Chris Dixon, the philosopher king of crypto, makes a fresh case for blockchain. Is he too late?


In October 2022, just weeks before the collapse of FTX, Chris Dixon sat down to write a book about crypto. The venture capitalist and eternal optimist wanted to share a fresh vision for the technology he had come to love. Having founded startups in an earlier era of the internet, before the likes of Google and Facebook gobbled up every dollar, Dixon believed the decentralized promise of blockchain could reinvigorate the early building blocks of an open internet. 

By the end of 2022, that vision was belied by an industry dominated by a casino mentality and defined by criminal hucksters like Sam Bankman-Fried. The failure of FTX felt like a turning point where, for many onlookers, crypto became synonymous with fraud. 

“I was like, ‘Fuck, this is depressing,’ and then I felt sorry for myself,’” Dixon told me over breakfast last week. “And then I was like, “I can look at this as a depressing moment, or I can look at it as an opportunity.’” 

He had worked in tech for decades, from an entrepreneur building early AI companies to an angel investor to a partner at the venture giant Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). He had never experienced as wide a rift in the public perception of his projects and his own understanding. “I could potentially try to close that gap,” he thought to himself. 

The result is Read Write Own, a manifesto on the virtues of crypto that will likely become a combination of bible and self-help book for those who still share the view that blockchain technology will usher in the next age of the internet. The book, which will be released Jan. 30, is a lucid defense of an industry that has often become a parody to the outside world.

Though just 52, Dixon serves as a kind of elder statesman for crypto. He argues that blockchain can be more than “number go up” gambling and a plaything for self-described degens—it can be an apolitical software that saves the internet from its corporate overlords.

As the head of a16z’s crypto firm, Dixon is not just an armchair theorist. He has real skin in the game, to the tune of $7.6 billion of his investors’ money. His book is not just a treatise on the future of the web. It’s a call to arms for the survival of the industry. 

Courtesy of a16z

The cathedral and the bazaar

Dixon thinks of the internet in terms of networks—not only how people connect, but how different technologies interact to build the infrastructure we know as the web. 

Most of what we think of the internet today is owned and controlled by massive companies. Everything from WhatsApp to Gmail to the cloud computing services powering them is run by a handful of firms that not only dictate how the platforms operate but siphon nearly all of the profits, felling entire industries from newspapers to travel agencies.

It wasn’t always that way. The early developers of the internet imagined more open networks that would be governed democratically, with decisions left in the hands of the people—or at least anyone who cared enough to be involved. 

This vision still lives in the building blocks of the modern internet, through protocols like SMTP, which standardizes email communication, and HTTP, which helps computers talk to each other. Another, DNS, allows us to visit webpages with human-readable names, like Fortune.com, rather than a series of numbers. 

These protocols are generally free or very cheap to use, and either open source or managed by nonprofits tasked with maintenance rather than profit-seeking. Their existence is the reason that email isn’t controlled by Google, URLs by Amazon, or web surfing by Microsoft. 

“I always detested Microsoft,” Dixon told me. It may seem an odd statement from one of the most powerful men in tech, and especially one who works at a venture firm that helped build the internet as we know it today by plowing billions of dollars into companies like Facebook and Twitter. 

Despite his affluence and high profile, Dixon has a laid-back affect. He suggested we meet at a diner—his favorite spot in Tribeca had closed, so I found one near the Fortune office. Eating a plate of eggs, sausage, and potatoes, he seemed more like a college professor than a venture titan, speaking in paragraph-length answers that would rise in tenor as he became worked up over an idea. The academic persona was punctured when we stepped outside to his waiting black SUV and driver. 

Dixon said his career has been driven by a love of open-source software, like the operating system Unix. It’s what drew him to blockchain. He is a prolific blogger, and around 2009, began to write about the centralization of the internet. Specifically, he became transfixed by an analogy created by the coder Eric Raymond called the “Cathedral and the Bazaar.” In the cathedral model, software is tightly restricted to an inner circle of developers, generally employed by a corporation, who can build elaborate and beautiful structures that are closed to outside contributors. The bazaar, in contrast, is open source—hectic and without clear order, but alive through collaboration. 

At the time, platforms like Twitter and Facebook still tried to style themselves as bazaars. They invited developers to build apps on their platforms, and Twitter pledged to support RSS, another open-source protocol that allows users to follow diverse websites and blogs. Still, Dixon understood that they functioned more like cathedrals, writing at the time of his fear they would cut off access. “The problem is Twitter isn’t really open,” he blogged in October 2009. “At some point, Twitter will need to make lots of money to justify their valuation.” He was right, of course.

