Speaking to Andrew Keen in 2016 for his book How to Fix the Future. Brewster Kahle, the Internet Archive founder, believed the time was right for a radical re-decentralization of digital power. “Now is the time to finally create a decentralized web, by building values into the code itself”. 

Kahle’s view at the time was this was a non-trivial task, but it could be done.  The size of the task hasn’t changed and over the recent years progress has been made, but it is fair to say that it hasn’t all been a bed of roses. 

Kahle’s take on the original digital revolution, what we might call Internet 1.0 was that “ we made it too hard for individual creators to get paid for their work” The mistake was as he saw it “that the web lost the ability to serve its users”  Like many of us, Kahle was and is an optimist taking the view “we can do better than this, so that it isn’t a security decision every time you click on a link, and so that all the online music and videos aren’t owned by iTunes”. Particularly when nowadays, Apple Music pays artists about £0.0059 per stream. Not a good look, and they aren’t the worst. 

Back in 2016, Brad Burnham, the co-founder and managing partner at the New York City based venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, made the comparison between investing in technology in 1995 and blockchain technology investing. He noted “we are at the same stage of talking about the technologies and how it is built rather than tackling it in terms of user experience.”

Keep in mind this is over 4 years ago and plenty has happened. He elaborated “It feels a lot like the conversations that I was having back in 1994 / 95 about the internet. When people were saying, just tell me why I should care?” His response to this question back in 1994/95 about internet based investing was to answer in terms of the technology, the fact that it was built using TCP/IP, was a distributed network, designed by the then eminent Rand Corporation to survive a massive nuclear attack, and there was no single point of failure. Those were the answers he gave as to why you’d invest in the internet over 25 years ago.  He commented that “people would look at him as if he had two heads”.

This experience of feeling that he was from another world was something that he was having again whenever he talked about investing in blockchain technologies and the business possibilities it unlocked.  It was a constant fall back into describing what the protocols and technologies did and how they were designed, rather than thinking about the user experience.

At the time, he also noted that he didn’t know another way around it. 

In much the same way that the original pipes, wires and routers needed to be put in place for the Internet prior to the killer apps that followed it  to market, the blockchain infrastructure needed to be in place before real user applications can emerge.

Switching strands but keeping the 1994/95 link, Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, cites this as the time of one of the first missteps of the publishers in using the Internet.  “Initially we planned to charge a small fee or subscription, but Madison Avenue ad buyers were so enthralled by the new medium that they flocked to our building offering to buy the banner ads we had developed for our sites. Thus, we and other journalism enterprises decided that it was best to make our content free and garner as many eyeballs as we could for eager advertisers.”

That was a fateful decision which Alan Mutter refers to as the original sin.

It turned out not to be a sustainable business model.  The number of websites, and thus the supply of slots for ads, went up exponentially every month, but the total amount of advertising dollars remained relatively flat.  This meant advertising rates eventually tumbled.  It was also not an ethically healthy model; it encouraged journalists to cater primarily to the desires of their advertisers rather than the needs of the readers.  By then, however, consumers had been conditioned to believe that content should be free. It took two decades to start trying to put that genie back in the bottle. That challenge is still happening today, despite the birth of surveillance capitalism, a form of business model predicated on the internet’s content and information being free, and a scenario where four companies can be worth over four trillion dollars. It has reached such a level that the US justice department filed a lawsuit against Google last week, accusing the tech company of abusing its position to maintain an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising.

Keeping with the history back in the late 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee, commonly known as the founder of the internet, tried to develop a micropayments system for the Web through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).  The idea was to devise a way to embed in a Web Page, the information needed to handle a small payment, which would allow different “electronic wallet” services to be created by banks or entrepreneurs.  It was never implemented, partly because of the changing complexity of bank regulations and the costs of transactions.  Also, according to Marc Andreessen founder and creator of Netscape when speaking about the firm’s early days “when we started, the first thing we tried to do was enable small payments to people who posted content.” But back then when he was starting out according to him “we didn’t have the resources at the University of Illinois to implement that.  The credit card systems and banking system made it impossible.”  He reckons they tried hard, and in his words, “it was so painful to deal with those guys. It was cosmically painful.”  

This frustration that the web pioneers had failed to provide a platform to enable small digital payments was most often played back to Walter Isaacson for his book, The Innovators. Ted Nelson, who was the founder of hypertext, believed that the links should be two-way, which would have allowed a system of micropayments and royalties to accrue to the content creators.  Tim Berners – Lee says that he wanted to embed in a page the information needed to handle a small payment, which would allow electronic-wallet services to be built by banks or entrepreneurs.  These payment protocols were never implemented, partly because of the changing complexity of banking regulations, partly because of the market costs of moving value 30 years ago and partly because the banking technology systems were not up to the task.  Also as reported by Walter Isaacson in an interview with Marc Andreessen he said “If I had a time machine and could go back to 1993, one thing I’d do for sure would be to build in bitcoin or some similar form of cryptocurrency.” 

This concept of timing was and is clearly important. For his Ted talk Bill Gross, founder of idealab, an incubator of new inventions, ideas and business, looked at the biggest reasons why start-ups succeed or fail. In his investigation he created a framework, gathered data from hundreds of companies, his own and other peoples, and ranked each company on five key factors.

His results showed that the most important factor was timing.  Timing accounted for 42 percent of the difference between success and failure.  Team execution came in second, and the idea, the differentiability of the idea, the uniqueness of the idea actually came in third.  As he says in his talk, this isn’t absolutely definitive, but it represents a reasonable model to consider the various factors involved.  He was surprised from his study that the idea wasn’t the most important thing.  It is fair to say that it mattered more when it was actually timed.

Drawing all these strands together, the net is that the original design and business model of the internet could have been better for various reasons, some technical, some business model, some commercial, some ideological – the timing didn’t work for there to be a change.

As we’ve seen timing is absolutely key.  To Brad Burhnam’s point the pipes and wires are now in place for decentralized models to  focus on user applications, the underlying technological processes, and regulations and costs have moved to accommodate micropayment value transfers. Take this in conjunction with the economic, social and environmental pressures experienced today and suddenly that idea that seemed cosmically painful years back is doable.

In this case we are tackling the ability to protect, manage and monetise individuals pieces of digital content and regular readers will know that we’ve created FourZeroTwo (named after the web protocol that was reserved at the time for transaction) has been built with this challenge in mind. But whether its climate challenge, eradicating poverty or reducing inequalities at the end of the day, nothing is more powerful than an idea that’s time has come.