The internet is broken. What if we can fix it?: On Chris Dixon’s ‘Read Write Own’

Weathered crypto enthusiasts will find a freshly-glossed blockchain thesis in “Read Write Own,” a book they can proudly hand out to skeptical friends and concerned in-laws

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"Light" by Aaron Aalto (2024)

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In the beginning there was the internet, and the internet was good. 

It’s the underlying premise of Chris Dixon’s Read Write Own — a book about blockchains that anyone can read. For an industry plagued by a struggle to communicate its vision en masse, Dixon’s a timely messenger. He’s also one of the more prescient investors you’ll find in emerging tech today. 

Dixon embarked on Read Write Own a few weeks before FTX collapsed, when the industry’s sentiment was already plummeting. For a while, it appeared like the curtains were closing on crypto, a burgeoning movement repeatedly battered by a litany of bad faith scams and what some might consider a “branding problem.” Public disillusion had grown so widespread, thought Dixon, that people were blinded to the revolutionary elements the technology actually possessed. He couldn’t escape a gnawing sense that someone was going to have to articulate the blockchain thesis in layman’s terms, and that someone would have to be him. 

Read Write Own, by Chris Dixon (2024)

Weathered crypto enthusiasts will find a freshly-glossed blockchain thesis in Read Write Own, a book they can proudly hand out to skeptical friends and concerned in-laws. But in the humble opinion of this writer, Dixon didn’t write the book for weathered crypto enthusiasts; he wrote it for anyone still scratching their heads over what crypto is trying to solve.

Dixon has a real gift for explaining technical jargon to nontechnical readers. It’s a sorely needed skill in an industry famous for its perplexity. I, for one, felt like I was wearing a new pair of glasses as I flipped through Read Write Own, grateful for a clarity I hadn’t known existed. 

In the book’s early chapters, we are transported to the mid-90’s internet with Lorax-ian nostalgia. What we find is a vast, uncorrupted frontier; the conditions ripe for a bustling and harmonious habitat. These were the halcyon days, where you could build whatever you wanted, and own whatever you built. In Dixon’s retelling of the early web, you can practically hear the birds chirp; breathe the fresh, unpolluted air; make out the Truffula Trees lining the horizon. 

The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss (1971),
A story about  a vulnerable ecosystem that comes under attack

The early web inflamed the hearts and minds of artists, philosophers and entrepreneurs — pioneers who arrived like westward prospectors drawn to gold. Early on in Read Write Own, Dixon introduces initial settlers like John Perry Barlow, a poet-turned-activist who spent the sixties dropping acid with Timothy Leary and writing lyrics for the Grateful Dead. Barlow would go on to draft a declaration for a free and open internet, in which he scripture-ized what he believed were the fundamental assurances of cyberspace: “A world that all could enter without privilege or prejudice;” a world where “anyone, anywhere could express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity;” a world “independent of tyrannies.”

With the patience of a high school history teacher, Dixon reminds us that this “land” was not ruled by an empire or a king or an unelected governing body; it was designed without borders or jurisdictions or tithes. Instead, it was built on a decentralized  protocol network called the open web — a technological breakthrough more seismic for humanity than the printing press.

The rules of a decentralized network, advises Dixon, can be thought of like the rules of a language. A language is governed by a social consensus. It’s why anyone fluent in English, for example, can speak with any other English speaker anywhere in the world; and they can do so freely, equally and without restriction. The rules of a language aren’t imposed by anyone in power, they’re imposed by the community itself. Break the rules, there’s a risk no one will understand you. Break the rules, and you cease to interoperate.

Next, you can think of a protocol network like a highway system. Highway systems are free, open and anyone can build on top of them. The more that people build on top of a highway system, the more the highway system gets used, which organically attracts more things to be built along it. 

Decentralized protocol networks are governed like languages and provide infrastructure like highway systems. It’s a helpful way of remembering things.

A modern urban highway system. Source: Shutterstock/Captain Wang

Around the time Barlow wrote his treatise, Dixon dropped out of Columbia to pursue a career in the internet full time. He’d been on track to earn a doctorate in Ancient Philosophy, but the egalitarian promises of the open web were too compelling to ignore. “I was attracted by this amazing, amazing promise of a network that was truly decentralized and owned by the users,” he recently told writer and YouTuber David Perell on a podcast. “To me that was a remarkable thing, that we would link all the computers in the world, and we would do it in a way where there was no kind of intermediary that was taking tolls, money, power and control.” 

