Centralized, decentralized

April 13, 2015

It used to be that IRC was the place to go to connect with others around your interests. Open, free, decentralized — all you needed was one of many IRC clients, each with their own nuances but all adhering to protocol. I learned to program in #vb, found the Germany-based sysadmin who still works with me in #linux, asked late night questions in #drupal. Eons before Spotify, it was where MP3s were shared and everything else comprised of bits.

The best channels had custom bots that returned meaningful information about links, or responded to /commands to let you quickly query API docs, or spit out some canned text to warn someone to stay on topic. Anyone with a server and some coding know-how could have their bot join the channel, and you would behave lest the admins /kick you. The first party in a #channel set the topic and had certain rights, so long as they remained there, again done via bots or helper services.

But in the years since we’ve been seeing the consumer-friendly centralization of everything: decentralized services that are often arcane to the less technically inclined have been giving way to proprietary, centralized services that are in many ways exponentially richer and friendlier.

We went from BBS and IRC to proprietary AIMs and ICQs and gChat and WhatsApp and Facebook Chat. And for nearly two generations of kids, the centralized stuff is all they may ever know. Even SMS has largely died in the developed world, replaced by iMessage and Hangouts or SnapChat, with SMS, the once-proud standardized protocol of the bunch, getting the short stick because, hey, carriers charge per message, message size is limited, you can’t see if it was delivered or if someone’s typing, MMS was never good enough for media, and so on. We leave aside the fact that SMS enables anyone with a phone number, regardless of service provider, to communicate.

There’s a reason for all this that we must be honest about. Decentralized services are fundamentally disadvantaged in that they’re not centralized — that is, for new features to be deployed such that everyone’s able to take advantage of them, autonomous parties and servers have to adopt them. You can’t make them — like, say, Facebook can make sure you have its latest experience. And let’s face it — most folks care about what the tech enables, not the tech itself, and they act in their immediate self interest. That is to say, if I can communicate with my whole family, and share videos, and it’s fast, and free, and even lets me add a pretty background photo we can all see, rad. Who cares about open standards and agreed protocols when we’re sharing ephemeral moments? YOLO.

(One of the other fundamental challenges lies in capitalism itself — decentralized systems are not designed to offer a clear enough return to those who contribute to it. Facebook has no interest in a version of itself that is federated and open, because the returns wouldn’t flow back to its coffers.)

The irony is that all of this is made possible by open standards. TCP, that endeavor to agree on a basic transmission protocol, was wildly successful and is the undercurrent of the world wide internet that we all use all the time. DNS is the distributed system that gives everything a routable identity. Email works because anyone can communicate with anyone else. The web works because the way to create and consume the web is an open, transparent agreement.

And yet, there’s no guarantee even the web remains decentralized. The web is already under threat by “native apps” — and again, most folks don’t care because the experience feels better. I think email use is diminishing too — already much communication happens elsewhere.

Open standards exist so we can all communicate. But perhaps the great lesson is that we’re dealing with sociology not just technology. We need the basic underpinnings — DNS and TCP — but beyond that it seems we are fine moving between apps and services to talk with anyone we want. Yes, there are profound dilemmas here — see NSA. Yes, there are profound opportunities in decentralized systems — see Bitcoin and the blockchain. Yes, the centralization of everything is perilous, but it’s also user-friendly. In a world of informational and navigational overload, ease-of-use is an important currency that cannot be overlooked. I think the best services will thoughtfully incorporate centralized and decentralized elements in service of the best possible user experience.