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Technology & Innovation

What is ‘Web3?’ Many things, most of which don’t yet exist

Diane Davis



The pandemic lockdowns, the emergence of the blockchain, the metaverse, and the unchecked power of Big Tech have many people thinking about what the web of the future will look like, and whether it can evolve away from the worst tendencies of today’s online world. And the term Web3 has come to represent one vision for what it could all look like.

When the World Wide Web first became a phenomenon in the 1990s, it was a pretty static medium, and many websites looked like little more than digital versions of print brochures. That began to change in a big way in the early 2000s. Web services such as Gmail were far more interactive and app-like than those that preceded them. The web also became more participatory, which led to an explosion of user-created content, first in user groups and blogs and later on social networks such as Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook (now Meta).

This new wave of richer experiences was known as Web 2.0 at the time, and over the past two decades it’s created vast wealth, reshaped industries, and exerted profound influence on how we live in the 21st century. But the web as we now know it has also seen all kinds of problems, from cybercrime to surveillance capitalism to widespread misinformation and a rapidly worsening erosion of trust. Web3, by its design, could offer better resistance to those problems.

While there’s no one official definition of the term, when people say “Web3” they usually mean a decentralized, blockchain-inspired web architecture that gives users more control over their digital content and currency, and where transactions depend far less on trusting a central authority such as a bank or a tech platform operator.

People were talking about “Web 3.0” even back when Web 2.0 was an emerging concept. But interest in Web3 appears to have gone up markedly during the weird quasi-recovery from the pandemic. Google searches for “Web3” have increased sixfold since the end of July, and the number continues to rise. Not all of the interest is positive, though: On Twitter, Web3 boosters are joined by plenty of people calling it an exaggeration of what the blockchain can do, or just a scam.

It’s true that many of the people talking about Web3 come from the cryptocurrency world. Cryptocurrency is the first and biggest use of the blockchain, and Web3 proponents think that blockchain technology—which creates a secure, shared repository of transactions that no single entity controls—can do far more. The blockchain may give users a way to carry their social content (and, perhaps, their reputation) with them between social sites instead of having it locked to Meta, Twitter, or TikTok. It might form the foundation of a new kind of marketplace for people selling physical or digital goods, as NFTs (nonfungible tokens) are already doing.

It’s also true that only pieces of Web3 exist today. The rest is aspirational. Building, then scaling, the technologies needed to fulfill the Web3 vision would require lots of time, money, and cooperation.

Open standards

The magic of the original web was that everybody agreed to run their sites on a common, open-source protocol—HTML. Everybody could use it and nobody owned it. But there is no universal web protocol that lets anybody share social content across social networks, or to transfer money to friends and family regardless of what cash app or crypto wallet they use.

In the absence of such public protocols, venture-backed tech companies were able to offer such services via their own proprietary platforms. Meta owns the dominant social network platform, monetizing the personal data of its users. Amazon offers the dominant e-commerce platform, monetizing users and charging rents to third-party sellers. Apple and Google operate and monetize the dominant mobile app stores, selling their own mobile services and charging rents from third-party app developers. And so on.

This sort of architecture has in many cases favored the really big platforms, leaving the crumbs to smaller ones. It’s concentrated a lot of profit and market power in the hands of just a few Big Tech companies.

Building a metaverse bottom-up on top of open standards is like building a great city.”

Ari Yahya, Andreessen Horowitz

“By virtue of their control of all data, they control each and every interaction between users on the platform, each user’s ability to seamlessly exit and switch to other platforms, content creators’ potential for discovery and distribution, all flows of capital, and all relationships between third party developers and their users,” wrote Andreessen Horowitz cryptocurrency lead Ari Yahya in a 2018 blog post.

A more decentralized system, in theory, might allow for direct relationships or transactions among users, buyers, creators, and sellers.

“Web3 is about the creator economy, where users own the data and the economic rewards associated with the online value they create,” says Matthew Gould, founder and CEO of Unstoppable Domains. “Additionally, Web3 is a commitment to developers who build on blockchains that the rules of the game will never be changed, as has happened multiple times with the Apple App Store, Facebook, and Twitter in the past.”

It’s important to remember, however, that even the biggest blockchains, Bitcoin and Ethereum, are today nowhere big enough to handle the scale of mainstream financial services. Many people are working on scaling up the blockchain for cryptocurrency transactions, but a variety of other systems would need to be developed to manage social, e-commerce, and trust and reputation services.

Metaverse on the blockchain

As defined by many people, the metaverse is also a Web3 experience. That’s because current web platforms and technologies can’t facilitate a crucial aspect of the metaverse—the ability of users to move freely between any virtual space or experience, just as we can use any web browser to navigate between sites on the web.

