Decentralization: An Introduction

In the 1980s, a common trope kept popping up in popular entertainment. Aging Baby Boomers, who had come of age during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, were shocked to look around and see that their dreams of peace and spirituality had given way to garish Reagan-era materialism. From the stoners visiting post-Woodstock America for the first time in Rude Awakening to the hippies-raising-yuppies of Family Ties, we kept seeing examples of the culture shock confronted by utopian dreamers who were sure that they had found the one true path to human thriving, only to see society reject that path in favor of the very thing it was supposed to save us from. Sure, the trappings of the counterculture had survived: rock music, colorful clothing, long hair, anti-authoritarian slogans; but now they were being sold to us by multinational corporations who used the money to fund Central American death squads and destroy the environment. The coda to the Flower Power swan song was The Big Lebowski’s Dude, a former student radical who was content to stumble around early-’90s LA, getting stoned, going bowling, and not even trying to make a difference.

I was not a member of the Flower Power generation. My generation, according to most reckonings, is “Generation X”, although I actually fall into the small subgroup on the cusp of the Millennials that has been variously described as Xennials, Generation Catalano, or (my personal favorite) the Oregon Trail Generation. Ours was the generation marked by “analog childhood and digital adulthood”. We came of age right when the asphalt was being poured on the Information Superhighway. In high school, the more technology-minded of us connected to local bulletin boards with 2400-baud modems, and then we went off to college and experienced the Internet while it was still mostly confined to government and academic institutions. We watched the online world go from subculture to mainstream culture, we helped build its institutions and social norms, and we dreamed of a world in which the liberating power of many-to-many communications technology would topple dictatorships, destroy evil corporations, and usher in a new techno-anarchist age of unlimited freedom.

Now, twenty to thirty years after we first logged on to the Internet, our generation are facing an awakening every bit as rude as that of a flower child in the era of Reaganomics. The individual blogs and small message boards of the past have given way to a handful of social media giants. The kids who used to download bootleg music with peer-to-peer file sharing and dreamed of bringing down the big record label monopolies now have children of their own who pay ten bucks a month to stream any song they want on Spotify. The mobile devices that helped make the Arab Spring and Color Revolutions possible have turned into an ubiquitous surveillance apparatus that dictatorships of the past could only have dreamed of. Indeed, the apparent trend of global liberalization that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union has given way to a counter-trend of authoritarian leaders coming to power even in “stable” Western democracies.

This blog is in part an attempt to examine what went wrong with the digital revolution that started in the 1990s. A lot of it will be about technology. After all, it was the widespread availability of the Internet, which allowed anybody on Earth the capability of sharing information with anybody else on Earth, that would come to define my generation more than anything else. But the Internet was just the most recent, and most successful, expression of a far older ideal: the decentralization of power.

From a technical standpoint, the defining property of the Internet’s protocols is that any node on the network can communicate directly with any other node on the network, without having to be routed through any central authority. From the end user’s standpoint, this means that you can put up a web page on your own personal server, and anybody else on the Internet can view it. No intermediary is necessary. (True, there are central authorities like domain name registrars involved, and these days most Internet service providers are owned by a handful of corporations. But decentralized networks are the ideal, if not always the reality.) Outside of the technical realm, this decentralized ideal finds expression in the ancient Greek democracies, the anti-Federalist faction in the early United States, the various anarcho-syndicalist movements of the early twentieth century, and innumerable libertarian movements of both the right and the left. These pro-decentralization factions might disagree strongly on the particulars – they might even have wildly divergent concepts of what “centralized” and “decentralized” mean – but they all believe in human freedom as an ideal, and that a limited, or nonexistent, central authority is the key to maximizing that freedom.

This ideal is very seductive. It has an intuitive appeal: central authorities, almost by definition, limit freedom, and so overthrowing them must be the key to liberation. Otherwise polar opposites like the socialist Peter Kropotkin and the libertarian Murray Rothbard can agree on it. And in the waning years of a century dominated by gigantic alliances of nation-states controlled by a couple of rival superpowers, the devolution of authority seemed like the obvious antidote to decades of oppression and bloodshed. But as with every decentralizing movement to come before it, the crumbling of old authorities lasted for but a brief moment before new authorities came to dominate in their place. Meet the new boss: very different, in fact, from the old boss – but still a boss nonetheless.

The purpose of the posts I’ve tagged “decentralization” is neither to advocate for, nor argue against, decentralization. Instead, it is an attempt to examine the pros and cons of decentralization in all its forms, to question whether the emergence of new central authorities is truly inevitable, and to ponder whether “centralized” vs “decentralized” might not even be a false dichotomy. It will center on, but not be limited to, the technological developments of the 1990s to the present. And it will be somewhat autobiographical, tracing my own path from believer in the promise of a digital future to skeptic of the tech giant monopolies. We live in pessimistic times, when people casually toss around terms like “dystopia” on corporate-run social media. Hopefully I will be able to shed some light on the history that led us to this dark moment, as well as offer some optimism for the path ahead.

Last modified on 2020-11-28