After 30 years of development, let’s look back at the history of the internet and see where we’re headed — and why.
In the late 1980’s, Tim Berners Lee had a problem. At the time, he was working at CERN, the largest particle physics factory in the world. The stated goal of the institute was to accelerate science, using the most sophisticated scientific instruments to study the simplest particles. In 1988, the institute completed construction on the LEP Tunnel, a 27 kilometer ring which came together with just one centimeter of error. This was the largest civil engineering project in Europe (intended to study not-quite-as-large particles — electrons).
The problem Tim Berners Lee found was much simpler than particle physics: loss of information. Several thousand people were working at CERN in 1989. Due to the size and complexity of teams, people often had struggles recalling information and knowledge from past projects. While these were surmountable barriers, an issue of high turnover was nearly impossible to manage. In a proposal named ‘Information Management’ released at the time, Berners Lee shared his thoughts on the issue at-hand.
When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost. The introduction of the new people demands a fair amount of their time and that of others before they have any idea of what goes on. The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found. — Information Management: A Proposal
He proposed a solution. Using a (relatively) new technology called ‘hypertext’, create an information management system which allowed users to access data in a free-flowing, decentralized manner.
“Vague but exciting…” is a famous early response to Berners Lee’s proposal. Eventually, the paper evolved into an interweaving set of technologies which created today’s internet. From W3C, here are three of the most prominent, used by billions of people today:
HTML: Hypertext Markup Language. A formatting language for the web.
URI: Uniform Resource Identifier. A unique “address” to identify each resource on the web. Commonly called ‘a URL’.
HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Allows for the retrieval of linked resources across the web.
These technologies underpin everything we do on a computer. They were the seeds of our journey to reorganize information, an effort which has proven fruitful…yet perhaps as complex as particle physics.
If you took Tim Berners Lee through a time machine from 1989 to 2018, he’d probably think it’s been an eventful three (three?!) decades. He’d marvel at the advances the internet has helped humankind to achieve — the billions, the inspiring, the novel. How the idea of ‘Information Management’ at CERN would unlock unmeasurable innovation.
In this fictional example, he’d probably need a drink, a walk, and at least a few deep breaths to fully grasp the impact of the internet. He’d also probably be surprised to see a few big names in the middle of everything.
Then, he’d definitely say: something isn’t right here.
Before going there, it does us well to review the history of the web. What happened after Berners Lee took the internet public? What were web1 and web2? What’s wrong with what we’re currently doing which leads so many to believe we need a whole new one, web3?
Logically, per Jamie Burke at Outlier Ventures:
Web 1.0 was the read-only web
Web 2.0 was the read-write web
Web 3.0 is an unmediated read-write web
Web1: The Read-Only Web 📖
Web1 was the age of digitization. We took our books, our research, and our lives ‘onto the web’. The web turned out to be a place where information was easier to retrieve than any filing cabinet, ever. Unfathomable reams of information were stored online. Encyclopedias, medical records, and entire libraries were put away into floppy disks and hard drives.
Per a 2015 estimate, if you went to the web only to read, you’d find about 305,500,000,000 pages of content (280 million copies of Atlas Shrugged).
However, in the early days, one didn’t expect to contribute much to this collection of information. Web1 was an imitation of the outer world — online instead of in real life, but not yet a reimagining of how the invention could be novelly used.
One senses, however, that the medium of the web has not been exploited to its fullest if the best we can say about historians’ use of this highly advanced computer network is that it has become a giant, global fax machine. — Daniel Cohen, History and the Second Decade of the Web (2004)
That doesn’t mean developers weren’t building in the background. Subtly, great minds were moving the web forward. Technologies improved, and we were ushered into Web2.
Web2: The Read-Write Web 📚🖍📝🎼
Remember back in the day when every time you clicked something on a website, the whole page refreshed? Side note: is it too early to call the mid-2000’s ‘back in the day’? 🤔
Slowly, and then all-at-once, internet browsers improved. AJAX calls augmented CGI scripts, and applications began sending data back and forth without disrupting the entire web page. You could now click one button to ‘digg’ a post (see below). Web experiences blossomed.
New applications were built with a focus on interaction. Posting, upvoting, hearting, pinning, tweeting, liking, commenting, and clapping all joined the lexicon. Blogging exploded in 2004. Low-stress options to ‘write’ on the internet grew, and continue to grow easier to this day.
Facebook became a hallmark company of Web2, where users became creators of trillions of rows of data. Google and Amazon navigated from Web1 to Web2, using data ‘written’ by users based on their search history to better understand them, and by building products and services which met their needs.
Software-as-a-Service exploded as a business model, as many companies built their business on building applications and then eloquently managing consumer data within them, for a fee.
