“Less trust, more truth” is the maxim for Web 3.0, a concept I coined soon after co-founding the Ethereum project, which refers to a new peer-to-peer, decentralised internet. Web 3.0 might be described as a technological reaction to a political problem: it seeks to redress society’s balance between “trust” and “truth”. Though “trust” is generally seen in a positive light, in this context it’s merely a necessary evil, forcing us to place our affairs in the hands of a third party.
Over-reliance on trust leaves us open to abuse. But too little trust and we needlessly close ourselves off to opportunities. Technology empowers us to understand the world better and thus moves the needle in favour of “truth” instead – no third party is required to arbitrate when information is cryptographically verifiable. However, the network effects involved – where more people using the service results in it being more attractive to others – act as a powerful force of consolidation, tending to concentrate power in a single platform, currency or product. As a result, abuses of trust become more accessible and more potent.
Twenty years ago, it was Microsoft with network effects so strong that few could break out of its ecosystem, and which was abusing the trust that went with such hegemony. Google was the upstart declaring “Don’t be evil” in a thinly veiled reference to its impending wrongdoings. Linux and the broader free/open source software movement would introduce transparency and freedom that has since unseated much of Microsoft’s once-dominant platform.
The wheel turns. Google’s own early motto has been slapped back in its face with the Web 3.0-esque “Can’t be evil” now gracing billboards in the Bay Area. One thing seems clear: just as the antidote to abusive software practices was open source (the ability to inspect, alter and fix the software you use without having to ask permission), the antidote to platforms such as Facebook will echo that freedom. The new FAANGs won’t be companies like Facebook or even consortia like Libra: they’ll instead be distributed algorithmic protocols, making decisions and wielding power in autonomous and transparent processes from a decentralised user base.
Seen in this context, Libra looks like a step in the right direction, but it shows a severe misjudgment on the sheer size of change needed to remain relevant in the coming tide. Libra acts as a technical validation of blockchain and peer-to-peer networking. However, unless it gives users the freedom to use, innovate and integrate in a wholly permissionless fashion – which it currently does not – then it will be consigned to a footnote of history. Your identity must have no bearing on your ability to use the system, unlike what gatekeepers like Facebook or your local bank require. If a protocol is permissionless, then nobody, not even Mark Zuckerberg, can discriminate against you or your usage.
As long as Libra remains permissioned, the megacorporations behind it will retain strong controls over who and what transacts on their digital asset network. They can decide to stop you gifting money to a friend or cause simply because they find your transaction history questionable or your cause objectionable. This is incomparable to a permissionless, censorship-resistant Web 3.0 protocol, and no better than the centralised banking services we have today.
Platforms built to be open and free will outperform Libra – and its closed, curated and controlled ilk – simply because they evolve faster and harder. A platform designed to give users, developers and entrepreneurs freedom will attract the next generation of disruptive energy, in preference to one intended to protect the interests of the hegemons. Once Web 3.0 platforms take hold, then a plethora of trust-free stablecoins will make these legacy, trust-bound solutions obsolete.
We can’t be sure that Libra won’t live up to the mantra ”less trust, more truth”. But given Facebook’s history and business, I would not bet on it to be the change that the world needs.
Gavin Wood is cofounder of Ethereum, Polkadot and Parity Technologies, and founder of the Web3 Foundation.
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