As I write this, Facebook is down. I’m not certain how much this will cost their business in lost ad revenue, although I’m sure someone will do the calculation. I’m sure there will be some kind of a post mortem. But it’s worth asking the question and taking it seriously: is a world without Facebook worse or better?
Those of us who have been involved in decentralization have a stock response when something like this happens: “this is what you get when you have a single point of failure”. It’s true! My blog is up. Decentralized systems are up. But the ability to stay online is only a small advantage in the scheme of things. Does decentralization mitigate the harm caused?
Decentralized systems have the potential to reduce centralized wealth and power (although not all decentralized systems - there’s an argument to be made that much of the emerging blockchain ecosystem is simply establishing new gatekeepers). But unless they have a radically different design, they can still perpetuate many of the same social harms. A decentralized Instagram would still create the social pressures that lead teenagers to suicide. Communications protocol design doesn’t solve for adverse social effects.
Consider this analogy: would homemade cigarettes still cause cancer? Unless you completely reinvented the cigarette, the answer is yes.
Which means that decentralization only affects one facet of the underlying harm. I agree that reducing explicit centralized control is a good thing - although we have to take care to reduce implicit centralized control, too, by preventing any network from being dictated by a small number of gatekeepers. The web itself is disproportionately led, designed, and built by multinational corporations, despite being decentralized. A decentralized protocol could still be hijacked by large, wealthy entities for ill.
The most important decentralization work remains the need for anti-trust reform and to break up big companies. Which has nothing to do with protocol design. Nobody should get to be big or powerful enough to control a communications mechanism that informs the world, and that’s more of a social problem than a technical one. We need real progressive progress more than we need technical innovation in the space.
“Progress over protocols” seems like a pretty good mantra to me. Not because protocols aren’t important, but because progress is the most important thing.
I’ve been writing in 750 Words every day so far this month and I’d like to keep up the challenge. Most of these pieces have been flash fiction stories; I’ve shared some of these on Medium, and some haven’t made the cut. I want to publish more.
My diet was significantly worse last week. Time to do better. More vegetables and sensible portions.
I’ve got a lot of Jira tickets to write to string together some moving pieces.
I’m thinking about offering my services as an advisor, board member, and (potentially) Swiss-US facilitator. I’m not sure where to start but I want to do more research.