It was the year 1955, seemingly innocuous, except for the birth of three visionaries who were to transform the landscapes of knowledge transfer and interaction forever: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Tim Berners-Lee. Perhaps what’s more astounding than the scale of change itself is the speed of it — the fact that a person born in the 50s (when you needed to rent Bakelite rotary phones to talk to a friend) can witness the gigantic strides we’ve made since. That it all seems to have happened in the blink of an eye and they’ve lived to tell the tale.
But it wasn’t exactly in the blink of an eye, was it? For those who’re unsure of when we made the jump from Web1 to Web2 and landed now on the mystical plane of Web3, here’s the full scoop on how we got here.
In 1989, tech fanatic and British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented what we would subsequently hail as the first iteration of the World Wide Web to facilitate exchanges between scientists and universities. Realising the sheer power of what he had created, Tim, who was described as “the Martin Luther King of the digital world”, democratised the platform for the world to build on and rid it entirely of patents and royalties. Thus started Web1 or the syntactic web that enabled users to read an unprecedented amount of information outside the hassle of physical encyclopedias. The websites, however, were read-only as well as proprietary — the softwares were inflexible and their codes could not be altered for further creations.
While Web1 was a technological miracle at the time it was invented, in hindsight, it was fraught with limitations. For starters, it did not allow a two-way flow of interaction and was static — picture Wikipedia but with frozen entries where nothing changes, ever.
This is where Web2 made its dramatic entry. With Web2 or the read/write web, we entered the era of a social, dynamic web where users could share with the Internet as much as they took from it. Most of us have spent a good chunk of our lives on this version of the Internet.
While this new way of the world seemed flawless, there were still a few bugs in the system that needed extermination, especially when it came to equal access, privacy, intellectual property, and decentralisation.
In 2015, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal was at its blazing peak, people began to realise that their online identities and information were not necessarily theft-proof. The worrying trend of data firms harvesting the identities of millions of unsuspecting users for their own nefarious purposes led to a deep disillusionment in the minds of people regarding the interweb.
What was once magical now seemed lawless and petrifying. Big corporations helmed by calculating Machiavellian figures stood in between helpless users and the democratic world of the Internet that bright-eyed Berners-Lee had invented. In fact, in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2018, Tim Berners-Lee admitted to being “devastated” at the current exploitative state of the Internet.
Web3 aims at removing these big players and making the Internet a free, decentralised ecosystem. Using blockchain technology, Web3 is the latest iteration of the Internet where your data won’t be controlled by any one single tech entity and where you have direct access to your creations and information without pesky middlemen in the picture.
Web3 operates on the principle of a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO), where those who buy into the platform get to make the rules for it without the interference of a central governing authority. These platforms encoded on blockchain technology enable the rules to be embedded in the code, therefore making it entirely within their purview. This means that even if you create a Decentralized App (dApp) that resembles Reddit or YouTube, how people choose to interact with it is entirely outside your control, therefore granting them full user autonomy.
Unlike Cambridge Analytica, in Web3, users themselves remain in control of user-generated data. Without big tech corporations lording over your Internet usage, you can rest assured that data encryption facilities will ensure less censorship and more privacy. You also get more agency over what you put on the Internet and who gets access to it.
What’s more, research is now being conducted to integrate cryptography into Web3 technology to make information on the web more accurate and reliable. If this assimilation is successful, you can essentially root out deep fakes from the Internet and distinguish between doctored and real content.
If Web2 was open-source, Web3 is entirely transparent, which is to say that users can inspect the data associated with a particular transaction all the way to its source. It’s out there in the open for all to see.
To understand this better, imagine you’re buying a desk off Craigslist. Web3 would give you insight into every past owner of the desk, its conditions, as well as the prices at which it was previously sold. This makes it highly accessible and traceable. However, this rule doesn’t apply across the board when it comes to Web3 and is only true in the case of established, secure Blockchain platforms like Ethereum, IBM Blockchain, etc.
Having a higher stake in the system enables you to get more out of it. In Web3, your Internet becomes a direct reflection of your temperament, identity, preferences, and payments. This reflection facilitates in providing you with a tailor-made user experience that will be markedly different from the experience of the next person.
Just like how your Instagram algorithm reflects your search history, your user interface will be designed to align with your preferences but (ideally) without third-party marketing and advertising tactics as well as data theft, thus empowering customers.
Web3 operates on multiple nodes of information, which means that a single nodal failure does not lead to much loss of information or service denial. You get seamless uninterrupted service through Web3 without the requirement of constant backup.
