Real decentralization is radical

Visionaries, consultants and public speakers love to explain how they are embracing distribution over decentralization over centralization, using an image like this:

What drives me crazy about this image is that it actually undersells true decentralization, i.e., when everyone is connected to everyone:

Really decentralized (D)

We already have such systems for email (anyone on Earth can connect with anyone else without going through a censor, “chokepoint,” or authority), and cryptocurrencies offer the same connectivity for money.

Note that mobile phones are not decentralized because they need to be connected to carriers, which also means that mobile phone apps for messaging and payment are not decentralized. (I can’t install WePay on my phone, for example, because it’s not approved for the EU.)

These distinctions are important to people who support freedom of action, belief and existence — freedoms that are under assault in Hong Kong, Iran, China, and even the US (due to monopoly concentrations and government attempts to control private conversation).

Thus, we need to avoid debating “decentralization” within an Overton window preferred by authorities and would-be-monopolies. Those parties are happy with figures B and C because they can be monitored and controlled via critical nodes such as influencers, service providers, or content owners.

My one-handed conclusion is that citizens should insist on real decentralization. Choose D.

H/T to CD

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Real decentralization is radical”

  1. A decentralised system is one that lacks a central authority, so enables anonymous censorship-resistant and seizure-resistant transactions. This is attractive to libertarians, but in practice facilitates crime.

    1. The mix of licit and illicit is indeed important, but should not be used as an excuse for centralization or censorship. Cash, for example, is also used for crime but banning cash would do much more harm!

  2. Why did you point out that mobile phones need carriers but not that desktop (email) needs an internet provider? Both platforms require a physical hardware connection provided by a limited number of (i.e. centralized) providers. In fact, most Americans have 1-2 options for their desktop, but 4+ mobile options.

    WePay may not be installable on your phone, but the company behind it couldn’t offer a desktop client or website access to your desktop either because it’s their *business* that’s regulated, not the app itself.

    D is never practical at the physical level of networking. But the internet was specifically designed for C, and we should demand C. Sadly many desktop email users only get B.

    1. Mobile phones are also tech-sensitive (CDMA vs GSM signal), unlike email, which is a protocol. I agree with you that both need (centralized) carriers, but email can be handled by ANY host, whereas mobile phones face more hardware (and regulatory) barriers.

      On “We should demand C but settle for B” you’re absolutely right.

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