New protocols may be needed to guarantee a continuity of experience as users move from place to place in the metaverse. They’d allow us to move between the metaverse domains of, say, Apple, Meta, and Amazon, and the digital identity, content, and currency we carry with us would be honored at each place.

Meta, the Big Tech player making the most noise about the metaverse, seems to acknowledge this dynamic. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that Meta intends to build “for the metaverse,” not “build the metaverse.” Though it surely wants to play a leading role in developing the open standards that would govern the place, it’s not saying that the metaverse should be a self-contained, proprietary world like today’s Meta.

As people spend more and more of their time in digital space, the thinking goes, they’ll buy and accumulate more digital goods such as game skins and other digital apparel, digital art, digital real estate. In Web 2.0 a user might buy a new skin (outfit) for their avatar in Fortnite that they can use only in Fortnite, and pay for it only with V-Bucks, which have value only in Fortnite. A Web3 architecture might provide protocols for the avatar, the apparel, and the currency so that all of those things work anywhere within the metaverse.

“Building a metaverse bottom-up on top of open standards is like building a great city,” argues Andreessen Horowitz’s Yahya in an email to Fast Company. “It’s much harder, because it requires a large collective of people to come together and cooperate, but the output is much better.

“When it works, a great city—like a true metaverse—is a reliable scaffold upon which an infinite ecosystem of experiences and entrepreneurial activity can thrive,” Yahya adds.

The open standards required for the metaverse could be enabled by the blockchain. Users might use NFTs to prove ownership of their digital property. They could use the blockchain to manage, broker, rent, or sell their digital stuff. Some might decide to make a business of it, creating their own digital goods (represented as NFTs) or curating and brokering the goods of others.

“Web3 is a game changer for the future of social and digital ownership,” says Pierina Merino, founder of FlickPlay, a social NFT discovery app. “It enables our digital inventories to travel cross-platform without losing their value and authenticity.”

A lot of work has to be done to lay the foundation for Web3. Some of that may be political work, meaning that users, developers, tech companies, special interest groups, and others would have to participate in a variety of standards bodies and hammer out agreements on how the Web3 protocols would work. Only when this work gets going, and when financial incentives align behind it, will Web3 start to get real.

Technology & Innovation

Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis




Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.


Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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Technology & Innovation

The Download: Alabama’s embryo ruling impact, and remote learning for pre-schoolers

Diane Davis



An aerial view of the burnline at the edge of The Crosby.

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The weird way Alabama’s embryo ruling takes on artificial wombs

A ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court last week that frozen embryos count as children is sending “shock waves” through the fertility industry and stoking fears that in vitro fertilization is getting swept up into the abortion debate.

The Alabama legal ruling is clearly animated by religion. But what hasn’t gotten much notice is the court’s specific argument that an embryo is a child “regardless of its location.” This could have implications for future technologies in development, such as artificial wombs or synthetic embryos made from stem cells. Read the full story. 

—Antonio Regalado

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Remote learning can work for preschoolers

Educational interruptions due to the pandemic, climate disasters, and war have affected nearly every child on Earth since 2020. A record 43.3 million children have been driven from their homes by conflict and disasters, according to UNICEF—a number that doubled over the past decade. Despite that, less than 2% of humanitarian aid worldwide goes to supporting young kids’ care and education. 

That may be about to change, thanks to a program called Ahlan Simsin, a special version of Sesame Street that has been custom-made for Syrian refugee children. It’s the largest-ever humanitarian intervention intended for small children’s development, with remote learning a core part of it. And it’s already yielding promising early evidence that remote learning can help young children in crisis situations. Read the full story. 

—Anya Kamenetz 

This story is from the next issue of MIT technology Review, all about hidden worlds. It’s set to go live next Wednesday—subscribe now so you don’t miss out when it lands!

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The first privately-built spacecraft has touched down on the moon
The Odysseus lunar lander has already started to send back data, according to its developer, Intuitive Machines. (CNN
There are more private landers headed there too. (NYT $)

2 Five charts that show how Nvidia took over the world 
It added more than $276 billion in market value yesterday, more than any other company in a single day. (WSJ $)
Its chips underpin advanced AI systems, giving it a market share estimated at over 80%. (WSJ $)

3 Mothers are selling photos of their kids to pedophiles online
This is a very important, but also very disturbing, read. (NYT $)
Five crucial takeaways from the investigation. (NYT $)

4 What it’s like to cry while wearing an Apple Vision Pro 
Kinda lonely, from the sounds of it. (Wired $)
What would wearing the Vision Pro all day do to our brains? (Scientific American $)
+ These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by storm. (MIT technology Review)

