Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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Will Schreiber argues that decentralization is a narrative mirage:

Human history is a story of increasing centralization. From roaming the plains of Africa, to settling down and building homes, to buying food in central markets, to instituting courts of law. Progression is compression. How can I make it so everybody isn’t making their own shirts? Deciding their own justice? Tabulating their own spreadsheets?

I’ve argued a few times on here in favor of decentralization (see 1, 2, 3), and the whole concept of movements like Indieweb is a preference for a decentralized internet where everyone has his or her own personal site, instead of reliance on centralized large silos like Facebook or Twitter or whatever. In fact, I still believe in that ideal for the internet as it was conceived. (See also: “four websites, each filled with screenshots of the other three”)

Still, I can see Will’s point. Human history definitely means we trend towards centralization in the long term. (Although our cultural and nationalistic differences are still too wide to tend towards centralized government for the planet…) Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for decentralized networks to also still exist, perhaps on the fringe. After all, not everyone wants to live in the big cities, there are still people who like growing their own food, people who prefer independent films over the ones made by big blockbuster conglomerates, people who want to support the small mom-and-pop stores over the big retail chains, etc. Even as culture and society consolidate and centralize, counter-cultures can still exist and even thrive.

And just because things towards centralized platforms doesn’t mean we have to accept the current platforms as the end state, we can still ask for something better. If the analogy was to compare online platform centralization to the tendency towards people living in large metropolitan areas, then something like Facebook could be considered analogous to the worst of industrialized cities: over-populated, polluted, scammers and other shady characters abound trying to see if they can make a quick buck off of you, strangers shouting at each other, law enforcement going after you for arbitrary reasons, and so on. But it doesn’t have to be like this. The same way we are trying to have better, well-designed cities with better, cleaner systems to better support populations at scale, we also need to work hard to have better centralized silos and platforms, ones that work for us instead of against us. If we have to in a city, it might as well be a good city.

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Dominik Schwind