Many of you will find this editorial a little…what? Obscure. It is about an intense debate raging in tech and venture lands about the nature of Web3, whether it is real and whether it is different from Web2.
You will be excused for not caring. But it is important to the future of the globe, so, sadly, it must be discussed.
The emergence of Web3 forces us to focus a lot on the conversations triggered by Moxie Marlinspike’s reflections on what Web3 is.
Moxie (real name??) was the CEO of Signal and, a week ago, decided to move on from his job after what must have been an invigorating few days.
His essay is in the curated list of articles below. And there are responses from Vitalik Buterin, John Battelle, Jeff Jarvis, Om Malik, and others.
So what is the big deal?
Moxie basically poured cold water on the idea that Web3 is truly decentralized or particularly able to be trusted. For an infrastructure founded on the promise of decentralized technology, with trustlessness at the core, this was perhaps a devastating attack. It was almost as if Moxie was going to war alongside Marc Andreessen with their common foe Jack Dorsey. But that would be a superficial reading.
A better version, especially now he has left his role at Signal, might be that Moxie was writing a sort of pre-manifesto. Summing up the current state of Web3 as a starting point for determining what to work on. His ending suggested that:
We should accept the premise that people will not run their own servers by designing systems that can distribute trust without having to distribute infrastructure. This means architecture that anticipates and accepts the inevitable outcome of relatively centralized client/server relationships, but uses cryptography (rather than infrastructure) to distribute trust. One of the surprising things to me about web3, despite being built on “crypto,” is how little cryptography seems to be involved!
And is followed by:
We should try to reduce the burden of building software. At this point, software projects require an enormous amount of human effort. Even relatively simple apps require a group of people to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day, every day, forever. This wasn’t always the case, and there was a time when 50 people working on a software project wasn’t considered a “small team.” As long as software requires such concerted energy and so much highly specialized human focus, I think it will have the tendency to serve the interests of the people sitting in that room every day rather than what we may consider our broader goals. I think changing our relationship to technology will probably require making software easier to create, but in my lifetime I’ve seen the opposite come to pass. Unfortunately, I think distributed systems have a tendency to exacerbate this trend by making things more complicated and more difficult, not less complicated and less difficult.
These are fairly general points and they align with his earlier point that
A protocol moves much more slowly than a platform.
After 30+ years, email is still unencrypted; meanwhile WhatsApp went from unencrypted to full e2ee in a year. People are still trying to standardize sharing a video reliably over IRC; meanwhile, Slack lets you create custom reaction emoji based on your face.
In general Moxie is - from the point of view of an architect - pointing out how hard it is to build open, distributed protocols that become standards for others to build on, and how much easier it is for people to build wholly owned applications and services where they can iterate faster.
That is both true and irrelevant. It is true that applications and services can be built faster, and better, by teams that work together and own all the pieces. But Web3 is not an application or a service. It is also true that protocols move slowly, but that is the point. A Web3 application or service has to sit on top of unchanging and predictable infrastructure. Just as Web1 sat on top of the http:// protocol and the HTML markup language and Web2 sat on top of JSON and SQL and NoSQL.
Those who build infrastructure are usually rewarded with recognition and not riches. Ask Vint Cerf and Bob Khan (TCP/IP) or Tim Berners Lee (URLs, HTTP and HTML). The application and service builders made off with those riches or at least lots of them.
In Web1 it was Yahoo, Google, Excite, Infoseek, AltaVista, and others. In Web2 it was Wordpress, Salesforce, Yahoo, and others. Now in Web3 we see OpenSea raise capital at a valuation of over $13 billion and Coinbase and Binance grow to be very large by providing centralized services. But we also see Ethereum, Bitcoin, Filecoin, Solana, MetaMask, MyEtherWallet, LUNA, Celsius and BlockFi and hundreds of others that derive value from running distributed infrastructure.
Both Jack Dorsey and Moxie are right to point out how “old” much of Web3, in its current form, is. But Marc Andreessen is also right to point out how “new” it is. The future of Web3 is not knowable. But it is knowable that the raw materials of Web3 - Blockchains, Tokens, Tokenization of Assets, Trustless transactions with no middlemen, DAOs, Smart Contracts and others - are the basis for a new relationship between people. And that is the real promise.
For us all to be related through open and transparent software opens up not just the end of the financial middlemen. But the end of all middlemen. Think about rideshare but with no Uber. Or voting with no machines. Or savings with no banks. Software as an intermediary, replacing companies, is a truly possible vision.
So despite the limits of the current stage the platform is already set for a very disruptive future, especially if you are a middleman of any kind. Developers everywhere are focused on making this and many other transformations happen. Moxie is wrong, and it will be shown, irrelevant. Why? Because cynicism cannot stop progress.
More in this week’s video.