A huge aspect of Web3 that is now being brought to fruition is the Metaverse. A Metaverse is a 3-D universe built on a blockchain platform where the lines between the physical, technological, and fantastical blur. With the help of a VR headset and goggles, it unveils the possibilities of travel, education, culture, and tourism, all from within the comfort of your house. It signifies technology powerful enough to transcend physical, linguistic, and regional barriers, making the entire world your playground.
The sheer magnitude of advancement and enlightenment this has the potential for is enough to blow anybody’s mind, let alone Tim Berners-Lee’s, whose extra-curricular curiosity is what led us to this precipice.
One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to Web3 is the fact that it’s still rather obscure and underdeveloped. Much of what it has to offer is still very much in theory — and integrating the whole world of finance and technology as we know it today into it will be an arduous journey. But who knows? We’ve done more in far less before. One can only hope.
While digital autonomy sounds well and good in theory, what about in practice? A third-party interference on an application like Instagram ensures that all its users abide by the community guidelines — any post that’s defamatory or hurts sentiments will be warned and removed if required.
At some point, standardisation and regularisation become necessary to protect user interest and to maintain platform consistency and safety. Since different DAOs operate on different rules, governments are finding it difficult to formulate regulations and/or bodies that can legislate across all Web3 applications, indiscriminately.
Sure, a blockchain is one of the most secure forms of online transactions, but the aforementioned lack of regulations and rule-makers means that the system is all the more exposed to various kinds of data fraud.
As Web3 architecture becomes more mainstream and comprehended, cyber troublemakers will devise new ways of manipulating and subverting the system. The unchangeable nature of Web3 means that a transaction once done is difficult to undo or reverse. The lack of legal repercussions further increases its exposure to scams and pyramid schemes.
One of the biggest downfalls of Web3 is the loudest clarion call against it: its environmental impact. Encoding and encrypting data safely on a blockchain would need it to first be verified, validated, and then secured. Blockchain technology deliberately uses a hefty amount of power to undertake this process. In concrete terms, it would be like using layers upon layers of iron to make sure that your lock remains secure enough. After a point, the usage of resources exceeds the value or justifiability of the item you want locked, especially considering that iron is a valuable, non-renewable resource — “iron” here being an analogy for power on an environmentally-vulnerable planet.
Technically, anybody with a smart device can access and partake in Web3. But as the technology finetunes itself, devices will require to be updated or optimised to be compatible with Web3 elements like decentralised applications and virtual reality. Additional devices like VR headsets and headphones are also required to gain a fully immersive, all-encompassing entry into the Metaverse.
As mentioned in the previous point, Web3 will shut its doors to a significant section of the world population in possession of older, outdated devices. It’s not accessible to just everybody as some level of tech proficiency is a prerequisite for Web3.
Accessing Web3 often involves acquiring a crypto wallet, the key and management of which may be a complex process for the average Internet user. In lesser-developed countries, even laptops and smartphones are difficult to come by, thereby excluding a large section of the marginalised and/or financially vulnerable demographic from the benefits of advancement that Web3 offer. Even with NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), the traditional evils of racism and misogyny are hard to separate from the trade itself, thus showing how the plane is far from equal and still quite elitist.
But why is it important that we care about the new applications that Web3 might helm in the digital world? The Internet might seem like our native land right now, but things are quickly changing. Web3 signifies important and far-reaching changes in our relationship with the World Wide Web.
As mentioned, Web3 will tow along with it the concept of the Metaverse, thus dramatically transforming the way we enjoy and curate shopping, education, tourism, food, real estate, and entertainment opportunities. Apart from advanced gaming — which is why Web3 was introduced in the first place — it also radically alters finance.
Decentralized Finance (DeFi) makes it possible to lend and borrow encrypted currency called cryptocurrency where the lack of middlemen and limitations simplifies — or complicates, depending on how you see it — money. This lack of middlemen also completely alters the means of consumption and creation of art and music, paving the way for a new form of Creator Economy. You can now auction your creations to the public and get exactly what you’re valued, without entertainment labels getting a cut of that paycheck.
With the ideal execution, Web3 is designed to harness the true value of time, talent and money and once again return us to Berners-Lee’s utopian vision of the Internet as a democratised, liberating space where everybody has a (tokenised) identity of their own. Are we coming full circle with regard to the true destiny that the Internet was dreamed to fulfil? Only time — and technology — will tell.