Blockchain and cryptocurrency enthusiasts often point to decentralization as one of the key features and most important benefits to bitcoin and its underlying technology. I won’t argue with the point, but what exactly is so important about decentralization? Why is it a big deal?
Has Centralization Failed Us?
For the better part of history, civilization has been centralized. There has, more often than not, been a centralized authority making rules for everyone else, punishing those who run afoul of those rules, and providing goods and services for a price and a net benefit to the community. Nations have risen to great powers and businesses have grown to great prominence through centralization, often providing an excellent service to others.
Ancient Sumeria, at least six thousand years ago, organized itself into city-states with functioning infrastructure and a code of laws. Ever since, centralized governments have built roads and bridges and facilitated trade and commerce. When a crime is committed, law enforcers respond and bring to justice those responsible. These are good things, right?
Besides being effective, centralized processes are often more efficient than other alternatives. However, what can be used for good can also be abused.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence was written in response to perceived abuses of the King of England upon the colonists in North America. In 1953, the U.S. Army ran biological and chemical weapons tests on personnel who were not informed of the experiment and did not volunteer. In 2004, U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors humiliated prisoners of war at a Guantanamo Bay detection camp in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. In May 2020, a white police officer killed a black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota by kneeling on his neck for several minutes.
Throughout history, governments have overstepped their authority and become abusive. The 20th century is full of tales of brutal regimes. Virtually every Christian is familiar with the persecution of early church adherents at the hands of several Roman emperors.
Sometimes, it is corporations or private individuals who are aggressive or negligent. In March 1989, oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled more than 10 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound and killing marine life. Michael Milken sold junk bonds and violated U.S. securities laws during the 1980s.
Libertarians, cypherpunks, political radicals, and blockchain enthusiasts often point to these abuses as evidence that centralization is bad, evil, or untrustworthy. They have a point.
The dark side of human nature is nothing to sneeze at. But is decentralization the answer? Could it be any better?
Decentralization is One Weapon Against the Abuses of Centralization
I do not believe in cure-all panaceas. However, there are clear benefits to decentralization that can offset the abuses of centralization and complement its benefits.
Jack Dorsey, CEO and founder of Twitter, a legacy social media behemoth that suspended the account of President Donald Trump earlier this year, believes his platform shouldn’t have the centralized power that it exercised as Dorsey praised the decentralized foundation of the internet. Unfortunately, the modern internet has become a collage of walled gardens.
The conversation on decentralizing the web has much to do with the difference between protocols and platforms. TCP/IP is a protocol. No one owns it. No one controls it. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, are platforms. Like it or not, we all know who owns and controls them.
Blockchains also have protocols. Some of the popular blockchain protocols are:
A protocol is a set of rules or guidelines that govern how data is communicated. If no one owns it and no one controls it, then no one can stop anyone else from building on top of it. Once an application has been built, no one can take it down. This is the concept behind Unstoppable Domains, a company that sells blockchain domain names that allow people to synchronize all of their crypto wallets into a single address that bears the owner’s name. Each domain name is a private key. As long as that private key is secure, whoever controls it controls the domain name and no one can unpublish it, delete it, remove it, ban it, confiscate it, or hide it. Of course, browsers can always stop people from seeing a website or domain name, but that should not be a problem for anyone who wants a decentralized web.
Under current internet structure, whoever controls the platform controls the content. Facebook controls everything within its domain through algorithms and human editors. Twitter controls all the content within its domain. Google controls which websites rise to the top of its search queries. Amazon has a firm grip on the entire book publishing industry. Blockchain technology threatens to turn these centralized systems on their heads by reverting the internet back to its decentralized nature through the implementation of competing and cooperating protocols.
This post is published for Cryptowriter in association with Voice.
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First published at Voice.