Internet platforms have split American society. Can a rebooted web change that?
Deseret spoke with venture capitalist and former diplomat Tomicah Tillemann about the future of the internet
The internet was supposed to bring humanity together, transcending borders, bridging divides and making the planet a smaller place. In its early days, the World Wide Web did that, but a second wave — dubbed Web2 — took a hard turn, dividing people into factions and concentrating wealth and power into the hands of a few, posing a real danger to civil society.
“Web2 has been financially successful for a small number of people,” says venture capitalist and former policy adviser Tomicah Tillemann, “but it’s also opened up some challenges for our democracy, using private information to manipulate the behavior of individuals.”
Tillemann is part of a push for another reboot. He recently left venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz to become the global chief policy officer for Haun Ventures, an investment fund that smashed records by raising $1.5 billion to help build Web3. As he sees it, this new iteration will be more decentralized and democratic, incorporating blockchain technology — the innovation behind NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, and cryptocurrencies like bitcoin — to return data and decision-making power to users, who will also benefit financially when they contribute to the success of an online community.
“Right now,” he says, “I’m focused on building policy architecture for the next generation of the internet.”
“In the Web2 era, the benefits of network effects have accrued to a small number of people who own the platforms, not to the actual participants. That needs to change.”
It’s quite a turn for a 43-year-old former political speechwriter and adviser to President Joe Biden and two secretaries of state: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. He’s had a hand in 20 major initiatives in 55 countries. His projects included rebuilding the Community of Democracies — like a United Nations in miniature, but only for democratic states — and creating perhaps the world’s most exclusive social network, a tech platform for former presidents and prime ministers to help leaders in new democracies. Still, when news breaks related to the blockchain, Tillemann is often a go-to guy for media outlets looking to explain what it means or why it matters.
Since he earned his doctorate in international studies at Johns Hopkins University, the Yale grad has collaborated with the White House, MIT, Harvard, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the Lantos Foundation, the Global Blockchain Business Council, the Rockefeller Foundation and others. A former missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Budapest who still speaks impeccable Hungarian (and somewhat rusty Spanish), he’s also a devoted husband and father of five.
In a recent interview, Deseret talked to Tillemann about civil society, war in Ukraine and what the future of the web tells us about where we’re headed as a country.
Deseret News: What’s wrong with the internet as it is?
Tomicah Tillemann: The first generation of the web let most people access information online for the first time, sending email or viewing web pages. Starting in the early 2000s, Web2 evolved into the big consumer internet that we know today: platforms that we all rely on, that take our information, aggregate data from millions of users, use it to provide us with some basic services and also create massive profits for the handful of folks who sit on top of those platforms. Web2 has been financially successful for a small number of people, but it’s also opened up some challenges for our democracy, using private information to manipulate the behavior of individuals. It’s frankly incompatible with a healthy democracy.
DN: So what does the next iteration look like?
TT: What we’re trying to do with Web3 is built on a few key principles. First, communities should own the platforms they utilize. Second, their members should have a say in governance of those platforms. Third, they should have a share in the financial upside when networks prosper. In the Web2 era, network effects have benefited a small number of people who own the platforms, not the actual participants. That needs to change. Finally, I think most of us would concede that we’ve lost control of our data. We need to give people back some say in how their information is used in the digital realm.
DN: How will communities be different in Web3?
TT: In Web2, the cornerstone of value creation has been highly fragmented data collected from the digital communities that come together on platforms. That data is used to slice and dice society into ever-smaller groups so advertisers can target messages that will shape our purchasing behavior. In Web3, value is generated through a healthy, open community that brings people together to collaborate in the context of digital platforms. It’s a very different model.
DN: You recently said that online business models are contributing to a “profound deficit of faith and trust.” Tell us about that.
TT: We often think of nations as resting on three legs: You have government where political activity takes place, you have industry where we work for financial gain and then you have civil society, which is where you get to the core of what it means to build a society and solve problems together. This is where we join together in community organizations, in civic groups, in Scout troops, in religious congregations, and we work through peaceful means to make our societies better. But we have lost a lot of our muscle memory as more of our lives have moved into the Web2 world. Web3 is an opportunity to re-create the capacity to bring people together from different backgrounds and unite them in common purpose in the digital realm.
DN: These days, it’s hard to imagine something we can all agree on. What’s the greatest obstacle?
TT: The foundation of human collaboration, the way that we do what we do as a species, is coming to common consensus on an underlying set of facts and then going out to build companies and societies and communities on the basis of those facts. It has become increasingly difficult to achieve consensus around the essential information that provides a foundation for our lives. I believe Web3 platforms are uniquely suited to tackle that challenge. They’ve been designed from the outset to provide people everywhere with access to a common set of facts that they can rely on as they make decisions. Expanding our confidence in the information and the institutions we rely on is going to be critical to facilitating healthy collaboration going forward.
DN: That makes sense, but how would we agree on who’s in charge of facts?
TT: If we lived in a small community on the frontier 200 years ago, everybody would agree on what cow was Jim’s cow and what hay was Jim’s hay and what farm was Jim’s farm. The community shared that knowledge and everybody was able to live their lives with a consensus on what belonged to Jim. As communities grew and got more complex, we developed new mechanisms for keeping track of that information. Throughout history, we’ve relied on trusted authorities — often financial institutions or government institutions — to serve as custodians of that information, keeping track of what was Jim’s cow and Jim’s farm and Jim’s hay. Now, with decentralized platforms — the types we’re building in Web3 — we can put that knowledge back in the hands of communities. They will be able to see who’s who and what’s what and have confidence that the information is correct. This comes back to blockchain, which is a record-keeping system that enables different people in different places to quickly and confidently come to a shared understanding of facts.
For example, the only solution we have right now for keeping track of financial transactions is to work through intermediaries, like banks and credit card companies. Globally, we pay about $22 trillion a year to the financial services industry. Going forward, we should be able to devolve a lot of that work and the cost back to communities, who won’t have to rely on intermediaries who are often quite expensive and often have their own priorities.
DN: You were part of a recent effort to help Ukraine that relied on this technology. What happened?
TT: Right after the invasion, the Ukrainian government issued an appeal for digital assets to help repel the Russian military. We jumped in. I worked with Ukraine’s deputy minister for digital transformation to get some key leaders in the Web3 community to support these efforts. In just a few days, well over $150 million in digital assets came in from all over the planet. In years past it would have taken days or even weeks to get those resources to folks on the ground. Now, using Web3 tools, we were able to move them in minutes. Then you could see the expenditures that were occurring from these accounts, and that gave the folks contributing the money confidence that it was being spent as intended, purchasing body armor and ration kits and night-vision goggles and a variety of other supplies that have saved the lives of citizens and soldiers. It’s a powerful example of how global communities can come together in a space of just hours or days to respond to crises.
DN: Do you think we will use these evolving tools to serve humanity or will self-promotion win?
TT: The digital status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. There is widespread dissatisfaction across the political spectrum with the way platforms have evolved. The advent of Web3 lets us rethink these systems. Hopefully, we’ll be able to design structures that are better equipped to provide access to opportunity, foster creativity and support healthy democracies. We now know many of the mistakes that need to be avoided.
DN: Any last word?
TT: Democracies need to develop an affirmative vision for how we want to use digital innovation to advance our values and strengthen our societies. The stakes are high: If we get this right, we could unlock a new renaissance of opportunity and creativity. We get this wrong and the United States and our allies will be also-rans in the decades to come. We are in that window now. It won’t stay open forever.