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Ethereum

Back to Basics: Decentralization and Society

by Patrick Seguin, Content Manager, Peer Mountain

We had such high hopes for the Internet. During its conception and birth, we saw its potential to grow up into a digital utopia: a shared network of individually owned servers and domains, in which everyone participates equally.

The web was supposed to be a decentralized and secure tool that would enable us to build a better world.

Naturally, human nature would not stand for equality and altruism.

People realised that an easy way to create value on top of this neutral fabric was to build centralised services which gather, trap, and monetise information.

Matthew Hodgson, A Decentralized Web Would Give Power Back to the People Online

So we now have a handful of companies locking up personal data in centralized systems, and we’re growing less and less comfortable with this idea. In part because of the vulnerability of these systems, in part because of the commoditization of our personal data, and, in some ways, of our very identities. Governments are responding to this with initiatives to protect our privacy and put control over personal data back into the hands of its owners, such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Another factor is our inclination towards decentralization grows stronger, not only in our digital lives, but in the real world as well. In his paper “A Humane Economy”, eminent German economist Wilhelm Röpke stated “the two contrasting outlooks of centralization and decentralization are reflected in various fields — not only in politics, but also in administration, economy, culture, housing, technology, social and industrial organization, community formation, etc.”

Our inherent desire for privacy and security, personalized experiences, and independence are key drivers of our shift towards decentralization. For years, we’ve been moving away from top-down structures and towards fully distributed approaches to, for instance, government, education, work, play, commerce, and information sharing.

Strictly speaking, most, if not all, the systems and applications we’re using for these purposes have hierarchic corporate structures that centralize their data storage, processing, and transfer operations. However, the distributed manner in which we use these systems and apps is indicative of our continuous shift to a decentralized lifestyle, and makes them important stepping stones towards full digital decentralization.

Defining decentralization

Decentralization is the process of distributing or dispersing functions, powers, people or things away from a central location or authority. While it is by no means perfect, one of the greatest benefits of this process that it gives us greater control over our lives, and over our real-world and online communities.

A brief history of decentralization

Throughout history, “the existence of the anti-authoritarian, independent, self-regulating local community” has been as fundamental to humanity “as the existence of the centralized… hierarchical state.” At the same time, the decentralist attitude has proven to be “far more ancient, more durable, and more widespread.”

However, our decentralist tendencies are locked in a perpetual conflict with a hive-minded compulsion that drives us to build, and become part of, centralized systems in the name of progress. We’re willing to sacrifice a small, yet significant, degree of, for instance, privacy and security in exchange for, say, convenience and cost savings.

Recent consequences of poorly managed centralism include massive data breaches, crippling financial crises, and dysfunctional urban planning. As we’ve advanced as a society, we have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, a valuable history lesson:

The decentralist philosophy was a driving force in America’s early years, and leaders such as Thomas Jefferson were acutely sensitive to the insidious encroachment of centralism which already had begun during their lifetimes. Jefferson saw in decentralization the spirit of a free society.

David C. Huff, Decentralization: Freedom by Diffusion

Technologically, blockchain is enabling us to revive that spirit and build the decentralized digital community that the founding fathers of the Internet initially envisioned. So what we’re really doing is taking the world wide web back to basics.

The decentralist philosophy

In his 1967 paper The Meaning of Decentralization for Twentieth-Century Man, sociologist Henry Winthrop stated that decentralism is “one of the many philosophies of our age which are competing for the right to structure the nature of our coming social order.” From the decentralist perspective, centralism is responsible for costly, uncontrollable social cankers: excessive industrialization, sloppy urban planning, soul-crushing bureaucratization.

The opposing philosophy accepts these consequences in exchange for what the centralist views as the convenience and efficiency of collectivity. Röpke observed that “centrists are attracted… [to] ideas for dealing with human beings in the aggregate, while decentrists are preoccupied with the fate of individuals, with their needs and their concerns.”

“… in the modern world — and particularly in technologically advanced societies — the average person feels little need for exercising his personal influence in community decisions. This shedding of responsibility is, of course, what Fromm calls the desire to ‘escape from freedom.’”

Henry Winthrop, The Meaning of Decentralization for the Twentieth-Century Man

We can see the online analogy for this near-apathy towards exercising one’s personal interest in community decisions in the way many of us simply use, say, our Facebook or Google accounts to sign into various apps and websites. We’ve grown so tired of filling in forms that we’re willing to accept or ignore the fact that we’re handing personal data over to these apps and sites, along with Facebook and Google.

So, in this centralist system, we have no problem sacrificing some privacy and taking a security risk in exchange for convenience and instant gratification. At least, we didn’t have a problem until we started paying attention to the rise in data breaches of centralized data systems, identity theft, and credit and tax fraud.

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

John Culkin, A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan

Culkin’s statement rings somewhat false when we look at the development of the decentralized web in historical and philosophical contexts. At present, we are primarily building digital tools that still function in a centralized manner; however, blockchain visionaries are shaping the tools — decentralized applications (dApps) and Web 3.0 as a whole — according to our changing attitudes towards digital centrism.