Meanwhile, earlier that year, the pseudonymous figure known as Satoshi Nakamoto published his white paper introducing Bitcoin to the world. Dixon was not an immediate convert. Bitcoin’s purported use case is financial, with Nakamoto envisioning the original cryptocurrency as a new form of money, while Dixon cared more about broader infrastructure protocols. Still, he saw the value of blockchain—a new type of network whose ownership could be dispersed and governed by its participants and run by software. 

After several years writing small checks as an angel investor where his influence was limited, Dixon joined a16z and the VC big leagues in 2012. “The only reason I wanted to go join a VC firm was if I could level up and really try to figure out the new computing movement,” he told me. 

It wasn’t immediately clear that blockchain would be the future. One of Dixon’s first bets was on the nascent crypto exchange Coinbasein 2013, but he also made investments in the VR company Oculus, later acquired by Meta, and the drone startup Airware, which folded in 2018. 

He expected Bitcoin to evolve in a way that would allow software developers to add new features and expand on blockchain’s use cases. The Bitcoin team never did. Instead, a new blockchain called Ethereum launched in 2015, with the promise of allowing coders to create any fashion of decentralized apps. A16z launched its first crypto-dedicated fund, headed up by Dixon, three years later. 

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‘Sugar high’

Dixon’s pitch for blockchain is simple—it’s summed up elegantly in the title of his book. The first era of the internet, facilitated by early protocols and innovations like the web browser, allowed us to consume—read—information. The second, driven by corporate networks like Facebook and Apple, allowed us to create—write—our own content. The third, driven by blockchain, will put us in charge, from making decisions to reaping the proceeds—own.

A decentralized social media platform, for example, would allow users to vote on content moderation and keep its code open-source to allow for a vibrant ecosystem of third-party apps. Without all of the ad revenue going to the platform, users could actually monetize their own content, and a token system could distribute earnings and serve a double purpose as a governance mechanism. 

It’s a nice world to imagine, but one that has not come to pass more than 15 years after Bitcoin’s emergence. That’s not for a lack of trying. There have been plenty of crypto projects aimed at consumers, and billions of dollars of capital plowed into making them catch on. And yet, crypto has still not had its “ChatGPT” moment—the so-called “killer app” that helps it break through to the mainstream. 

A common refrain in crypto is that we’re in the early innings—that it took decades for everyday people to come to the internet. The first paper on artificial neural networks came in 1943, more than 75 years before the launch of ChatGPT. Dixon acknowledged that he is often too early on trends. He built his first AI company in 2009 and ended up selling it to eBay because of the subpar technology. 

Dixon is a believer in “feature parity,” the idea that crypto apps will only catch on when they’re as good as their non-blockchain competitors. With slow processing times, often exorbitant fees, and perpetual security concerns, that day seems far off. “How many killer apps can you make when it costs $10 for a transaction,” he said. Still, Dixon said there’s an “optimistic scenario” where blockchain computing power is sufficient in the next 12 months. I asked if we could be over a decade away, as he was with his first AI gamble. “I hope not,” he said, laughing. 

In the meantime, the only aspect of crypto that has caught on is speculation—from the recent fervor over the Bitcoin ETF to digital asset casinos like FTX. 

“People can’t help themselves but talk about prices all the time,” Mary-Catherine Lader, COO of the a16z portfolio company Uniswap Labs, told me. “There’s a human draw to money.” 

Dixon describes the crypto speculation frenzy as a “sugar high.” It not only creates a bad image for the space, crowding out users, but frustrates his portfolio companies that are trying to build unsexy infrastructure. “There’s other guys down the street saying, ‘Hey, flip Bonk,’” he told me, referring to a newly hyped memecoin on the Solana blockchain. “And that gets the attention.”

In response, Dixon has taken on an unusual role for a venture capitalist, spending time in D.C. to lobby for new laws to govern crypto. Like many in the industry, he believes that the Securities and Exchange Commission is stifling innovation by going after tokens like Solana that offer utility and homegrown companies like Coinbase, while allowing so-called shitcoins and offshore exchanges to flourish. 

A16z crypto has hired former regulators and political staffers, and Dixon himself is a prolific donor, with public data from OpenSecrets showing that he’s contributed to more than a dozen crypto-friendly members of Congress. “This is gritty, tedious work, meeting with lawmakers,” Ron Conway, the venture legend and Dixon’s longtime friend, told me. “Most venture firms shy away from this activity.”

