John Naisbett’s 1982 book: Megatrends spent more than two years on The New York Times Best Seller List, selling 14 million copies. In it, Naisbett highlighted the ten most significant trends that define our contemporary technological era. The fifth trend he explored was introduced as a rapid transition from centralization to decentralization.
Decentralization is a characteristic descriptive of power, control, access, or ownership, as they are spread across multiple actors, points, or nodes comprising a network. It is reflected and manifested in various architectures, collectives, and frameworks.
Rewind 10,000 years and egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were the dominant social formation. Before we organized into hierarchies of class, wealth, and power, stringent cultural norms were enforced to prevent any individual or minority from acquiring more status, authority, or resources than others. Maintaining a level playing field was a matter of life and death. Enterprising groups spread into new regions and survived in isolated conditions due to their ability to work together and maintain group stability.
But as people got better at surviving, populations increased; we needed more food, so we developed agriculture. This led to surplus and the need for progressively specialized roles. We started to use up local resources and tread further afield to explore. This bred conflict and conquest, the conquered becoming the underclasses and the conquerors becoming nobles, chiefs, and kings. Inequality, nationalism, and fear entrenched hierarchical norms into the bedrock of society for thousands of years to come.
The term decentralization was initially coined by Alexis De Tocqueville to describe the distribution of political power in the federalized United States. But as German economist Wilhelm Röpke wrote, the “outlooks of centralization and decentralization are reflected “not only in politics, but also in administration, economy, culture, housing, technology, social and industrial organization, [and] community formation.”
In synthetic systems, decentralization means security — spreading data out over multiple nodes reduces the likelihood that any one point could negatively affect a system. In society, it is characterized by more egalitarian divisions of power, less control over infrastructure by minority actors; And in thought, decentralization propels egalitarian political, social, and philosophical notions, in which there are no hierarchies but multiplicities of interdependent interactions, constellations of meaning, and symbiotic ecosystems.
Technological decentralization can be defined as “a shift from concentrated to distributed modes of production and consumption of goods and services.” But this is not just attributable in the digital domain. Technologies can include tools, materials, skills, techniques, and processes that we use to interact with our environment.
Back to the dawn of industrial civilization — and rapid social decentralization began to occur by means of vast technological innovation. The printing press preceded the internet in making information available to a wider demographic; The automobile spread the freedom of mobility, so people would no longer be reliant on centralized modes of transportation; Decentralization of manufacturing created jobs in local areas, extending access to middle-class life. These inventions snowballed, culminating in the most rapid period of technological decentralization yet, our internet age.
The largest technological network sprouted from an idea of decentralization. This idea was that a communications network could be fractured into pieces and still operate if it was not reliant on any single source of power, data, or control. A number of devices sharing data through a common protocol meant no center, no single point of failure. And during the first wave of the internet, from the 1980s through to the early 2000s, technological decentralization was reflected in human relationships with the web. Protocols were controlled by the online community. Though the dot-com bubble brought swathes of investment to the space, a period of intense creativity, learning, and development had to occur before monopolies formed.
Internet users access today is largely centralized, and limited in its scope as a decentralizing societal mechanism as such. Technology companies have built software and systems that outstrip the capabilities of open protocols. And users have migrated from open platforms to these more advanced services. The companies that own the connections and cables now are profit-making entities; core services are centralized and controlled.
Even when we access the open source web, this is often mediated by centralized software, services, and servers. As Roger McNamee, Co-founder of Silicon Valley investment firm Elevation Partners, states, “Google, Facebook, Amazon are increasingly just super-monopolies, especially Google […]. The share of the markets they operate in is literally on the same scale that Standard Oil had […] more than 100 years ago — with the big difference that their reach is now global.”
The bright side of the first wave of internet decentralization for consumers was that billions of people gained access to information and communication. We achieved this ability to express ourselves at lightning-fast speeds and over previously unimaginable distances. Socialization, participation in commerce, and education became faster, easier, and programmable, though perhaps not in the way of decentralized, egalitarian ideals.
