Navigating the emerging Web3 ecosystem can seem like translating a massive marketing plan. Small startups will decentralize this, others will offer micropayments for that, and they’re all going to “right” the wrongs of the Internet. While some of this is true, the term doesn’t seem to capture the actual stack of technologies that will make up this next step.
A History Lesson on the Internet
It would be difficult to sit in the main hall of the Web3 Summit in Berlin from October 22 to 24 if one were an employee of Facebook or Google. If an employee from the FANG group did, however, make it through the front doors of Funkhausfor the three-day event, they would gain a much better understanding of their ideological opposition. They may also get fed up with the phrase, “Web3 will smash Web2’s conglomerates.” But, if they were from a particular era, such as Web1, the whole scene might not be threatening at all. It might even look like a whole lot of the same.
Fortunately, the arrival, advantages, and destructions of the Internet happened relatively quickly. Thus, few of the founders have passed away, and many of their colleagues are eagerly taking up the torch. In a bid to steer the starry-eyed dApp developers and infrastructure pipe layers, Harry Halpin of Inria and formerly a sitting professor at MIT provided the audience with a telling history of the Internet’s first iteration. He charismatically explained how much of the ideological warfare occurring between cryptocurrencies is reminiscent of the groups who fought over which standards should be standardized. He told about which hills developers were dying on and which were being given up for the sake of long-term success.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Haplin has heard of decentralization either. The Internet, according to Tim Berners-Lee, was intended to be just that. He explained that a group of “hippies” in the seventies began planning what would hopefully allow the digital world to enhance the meatspace. They asked how could a technology make us more social, more connected, and more human?
For starters, an augmented social network was going to need a persistent identity. The early innovators were just as eager as the Civics of the blockchain world were to give users a common, sticky name tag that they carry around the Internet when meeting other Internauts. It wasn’t easy of course, as no one could decide on which company or service would provide that identity. Soon, in Web2, the decision was made for us.
But, backing up before this slippery-slidey-give-users-clean-identities moment, to the early iterations of a decentralized web. Haplin reminded observers that Indymedia, FOAF, and Berners-Lee’s dream of “The Semantic Web” were all in the works. Unfortunately, the developers shot themselves in the foot and rolled out the red carpet for you know who. By failing to earn consensus at critical moments, nothing could be agreed upon and then built atop. It was chaos and open-source. It was decentralized and vulnerable. Soon, the world’s first shot at decentralization was bought out, wrapped up in NDA agreements, and re-released as the famous “Like” button. “It’s the greatest use case of decentralized technologies ever,” Haplin yelled to the crowd. “And Facebook has it!”
So, can blockchains save us and get us back to a decentralized internet? Yes and no. The critical element of the computer scientist’s presentation was the context it provided. The swarming egos of BIPs, EIPs, soft and hard forks, all look tragically similar to the rise of the internet. Fortunately, the incentives model lines up a bit better. By buidling an Internet with a native economic structure, buidlers and entrepreneurs are less dependent on large companies to fund their projects.
On the one hand, the space sees the unfounded ICO craze, on the other, it also enjoys a degree of sovereignty not enjoyed by Haplin’s generation. Still, soft power and egos can quickly throw a wrench in the machine, no matter how optimistic it may seem.
New Browser, Same Data
The built-in economy is not lost on those hoping to relieve the world of the infamous ad-revenue model. Or worse still: paywalls. The Brave Browser is likely the most popular attempt at this. Dr. Ben Livshits, the chief scientist behind Brave, explained how the dying business plan for making money of clicks and views was slowly trickling away. Good riddance: “Imagine that you could use micropayments to read a portion of The Economist. Imagine monetizing all the likes and retweets from Twitter,” Livshits explained. The token-operated browser has convinced at least ten million users of this logic, as the dApp has seen just as many downloads.
It’s still early days for the startup, however. At current, Brave is still in the Gemini phase (browser release and beta launch), but each step leading up the final Apollo manifestation looks like the perfect advertising cleanse. Or, if you can stomach a few more pop-ups, the browser will pay users in its native Basic Attention Token (BAT). On the way to Apollo, the group is also hoping to make some friends in the form of IPFS, unmentioned decentralized identity protocols, and even more YouTubers moving over to the browser.
Quickly, a world without Chrome and other nasty ad trackers look like a thing of the past. For a final knockout blow, Ocean Protocol later laid out the Ocean substrate which opens the data machine much like Bitcoin opened the financial machine. The founder of the project Trent McConaghy described how the Token Economy inspired his work with the Ocean Protocol and the Data Economy:
“Data is money, or as valuable as oil. And as we are the ones providing that data, we’re also bearing witness to the greatest arbitrage of humans in history.”
The data collected on users is bought and sold to the highest bidder for the highest price. More importantly, this data is slowly, but evermore precisely being cornered and snapped up by Facebook and Google. Thinking in terms of these data silos like hodlers think of Wall Street in 2008, paints a clear metaphor for what’s at stake.