Ben Horowitz, a cofounder of a16z, told me that the firm decided to enter lobbying after seeing big tech firms like Meta flex their influence in D.C. “These very powerful companies with monopoly products are very active in Washington,” he told me. “If nobody represents little tech, we’re going to get regulatory capture and a big slowdown in innovation.” 

The venture elephant in the room

The irony that a16z has become a champion of a decentralized web is not lost on Dixon. With its investments in companies like Airbnb, Facebook, and Twitter, the venture firm helped shepherd in the corporate-owned internet era that Dixon is now pleading that we move on from.  

“I thought it would be much more fragmented, and I was wrong about that,” Dixon said. “We neither knew nor wanted to be creating a system that would also then lead to the demise of venture capital, because you’d have four companies controlling the internet.”

In Horowitz’s estimation, a16z has largely moved on from Web2 bets, even outside its crypto fund, except the photo-sharing app BeReal (He didn’t mention that the firm also contributed $400 million to help Elon Musk acquire Twitter in 2022.) “That’s the nice thing about being a venture capitalist,” Horowitz said. “You can place many investments.”

While VCs can spread their bets around, in the case of crypto, the participation of a massive venture firm still stokes fear that it could undermine blockchain’s mission of decentralization. Like other crypto VCs, a16z often receives tokens in lieu of traditional equity for its investments, meaning it could have an outsized influence in the governance of projects.

The concern has sparked controversy, such as when a16z backed an unpopular proposal for Uniswap to use LayerZero, another portfolio company, as underlying infrastructure, rather than a competitor named Wormhole. While a16z tried to deflect criticism by arguing it had distributed tokens to student clubs and nonprofits, outraged purists on Crypto Twitter accused the firm of “owning” Uniswap’s ostensibly open protocol. 

Lader, who works for Uniswap Labs, which is technically separate from the Uniswap protocol, said she doesn’t discuss governance with Dixon. Still, she argued that decentralization isn’t a guarantee of equal distribution of ownership, but instead an indicator of “fair, open access.”

Another issue plaguing crypto VCs is the tendency to dump tokens for short-term gains. In traditional venture capital, firms hold on to investments for years until they exit, either through an IPO or acquisition. With crypto, tokens can vest in as little as a year.

“If you’re a crypto VC, your obligation is to cash out as soon as possible,” said Omid Malekan, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. “That design is very bad for the long-term viability of most crypto projects.” 

Dixon acknowledged that many crypto VC firms operate more as hedge funds, but said that he pushes for longer lock-up periods—he even helped introduce a provision to this effect in proposed crypto legislation. “Short-term incentives are a very dangerous thing,” he told me. According to an a16z spokesperson, the crypto funds still hold 94% of all the tokens it has purchased in private market transactions. 

The more existential question for Dixon is whether crypto projects need venture-scale investments and the expectations that come with them. He is betting that the recipients of a16z funds will not only serve as the foundation for the next generation of the internet but reap billions of dollars. 

When I asked Horowitz, he compared the gamble to DNS, the protocol that translates domain names. They aren’t investing directly in the utility, but the tokens—sort of like if a venture firm had bought a slew of URLs in the early days of the web. “I don’t actually think there’s a tension there,” he said. 

Malekan, the academic, argued that recent trends have demonstrated otherwise, especially as VCs invest in the knotted tangle of foundations, labs, tokens, and protocols that often undergird crypto projects. The ones that have succeeded, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, required little funding. “In crypto, you can almost argue there’s a very strong negative correlation between success and the amount of money that you raise,” he told me. “It’s not just succeeding as a project—you have to act like a billion-dollar company.”

While Dixon says that tokens are a way to drive participation through healthy speculation, like home ownership, they could just as easily recreate the harmful, profit-driven incentives that built our current internet. One consumer crypto project that broke through to the mainstream, the a16z-backed Axie Infinity, spurred a warped, alternate economy where workers in the Global South plowed their savings into the game and played it as a second job. The game’s brief success may have been an experiment gone awry, but it was still a glimpse into what a venture-backed, blockchain-dominated future could entail.

For now, it’s a theoretical question, with Bankman-Fried barely in our rearview mirrors and the crypto sector searching for a foothold. Dixon is notoriously media-shy, skirting the usual conference circuit and rotation between CNBC and Bloomberg TV that’s common among his peers. With Read Write Own, he is emerging from the shadows, ready to take the mantle of leadership and carve a path forward for both his industry and the nonbelievers. The baggage of a16z may not make him the ideal messenger, but he’s at least a compelling one.

“If we can make it work, it just seems like a very powerful and big opportunity, because it’s very contrarian,” Dixon said. “And by the way, that’s how you make money.”





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