A Counter to Molly White's Review of Chris Dixon's Book: Read, Write, Own

A Counter to Molly White's Review of Chris Dixon's Book: Read, Write, Own
The sun never sets on the blockchain empire.

I’m almost through Chris Dixon’s new book Read Write Own and think it’s awesome. I highly recommend it for those wanting to learn more about why blockchain technology has such potential. As Dixon argues, blockchain is not just “internet money”, it is a profound technological leap on the order of HTTP and SMTP (email). It is an entire new protocol that can be built on. I think Dixon is one of the soundest voices in the space, believe he argues in good faith, and thinks he’s great for the movement. So when I came across Molly White’s takedown of his latest book, I felt I needed to step up for one of my heroes. 

I’ve listened to many of Dixon’s podcast appearances over the years, read his tweets, his blog, and generally feel I have his worldview dialed. I am biased, I absolutely have a slant here, I am long crypto and think that it is already and has immense potential to continue to transform the internet. What I’m really arguing against here is people who make it their mission to just attack new things without being open to them. I think it’s much more healthy to argue FOR things than AGAINST things. Ok Molly, you don’t think blockchain is the solution to centralized tech, what do you recommend? With that said. Let’s dive in. I’m just going to pull quotes from Molly’s piece and counter them and hope we can all learn something.  

In recent years, the web has become increasingly monopolized by the small group of powerful companies that have come to be known as "Big Tech". He will hear no argument from me on that point, although the role his own company played in that particular shift is a large and completely unmentioned elephant in the room throughout a book in which he continually condemns these "power brokers" and "capricious gatekeepers" that "squelch competitors" and keep a "stranglehold ... on our lives".

Perhaps he doesn’t do it in the book, but Dixon is very up front about his role and his firm’s role in helping establish the web the way it currently is. He says so in his recent podcast appearance on Pirate Wires. Just because he doesn’t explicitly say it in the book shouldn’t be automatically viewed as a malicious act or “elephant in the room.” And to be clear, as he says in the podcast episode, it’s not that he thinks people at Big Tech companies are evil, they just have an incentive system misaligned with users. Blockchains can align incentives such that the system works in their favor. 

Attempts to create alternatives have all failed, he says, before going on to describe several projects that are very much still in use, such as the RSS and ActivityPub protocols, or federated social media projects like Mastodon. RSS is dead, he repeats endlessly throughout the book.

Just because ActivityPub and RSS are in use doesn’t mean they are challenging the status quo. RSS is less prominent than it once was. And it’s difficult for the average user to set up a website that leverages RSS to push out content without having to buy a domain name. It’s much easier to just make an X or Instagram account. And that’s Dixon’s point. The barriers for most people to publish via RSS are too high. ActivityPub is newer and has potential, but it also hasn't reached meaningful scale.

It's profoundly weird to read RSS's obituary as a person who checks her very-much-still-alive feed reader several times a day to get everything from cryptocurrency news to dinner ideas, and who rarely encounters a website that doesn't provide a functional feed.

Far more users use Instagram, YouTube, and X than use RSS. The RSS spec hasn’t been updated since 2009. Compare that to HTTP and SMTP which are very much alive and well and still being iterated on. 

And does Dixon somehow not know that much of the thriving podcasting industry is built on RSS, or that many other apps and websites build features on top of RSS without their users ever even knowing it?

Podcasts is the one area where RSS is in use by your average user. But that is relatively niche and managing podcasts feeds is much different problem than social media. Podcasts don't update very frequently. Compare that to dozens of posts, likes, comments, and views by your average social media user. Not only that, RSS doesn't solve the problem of managing your account or username. RSS failed to handle the social media use case and it's evident by the success of Twitter and Instagram.

Now, if we would all just be so kind as to ignore the last fifteen years since blockchains' inception — during which innumerable companies have flailed around trying to find any possible use case beyond the manic speculation that has enriched a few at the expense of many — he's got an idea to sell us.

Bitcoin, Ethereum, Uniswap, Maker DAO, USDC, Compound Finance, Aave, Farcaster, Polygon, Optimism, these are all viable projects. Cryptofees.info is a great resource for seeing what fees users are paying to use various blockchains and blockchain apps. I admit there has yet to be a huge consumer app breakthrough, but infrastructure is being built and progress made.  

And I mean "sell" quite literally: the book is peppered with glowing references to companies a16z has backed, but is completely devoid of any disclosures.

I certainly hope he supports the companies he’s invested in. Would be weird if he was talking about companies he didn’t actually give money to. No conflict, no interest.