5 Who actually wants an AI search engine?
It still looks a bit like a solution searching for a problem. (Fast Company)
+ Chrome has added an AI feature that helps you to write. (The Verge)
Chatbots could one day replace search engines. Here’s why that’s a terrible idea. (MIT technology Review)
+ AI-generated videos are here to awe and mislead. (Vox)

6 A GPT-4 developer tool can hack websites autonomously
Not good. (New Scientist $)
Three ways AI chatbots are a security disaster. (MIT technology Review)
AI could help defend against security threats too though, says Google CEO Sundar Pichai. (CNBC)

7 What it’s like to hang out with the 46-year-old ‘anti-aging’ millionaire 
At a rave, no less. (The Atlantic $)
Longevity enthusiasts want to create their own independent state. They’re eyeing Rhode Island. (MIT technology Review)

8 X is becoming a bit of a hellscape  
Especially for famous women, as Bobbi Althoff has unfortunately found in recent days. (WP $)
Three ways we can fight deepfake porn. (MIT technology Review)
X has been removing accounts and posts critical of the Indian government. (Reuters $)

9 Humane’s AI Pin has been delayed
The vibes are getting pretty inauspicious for this product, frankly. (The Verge)

10 A startup wants to turn the sugar we eat into fiber 
Pretty neat—if it works as promised. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“The balance of power has shifted back to employers.”

—Laszlo Bock, an adviser at the venture capital firm General Catalyst, tells Wired why tech job interviews are becoming more and more onerous for applicants. 

The big story

The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes

An aerial view of the burnline at the edge of The Crosby.


April 2023

With each devastating wildfire in the US West, officials consider new methods or regulations that might save homes or lives the next time.

In the parts of California where the hillsides meet human development, and where the state has suffered recurring seasonal fire tragedies, that search for new means of survival has especially high stakes.

Many of these methods are low cost and low tech, but no less truly innovative. In fact, the hardest part to tackle may not be materials engineering, but social change. Read the full story.

—Susie Cagle

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ This ‘reverse packet ramen’ TikTok is mesmerizing.
+ These quotes have got me craving bubbles.
+ If I ever won the lottery, it’d become obvious pretty quickly. 
+ Here’s a fun challenge for you this weekend: try doing absolutely nothing.

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Technology & Innovation

Yes, remote learning can work for preschoolers

Diane Davis




Mariam, one of the mothers in the camp, has two girls, five and four years old, and her greatest wish is that they get an education. She herself stopped her schooling at the sixth grade. “Reading and writing,” she said through an interpreter, “is the most important thing in life.”

A focus on resilience

Sesame Street premiered in the United States in 1969 with a social mission born out of the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society: to level the playing field for poor kids by bringing early learning into the home for free. 

The show debuted its first foreign-­language co-productions in Brazil and Mexico just three years later; there have been a total of 42 international co-­productions over the years. A meta-analysis of studies with over 10,000 children in 15 countries found that these programs have had significant positive effects on children’s mastery of reading and basic math concepts, as well as their social-emotional skills and attitudes toward out-groups.  

An Arabic version of the show (Iftah Ya Simsim/Open Sesame, which many of today’s parents in the region grew up with) ran from 1979 to 1989. But Ahlan Simsim is the first production created deliberately for children affected by crisis and conflict, and that necessitated some special sensitivity.

The social-emotional curriculum for the show had to be designed from scratch for the cultural context and needs of these children, says Shanna Kohn, the director of international education at Sesame Workshop. “We went in with the idea of a show that focused on resilience—a beloved Western concept. And we brought that to this team of academics and Arab advisors, and there was a lot of skepticism. There isn’t even a clear Arabic translation,” says Kohn. 

So the team backed up and started with the basics. They had to figure out how to present relatable stories—about Jad leaving home and feeling different from his friends—without introducing situations or concepts that might be triggering for young viewers. 

Elmo with children in a classroom in Saida, Lebanon.


“Boats are usually a go-to for preschool children,” says Scott Cameron, who has been with the company for 25 years. “We avoided things like that, for obvious reasons.” They also avoided loud noises, like thunderstorms. They skipped nutrition lessons, because kids who are barely getting enough to eat can’t use reminders about fruits and vegetables. 

Kids who are traumatized often respond with an outward numbness; the research team found that the children were using only two or three terms—happy, sad, angry—to describe their feelings. To help them process these feelings and frustrations, the show defines the Arabic words for nine emotions: caring, fear, frustration, nervousness, hope or determination, jealousy, loneliness, and sadness. Jad and Basma model emotional coping strategies: belly breathing, counting to five, “moving it out,” “drawing it out,” asking for help, and making a plan. 

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