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The Web has given us so much, but what's missing?
Like any great sequel, Web3 should live up to the promise imagined by the original creators.
The biggest anticlimax of our digital age is this: the Internet actually does not achieve the original vision of so many of its pioneers.
People like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, imagined a network technology that would allow for open and generative access to ideas, goods, and new experiences all over the world. In fact, every year on March 11 – marking the anniversary of his 1989 creation – Berners Lee publishes an essay on the state of the Web. And every year for more than 30 years, the reflection falls short of his utopian goal of “a simple, star-spangled, unicorn-sky world.”
Of course, the artifacts of our digital era are astounding. Social network giants like Facebook are the size of our largest nation states. We have streaming and content delivery options like Netflix that would require over 125 million hours of human life to consume. What started as a small online bookstore grew from selling books in the early days of the Internet to selling “everything” across Amazon’s unrivaled on-demand supply chain and cloud computation service.
Who would want to describe all this ingenuity and invention as anticlimactic?
But the open and infinite creativity of the Web also got lost along the way. Unable to build identity and unique value transfer as core elements to the Internet, our digital age and the commerce on top of it emerged on the back of cookies, usernames and passwords, credit card companies, and ultimately massive technical debt at the enterprise level to accomplish all those shiny new user experiences.
We had built a technology –– the internet –– that decentralized our ability to communicate. And yet it didn’t decentralize quite enough. There were a few missing pieces –– for instance, the ability to solve identity at the protocol level (the so-called “double-spend” problem that has been written about at length elsewhere). And because we were missing these key pieces, something else grew up instead of Sir Berners-Lee’s imagined utopia. We ended up outsourcing identity to the edges of the network (Facebook, cookies, usernames and passwords, blue check marks). The main business model became advertising, and with it, our attention became auctioned off to the highest bidder.
That is, until Satoshi Nakomoto, the inventor of Bitcoin. Though again and again, I will insist that Satoshi’s larger invention was not just Bitcoin, but the underlying blockchain technology supporting it.
Guided by Satoshi’s famed 2008 white paper, old theoretical works about novel ways that computers could connect to each other, agree with each other, and codify trust, began to be implemented for the first time. Then came Satoshi’s followers –– people like Vitalik Buterin and Dominic Williams, whom I’ve written about elsewhere –– who realized that these blockchain networks could themselves act in concert as sorts of “Internet computers.”
And here’s where things began to get really interesting, and where the future began to look like what had been imagined in the past. Because these global Internet computers are owned by no one, are decentralized, and most importantly, create what computer scientists call “a stateful and persistent shared reality.” Anyone can build applications on them (crucially, without being subject to the sorts of gatekeepers and censors that exist at the top of, say, the Apple app store).
In just the last few years we have started to see the emergence of the next chapter of our digital age, known by those building it as "Web 3”. Structured to deliver open Internet services, and a new kind of software architecture, Web 3 is poised to answer the original vision of the Internet.
But we must be patient. The boom/bust cycle of Bitcoin prices has misled blockchain’s casual observers into thinking that this is story that moves rapidly, or that has already played itself out. The computer scientist Roy Amara has said, “we tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short run, and underestimate the effect of technology in the long run.” If the short run of blockchain has been overhyped and underdelivered, the long run of a transition to Web 3 has not just been underestimated, but largely unaddressed.
The coming decade –– yes, that’s the right timeline to envision, I think –– will be one of unique digital assets that make up entirely new digital economies. It will be filled with virtual worlds that have history, consequences, and scarce resources. It will be one where over 50 billion machines (AI’s included) can transact autonomously –– creating, in essence, an entirely new consumer class. We will share in a universal computing network that unlocks new shared possibilities, and the battle for that position is on full display today.
As crazy as it might sound, it is very much the beginning of a simple, star-spangled, unicorn-sky world. Put another way, Web3 may just be the web we always wanted.