—Van Eyck’s designs encouraged flexibility, and invited the chaos of the city in. How can we apply this approach to the new web, to creating a space beyond the tyranny of a market-driven common sense, for creative misuse, for wildness and imagination? ♦

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