Emerging Problems With Web2
Quietly — almost imperceptibly — an interesting dilemma arose. When creating this read-write web, a non-trivial question skirted underneath the covers. Who owns all this data?
With [Web 2] online SaaS, you have no control whatsoever. Initially, people didn’t realize this because SaaS was a new and shiny thing. Over the last couple of years, people are realizing this is the actual problem.
Even if the people in these organizations have good intentions, their incentive isn’t naturally on the side [of the users].
An interesting plot line emerges. While using many amazing, world-changing software products, users quietly lost control of their data.
To illustrate: Facebook owns much of the data on your social graph. Even if you are frustrated with Facebook (for any reason), you can’t quit without giving up that data. There is no way to ‘export’, or otherwise ‘exit’. Ownership is tied to the platform.
While many companies are able to make a data pull on you, you are not able to do so on yourself.
On a surface level, this isn’t a problem. Personally speaking, these companies use my data better than I could! However, they also contain a complex group of stakeholders, each with their own goals. For public companies, maximizing shareholder value is one of them. Tim Berners-Lee (and many others) are not happy with the incentives this creates.
“Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.” — Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway
It’s pretty easy to see (with the benefit of hindsight) what the read-write web has allowed. Instead of getting on the internet to consume content, we have been given the keys to create. We have built on platforms like Facebook and Twitter — where anyone with a laptop and internet can engage. Yet ultimately, the engagement is not our own. The platforms are the owners.
Web3: The ‘Unmediated’ Read-Write Web
About ten years ago, Tim Berners Lee spoke about a concept he called ‘linked data’ which could save the internet’s data problem.
Despite the inarguable benefits the Web provides, until recently the same principles that enabled the Web of documents to flourish have not been applied to data…
The Web of Data also opens up new possibilities for domain-specific applications. Unlike Web 2.0 mashups which work against a fixed set of data sources, Linked Data applications operate on top of an unbound, global data space. This enables them to deliver more complete answers as new data sources appear on the Web.
At around the same time as linked data research began, Satoshi Nakamoto created Bitcoin. Fast forward ten years, and it seems that Berners Lee’s ideas spiritually ‘link’ with cryptocurrencies in many ways.
What do we want Web3 to do?
Here’s some rapid fire of what the hope is for the future of the web.
- Data to users: Information is owned by the users, and provided to corporations, businesses, or services who hope to benefit the user
- Censorship resistance: No government, company, or institution should control your access to information (1, 2, 3)
- Align users and platforms: Create ‘cryptonetworks’ where users and platforms creators have symbiotic, instead of competitive, relationships
- Transparent, open networks: “First, the contract between cryptonetworks and their participants is enforced in open source code. Second, they are kept in check through mechanisms for ‘voice’ and ‘exit.’” — Chris Dixon, (4)
- Global interactivity: The ability to transact value, information, or assets, large or small, with anyone with internet, anywhere, for a low cost
- Self-sovereign identity: Giving you the ability to own, see, and understand your entire digital identity (see: uPort website)
- Push, not pull: ‘Push’ your information to trusted sources, instead of ‘pulling’ from other sources who ultimately own the data (5)
What Future Will this Create?
“Change the incentives, change the world.” — Niran Babalola
The belief is that web3 is a chance to build a better, fairer system. This is not to be confused with equality of income or outcomes — but, at least, more equal opportunity.
To be clear, some of these benefits have been touted before when discussing earlier WWW iterations. Will these changes succeed? Will they lead to a better world? These are unanswered technical, economic, political, and philosophical questions which lie in wait. It’s likely that there will be unintended consequences.
We hope Web3 will be a more democratic iteration of our web. We believe incentives better align user with creator. If there’s one thing that’s on our side, it’s that open has always beaten closed, given a long enough timescale.
We’re at the beginning. Join us.
Special thanks to Hudson Jameson, Lane Rettig, Kevin Owocki, Mark Beylin, Niko Lazaris, Alan Krassowski, Avery Erwin, Kames Cox-Geraghty, Elise Ransom, Connor Davis and others for either reviewing this article or providing thoughts on web3 at ETHDenver which influenced the writing.
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Resources Worth Exploring / Spiritual North Stars
- Unchained: Laura Shin with Vitalik Buterin
- Linked Data: The Story So Far, by Tim Berners Lee
- Building the decentralized Web 3.0, by Taylor Gerring
- Why Decentralization Matters, by Chris Dixon
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author above do not necessarily represent the views of Consensys AG. ConsenSys is a decentralized community with ConsenSys Media being a platform for members to freely express their diverse ideas and perspectives. To learn more about ConsenSys and Ethereum, please visit our website.