The WealthAbility Show #150: Have you found yourself wondering what blockchain is exactly? Furthermore, what capabilities might impact the way you grow your wealth? The digital revolution has provided us with the baseline for expected modern comfort, while the technology of tomorrow looks like magic by comparison. In this episode, Alex Tapscott joins Tom to help us discover what investors can do to understand and posture themselves to make use of the opportunities coming with the next turn of our technological revolution.
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Books: “Web 3”
00:00 – Intro
04:53 – Did Web 2.0 meet our expectations, and what can we expect to improve with Web3?
06:28 – How is blockchain going to change our industry landscape?
10:24 – What are some real-world examples of a ‘smart contract’?
15:20 – What is the future of title insurance?
18:31 – Is the stock market truly an efficient market?
21:32 – How does AI play into the future of blockchain?
28:23 – What are some things that business owners can do to work in harmony with emerging technologies?
This is The WealthAbility Show with Tom Wheelwright, way more money, way less taxes.
Lots of discussion about AI and how it's going to take over the world, take over our jobs, take over our businesses, interfere with our personal identities. Today, we're going to discover, actually, the positive side of technology, including AI and blockchain, and how it can actually help our business, help our identities, help us move forward, and I love the positive side of what, otherwise, a lot of people think is a negative issue. With us, we have an expert in the area, Alex Tapscott, who wrote the book, Web3: Charting the Internet's Next Economic and Cultural Frontier. It is absolutely a privilege and an honor to have you, Alex, with us. This is such a big topic for business owners, for anybody who's out there and has a presence out there, for anybody who's trained to navigate this new world. So if you will, just give us a little of your background and how you got into this whole blockchain and technology thing.
Sure. Well, I started my career in a totally different area, in financial services, and I like talking to people about investing and how technology impacts the fortunes of businesses because that's really where I got my start. I was in investment banking for almost an entire decade, working in Toronto and New York, what people in my industry call a TradFi person, a traditional finance person. I had a CFA charter and was working in various kind of roles in the capital markets, and it was there that I actually first learned about this thing, Bitcoin. Now, this was before the term, blockchain entered the vernacular and before Web3, or even AI was top of mind for a lot of people.
There's this sort of new technology, new asset class that had burst onto the scene, a lot of people were curious about. The more I looked into Bitcoin, though, the more convinced I became, that it was the underlying technology, the blockchain itself, that held the most promise, not just for financial services, the industry that I was working in, but for business as a whole. To make a long story short, within a year, I'd quit my job to join onto a book project, to write a book with my father, Don Tapscott, who's written a dozen books about business and technology, and that book Blockchain Revolution came out in 2016. Now, they say that luck is the combination of preparation and good timing. I think it was Vince Lombardi who said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get,” and so we had this book that we've been working on like crazy and put all this effort into, and it came out at the perfect time.
2016, '17 I think was really when people were beginning to understand that there was a new group of technologies emerging, that was going to make the future look unrecognizable from the past, and our book was one of the first books to really explain that. So I've been in this space now for half a decade. I'm a pretty prolific writer. I've written for The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fortune Magazine and so forth, but also active as an investor and an advisor, and as a portfolio manager among other things. I actually run an ETF that trades on the TSX, that invests into companies harnessing new technologies.
So I kind of see it from all angles. The most recent addition to this is that I've written this new book, as you pointed out, Web3: Charting the Internet's Next Economic and Cultural Frontier, which is out in September, and I hope will be the first big book to explain to a mainstream audience why Web3 is important and why as business owners, as investors, as anyone who cares about the future, why you should understand this new thing.
Well, let's start with that. So we've heard this idea of Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Web 3.0. Let's just go straight to Web 3.0. In simple, simple terms how do you explain, what is Web 3.0?
Sure. Well, let's just define Web1 and Web2 first. So Web1, what a lot of people recall as the dot-com era, is known today as the read web. Basically, what that means is that you could go online and you could access information. You could read information, and a lot of the early websites in the '90s really resemble things that had come before, so you could go and look at the classifieds, or the sports scores, or check the weather or something like that.