For the first time ever, we can witness, communicate with, and express ourselves to the entire world. But there is a sense in which this only highlights the uneven distribution of value, power, and sovereignty. Billions of people are unable to join the global economy due to centralized infrastructure that does not accept their credentials or blocks them from access. In this once utopian internet age, more than 1.1 billion people are still “invisible,” unable to use vital services like healthcare, social protection, education, and finance. Productivity has been declining for decades, globally, at what we would expect to be a time of creativity, innovation, and invention. Inequality has led to worrying social tensions, which we see reflected in controversies over heated topics like fake news, state-sponsored bots, the “banning” of service users, privacy, and biased algorithms.
Internet technologies, as they are currently deployed, have not yet overturned the core centralization of value networks, trust, governance, identity management, and ownership. But it is important to recognize that centralization is not dominant because of some inherent benefit. In a research simulation conducted at Stanford University, it was observed that rather than benefiting groups, centralized structures were inherently destabilizing and greatly increased the chance of group extinction in stable environments. The researchers who conducted the study said it was clear that the instability caused by centralization would have incentivized tribes of old to search further for resources, leading to the spread of hierarchies and the extinction of more stable egalitarian societies through conquest, exactly what history has shown.
The destabilizing nature of social centralization, and the resulting motivation to search, migrate, and dominate caused the extinction of entire species and led to hardship, protest, and revolution. Inequality did not spread because it is an inherently better system, but because it creates demographic instability, driving irrationality, conflict, and leading to the end of weaker societies. A quote from the paper published by the research group at Stanford puts it well: “we human primates are not stuck with an evolutionary determined, survival-of-the-fittest social structure. We cannot assume that because inequality exists, it is somehow beneficial. Equality — or inequality — is a choice.” The trajectory of decentralization we have been on since the dawn of the industrial revolution shows that at the macro scale, we are making the right decisions.
It would be foolish to think that the internet’s revolution is done. It is, after all, still a relatively new technology. And through distributed ledger technology, the internet could become so much more than a global communications network. As economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin explains, now our information internet is beginning to converge with blockchain technologies to form “A nascent, digitalized [sic], renewable-energy internet; and now both those internets are converging with a fledgling, automated, GPS, and very soon driverless road, rail, water, and air transport internet.” The blockchain is a stepping stone to a fully decentralized worldwide web.
Essentially, the blockchain expands the speed, reach, flexibility, and automation capabilities of our current internet beyond communication and into the most valuable corners of human concern. Applications have already been explored and are currently being established in identity management, retail and supply, education, the financial sector, nonprofits, energy, waste management, logistics, and data services.
This evolving technological coupling of internet and blockchain may even one day decentralize thought by way of new collective intelligences with significant implications for society because it operates on the most trusted levels. The “choice” between decentralized and centralized social systems could literally be made by global consensus in the future, using secure blockchains as scalable electronic voting tools for decision-making. By storing data on a blockchain, voting can be made transparent, completely anonymous, and protected against the possibility of tampering. Blockchain solutions have already been experimented with in Sierra Leone and Brazil in the political sphere to show how they can provide security, fairness, and transparency.
Blockchain technologies are already used to make decisions on the running of companies such as electing board members and verifying changes to protocols. If the internet is a primitive form of global, collective intelligence, supercharged with blockchain technology it could become collective intelligence with teeth — a communal thought network with the capacity to affect and influence real, valuable change. You don’t need to be a Marxist to believe that our technological environment, our economy, and culture deeply impact consciousness and behavior. In a world in which assets, data, trust, identity, and governance are secure and digitally-operable by consensus, from anywhere in the world, our outer and inner lives could both evolve.
At IOST, we are working towards equality for the future. We believe that decentralized blockchain networks will create a better society, new ways to think about global issues and respond with solutions that could truly affect change. We are building a scalable, efficient, and permissionless blockchain ecosystem to form the foundation for a secure internet of online services.
The advent of blockchain technologies is filtering decentralization into diverse technological, social, and conceptual systems. But the relationship between technology and us is one of cyclical codependence. As blockchain affords certain organizational ideals, it is also clear it is a manifestation of its historical context. Naisbett captured it well — the infrastructure on which we rely is highly centralized, but we live in an era marked by movements ever-closer toward a decentralized ideal. The blockchain is the next step in this evolution toward an advanced, egalitarian, and benevolent world.
Originally publish on Medium