This immunity, he says, will be built-in because blockchains "can, for the first time ever, establish inviolable rules in software". Throughout the book, he refers to "software-enforced", "strong commitments" from blockchains that they won't ever change aspects of the code out from under their users. The problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that blockchains can and regularly do change their code — something Dixon himself acknowledges elsewhere when he refers to community consensus to implement software changes…but a brief look at some community-governed blockchain projects over the past few years should be enough to disabuse anyone of that misapprehension.

Yes but those changes require mass buy-in from the community at large. The changes require much more approval than a traditional tech company which can just remove you from their platform or change the rules from under you for any reason they like. She links to a source that shows examples of crypto projects doing dumb things. What about Bitcoin, what about Ethereum? The two biggest blockchains. 

The closest he ever comes is when he speaks of how "for decades, technologists have dreamed of building a grassroots internet access provider". He describes one project that "got further than anyone else": Helium.

Yes, startups fail. Every new tech phase sees this happen. Pointing out that companies fail in the blockchain space and therefore this means the space is a failure is dumb. Plenty of web companies failed in the early days and still fail, that’s how progress works.

but fails to mention any of the many blockchain-based projects that have already tried to do these things and at best failed to gain traction, if not collapsed spectacularly.

And Molly fails to give any credit to any blockchain projects that have received some success. There will always lie acres of graves beneath the few successes.

He also fails to address the criticism that blockchains have yet to produce any viable projects despite hardly being a recent invention. 

I will repeat: Bitcoin, Ethereum, Uniswap, Maker DAO, USDC, Compound Finance, Aave, Farcaster, Polygon, Optimism, these are all viable projects. Cryptofees.info is a great resource for seeing what fees users are paying to use various blockchains and blockchain apps.

He is of course referring only to large language models (a small subset of the technologies broadly termed "AI") which have indeed enjoyed breakthroughs lately thanks to advances in — you guessed it — hardware (GPUs). 

Molly suggests that hardware is what leads to computing breakthroughs, not software. But what recent hardware breakthrough has there been that has unlocked AI? NVIDIA has done a great job year in and year out improving, but I don’t think there is a single hardware breakthrough to point to. This is really about breakthroughs in software.

When he does engage with a criticism, he simply says "that's not true" with no supporting argument, for example when he says that people "mistakenly" believe that blockchains are well-suited to illegal conduct, which he simply says is "dead wrong". Ah, well, if you say so.

Dixon is nothing if not someone who treats critics with respect and engages with them. Dixon’s interview with Kara Swisher is a great example of this. Swisher is very skeptical of crypto and Dixon remains all class and it results in a solid conversation. Also, the vast majority of crimes are committed with fiat government money, not blockchain based currencies. Why would a criminal use Bitcoin, which keeps a record of everything? The feds love when criminals use crypto. Yes there are privacy coins but these have little traction. 

 Journalists who write about scammy crypto tokens are engaging in a "disingenuous form of criticism" that "focus[es] on the bad while dismissing the good".

Molly uses the word “Bitcoin” exactly zero times in her piece. The most successful blockchain project to date. 

To his credit, Dixon occasionally makes some compelling, although hardly new, points about ways in which the internet has trended towards a commercialized, capitalist hellscape controlled by relatively few massive companies.

What capitalist hellscape are you referring to? The “ugh capitalism” line that just gets thrown in without any justification is so intellectually lazy. Capitalism is the greatest source of human prosperity our world has ever seen. Also, so many people that dunk on blockchain like Molly also hate Big Tech companies. Blockchain is a viable alternative, you’d think they would be more open. 

He even at times seems to get close to hinting that maybe — just maybe — we ought to re-evaluate how web projects are funded, since the current models often incentivize companies to, as he puts it, "consolidate wealth and power in the hands of a small group: investors, founders, some employees. To a lucky few go the spoils." He then unceremoniously veers away from the topic lest he enter dangerous territory for a venture capitalist.

Molly presents no alternative to how we should fund new tech. I assume it would probably be something like “more nonprofit software”, we have plenty of that, it’s not winning against Big Tech. 

I was left wondering: who is this book for? It's certainly not written to convince the skeptics, for whom Dixon's disdain is made quite clear. 

Dixon engages with congress, never engages in bad faith, and treats others with respect. Molly has painted him as a fat cat capitalist who is just shilling his companies. Claims he helped create Big Tech so shame on him, but then shame on him for also trying to support alternatives. It’s a shame fest all the way down.

Thanks for reading and thank you Chris Dixon for pushing the space forward. Long live blockchain. Long live crypto.