The web is really sort of this broadcast medium, a lot like TV or radio, the stuff that had come before. In the early 2000's, the combination of evolving user behavior and some new technologies, created a new kind of web, Web2, what we now know is the read-write web. So basically, not only can you use the web as a way to access information, but you can upload your own content. You can write to the web, you can share information, you can create communities, you can collaborate, you can build social networks. You can do all of this stuff.
The web went from a broadcast medium to a communication medium, and that was a huge leap forward. I think a lot of people hoped that Web2 was going to usher in a new age of mass collaboration and participation in business, and politics, and a bunch of other things. What ended up happening was a lot of the value that was captured in Web2 accrued to a handful of huge platforms, companies like Facebook, for example, that took the most valuable asset of Web2, which was user data, and sold it to advertisers. And so I think in a lot of respects, the promise of that open web was really unfulfilled. So now, enter Web3, the read-write-own web.
So not only is the web a way to read information, to access content, to consume information, not only is it a way to write to the web, that is program the web, upload your own content, communicate and so forth, but it's a new platform for us to own the asset class of the digital age, and that means owning our own data, owning our own identities, and owning the digital assets that I think are going to be foundational to the next era of business. What underpins all of Web3 is this technology known as blockchain. Without getting into the specifics, you can basically just think of blockchain as the first digital medium for value, a way to move and store, and manage value, peer-to-peer, without the need for an intermediary. That, in the same way that the web, is sort of like a peer-to-peer network for information. Blockchain allows us to do the same for assets. So this new ownership layer of the web, I think, is going to transform a lot of industries, from finance to culture and everything in between.
So how does blockchain do that?
So blockchain is a distributed ledger. So you can think of a traditional, like very simply put, like in a normal transaction between parties. We've got an intermediary, a middleman, like a bank, and a bank maintains a ledger of transactions, so debits and credits, who owes what to whom, who owns what, and so forth. For maintaining this ledger and for acting as a trusted third-party, they get compensated, and banks obviously can get compensated really well, as we well know. What a blockchain is, is a distributed ledger.
So rather than the ledger of transactions and ownership, sitting inside of a single company, like a bank, it is distributed across all the computers that are connected to a specific network. So everybody can see up-to-date entries in that ledger and everyone can trust the information in that ledger is accurate, but no single entity can alter what is in that ledger. The only way that that ledger can be updated or amended in any way is when the whole network reaches consensus. So basically, it takes the trust function from something that happens inside of a siloed company, like a bank, and distributes it across the network. So if you look at a blockchain, a blockchain is basically a record of transactions that took place in a network, in any asset, can be cryptocurrencies, but it can be, really, anything of value, and I'm happy to explain that in more detail, and gives us a way to know that we can move and store these assets peer-to-peer.
That is, more than anything, one of the big breakthroughs, I think in technology and finance. I don't want to go on too much of a tangent, but in the Middle Ages, there was this really famous mathematician named Luca Pacioli, and he developed this concept known as double-entry bookkeeping, basically, the idea that for every transaction, you record a debit and a credit, and in the end, the transaction has to balance, which why we call it balance sheet. Before that, people were just doing sequential accounting, so they would just enter debits and credits in over time, versus doing a consolidation. People credit the invention of double-entry bookkeeping as one of the most important innovations in the history of humanity. It might sound ridiculous.
I'm sure accountants love it, but basically, there's these certain invisible tools that have been built by humans, inventions, that have helped to propel humanity forward, things like the joint-stock corporation, and in this case, double-entry bookkeeping. So blockchain, as you can think of, is basically like either single-entry bookkeeping or triple-entry bookkeeping. Take your pick. So an organization can have its own internal ledger of transactions, what it owes and what is owing to it and so forth, but it also has this third entry, this immutable, distributed, trusted ledger that not only they, but all parties can see, and that everyone can rely on as a single source of truth. So that to me is something that-
So this is basically the ultimate transparency in transactions, right? I mean, because if everybody can see it, then it's ultimately transparent, and it's that transparency that gives it its power.