It’s no secret that Dixon’s blockchain thesis is inspired by his philosophical roots or that he still loves the liberal arts. Abstract digital concepts are littered throughout Read Write Own, but they are routinely dismantled and conjured with new life. Take the way he writes about software, for example:

“Software is special because it has a nearly unbounded range of expressiveness […] [Software] is the encoding of human thought, just like writing or painting or cave drawing […] Software is so expressive that it is better thought of not as engineering but as an art form. The plasticity and flexibility of code offer an immensely rich design space, far closer in the breadth of possibilities to creative activities like sculpting and fiction writing than engineering activities like bridge building.”

One thing Dixon noticed right away about the internet of the 90’s was how it felt skeuomorphic — it was mainly utilized for digital adaptations of pre-internet things, like letter writing and mail-order commerce. This is a concept he comes back to often, and a threadline I enjoyed revisiting. Skeuomorphic is the word Dixon uses to describe the way humans hold onto the past as we dip our toes into the future. This usually flares up at the onset of irreversible technological shifts. The symptoms include suppression of imagination, and groundbreaking things not appearing groundbreaking at all. 

“The best ideas,” says Dixon, “seem strange at first or are not yet imagined.”

Skeuomorphic is why Gutenberg’s first prints were made to look like handwritten bibles; why the first automobiles were branded as “horseless carriages”; and why early films were shot like plays. It wasn’t until filmmakers discovered that movies had their own “visual grammar,” as Dixon puts it, that filmmaking started to get exciting.  

Shortly after its skeuomorphic adolescence, the internet lost its innocence. Dixon marks this as the early 2000’s, when business models on the internet became “native.” This was when it became clear for entrepreneurs that owning a network outright was a lot more lucrative than sharing value with users, and when corporate networks became the biggest new landowners on the open web (I thought about it like the part in The Lorax when the tractors roll in). 

Dixon describes the corporate network model as “walled gardens with one groundskeeper” or “theme parks controlled by a megacorp.” I envisioned them as superstores falling from the sky and landing on the highway of the open web with a meteoric thud.

Dixon has no problem with superstores at face value. They arrive along the highway with sleek new features and disruptive applications, and when they get popular, traffic starts pouring in. Superstores have absolutely brought mass appeal to the internet. The problem, urges Dixon, has to do with the “ecosystem” of the internet, and how that ecosystem is impacted by superstores. 

Today, a handful of corporations run the internet via corporate networks. They’ve become so popular and crushed competition so forcefully, that many users have forgotten there’s a highway system out there at all. Unlike decentralized networks, superstores need to “attract and extract” users in order to survive. When they get big enough, warns Dixon, superstores begin to exert a gravitational force all on their own — sucking all the life out of the ecosystem and into their orbit. My interpretation was this: When there’s only a handful of superstores on the internet, the internet becomes a company town, and when the internet becomes a company town, you become a product. And that, my friends, is not the internet John Perry Barlow imagined. 

Today, the open web has had its canopy chopped. The top 1% of social networks account for 95% of social web traffic. The top 1% of search engines account for 97% of search traffic. That’s just the start. Should this trend continue, Dixon believes we’re looking at a deeply unfortunate online future. Kind of like an episode of Black Mirror, where users of the internet, Dixon says, “will become no better than serfs toiling in a field for the benefit of a corporate overlord.” 

Blockchain networks, it turns out, are not built like walled gardens or theme parks or superstores — they’re built like cities. A city, says Dixon, that’s “built from the bottom up by the people who inhabit it […] where users have meaningful choices, rights and agency […] built by everybody, for everybody.” It’s also the simplified promise of Dixon’s blockchain thesis: “To restore a healthy civic life to the digital world.” 

Read Write Own is a book about abstract ecological problems that anyone can read. That’s not a sentence you can typically say with a straight face, but in this case I believe it’s the truth. More than anything, though, it’s a book about restoring harmony. Not because we have to, but because we should. 

The internet is broken. What if we can fix it? 



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