What’s the Protocol Here? Navigating Web 3.0
Nearly 60 years ago, J.C.R. Licklider penned a series of memos describing his “Intergalactic Computer Network” – a globally interconnected set of computers through which users could access data and programs. Sound familiar?
Today, we are confronted with changing landscapes in commerce, politics, finance, society and the law that are embodied in the so-called Web 3.0 or Web3 ecosystem.
What is Web3?
Web3 doesn’t have a single definition. Some reference Web3 when envisioning a network of data that is largely processed by machines in a machine readable language – computers talking to computers. Others define Web3 in terms of certain themes, namely, decentralization and trust, with blockchain as its technological foundation. But, to understand where we are going with Web3, let’s first look at a summary of how we got here.
A Summary of the Internet
In the early 1960s, several researchers affiliated with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), later referred to as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), began building the framework that would take Licklider’s Intergalactic Computer Network from concept to implementation. Leonard Kleinrock published the first paper on packet switching theory in July 1961. Packet switching is a method for effectively transmitting electronic data that would later become one of the major building blocks of the Internet.
In 1967, the fundamental design for ARPA’s Internet “ARPANET” was published. ARPANET implemented Network Control Protocol (NCP), which used packet switching to allow multiple computers to communicate on a single network, and is regarded as one of the first working prototypes of the Internet.
There are several layers in a technology stack that help define the interconnections and operability between computers. For example, you may have the physical layer, which defines the characteristics of the hardware (e.g., network interface, hubs, cables, connectors, etc.) in the network to enable the computers to transmit and receive data. Many consumers relate to the physical layer when they are desperately searching to find the right cable to fit the port on their smart phone. And it’s not just the plug. The way the power and data move through the plug and interface with the device needs to be defined.
In addition to the physical layer, a network implementation may include a data link layer (e.g., Ethernet), an internet layer (e.g., IP), a transport layer (e.g., TCP), and an application layer (e.g., HTTP). Each layer has its own protocol that governs the functionality of that layer. So why is this important?
Just as ARPANET used NCP to define the rules and functions that enabled data sharing across the network, there are other protocols that may be used depending on the network goals. Processes can evolve and may be upgraded. Most of us can relate to the various cellular network protocols and the evolution of the speed of transmission over cellular networks. We all recognize that nobody was streaming 4K movies on their car phone in 1990. Technology evolves and new protocols exposing new features are developed.
The Evolution of Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0
Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first proposal for the World Wide Web in March 1989. Together with Robert Cailliau, they published a management proposal in 1990 that outlined the principal concepts and terms behind the Web. The document described a “hypertext project” called “WorldWideWeb” in which a “web” of “hypertext documents” could be viewed by “browsers.” This World Wide Web embodied Web 1.0. Common themes of Web 1.0 include static pages, online guest books and HTML forms sent via email.
Then, in 1999, Darcy DiNucci published the following commentary on the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, stating:
The Web we know now, which loads into a browser window in essentially static screenfuls, is only an embryo of the Web to come. The first glimmerings of Web 2.0 are beginning to appear, and we are just starting to see how that embryo might develop. The Web will be understood not as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens. It will … appear on your computer screen … on your TV … your car … your cell phone … maybe even your microwave oven.
Web 2.0 is what most of us recognize as the World Wide Web of today. This includes the complex web pages, searchable content, online banking and social media that we all rely on in professional and personal life. In other words, Web 2.0 is how we, a global society, stay connected with each other.
Yet, some criticize the centralization of these tools, whereby large technology companies control the platforms that enable these global connections. Critics of the over-centralization in Web 2.0 are seeking alternatives to funneling their usage and data through these corporate entities. In other words, many were seeking a new protocol that enables peer-to-peer exchange of information without having to rely on “Big Tech” as a middleware. At the core of many of these critiques is a call for increased control over your personal data, privacy and digital security.
