Digital networks: an evolving process

Analysis clearly shows that every forecast for world societies in the coming decades will be strongly affected by the emerging trends on the increasing digitalization of our societies and economies[1][2] , .

In particular, it must consider that moving from the current version of the internet most of us know today, with an internet dominated by companies that provide services in exchange for our personal data (i.e., “Web2”, including large firms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb, Uber, among others) to a context of decentralized apps that run using blockchain (i.e., “Web3”, including Bitcoin, as a digital currency, and decentralized applications built on top of networks, such as Ethereum, as well as Helium, Maker and Ocean) brings with it the potential advantage, among others, of no one being blocked or having access denied to the service (at least in theory). In addition to blockchain, the emerging next-generation world wide web will leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence even more to achieve real-world human communications and transactions[3] .

However, although global digital platforms have become an integral part of our lives, with evident benefits, but also with emerging threats to democracy, fundamental rights, societies and the economy including raising inequalities. It is under this context that emerging decentralized digital platforms bring new collective challenges and opportunities across all sectors of activity and all our daily life, with a particular relevance for the Global South. Although most of the debate is dominated by new technological advancements of products and services in the financial industry (i.e., Fintech) and related issues associated with blockchain in the context of cryptocurrencies, it covers a wide range of activities from industry to the arts (e.g., NFTs, non-fungible tokens).

But Web3 has some limitations, at least for the moment, including: i) scalability, because transactions are still slower than traditional ones; ii) larger “time to value” than incumbent technologies, because of the need for extra steps, new software, and, above all, education and further research; iii) accessibility, due to the current lack of integration in modern web browsers; and iv) cost, because the dominant blockchain technologies (i.e., “proof of work”) are still expensive in terms of energy consumption and negative climate impact[4] . In particular, increased energy consumption and the inherent CO2 footstep is a clear blockchain drawback that cannot be forgotten, although a new generation of blockchain technologies is emerging (i.e., “proof of stake”). In addition, decentralized and distributed systems are prone to hacker attacks, particularly associated with critical infrastructures (like electric grid, water distribution, financial networks, gas pipeline infrastructures).

Although advantages and disadvantages of centralized and decentralized digital networks are still subject to many uncertainties and require comprehensive technical and policy debates, it is clear that decentralization and blockchain control is not completely immune to biases - blockchain algorithms incentivize and ultimately end up giving preference to participants that have access to more nodes, therefore, to the most active ones. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help by modelling the information flows and learning the critical patterns of use by different participants. Such patterns can then provide input to the setting of the parameters that govern the behaviour of blockchain algorithms.

Overall, the emerging uncertainties are associated with lack of regulation, which resulted from a few dominant economic or political interests, as well as digital terrorism and related individual malfunctions, disregarding people at large and, above all, our collective behaviours[5] . We argue that the role and scope of regulation must be revisited, considering an increasingly complex global network of actors and sophistication of AI algorithms. The role of regulators must be reshaped towards a time-sensitive, people-centered and climate-aware approach for our common good, in order to better protect citizens from abuses and manipulation.

In other words and following Helga Novotny (2021), they should be oriented to promote “digital humanism” and guarantee a transdisciplinary approach to collective behaviours and consideration of “human agency”[6] . In addition, DeLanda (2009; 2017[7] ) argues that human agency requires frameworks that help us better understand complex relationships among communities, interpersonal networks and institutional organizations, as well as involving the engagement of central and regional/local governments.

[1] Kontokosta, C., & Harrison, C. (Eds.) (2017). Urban Intelligence: How Data and Information Can Shape Urban Planning, Design, and City Operations. Routledge.

[2] Helga Nowotny (2021), “In AI we Trust: power, Illusion and Control of predictive algorithms”, Polity Books.

[3] Max Mersch and Richard Muirhead (2019), “What Is Web 3.0 & Why It Matters”, 31 December 2019,

[4] See, for example, Sam Richards (2021), “Web2 VS Web3”,

[5] See, for example, Joseph B. Bak-Coleman, Mark Alfano, Wofram Barfuss, Carl T. Bergstrom, MIgue Centeno, Iain D. Couzin, Jonathan F. Donges, Mirta GAlesic, Andew S Gersick, Jennifer Jacquet, Albert B Kao, Rachel E. Moran, Pawel ROmamnczuk, Daniel I. Rubenstaein, Kaia J Tombak, Jay J Van BAvel and Elke U weber (2021), “Stewardship of global collective behavior”, PNAS, June 21, 2021.

[6] See, for example, UNDP (2019), “The Human Development Report”, chapter 6; UNDP, New York.

[7] Manuel DeLanda (2009), A New Philosophy of Society. Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, Bloomsburry, London, UK; Manuel DeLanda (2017), Assemblage Theory. Edinburgh University Press, UK.