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Decentralization and the templated society

My mother used to regularly tell me that I needed to work less; that she didn’t understand why I went for the positions I did; that it sounded like hell to her.

At the time, I didn’t respond well, although I mostly kept my grumbling to myself. Did I have the only parents who didn’t want their child to succeed? I was working hard to try and build a good life for myself by doing work that hopefully was ethical - why wasn’t that enough?

It was only more recently that I realized how much she was looking out for me. From her perspective, I was on a treadmill, part of a kind of grind culture that promotes hard work as a good in itself. I had intense days, and was spending a lot of my time thinking about the work even when I wasn’t at my desk. It’s certainly a life choice, but it’s not necessarily the same as living.

From the outside, you could reasonably describe my parents as radicals. They met at Berkeley in the seventies, after all, with everything that suggests: they fought for renters’ rights, against the unjust war in Vietnam, and for affirmative action. They lived collectively with people who also wanted progressive change. But I think the radical label is in itself unjust: it’s a derogatory way of saying, “these people live outside the accepted template”.

The accepted templates for living - the social norms by which many of us govern our lives and set our goals - weren’t created collaboratively from the bottom up. They were engineered to help create a certain kind of worker; the protestant work ethic, in particular, was intentionally developed to help colonize the New World. They create a deep drive to become wealthy, and a corresponding deep unhappiness when this isn’t achieved. For most people, it’s an illusion: the carrot is a mirage, always just out of reach. You work hard because that’s what you think a good life is, and enrich someone else’s life in the process. You work hard in the hope that someone with more wealth and power than you will grant you worthiness: a promotion, a raise, investment. Meanwhile, the stick is the social pressure to conform to the model.

In tech, I’ve met a lot of people who are motivated by the idea that they’ll get rich. And some of them, to be clear, absolutely do get rich. There’s probably more of a chance of that than in many industries, although to be clear, the people who already have wealth and power will generate more than you in the process. But leaving inequitous power laws aside, when you get a big, fat check at the tail end of an acquisition or IPO, what happens then? Do you suddenly become happy? Is your life worthwhile? Or do you find yourself trapped on that treadmill, either in order to maintain that lifestyle or to quieten the internal voice you’ve developed that tells you to keep working? I’ve noticed that of all the millionaires and billionaires I’ve met - and I’ve met quite a few now - none has radically changed their life. Even the billionaires, who have more means than any of us will ever see, go back to the office day after day. Despite their unfathomable wealth, they’re as trapped as anyone else.

Almost nine out of ten young people say that they would love to be a social media influencer: someone who posts on social networks to a large audience in exchange for money. Once again, this isn’t a goal that appeared from nowhere: it was engineered. Influencers grind to build larger and larger audiences in the hope that someone with greater wealth and power - in this case the network owners, brand owners, and so on - will grant them special powers. It’s a well-designed hamster wheel to encourage people to add value to the centrally-owned network. However much the influencers make, however many followers they have, the network will always have more wealth and power.

How do we unlearn this? How do we break out of these templates, designed as they are to harness our power in order to enrich other people?

The Matrix is a flawed movie, but its central metaphor is radical (if unsubtle) by the definition I’ve established. In its universe, everyone has been harnessed to be a battery in service of a more powerful entity, while an illusion has been carefully crafted to keep them in place. The story breaks down when it starts to talk about a chosen one, Neo, who is uniquely suited to break the illusion and set everybody free: rather than needing to rely on some kind of superpowered vanguard of the revolution, we’re all capable of breaking through. The more of us that break free of the templates that have been set out for us, the more power we all have.

Decentralization is a powerful concept. It’s not about protocols or technologies (although some tools may be created using particular embodiments of these). It’s also not just about individual empowerment. It’s about community empowerment: flattening hierarchies and giving people the ability to exist on their own terms, negotiating through a democratic, collaborative process rather than in subjugation to centralized wealth. Rather than anti-capitalist, it allows for a more granular competitive marketplace. It doesn’t preclude representative democracy - and therefore, it can exist alongside single-payer healthcare, social security, government, and all the social infrastructure we collectively need to live well - but it does sit in opposition to oligarchy.

To reiterate: representative government is not centralization of power, and we should beware of anyone who would prefer to reduce representative democracy and replace it with deregulated markets that encourage oligarchy. We should also beware of anyone who does not want the most vulnerable in society to be protected. Finally, we should beware of people who believe freedom does not involve getting to define our own identities or love who we want to. Those are not people who have our best interests at heart. Removing oligarchies doesn’t mean removing social protections or perpetuating an oppressive status quo.

That’s the core ideal: to move away from an oligarchic system to one where there is little centralization of wealth and undemocratic power. A world that is more equal and more free. One where we all get to choose how we live our lives; how we define ourselves; how we set our goals and decide what a good life is. Those things are too important to be dictated to us by people who need us to maintain their wealth and power.

As this radical future becomes more possible, we should resist voices that want to water it down into the same old templates; the same old hierarchical forces and cultural norms that sap our energy and strip mine our communities. The movement can be one for equity and equality, but we have to keep our eye on the goal.