Nov 29, 2021 - Technology

Battle for the soul of a new web

Animated illustration of a hand holding a rotating glowing golden pixel coin.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A well-funded and intensely motivated chunk of tech's hive mind is finding common cause in a vast new project: rebuilding the web on a foundation of cryptocurrency and blockchain tech. They call it "Web3."

The big picture: Developers, investors and early adopters imagine a future in which the technologies that enable Bitcoin and Ethereum will break up the concentrated power today's tech giants wield and usher in a golden age of individual empowerment and entrepreneurial freedom.

The web by numbers: Web 1.0 (in the 1990s) brought us online publishing and the first incarnation of e-commerce.

  • Web 2.0 (in the 2000s) brought new ways for users to share content and platforms to distribute it.
  • Web3 aims to reorganize the economy around digital assets — new currencies, tokens and forms of property (like NFTs) secured by math rather than law, custom or force.

Driving the news: Bitcoin and blockchains emerged nearly a decade ago, but 2021 showed the world how crypto could shape new kinds of property and organizations.

  • NFTs emerged as a way to monetize celebrity and turn memes into investments.
  • An online flash-mob that raised a $40 million bid for a rare copy of the U.S. Constitution illustrated the promise and peril of crypto-based movements.
  • And Facebook's pivot to the metaverse insured that abundant attention and cash would flow toward creating virtual-world assets.

Between the lines: The Web 1-2-3 scheme organizes ways to think about the evolution of software and services, but technological regimes depend as much or more on hardware (personal computing for Web 1, smartphones for Web 2).

Web3, like its predecessors, is being shaped by software developers and venture investors who formulate its principles as they fund its experiments.

  • The resulting flywheel gains momentum because the tech itself generates its own capital — as long as investors foresee profit.
  • "It's a set of legos where every lego is also an unregulated casino, ponzi scheme, and ransomware kit," as Pinboard founder Maciej Cieglowski put it on Twitter.

Yes, but: Each previous web generation believed it had found the key to new forms of digital organization that would be immune to the domination of giant corporate gatekeepers.

  • In the end, though, Web 1.0 got swallowed by Google, Web 2.0 collapsed into Facebook and YouTube — and no one has satisfactorily explained how Web3 might escape a similar outcome.

Be smart: Numbering web eras as if they were product versions (or ages of Middle Earth) focuses our attention on generations of technology divorced from transformations happening in other realms across society. The larger debate over Web3 is only beginning.

Web3's believers see it as a way to fix what's broken about our existing economy. They say it will:

  • Disrupt concentrations of power in banks, companies and billionaires.
  • Deliver better ways for creators and artists to profit from their work.
  • Introduce novel new methods for groups of people to collaborate and pool resources, both online and in the corporeal world.

Critics of the Web3 movement also abound, arguing that:

  • Its technology is hard to use, costly to the environment and prone to failure.
  • As with the previous webs, its architects lack the diversity of background and experience to ensure its fairness and protect it from abuse.
  • Its vision of human relationships is shaped by money, so everything it builds will be a marketplace.

What's next:

  • Web3 is all about digital property rights, where Web 2.0 followed an ethos of community sharing. That's pitting these movements' true believers against one another in a new kind of online "culture war."
  • The rise of quantum computing, which is likely to break most cryptographic encoding in use today, threatens the foundations of both the existing online financial system and Web3's crypto-based innovations.
  • Web3's arrival has coincided with a long era of easy money, low interest rates and regulatory neglect. A financial-market chill or a government crackdown (or both) could freeze its growth.
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