Enter the Trustless Protocol
In 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto – a pseudonym for a currently unknown person or group of people – published a paper entitled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. This paper defined a new system for online payments. More importantly, this paper defined an alternative to centralized banking – a peer-to-peer financial transaction that did not require the parties to trust a centralized financial institution to facilitate the transaction. This was a proposal for a decentralized, trustless protocol for transactions.
In a purely technical sense, this Bitcoin system and its protocols were just a continuance of the evolution of protocols governing how we share data. This was the next evolution in digital banking. And for many, this paper represented a manifesto that addressed the critical shortcomings of Web 2.0. The Bitcoin system offered control over your personal data, privacy and digital security – all without a requirement to go through a centralized entity. Bitcoin was launched in 2009. Was it too good to be true?
Like any revolutionary technology, the queue for those ready to adopt the technology is only outnumbered by the queue of those skeptics who are ready to point out the flaws in its implementation.
In the early days of Bitcoin, anyone looking to purchase Bitcoin needed to find a source. Initially, there were only two ways to obtain bitcoin – by mining it yourself or arranging a peer-to-peer (P2P) trade via a forum. Some of these P2P transactions involved “cloak and dagger” coffee shop meet-ups and portable hard drives straight from a spy thriller. In other words, just because the underlying technology of blockchain and the Bitcoin system were decentralized and trustless doesn’t mean the practical implementation was refined in the same way.
Several groups recognized the issues surrounding the exchange of Bitcoin. Digital crypto exchanges began to emerge around 2010. These exchanges offered the ability to buy, sell or exchange crypto currency and tokens in a digital marketplace. Wait! Now that I have to go through another entity, doesn’t this defeat the trustless aspect of blockchain?
This is the sentiment that quickly began to sprout around opponents of blockchain implementation – suggesting that blockchain was an elegant solution looking for a problem to solve. And thus began the debate over whether blockchain, with its posterchild Bitcoin, was a technological renaissance or simply another well-intentioned scheme to be exploited by nefarious individuals.
Wherever one stood on this debate, it did not help the general public’s sense of security when scandalous stories started to break. In 2013, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down Silk Road – a marketplace that used Bitcoin as its sole currency and that was alleged to have facilitated anonymous criminal transactions including the sale of drugs and guns as well as money laundering. In 2014, Mt. Gox, a crypto exchange handling over 70% of all bitcoin transactions worldwide at the time, was hacked. An estimated 850,000 bitcoins belonging to customers and the company were missing or stolen, estimated at more than $450 million at the time. So, just as blockchain and Bitcoin started to become mainstream, a dark cloud was cast over the ecosystem. Maybe regulated, centralized Web 2.0 isn’t broken after all?
The Year of the Tiger
Fast forward to 2022. Bitcoin is still here. Several other crypto tokens and currencies have entered the fray. Every major technology company has taken a hard look at blockchain technology and many have developed their own protocols built on the same or similar foundations as published by Satoshi Nakamoto. After all, blockchain simply represents a technology system or protocol. Blockchain is an extension of the advancements in interconnectivity and sharing of information that humanity has been developing for over 60 years. Simply put, blockchain as a technology is not going to disappear anytime soon. Instead, like other systems and protocols that offer advanced features for our digital interactions, blockchain will be a foundation for future protocols that will define how we transact with each other.
As we continue our global reawakening into a post-COVID society, the Year of the Tiger offers a boon to interpersonal relationships. People want to connect and share more than ever before. From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and now Web 3.0, the way we conduct our interactions with each other will be governed by protocols.
Regulatory protocols will govern the manner in which exchanges and companies can offer crypto-related services.
Privacy protocols will govern the manner in which we can control our own identity and data.
Token protocols will define how we purchase tokenized land in a metaverse platform, and how we build our own layers on that land.
Blockchain, NFTs and the metaverse are governed by protocols, some of which make a claim of being decentralized and trustless. Some of these platforms and protocols promise a true peer-to-peer interaction that will change the way the world interacts. All I can say is the next 60 years of development of this “Intergalactic Computer Network” are going to be just as exciting as the last 60 years. And, until trustless protocols govern every human interaction, there are counselors and advisers that can help you navigate the transition into Web3. Trust me.