In the process of exploring Web3, I have found myself looking at social change rather than technology change. Bitcoin is political. Decentralised networks are political. To create peer-to-peer, private, and censorship-resistant technology to upend existing power structures is a political act. The dominant cultural driver of technological development since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 has been distrust in the financial system and previously trusted authorities:
To be more specific
“Trust is low in many arenas, and often has been for years. Low levels of trust seem to be a chronic issue, rather than a very new acute one.” Gideon Skinner, Researcher Director, Ipsos Mori
In the past, it was like this
Information used to flow from central authorities out to the public. The channels have got faster from the telegraph to the radio, to the telephone, television, to the satellite. Without regurgitating Timothy Wu, we know all of these mediums started relatively open and decentralised, e.g. it was easy for anyone to be a producer. Over time the channels became less open and more centralised, e.g. you needed a license to be a producer. As these channels matured, users understood that creators required licenses and credentials to use the networks. People implicitly trusted what people said on the radio or the television. Brands like the BBC and The New York Times built reputations as trusted sources of information. The Internet and social media broke the information gatekeepers and has made everyone a producer.
Then two things happened
1/ Breakdown in trust in traditional authorities – It’s no surprise to anyone reading that trust in previous information institutions is at an all-time low. Traditional media, politicians, judges, bankers, and technology companies are all less trusted than ever. The same is true of the Government regardless of your politics. Information no longer flows hierarchically down; it flows from person to person on social media. But we don’t currently have the trust technologies to manage these new information flows. Disinformation campaigns, fake news, and scams are rife as bad actors game the networks.
= low levels of trust in institutions
2/ Bitcoin and peer to peer tech – Bitcoin is a direct response to this decline in trust, specifically the banks following the 2008 financial crisis. Off the back of Bitcoin, a whole new market has emerged focused on creating technology that attempts to securely remove trusted authorities from a range of networks and systems. This new field brought together libertarians and young engineers with a mindest to create ‘trustless’ systems. Interest in peer-to-peer technologies, distributed systems and cryptography was supercharged by a seemingly ever-increasing price of Bitcoin and Ether. Despite the fall in price, a ton of talent, money and resources has gone into building secure p2p technologies.
= technology to enable peer-to-peer trust
So the future might be like this
It’s harder than ever to find unbiased information online with algorithmic filter bubbles combined with the challenge of moderating global communication platforms is not making it any easier. And that’s just text. Deepfakes for video and audio will make it even harder to know what is real online. As we live more of our lives digitally, the inability to trust institutions and other people is already having profound consequences for our democracy.
Peer-to-peer tools will not solve the problem. They are a set of tools to address the lack of trust online. We will also need education and laws. But that will take time. In the meantime, the market is hard at work. Self-sovereign identity, blockchains, peer-to-peer file storage and databases, and zero-knowledge tools are just a few of the many trust tools in development.
Web3 is a social movement. As computing and software become cheaper, faster and easier, activism and political statements can be expressed in code. A lot of people don’t trust authorities, so instead of demonstrating they are creating technology. Technology, in this case, is a political act.
I have had a lot of conversations which has helped crystalise my thinking on this. So I want to thank everyone at Outlier Ventures, in particular, Jamie Burke. As well as Shi Khai and Sameer Ahmed.