Web2's pervasive blind spot: governance

Johannes Ernst


What is the common theme in these commonly stated problems with the internet today?

  • Too much tracking you from one site to another.
  • Wrong approach to moderation (too heavy-handed, too light, inconsistent, contextually inappropriate etc).
  • Too much fake news.
  • Too many advertisements.
  • Products that make you addicted, or are otherwise bad for your mental health.

In my view, the common theme underlying these problems is: “The wrong decisions were made." That’s it. Not technology, not product, not price, not marketing, not standards, not legal, nor whatever else. Just that the wrong decisions were made.

Maybe it was:

  • The wrong people made the decisions. Example: should it really be Mark Zuckerberg who decides which of my friends' posts I see?

  • The wrong goals were picked by the decisionmakers and they are optimizing for those. Example: I don’t want to be “engaged” more and I don’t care about another penny per share for your earnings release.

  • A lack of understanding or interest in the complexity of a situation, and inability for the people with the understanding to make the decision instead. Example: are a bunch of six-figure Silicon Valley guys really the ones who should decide what does and does not inflame religious tensions in a low-income country half-way around the world with a societal structure that’s fully alien to liberal Northern California?

What do we call the thing that deals with who gets to decide, who has to agree, who can keep them from doing bad things and the like? Yep, it’s “governance”.

Back in the 1980’s in 90’s, all we cared about was code. So when the commercial powers started abusing their power, in the mind of some users, those users pushed back with projects such as GNU and open-source.

But we’ve long moved on from there. In one of the defining characteristics of Web2 over Web1, data has become more important than the code.

Starting about 15 years ago, it was suddenly the data scientists and machine learning people who started getting the big bucks, not the coders any more. Today the fight is not about who had the code any more; it is about who has the data.

Pretty much the entire technology industry understands that now. What it doesn’t understand yet is that the consumer internet crisis we are in is best understood as a need to add another layer to the sandwich: not just the right code, not just plus the right data, but also plus the right governance: have the right people decide for the right reasons, and the mechanisms to get rid of the decisionmakers if the affected community decides they made the wrong decisions or had the wrong reasons.

Have you noticed that pretty much all senior technologists that dismiss Web3 — usually in highly emotional terms – completely ignore that pretty much all the genuinely interesting innovations in the Web3 world are governance innovations? (never mind blockchain, it’s just a means to an end for those innovators).

If we had governance as part of the consumer technology sandwich, then:

  • Whether I see which of my friends' posts should be decisions that I make with my friends, and nobody else gets a say.

  • Whether a product optimizes for this or that should be a decision that is made by its users, not some remote investors or power-hungry executives.

  • A community of people half-way around the world should determine, on its own for its own purposes, what is good for its members.

(If we had a functioning competitive marketplace, Adam Smith-style, then we would probably get this because products that do what the customers want win over products that don’t. But have monopolies instead that cement the decisionmaking in the wrong places for the wrong reasons. A governance problem, in other words.)

If you want to get ahead of the curve, pay attention to this. All the genuinely new stuff in technology that I’ve seen for a few years has genuinely new ideas about governance. It’s a complete game changer.

Conversely, if you build technology with the same rudimentary, often dictatorial and almost always dysfunctional governance we have had for technology in the Web1 and Web2 world, you are fundamentally building a solution for the past, not for the future.

To be clear, better governance for technology is in the pre-kindergarten stage. It’s like the Apple 1 of the personal computer – assembly required – or the Archie stage of the internet. But we would have been wrong to dismiss those as mere fads then, and it would be wrong to dismiss the crucial importance of governance now.

That, for me, is the essence of how the thing after Web2 – and we might as well call it Web3 – is different. And it is totally exciting! Because “better governance” is just another way to say: the users get to have a say!!