In Web3, Networks Are Companies
The final group of panelists continued the metaphoric journey when describing how investors should be participating in decentralized projects. Engaging in the conversation was Olaf Carlson-Wee of Polychain Capital, Richard Muirhead of Fabric Ventures, Shuoji Zhou of FBG Capital, and Jutta Steiner of Parity Technologies moderated.
One of the greatest strengths of this emerging technology is the power of the metaphors it employs. Few subjects are left unscathed and a majority of the time, the non-technical part of the room is deeply thankful. To better grasp how these three figures are thinking of investing, Carlson-Wee astutely described networks as companies: “Investors must participate in on-chain governance. Not doing so, is like a large shareholder of Apple not showing up at the shareholders meeting.” It should also be noted that Polychain Capital also controls the largest node in Tezos.
Muirhead followed this up with the declaration that “it’s no longer the boardroom. It’s the blog post,” while Zhou explained a bit more behind the philosophy of treasures when it comes to cryptocurrencies rather than shares in a company. The final test of this new investor-project relationship is determining the fiduciary role the former takes while also considering the practical needs of the latter.
It all gets a bit blurry regarding who’s helping who in the end. And, likely, that’s the point; in decentralizing all the things, Web2 didn’t go far enough. Or, perhaps we just haven’t found the right metaphor for the new monsters on the horizon.
The first day of discussions at the Web3 Summit outlined many of the features of the emerging, platform, and incoming iterations of the Internet. It offered a slew of analogies to help attendees grok the implications of decentralization and blockchain technology. It was above the protocol and provided the spiritual optimism for the entire landscape. Day two, was similarly inspiring, but in a much different way. The curation of presentations brought the headiness of correcting Web2’s errors to a concrete end: Programming.
Gavin Wood Explains Substrate
The developer-heavy talks opened with an explainer from one of the Ethereum co-founders Gavin Wood. After his workings with Buterin and the launch of the second largest blockchain project in the space, he took up arms at Parity Technologies and through Polkadot. The focus of this project was to provide the greatest amount of interoperability between as many blockchains as possible.
In his presentation, Wood described any kind of crypto-specific maximalism as the “nationalist equivalent of the blockchain.” He went as far as to explain that Polkadot is even trying to avoid any accidental barriers unforeseen pre-deployment. “Even if one chain is ‘perfect,’ it won’t stay that way for long,” he concluded.
The philosophy extended to the focus of his talk about Substrate. The suite of developer-facing tools will allow programmers capable of coding in Rust to set up an operational user interface, change the modality of a blockchain post-launch, manipulate smart contracts to their will, and ultimately take the need out of building a blockchain from scratch. Even consensus mechanisms can be “changed on the fly” and “without a hard fork.” A commentator explained that it was like the equivalent of WordPress, but for distributed ledger programming.
Perhaps the metaphor falls short, but it does provide an interesting perspective on where exactly Web3 is regarding development. By focusing the attention on a premium toolbox to invite talented, but perhaps not blockchain-conscious, developers, Substrate will likely on board a swarm of interest. The demographic won’t be nearly as bubbly as an ICO, but it will help lay down a robust infrastructure via many many quick hands. In many ways, it’s also one of the most bullish bets on the whole space.
By buidling where the developers will come, rather than the mainstream masses, Wood places an incredibly long time-horizon on the technology continuing to remain relevant without all the bells and whistles of tokenization. There’s not an equitable analogy for sheer hard work.
Giving Digital Rights, how to Be Misunderstood, and Hard Mode with Cosmos
Dean Tribble of Agoric described the difficulty in giving any one user (of anything) just enough power for them to achieve a particular task without taking over completely. “If I give someone the keys to my car, they might go back to their hotel, have the valet take it and park it, and the next day they might just sell it. Obviously, I don’t want that” he said.
“What if I digitally bound my keys to this one person, and the keys only work for this one person? I can prevent them from selling it. Unfortunately, once they get to the valet service, they’re in a bit of a jam as the valet driver won’t be able to park the car.”
Tribble’s presentation worked out how to attain autonomy within a framework. Smart contracts function this way too, and Agoric hopes to provide a richer version of what types of logic can be bound up in their code. In this secure experimentation (of which is bound by a specific framework), Tribble, like many of the other speakers, explained how developers would then be able to work through entirely new strips of code.
Arthur Breitman of Tezos gave a talk that matched the hype of the recently launched governance-focused blockchain. In his presentation titled, “5 Reasons Why Tezos Rocks, Number 4 Will Shock You,” he outlined many things that a lot of people had already heard of, but perhaps the sharpest point made by the Tezos co-founder was that his project was often misunderstood. With the all the drama that has surrounded the project for the past few years, it seems only natural that the technology took a back seat from the juice financial controversies, at least from a media perspective.
Bottom line though, “[proof of stake] means a holder of 0.0001 percent of a token, means that this holder has 0.0001 percent say in the direction of the project as well as in the block rewards.” If anything, this ambition is clear and hopeful for consensus models post-PoW. Probably best to keep things simple at this point anyway.
