It is fitting that my final dispatch for The Ledger should be sent from Lisbon, a city associated with the distinctly Portuguese emotion saudade, a sad sense of longing.
As I stroll the unevenly cobbled, fado-saturated alleyways, I am soaking in this tiled metropolis’s faded glory. Here is a capital that, centuries ago, punched so far above its weight as to singlehandedly launch the Age of Discovery, attain unfathomable riches, and become a global superpower the likes of which the world had never known. Who could have predicted a little port city at the furthest reaches of continental Europe would succeed so greatly?
Bitcoin is a bit like Lisbon. Both kicked off irreversible, world-altering-and-enriching movements. Indeed, the whole wide and boundless world of cryptocurrency—the total market value of which hit an all-time high of $2.8 trillion this week—recalls the start of the Renaissance. All splendor and wealth, optimism and exploration. These are the good times.
In a couple weeks, I am set to embark on a voyage of my own. After seven spectacularly rewarding years at Fortune, I am leaving to join Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm. There, I will be heading content and editorial for the firm’s crypto-focused investment fund, a16z Crypto. Andreessen has been investing in the crypto for about as long as the industry has existed, but I suspect if the fund were renaming itself today—think Facebook going Meta—it might choose something to do with Web 3.0.
To understand Web 3.0, it helps to understand what came before. Web 1.0 is best encapsulated by the homepage of Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company of legendary investor Warren Buffett. The website is basically a bare bones brochure of hyperlinks, information that could have been copied and pasted from a print manual. Portals, like early Yahoo and AOL typify this earliest web form, circa the ‘90s. (Given the state of Berkshire’s online presence, it is perhaps no coincidence that Buffett loathes crypto and, one presumes, by extension, Web 3.0.)
By the aughts, the web started getting fancier. Netizens coined the term Web 2.0 to describe a more interactive experience, one in which users themselves generated and shared content. Some hits included social networking on Facebook, videos on YouTube, and entries on Wikipedia. Tech-savvy corporations, like Facebook and Google, owned and operated the most popular services and made their applications incredibly easy to use. Companies, in general, called the shots, and they reaped the profits thereof.
Web 3.0 stands in stark contrast to these predecessors. Tech-thinkers conceive of it as a web based on digital scarcity and ownership enabled by blockchains, the shared ledgers that underpin crypto tokens. In this next evolution, Internet services are controlled by communities of token holders, who are incentivized, by dint of their token holdings, to build and maintain great software products. Token prices can appreciate, in theory, when associated projects are successful, thereby motivating and rewarding participants. (If today’s early Web 3.0 applications are clunky and slow, chalk it up to the tech still being early.)
It’s a bold dream—one that ignited my passions when I first heard about Bitcoin in 2011, and later when I learned about Ethereum. Now strange-sounding acronyms, like NFTs—non-fungible tokens, which make digital media trackable and tradeable on a blockchain—and DAOs—or “decentralized autonomous organizations,” loose collectives of online collaborators—dominate the crypto scene and embody the zeitgeist.
What’s most compelling about Web 3.0 is its potential to redistribute power back into the hands of users. People take corporations, and their authority, for granted; Fortune itself has made its canonical rankings of these behemoths into an institution. (See: the Fortune 500.) But companies were not a bygone conclusion. They were an invention—an innovative one that enabled humanity to venture beyond the blue horizon and imbue our feeble earthly forms with industrial superpowers. They remain a technology, capable of iteration and improvement.
It was only in the early 17th century that the Netherlands granted the Dutch East India Company, widely considered to be the progenitor of the modern-day corporation, the ability to float investment shares to the public. We are again, today, living in an age of discovery, a renaissance of new crypto-inspired technologies and financial innovations, and the world is undergoing a major transformation. What future forms will define our economic organization on the Internet?In a new survey, CryptoLiteracy.org has found that 96% of “crypto or bitcoin-aware” Americans on the Internet could not pass a basic 17-question cryptocurrency quiz. The results were even more dramatic in Brazil and Mexico, where 99% of respondents failed to pass the test.