I Don't Believe In Web 3
The web will never be decentralized, and here's why
I found myself getting really excited about cryptocurrency, despite being late to the technology game. I don't mean that I lived in a cabin in the woods with nary but a wood stove and some scented candles (although that does sound nice), but for a long time, I was just a regular consumer. That changed around 2011-2012 when I dove headfirst into tech and then discovered Bitcoin in 2013.
Truth be told, I'm torn between throwing every facet of my life into the digital world and keeping myself analog and attached to nature. As exciting and convenient as it is to let tech manage my life, the issue of centralization is what keeps me back.
That is, I'm not a fan of "web 2.0." But crypto evangelists and metaverse salespeople are trying to tell me that "web 3" is the answer. I'm not convinced. As far as I can see, web 3 is still centralized web 2, albeit with a clean coat of sheepskin called "the blockchain."
Let’s Talk About Web 3
So what is web 3? To understand what people mean when they talk about web 3, it's important to first understand the two iterations of the internet that came before, web 1 and web 2.
Web 2 is a great place to start because it is the web we're all familiar with today. It's the internet of Google, Facebook, TikTok, Amazon, Microsoft, et al. It's a heavily-centralized internet where everything happens between you, the user, and a platform such as Facebook or Bing or GoDaddy or Craigslist.
Web 2 is a platform-centric, centralized internet that is also heavily gatekept. Take this email. Unless you're running your own at-home server (which we'll get into in a moment), then this email is being served to you via a platform. There's an 8-in-10 chance that platform is Gmail, but it could be Apple Mail, or Outlook, or Proton Mail. The point is that this email came to you through Revue (owned by Twitter) or Substack (where I also publish The Drescher Drop) and you received it thanks to a different platform.
It's all so heavily centralized.
It wasn't always so.
The beginning of the internet was web 1. It was raw and mostly decentralized. You couldn't get online unless you ran your own server, or paid someone to use their servers. Emails went from one individual's server to another. Websites had to be built in HTML and then uploaded to your personal server, where it could be pinged and accessed.
Web 1 was the wild west of the internet, and it spawned a generation of movies about hackers and teenagers controlling nuclear missiles and creating digital hot chicks.
The problem was that most people didn't know how, or wanted, to run their own at-home servers. The cost of computing in the late 80s and early 90s was expensive, so much like HAM radio, only the really devoted nerds were into it.
Things began to centralize in the late 1990s with the rise of Yahoo and GeoCities and other such late web 1 companies. Microsoft revolutionized the centralization of the web not just by jamming Internet Explorer down the entire world's collective throat, but also by beginning to offer server hosting.
Therein is where web 2 was born.
Once companies such as Microsoft realized they could make a lot of money by centralizing servers and then renting them out, the internet took off. Soon Google arrived on the scene, and Amazon. The early '00s saw the "dot com" bust which killed off most of the web 1 players and rallied a new breed of digital companies around for-rent, centralized servers. Web 2 was born.
Web 1 was decentralized, web 2 is heavily centralized, but what about web 3?
The idea is that thanks to the revolutionary invention of the blockchain, web 3 will give us the best of both web 1 (decentralization) and web 2 (ease of use for the user).
Web 3 is supposed to mean that websites and all the tech services we've come to love and use in our lives are running on decentralized blockchains, unhackable and completely verifiable. Censorship of the sort that sees sitting politicians get deplatformed for wrongthink is supposed to be impossible with web 3.
Alas, I think it's all hyperbole. And I don't think it's even possible if we're using blockchain technology.
Blockchain Fails to Deliver
Blockchain is revolutionary in human technological development. The idea was first conceptualized by the mysterious figure who invented Bitcoin, an anonymous crytpo user named Satoshi Nakamoto.
I wont' go into the details of how a blockchain works because a) that's an entire article..nay, a book...in itself, and; b) I don't fully understand it myself. You can Google "What is a blockchain" yourself if you need help.
Let me just point out that a blockchain is like a digital accounting ledger that isn't run by any one company or person. It exists thanks to thousands of "nodes," or computers, linked together processing mathematical calculations to add transactions to this ledger.
There are many blockchains. Bitcoin's blockchain exists solely to create and trade Bitcoin between people. But the Ethereum blockchain is a different beast. With it you can run something called smart contracts. These are basic "if-then" commands.
For instance, a landlord can create a smart contract with a tenant. The landlord puts the digital code to the lock in the smart contract. If the tenant pays the rent into the smart contract, the lock code gets released to them and the contract releases the rent to the landlord. Unless the exact amount of rent is paid, nothing else will happen.
That's one very simple version of an Ethereum smart contract.
Web 3 is supposed to built on this Ethereum blockchain using smart contracts. The blockchain acts as a server. If computer x accesses y, then display y to computer x.
But it's not so simple because web browsers can't access or see a blockchain. No matter how powerful your computer (and face it, we're all on mobile now), a blockchain looks like nothing but numbers. It's like that scene from the Matrix, with all the numbers raining down the screen, except that you wouldn't even be able to "see blonde, redhead, brunette." It's gibberish.
Web 1 evolved into web 2 because people didn't want, or know how, to run a server. Using blockchain as the back of web 3 is the same.
The Centralized Nature of Web 3
Thus we end up in the exact same situation we're in now. The problem of platformed centralization.
There are three companies in the world right now who allow people to access the Ethereum blockchain for things other than trading money. If you want to host a website on the blockchain, or sell or buy NFTs (basically digital art, but more than that, which is worth an entirely different email), then you need to do so through one of these companies.
Funny enough, they serve you the blockchain using a regular web page hosted on a regular centralized server. Infura, OpenSea, and Alchemy are the three big names in web 3. Coinbase is a fourth and is poised to become the Google of the future.
Once again, we've got centralization. You may be able to create any smart contract you like, whether a political rant or pornographic NFTs, or simply a cupcake recipe, and it may exist on the blockchain, but if OpenSea doesn't like what you have to say, they can refuse to serve it to the end-users.
If people can access it, then does it exist?
That sounds an awful lot like centralized Twitter. Or YouTube. Or Instagram.
Hence, I call BS on web 3.
Here’s What Web 3 Needs to be Real
Web 3 needs a lot more than what we have available today. I'm not even convinced that blockchain technology, as it exists now, is the solution to decentralization.
We know that the average user is not going to learn to build their own servers or read and write code just to watch a Netflix video. That's why whatever web 3 will be, it needs to be as easy to use as web 2.
We also know that web 3 cannot be coralled around centralized platforms like we have today. That already exists. It's called web 2.
Blockchain fails at delivering web 3. To be honest, I don't believe that there will be a web 3.
We’re Stuck With Web 2 (for now)
Web 2 has delivered extreme power and wealth to those who manage the basic infrastructure of the web. Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft would make a Roman Ceasar jealous.
Web 2 is also extremely user friendly and extremely fast. It is the most expedient way for businesses to make money. The pandemic has shown that web 2 works better than anyone expected. More venture capital is flowing into web 2 enterprises today than ever before.
A few blockchain nerds and decentralization evangelists are not going to put a dent in that. The full might of the US government can't take a bite out of one of these companies, let alone revolutionize the entire internet for the world.
That's why I see centralization being the norm for the future. Other companies will rise up, and blockchain may even become one of the vital organs of a future internet, but it will still remain heavily centralized.
It will be web 2.1.