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Is crypto just snake oil?

As I understand it, databases are pretty important to technology companies. Here is an excerpt from a recent post by Albert Wenger talking about why he and his company (Union Square Ventures) believe that web3/crypto is going to unlock new value for our society:

As a first approximation all the big powerful internet companies are really database providers. Facebook is a database of people’s profiles, their friend graphs and their status updates. Paypal is a database of people’s account balances. Amazon is a database of SKUs, payment credentials and purchase histories. Google is a database of web pages and query histories. Of course all of these companies have built a great deal more over time, but operating a database has stayed at the core of why they are powerful. Only they get to decide who has permission to read and write to this database and which parts of it they get access to.

So how will web3 be any better? Well blockchains, at least right now, are poorer performing databases in almost all dimensions, according to Albert. And this is one of the reasons why they’re being so quickly dismissed by most people. But they do have one key advantage: permissionless data. No single entity controls a blockchain database. More from Albert:

It is difficult to overstate how big an innovation this is. We went from not being able to do something at all to having a first working version. Again to be clear, I am not saying this will solve all problems. Of course it won’t. And it will even create new problems of its own. Still, permissionless data was a crucial missing piece – its absence resulted in a vast power concentration. As such Web3 can, if properly developed and with the right kind of regulation, provide a meaningful shift in power back to individuals and communities.

All of this said, I do agree with Fred Wilson and others that the web3/crypto enthusiasts on Twitter these days are getting to be a bit much. For obvious reasons, everyone is trying to pump the crypto stuff that they own. And it can certainly feel like shills trying to sell snake oil. But as Fred pointed out today, this isn’t the first time that we’ve been here:

It reminds me of the early days of web2 in 2001/2002/2003, when we started USV. That was also a time of great cynicism. We almost did not get our first fund raised. Nobody was buying the story we were telling. But of course, that story turned out to be true. And I am confident this one will too.

If/when this story does turn out to be true — and I believe it’s a when — I think we will see it permeate through all sectors of the economy, including how we plan, build, and operate our cities. Of course, this will probably take decades and much of what will happen is unknowable right now. But it’s pretty hard to ignore that this was a pivotal year for the crypto space.

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