The competition to create the third generation of the web has intensified


There are now three main visions for the future of the Internet. The first is a transformation into what Tim Berners-Lee calls “Web 3.0,” a network that understands natural language and, depending on who you ask, will be open and ubiquitous, allow users to take back control of businesses and governments, and will include billions of things like sensors, robots and kitchen sinks. This vision is promoted by veterans and purists who believe the dominance of Big Tech undermines the open protocols that enable the Internet, and also by many in the tech community who resent Google’s market power, Meta, Apple and Amazon.

For their part, the world’s biggest tech companies are seeing it will be harder to grow at the skyrocketing rates they are used to, and sprawl across various industries can only take them so far. This is why Mark Zuckerberg promotes the second vision, that of a “metaverse”, an immersive world of virtual reality in 3D where everyone will have to wear glasses to connect. Beyond Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft, Roblox and many other companies are putting all their weight behind this vision while trying to place themselves at the head of the queue.

The story of the last two decades of Web 2.0 is not only one of the dominance of a few large tech companies and their proprietary platforms, but also one of the growing power of government on the Internet. Far from the 1990s vision of a global common good that would promote individual freedom by bypassing the state, governments have become even more powerful and very good at controlling all aspects of the internet. The third vision for the future was born out of a backlash against government control: peer-to-peer communications, blockchains, cryptocurrencies and “decentralized” applications.

From a computational point of view, the design of cryptocurrencies is smart and elegant, but massively unnecessary. Never in the history of the world has so much computing power been wasted on so little as in Bitcoin mining.

Without the accommodative monetary policies followed by Western central banks after the 2008 financial crisis, cryptocurrencies might have remained a marginal phenomenon. But when billions of dollars scour the world for things to invest in, the esoteric digital tulips created with mystical technology become an asset class. The phenomenal rise in crypto valuation mixed with the formidable storytelling machinery of Silicon Valley has reduced the initial capital and the ending decimal to give us web3. In this vision, the future will be that of peer-to-peer networks, public registers, decentralized autonomous organizations, smart contracts and non-fungible tokens, which will disrupt not only the Internet, but also the economic and political systems of the world. . .

The metaverse and web3 both seem far-fetched. The phenomenal success of the Internet and the Web is due to the low barriers to entry.

When I sent my first email from college in the early 90s, I didn’t even know I was on the internet. Accessing Web 1.0 was straightforward: I edited a text file and uploaded it to a server. Accessing Web 2.0 was easier: my blog was up and running within minutes of a friend telling me about Blogger in 2000. I can’t access the metaverse, however, because I don’t have the expensive glasses. I couldn’t connect to web3 either: the costs are high and the sites rather confusing.

Of course, things will get simpler and cheaper, but while the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 was easy and inexpensive, the metaverse and web3 are heavy and require payment. As they grow and produce useful services, they will have a future, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to pretend that one or the other will be the future. Additionally, environmental considerations were not a part of the design specifications of Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies. In a world that is trying to decarbonize, it will be difficult to justify wasting energy and carbon footprints primarily for an ability to circumvent the law.

Each of these three visions poses a different portfolio of public policy challenges. Web 3.0 requires changing the balance between the state, the platform and the individual, while keeping an eye on the balance of power between states. The metaverse not only calls for preserving the integrity of the internet, but also demands the extension of governance into a different universe. With Web3, decision makers need to be able to separate technologies from their applications, put things in the right categories, and be able to act on their own.

In a way, internet cycles are more fashionable than anything that is inherent in technology. A new generation of developers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have come of age, wanting to make their fortune, and are angry with the status quo. The older generation has to accept this and not get in the way. Younger people need to learn that not all rules are unnecessary.

Every generation in every civilization sooner or later realizes that if someone refuses to deliver the promised goods or return your money, you need someone to call.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent center for public policy research and education

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