Yeah, that's right. And not only that, it's a ledger that it's infinitely programmable. Basically, what that means is that you can use it to express anything of value. So not just money, but stocks and bonds, and titles, and deeds, and ownership of things like art and IP, mortgages, letters of credit, commodities, really anything that you can think of that has value, any asset can be programmed to be moved on one of these kinds of networks, and that's why people are so excited about the potential of blockchain and Web3, and the idea of tokens, being this new sort of frontier, for us to imagine new kinds of assets and new kinds of business models.
Let's talk about some examples of that so people can kind of get an idea.
Obviously, Bitcoin's the most obvious example, but that's just a token. So let's talk about this idea of a smart contract, for example. So that is, it's basically an NFT, a smart contract, but where everybody can see what's inside. So can you kind of walk through that smart contract, because it could be like Gary V. has done this with membership into his restaurant, where here, you have to have this NFT, which says, “This is my membership card, basically.”
So what are some other examples of that?
Sure. So that's an example of, what's called a token-gated community, where basically, if you have a token, then you can access a community, sort of like a membership card to a private club, right? And because these are assets that are not forgeable, that there can only be one of one, when in the case of NFTs, you can trust with 100% confidence that anybody who possesses that has access to that club or that service, but that's one of dozens of applications of tokens. You mentioned this idea of a smart contract. A smart contract is really just a simple piece of self-executing code that allows people to transact peer-to-peer.
I'll give you several examples quickly. So in financial services, the area in Web3 that is trying to tackle this is known as DeFi or decentralized finance. Basically, decentralized finance is trying to reimagine financial services from first principles, so moving of money, storing of money, lending of money, trading and risk management and so forth, which is different, by the way, from FinTech. FinTech is a new, sleek user interface that allows you to access the old world of financial services. What Web3 is trying to do is something different. It's trying to reinvent it from the ground up, and so there are lots of examples of projects that use smart contracts in this way.
One example would be a lending pool. So in a lending pool, basically, if you have collateral, you can pledge it to this contract, and you can borrow money against it. And if the collateral declines below a certain value, you'll get liquidated, and then whoever lent that money gets their loan covered. For your listeners, the easiest example of this would be like a margin account, right? So if you've got shares held in a margin account and a brokerage, and you borrow against it, but the value of the shares goes down, then you're going to get a margin call.
Well, basically, this is a self-executing margin call, that happens all on chain. So this is a platform that has grown to billions of dollars in size because there's a lot of demand in trading these assets for this kind of service. Another one is Uniswap. Uniswap is a decentralized exchange. So in a decentralized exchange, individuals can choose to basically act as liquidity providers, so in the same way that on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, there were market makers, and those market makers were there to create markets in different securities.
In decentralized exchanges, you can do the same thing, but instead of being out there, actively waving pieces of paper around, you basically just put your pledge, your assets to a smart contract and lock them up, and people can trade against those assets, and in exchange, you earn a yield. So you're basically earning a fee for acting as a market maker, similar to a market maker on a traditional open outcry exchange, right? All of that is happening in a self-executing smart contract environment. Another good example is in the Stablecoin space. So for people who are maybe new to this topic, Stablecoins are one of the, in my opinion, the sort of the first killer app of blockchain, which is ironic because what they do is commercialize a way to move the U.S. dollar digitally.
I think it's ironic because, I think a lot of people thought this new technology was going to reduce the need for intermediaries or reduce the need for trust of central banks and so forth. I'm not necessarily of that view, but I think a lot of people felt that initially, but the most important and most widely used application of blockchains today is actually this thing called the Stablecoin, which is a digital U.S. dollar. So this gives you a way, Tom, if you're in the U.S., and I'm in Canada, or you're in Timbuktu or whatever, to move money in dollars peer-to-peer in a matter of seconds, rather than using the correspondent banking network where it can take days or weeks to settle, and all of those transactions are happening on chain. Now, Stablecoins can be integrated with smart contracts to do lots of different other things, but the idea, basically, is that this technology is being applied, and that's just in financial services, which is one of a dozen different industries that we could talk about.