“Throughout society, the centralizing style of organization has been pushed so far as to become ineffectual, economically wasteful, humanly stultifying, and ruinous to democracy…. The only remedy is a strong admixture of decentralism. The problem is where, how much, and how to go about it.”

Paul Goodman, People or Personnel: Decentralizing the Mixed System

Our decentralist tendencies have improved, or are improving, critical social constructs and processes, flattening hierarchical systems while retaining amenities and efficiencies gained through centralization.

Government

A 1999 United Nations Development Programme report indicates that “decentralization of governance and the strengthening of local governing capacity is in part also a function of broader societal trends. These include, for example, the growing distrust of government generally, the spectacular demise of some of the most centralized regimes in the world (especially the Soviet Union), and the emerging separatist demands that seem to routinely pop up in one or another part of the world.”

A more aspirational attitude is also driving a shift to decentralized governance : “The movement toward local accountability and greater control over one’s destiny is… being driven by a strong desire for greater participation of citizens and private sector organizations in governance.”

Learning

Homeschooling takes a decentralist approach to education. Rather than learning in a predominantly centralized system in one institution (school) that is likely part of a centralized network (board of education), homeschooled children get a highly personalized education in a distributed network of homes.

The most recent findings from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that approximately 1.7 million US children, or 3.3% of all school-aged children, were being homeschooled in 2016.

From the dawn of postal correspondence courses to the rise of free online university courses and affordable web-based video instruction, distance learning has been decentralizing further education for centuries.

Work

The growing gig economy has decentralized the way many of us work. Experts predict that over half (58%) the US workforce will be freelancing by 2027.

In the corporate world, more companies are operating with distributed personnel; over the past decade, the number of US employees working from home rose by 115% to 3.9 million.

Play

Once upon a time, if you wanted to play video games, you had to go to a centralized video game storage facility — that is, an arcade. Home consoles brought gaming into the home, decentralizing the single-player experience; multiplayer, however, was still technically centralized, as it required gamers to gather at someone’s home. Broadband connectivity then decentralized gameplay to the extent that we can now play with and against other gamers throughout the world, wherever we are.

Commerce

The popularity of services like Uber and Airbnb, and virtual marketplaces like ebay and Shopify, demonstrate that we can decentralize the way we obtain goods and services without sacrificing convenience. These platforms constitute a first step away from top-down structures, though they’re a bit of a middling step as they still have hierarchic corporate structures, but allow for distributed transactions.

Content and information sharing

Most of us share information and content not through social media, but through channels that make up “dark social”, a term coined by Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic. Dark social “refers to the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured by web analytics programs. This mostly occurs when a link is sent via online chat or email, rather than shared over a social media platform, from which referrals can be measured.”

When we share content in social networks, we’re agreeing to exchange “our personal data for the ability to publish and archive a record of our sharing.” It seems that less of us are willing to make this trade-off — a 2016 RhythmOne report states that “dark social shares as a percent of on-site shares jumped from 69% to 84% globally.” So while the content and information that we’re sharing through dark social may be stored centrally, more of us are choosing to share through individual channels as opposed to community channels.

DApps and the return of the decentralized web

In his keynote address at the 2016 Decentralized Web Summit, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, said:

The web was designed to be decentralised so that everybody could participate by having their own domain and having their own webserver and this hasn’t worked out. Instead, we’ve got the situation where individual personal data has been locked up in these silos. […] The proposal is, then, to bring back the idea of a decentralised web.

Tim Berners-Lee, Keynote Address, 2016 Decentralized Web Summit

Today’s technology gives us the option of living a decentralized lifestyle in centralized environments. We’re still willing to to trade a certain degree of privacy for convenience — just look at all the services and apps that we sign into with our Google, Facebook, or Amazon accounts. At the same time, we’ve become painfully aware of the dangers of centralizing data. True decentralization will take place when not only interactions are distributed, but the technology and data itself is distributed.

The current boom of decentralized application (dApp) development is a natural evolutionary step. Efficiency and scalability are still somewhat problematic, but blockchain solutions to these issues are already in the works. For instance, Peer Mountain’s blockchain-agnostic PeerchainTM architecture facilitates interchain transactions with the speed and scalability that we’ve become accustomed to in all our digital interactions.

Blockchain technology can help us return to flatten hierarchies without giving up the simplicity and convenience that centralized services and platforms provide — this is a key driver of blockchain development. Compared to the centralized web we use today, the decentralized web offers a highly secure infrastructure where self-sovereign identity has real value. Peer Mountain, for instance, provides swift, hassle-free ID validation for services within its distributed marketplace of trust, and gives users full control over their personal data.

Our increased development and use of dApps marks a natural technological progression that satisfies our individual and socio-political inclinations towards decentralization. We’re building blockchain solutions to mitigate the risks and costs of decentralization, and forge the Internet that its creator originally envisioned.


Back to Basics: Decentralization and Society was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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