Tendermint, InterBlockchain Communication (IBC) Protocol, slashing, and staking were just a few of the points to steer dreamy-eyed entrepreneurs away from a hands-free Web3. Or, at least took the googly softball buzzwords out of the picture. In his concise presentation, Zaki Manian of Cosmos described the nuts and bolts of what the cosmonauts are working on. In the Q & A follow-up to his presentation, he even described the project as only really attractive to senior developers, assuming they hadn’t already been scared off by the challenges of launching and maintaining zones (Cosmos rendition of a governance model) and hammering out the SDK.
A jewel of hype did, however, lurk in the opaque dev jargon of Manian’s presentation: The world may see the first massively scalable dApp in early 2019. In the end, that’s all that matters, right?
The final day of the Web3 Summit concluded with a reminder about the politicization of technology. As more of our world becomes digitized and the human experience rendered numeric, it’s becoming increasingly important to become aware of how governance will be reshaped. Many speakers explained how this has always been true, while others described the practical means in which these discussions can remain democratic and productive.
Bringing the Hacker Ethic to the Mainstream
The initial talk from Bernd Fix iterated some of the points made by Harry Halpin on the first day of the event. Fix comes from a demographic that preceded Halpin and represents a computer science culture that was swiftly appropriated by the capitalist machine. He makes up the boundary-breaking, liberty-inducing, red star that composed the Internet’s initial vision. On stage, however, he spoke cynically about the deterioration of this vision.
When outlining what the Internet was supposed to do, it’s not difficult to see its political roots. Anyone could switch out a few of the technical terms from computer science for others from the school of political science, and quickly the conversation resembles the duty of a government. Or, rather, what a government ought to do.
“Politics is the project of forming our society along new trends and narratives,” explained Fix. If observers follow this as a premise, and as we hurtle towards an accelerated digital experience, it isn’t difficult to see how exchanges about technology will eventually shape the political conversation. Hopefully, this conversation isn’t dominated by a few voices, though. To miss the bridge between politics and technology, or to look away from this relationship, is, in many ways, to give up the power of shaping a country’s trajectory. Fix asked:
“Why can’t our discussions about politics be as committed, as compassionate, as our discussions of software design?”
The hacker ethic of Fix’s generation didn’t survive the “reality check” of business culture according to him. It couldn’t fight off the consolidation of corporations and their ability to shape the technology for their financial bottom lines. “We didn’t lose the war, but we did lose a lot of battles,” laments Fix. With that, a spring of hope.
Founders of Web1 and Web2 look to blockchain technology and the liberating effects that it proposes as yet another battleground for freedom. If participants can consider the innovation’s relevance in this context, it’s likely to manifest much differently than Fix’s or Halpin’s conclusions.
Shaping the Conversation: Governance and the Technology of Politics
Determining how blockchain technology will right the wrongs of the mega-firms who thrive off of user data is public enemy number one for distributed ledgers. While some have claimed that technology is agnostic, a handful of platforms are attempting to bake in the features of a more just society via different governance models. Speaking on this was the founder of ZK Labs Matthew Di Ferrante.
He explained to a small, but growing audience, that “bad choices made by good governance are much better than good choices made by bad governance.” This can be understood in the idea of the benevolent dictator and ultimately breaks governance down to two items: Outcomes and processes.
Di Ferrante’s point also means that when a poor choice is made (assuming it was made under a “good” governance model) can easily be corrected down the road. The same, however, is not true for “bad” governance. A degree of flexibility is thus assumed to be included in these frameworks. Another aspect of this model is the body of participants. Everyone is signaling different contributions from different levels of a system, and it’s essential that this signaling is also well-informed, lest a community ends up following false conclusions.
Vlad Zamfir, Gavid Wood, and Arthur Breitman continued the discussion in a follow-up panel in the same packed room at Funkhaus. Murmurs of “founding fathers” ran through the audience and added to the gravity of the three speakers. From building blocks, Wood described governance as the means in which an economic system maintains cohesion.
Broken governance will often lead to schisms within a community much like the Catholic church the Parity founder cited. Divisions, or hard forks, aren’t a bad thing, though. Zamfir explained his defense of forking code when a community pursues unfavorable directions. It can also be done to prevent malicious forces outlined by Fix and Halpin from taking over and could be likened to free speech (of which should never be silenced).
Breitman explained the importance of governance when working with common property, such as a public blockchain. But as much as the conversation cited technical aspects of staking or bifurcating aspects of code, the sociological element wasn’t lost on the three speakers. The soft powers that be, no matter how powerful a technology, will repeat themselves over and over. Mitigating for the human features of governance will likely never be solved and “the price of freedom is constant vigilance,” according to Wood.
What Is Progress, Anyways?
Concluding the conference, the executive vice president Aeron Buchanan iterated the fact that “we can’t escape politics when building the future.” The vision to improve where societies’ first attempts at grappling with networked cultures via the internet was present throughout all the presentations.
But, perhaps more important, was the fact that soon, social factors will begin to overtake the technical ones. Inviting and incentivizing as many experts from as many fields as possible will hopefully instantiate a more just and ethical internet for everyone.