Hey, if you like financial education the way I do, you're going to love Buck Joffrey's podcast. Buck's a friend of mine. He's a client of mine. He's a former board-certified surgeon, and he's turned into a real estate professional. So he has this podcast that is geared towards high-paid professionals.
That's who he's geared towards. So if you're a high-paid professional, you're going, “Look, I'd like to do something different with my money than what I'm doing, I'd like to get financially educated, I'd like to take control of my money, and my life, and my taxes,” I would love to recommend Buck Joffrey's podcast, which is called Wealth Formula Podcast with Buck Joffrey. I hope you join Buck on this adventure of a lifetime. So let me ask a question that I wondered about, real estate titles, title companies, title insurance. So it's always seemed to me since I first learned about blockchain, that with the right blockchain, title insurance would be unnecessary.
Have you thought … I mean, is that an example where a blockchain might actually take over an industry?
I think it's certainly possible. I think that a lot of times this new technology is running up against some form of legacy infrastructure or installed base of technology, or just old habits of doing things that make it practically quite difficult to do. I think honestly, that real estate is a really good example of that, or at least I would say the idea of using a blockchain to record titles and deeds to property, that is an example of where, I think, it will take a long time to change hands, 'cause there's a couple of things you have to consider here. Number one, if you want to use a blockchain, then you better believe or know that the transactions that happen are valid, because blockchains are not amendable. So the last thing you want is the garbage in, garbage out problem, where you move a bunch of titles onto a blockchain, then you find out after the fact that several of them are wrong, and then you actually haven't solved the problem, you've made it worse in a way.
So that's something that's worth considering. But one area that is really interesting is in the tokenization of real-world assets. So there are a lot of people … I live in Toronto, Canada, where the real estate market is out of reach, unfortunately for a lot of people, but it's an asset class that, I think a lot of people would love to get some exposure to, and you could, I guess buy a bunch of houses and put it into a mutual fund and sell units of the fund. Another thing that you can do, though, is to take assets and fractionalize them and turn them into tokens, so the token gives you a claim on a piece of the underlying asset.
Now, in a way, a Stablecoin is already a version of this. It's a token that gives you a claim on a dollar, a U.S. dollar, but you could do the same thing, and people are … Just to be clear, this is already happening in several different areas. So I don't want to get too jargony here, but you mentioned NFTs. One of the very unfortunate words people are using to describe this is a thing called a phygital, which basically is a combination of physical and digital, where you have a digital asset that gives you some claim on a physical asset, and that physical asset can be everything from a piece of art to a piece of real estate, to a fraction of a dollar, or a bar of gold, or really anything, and that, to me, is really exciting, 'cause you don't have to reinvent the whole land titling system for something like that to work. You just need to start dealing in individual assets and finding utility, and if you find a market, then people are going to do more of it.
So one of the things that people like about the stock market is that it's called an efficient market, right? It's easy to transact. You have so many buyers and so many sellers, that the value is always technically accurate because of all the buyers and the sellers that you have and the small dollar amount of the transactions, because basically, what you've done is fractionalized a company. That's all you've done with the stock market. Do you see that happening then with real estate, with franchises, with other non-traditional assets that are very inefficient right now? Do you see that efficiency coming to the marketplace through that tokenization?
Well, it's such an interesting question. So the stock market is efficient in that … Warren Buffett says, “The stock market's a voting machine in the short-term and a weighing machine in the long-term.” Right? So in the long-term, the mechanism of the market is really good at pricing assets, and so that makes it difficult to generate outsized returns, right?
That's the sort of efficient market thesis. I do think that when it comes to market infrastructure, the stock market, there's lots of room for improvement, especially when it comes to cross-border trades. I mean, people still buy ADRs of European stocks in New York 50 years after they were invented. It seems odd to me that there isn't a global liquid market for financial assets that trades 24/7 in all manner of assets, including securities and companies. So to me, that's an example of an area of improvement.
