The decentralized web, also called web 3.0 is a vision of the next generation internet as a peer to peer network built around blockchain technology, where users own their own data, data is portable, computing and storage resources are provided by end-users within distributed networks, apps run locally on end-user devices and platforms are decentralized and autonomous. Today powerful new technologies are coalescing to take us into a new technological paradigm for the internet. These include the rapid development of the blockchain – and other decentralized technologies such as IPFS – the rise of advanced analytics coupled with datafication and the Internet of Things. But to understand this next generation web we need to understand a bit about its history.
Going back to the early nineties the Web 1.0 was the first generation of the World Wide Web, it was based on the technology of HTTP which worked to link documents on different computers and make them accessible over the internet. HTML was then used to display those documents so that any connected computer with a browser could access and read a web page. Web 1 was all about information as it enabled us to exchange information much more efficiently, and hence it got the name “information superhighway.” Even though it was a revolution in information exchange, content creators were few with the vast majority of users simply acting as consumers of content, it was very static and lacked interactivity.
Whereas in the Web 1.0-era people were limited to the passive viewing of content, with Web 2.0 websites allowed users to interact, collaborate and become the creators of content. With Web 2 people could not only read from the web but also write to it and thus it got the nickname of “the read-write web”. By the early 2000s, new server-side scripting technology such as PHP enabled developers to easily build applications where people could write information to a database with that information then being dynamically updated every time they refreshed the page. Almost all of the websites that dominate the web today are based on this basic technology, it gave us social networking, blogging, video sharing, eBay, Youtube, Facebook and all the other large platforms that most people spend most of their internet time using.
The idea of web 3.0 has been around for awhile but it is only very recently with the developments of the blockchain that it has actually started to become something real. Web 2.0 has evolved to become highly centralized around very large platforms running out of ever-larger data centers, creating many issues surrounding, security, privacy, control and concentration of power in the hands of large enterprises, it is only today that these issues are starting to enter mainstream discourse. Web 3 is set to disrupt this whole technology paradigm as the critical change that is coming about is that we are decentralizing the Web. The blockchain provides the protocols and cryptography for a globally distributed network of computers to collaborate on maintaining a publicly secure database and with a virtual machine like Ethereum, we can run code on this creating a new set of distributed applications. These new technologies of the blockchain, IPFS and the distributed web enable us to reconfigure the internet into a distributed global computer so that we are no longer dependent upon the web platforms and data centers of web 2 to run the internet but can now build and run applications on this shared global computer.
As Mike Liebhold of the Institute for the Future noted “[It] starts with the realization that the internet that we know today is only one possible interpretation of the original vision of an open peer-to-peer network independent of any centralized technology commercial entity, or sovereign government, think of it as a first curve internet, one that is increasingly vulnerable to abuse and even collapse.” To date we have largely taken the infrastructure of the internet for granted, all of the innovation and action has been focused on the application layer, on web applications like social networks or e-commerce. With the developments of blockchain and particularly with the third generation we are starting to innovate on the lower level protocols, asking not if we can build a better web app but if we can build a better internet. The implications of the decentralized web are indeed radical in that it enables us to create automated services, disintermediate existing incumbents and enable people to set up their own secure networks of exchange empowering them in new ways.
The blockchain will be a core part of web 3.0 but the next generation internet will also see the convergence of the Internet of Things and big data analytics. The ongoing fundamental process of datafication will be a key aspect of this next generation internet. As we increasingly instrument our world data will flow from all sources about everything. Datafication is the term given to our newfound ability to capture as data many aspects of the world and our lives that have never been quantified before. This process results in what is called big data, vast amounts of unstructured data that can be mined by advanced analytical methods to gain new insight into the world around us.
This is important with respect to the blockchain because firstly it means we will have a lot of sensitive personal data that we will want to store. Secondly, we will be quantifying, accounting for and exchanging all sorts of value that we did not in the past. Thirdly such a diversity of sources of data combined with advanced analytics which can find cross-correlations and patterns within it can provide a new way to verify the data that is being inputted into the blockchain without depending on centralized authorities for validation. The next generation internet will be much smarter. Whereas web 1 was dumb and web 2 was dynamic, web 3 will incorporate various aspects of machine learning and cognitive computing as-a-service as it becomes infused into almost all applications making it truly adaptive, responsive and personalized.
Internet of Things
Whereas web 1 and 2 were largely about people exchanging information, in web 3 machines will come online and the internet will become something more physical as billions of devices and actuators connect it to all sorts of things – from tractors to factories and drones – enabling them to interact and coordinate, machine-to-machine. The value of IoT will not be in making one device or system smart it will be in enabling seamless processes across systems, this will require open networks that can communicate and coordinate components on demand across domains, organizations, and systems. The end vision of IoT is not to have our lives populated with thousands of smart things, but instead to change our world from discrete things to service processes.
To do this these technologies will have to communicate securely peer-to-peer, dynamically allocating resources and this will require some kind of distributed secure infrastructure like the blockchain. This ties in with the broader process of change which comes about as we move into a services economy called servicization which is the shift from products and the ownership of things to the access of services on demand, for example instead of owning a car we simply have access to a car-sharing service. This economy of temporary usage via services requires the formation of frictionless markets and automatic exchanges that the blockchain is well suited to support.
These components of the next generation internet, the blockchain, internet of things and advanced analytics are very powerful technologies that will have a profound effect on society. They will take us much further into this new world of the information age as power shifts in a radical way from people in hierarchical institutions to automated networks and the algorithms that coordinate them. In the coming decades more and more of our systems of organization will move to the internet and it will become vastly more complex than today. In Web 1 and Web 2, we developed the internet from small to large through a client-server architecture that worked to centralized the web around large data centers. But the internet after datafication and all these IoT devices have come online will not be large, it will be more like infinite. You can get from small to large by centralizing, but you get from large to infinite through distributing.