There’s an old video clip doing the rounds in tech circles, says Charlie Warzel in The Atlantic. It’s 1995, and David Letterman is interviewing Bill Gates. “What about this internet thing?” the talk show host asks, to guffaws from the audience. “What the hell is that, exactly?” Gates “gamely” tries to explain the “wonders of the web”. But Letterman isn’t having it. Noting that baseball games would soon be broadcast over the internet, he jokes: “Does radio ring a bell?”
The reason tech guys are sharing this clip is because they think people are similarly ignorant about the next big technological revolution – what they call “Web3”. The idea is that we are entering the “third generation of the web”. In the first generation, people typically only consumed content on static webpages. The second – where we are now – has been all about creating content, on TikTok and so on. The third, supposedly, is a “decentralised internet”. Rather than sticking stuff on Facebook – and thus ceding ownership of it – creators and consumers will instead “own pieces of internet services”, and thus keep total control of their content and data. The way this will work (in theory) is with “blockchain”, the decentralised technology on which Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies run.
Whether this will all happen is anyone’s guess. The sceptics think Bitcoin, non-fungible tokens and other hallmarks of Web3 are just elaborate Ponzi schemes. The evangelists think the sceptics are like Letterman back in 1995. Boringly, the truth is somewhere in between – some elements of Web3 will become widespread, others will come to nothing. “Everyone’s probably going to have a turn to be just a little bit right.”