But I also think that you're correct, that there's no reason why we can't build marketplaces for other assets that have been traditionally illiquid. And that raises a deeper philosophical question, which is that a lot of economists would say that money was invented to solve the problem of barter, because-
In marketplace, if someone's got a sheep and you've got a cow, how do you do the trade? Right? A cow might be worth one and a half sheep. Well, how do you get a half a sheep? So we create this thing called money, which acts as this kind of useless medium, but useful in context, to address this issue of the problem of barter.
But in an environment where there's a marketplace for most assets and all assets are liquid, then the probability of finding a person who wants what you want, or a person on the other side of a transaction, where I might own shares of Microsoft, and I might want to sell that Microsoft in order to buy a house, or to buy a plane ticket, or to buy shares of another company. The first thing I do, what do I do? I have to sell it to cash, and then I have to take that cash and buy something else. So there's a theoretical kind of argument to be made, that in a market where all assets are liquid, then you can trade what you have for what you want instantly without having to go through money itself. There's a lot of actually interesting Web3 projects that are addressing this issue.
One is called Anoma, and it's trying to build basically like a marketplace where a blind pool … So people are familiar with sort of how markets work, where you can put a bid in for something, and if there's someone on the other side who can match that trade, then it can execute automatically, and that can happen in any kind of asset. So that's very much like the far frontier of Web3. I'm not suggesting that that's tomorrow's story, but in my opinion, that is one of the most exciting areas. I'm glad you raised it, where innovation is happening in this space.
So how does AI play into this, because it seems impossible to separate what blockchain technology will do from how AI then can be used even to manipulate things? So how do you see those two working together?
Well, I can tell you that AI is one of the most important technologies of the second digital age, and I think that's the best way for people to really think about it. In the first digital age, we had a number of different technologies all kind of emerging. We had computers, PCs, mobile telephony, the internet, et cetera, and they were all viewed as these distinct technologies, but over time, they converged, right? And I think the same thing is going to happen now, where people talk about blockchains, and AI, and the Internet of Things, and robotics, and virtual reality and augmented reality, but over time, I think you're going to see a convergence of these different technologies into one single thing. I believe, or not in one single thing, but they're going to be so intertwined with each other that we're going to think of them as one single thing.
So I think in a future where you've got billions of people, trillions of connected devices, autonomous AI agents, not to mention, smart contracts, and corporations, and everything else in between, needing to prove their identity, to transact, move value, to establish trust, to collaborate, that's not going to happen with existing financial tools, and it's probably not going to be through existing platforms, technology platforms. We need a new kind of Operating System for the digital age, and I think that the convergence of AI and blockchain is really what's going to help us get there.
So it almost sounds like blockchain is what protects us from the nefarious side of AI. The concern, of course, for performers, anybody that has a personality out there on the internet is, “Oh, boy, people are going to be able to copy us.” Right? I mean, it's AI. They can use our voice, they can use our image, et cetera, and will blockchain then be the protection against that, say, “Well, look, this is who Alex Tapscott … This is the real Alex Tapscott,” as opposed to all the fakes that I'm sure you've got fake Instagram accounts.
You got probably people copying you. How do those going to work together and how does the AI, not just the criminal element of AI, not just take off?
Yeah. Well, to start, I try to be a realist about these things. I don't think that technology is the solution to all problems, but I also don't think it's the source of all problems either. I think that right now, we've experienced some moral panic in AI, and we experienced some moral panic in Web3 too. I think there are a lot of people look at Web3 and they see in tokens, for example, a new way for people to speculate or a new way for criminals to avoid law enforcement, right?
And with AI, they see a technology that is going to wipe out jobs, and is going to rob us of our humanness, and is going to create an existential crisis for humanity. There's always some truth in both of those things, right? It's not that those concerns should be dismissed, but I do think that when it comes to AI, there is a real concern that this technology can be wielded in a way that can undermine individuals, especially creators. For a very long time, technology's been a tailwind for people who work in creative industries. There was a period in time in the Middle Ages when they had to rely on the patronage of wealthy individuals, like the Medici clan, but the industrial technology, the printing press, the lithograph, the LP made it possible that you could create something and actually sell it to a mass market, and you could free yourself from the bondage of patrons.
In the 20th century, we had an environment where creators, like musicians, for example, could earn a decent living from royalties earned from the sale of records and CDs. So more recently, technology's got a bit more of a checkered track record, right? So the internet took this thing that was an asset, a CD, you had to go out and buy it, whatever, and turned it into a free commodity, right? It was put through the printing press of the web, and you could just get a copy of it from somewhere illegal or whatever, and that created the need for new kinds of intermediaries to create order, and that's where we've got streaming platforms like Apple and Spotify. But the upshot is that that today, creators make less than they did 30, 40 years ago for the same amount of output.
Then, now, you've got AI, which is saying, “We're going to basically …” I don't know, in the case of screenwriters, “We'll get the AI to write a script using your,” in the voice of whoever, “And then you can go and polish it up, and we'll pay you a one-time fee of 20,000 bucks to polish it up,” but you're not going to be the author of that work. You're not going to earn royalties from that work, and that's how most people in creative industries get paid. It's like the iceberg. For every Taylor Swift and Margot Robbie, there are thousands of people just working to get by in any industry.
So I don't know that there is a solution, but I'll give you a couple of examples. So one of the things that creators are really worried about is that their creative work, going into a large language model, is going to create some output where they're not going to get fairly compensated. Well, there are platforms around that, try to basically take creative content in water market using a token, so that if it ever gets put through an LLM on the other side, it's going to retain some sort of proof of ownership that is going to maybe create a way for creators to get paid. Now, I think that … There's two ways to do this.
One is regulation and collective bargaining. So the unions and the government agree that if you're going to use that information in a large language model, then you got to pay the creators, and if you don't, it's illegal. That's a totally valid way to do it. Another way is to use technology tools to ensure, rather than to hope for trust, to basically guarantee trust, and guarantee compensation as a result. So that's one thing. Another thing that creators are doing that's really interesting, with tokens and NFTs, is basically using them as a way to sell more and rarer kinds of collectibles that fans can buy, whether it's …
In the same way that people might buy a rare poster, T-shirt, or what have you, trinket, they're looking for ways to support fans, and this is a new sort of economic frontier for them to do that, so I think that's sort of interesting too. But I think that the future is not something to be predicted, it's something to be achieved. If anything, I'm hoping that this book is going to help ignite the curiosity and interest of a lot of smart people who are thinking about these problems, 'cause I certainly don't have the answer to all of them, but in it, I see both the challenge and the solution.
I love it. So if we can just wrap up here with, what are two or three steps or things that a business owner or investor can do to actually be looking at, “How do I make it work for me instead of against me?”
Yeah, sure. So the first thing they should do is to pre-order my book in massive volume.
I love it. Okay. Number one, get educated. We'll put that under the get educated.
Yes. Education, number one. Number two would be personal use. So I think that it's … Look, as with anything, if you want to understand how a large language model works, use ChatGPT.
Try it out. Use DALL-E. Get a feel for it. Understand its abilities and limitations. Open up a MetaMask wallet, like a wallet. Buy a crypto asset.
Buy a Stablecoin. Do you have kids? Send them some money. They probably already have a wallet. Do you employ someone? Maybe you've got a housekeeper, a nanny. They're probably using it to send money home overseas, which is at least true in Toronto, where I live.
So I think personal use is a precondition to understanding for any new technology. The more we use it, the more we understand it, the less we fear it, is my opinion. Then, the third thing would be starting out. The best time to learn about generative AI and blockchains was probably 10 years ago, but the next best time is today, so don't delay your journey. Get started.
I love it. I love it. The book is Web3: Charting the Internet's Next Economic and Cultural Frontier. Alex Tapscott, it's been a privilege and honor hearing you. I do want to know more, so I'm very interested.
This is an amazing frontier for business, for investors. Just remember, when we get this kind of education and we really start to understand what's possible out there, we're always going to make way more money and pay way less tax. We'll see everybody next time.
You've been listening to The WealthAbility Show with Tom Wheelwright, way more money, way less taxes. To learn more, go to wealthability.com.