Life Imitates Art Imitates the Algorithm4th March 2019
Thoughts on Decentralization and what a Centralized Future Might Hold
A History of Centralization
The internet is like a country broken into several kingdoms. It started as a large pool of tribes and rag-tag communities, but a few parties realized what was being generated by these figurative villages. At which point they either intentionally or unintentionally took control of that resource: data.
It’s happened throughout history, the larger and more organized communities realized they could gain resources and power by acquiring new territories. So they did. History is a bloody tapestry of conquests, crusades, and wars fought over whatever the flavor of the century was in terms of resources. Land, silk, salt, gold, there’re plenty of reasons to pillage. The same thing has been happening over the past few decades with the internet, except its occurred on digital real estate. There hasn’t been much bloodshed, because the resource of the decade is data.
The internet has become an oligopoly, where the king you bow to is determined by the activity you logged on to perform.
Search? Lord Google
Purchasing? Queen Amazon
Information? Warlord Wikipedia
Entertainment? Viscount YouTube
Music? Sir Spotify
Do you get the picture?
I’m not saying the companies above completely control their industries (except for Google), but in most of the categories above there are only a handful of key players controlling their entire subset of digital business.
“Every word of every email sent through Gmail and every click made on a Chrome browser is watched by the company. ‘We don’t need you to type at all,’ [Google co-founder Eric] Schmidt once said. ‘We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.’”
It’s almost as if we’ve begun to associate progress with centralization. As if to evolve and progress in technology, arts, etc, there needs to be centralized organizations to facilitate. Think about how prevalent the term “One Stop Shop” has become in marketing language and copywriting- we value the benefits centralization bring, we’ve been taught to do so.
Centralization is only a scary concept when you think about it. The thing is, no one really thinks about it. No one thinks about it because we were given all this great and shiny stuff for free. All these wonderful internet services that make our life more simple at the cost of publicizing our online identity. We rarely stop and wonder what a future where our every move can be predicted might look like, we rarely stop and wonder about the consequences of extreme centralization.
Regardless of whether or not you’re a content creator and actively trying to craft a digital persona, or if you’re just casually surfing the web without any intention beyond short term entertainment: you have an online profile. There’s one that Google has created on you, one that Facebook has, Twitter, you name it. They curate the journey you take every time you log onto your computer and open a web browser. The content you consume is fed to you by an algorithm that predicts what you want to see based on your past consumption. Youtube wants you to spend as much time on their platform as possible, the best way to do that is to give you videos that they’re confident you’ll enjoy. In an attempt to serve you, they create a content bubble for you.
The intent behind the algorithm isn’t malicious, it’s to provide a better service to the customer, you. The long term results, however, are a little terrifying.
A world of people who are only fed information that confirms their own biases. So which content bubble will the person who teaches my children be raised in?
What Does Decentralization Really Mean?
Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to address what decentralization really is. There are a wide variety of definitions out there and plenty of overused diagrams that make efforts towards explaining the term, but none truly capture the concept as whole.
Vitalik Buterin released an article a while back where he touched on the topic of decentralization and the several incorrect definitions that are circulating the internet. Here’s a direct quote where he discusses the different types of decentralization possible.
Architectural (de)centralization — how many physical computers is a system made up of? How many of those computers can it tolerate breaking down at any single time?
Political (de)centralization — how many individuals or organizations ultimately control the computers that the system is made up of?
Logical (de)centralization — does the interface and data structures that the system presents and maintains look more like a single monolithic object, or an amorphous swarm? One simple heuristic is: if you cut the system in half, including both providers and users, will both halves continue to fully operate as independent units?
You can find the original article below, I highly suggest reading it!
The Meaning of Decentralization
He goes on to list a few examples to better explain the concept:
Traditional corporations are politically centralized (one CEO), architecturally centralized (one head office) and logically centralized (can’t really split them in half)
Languages are logically decentralized; the English spoken between Alice and Bob and the English spoken between Charlie and David do not need to agree at all. There is no centralized infrastructure required for a language to exist, and the rules of English grammar are not created or controlled by any one single person (whereas Esperanto was originally invented by Ludwig Zamenhof, though now it functions more like a living language that evolves incrementally with no authority)
Blockchains are politically decentralized (no one controls them) and architecturally decentralized (no infrastructural central point of failure) but they are logically centralized (there is one commonly agreed state and the system behaves like a single computer)
While Vitalik focuses on the technical benefits of decentralization, I tend to think of the societal benefits: although they go hand in hand. Better system architecture and organization will lead to societal benefits.
If we take these same concepts and apply them to society, our human world as it currently exists, it has interesting implications for how the way we organize ourselves economically and governmentally might be improved. As well as points out the flaws of our current centralized systems.
The Diminishing Returns of Centralization
The internet does a great job of creating this sense of personalization, like each individual who uses the internet is going on a unique journey specific to them- when in reality, the biggest commonality between all humans is that we all think we’re unique. Sorry to rain on your parade, I’m sure you’re special, but I guarantee with the right data points I could create a target market of (at an absolute minimum) 5 million people who will perform almost the exact same actions as you on specific websites and platforms. The same purchasing habits, the same reading habits, the same games you play, hell even how far you make it into porn before you decide you’re “finished”.
It’s all for the sake of simplicity. Simplicity is velocity, and humans are all about speed these days. My main problem with this, the reason for writing this, is that this faux-personalization and simplicity will operate the same way as everything else does, with diminishing returns.
Eventually, we’ll hit a point on the bell curve where the returns no longer reach the end user and are solely accrued by those providing the services. Those “free” services we’ve been using for years and years. Not realizing we’re feeding data on what we: eat, live, shop, watch, and masturbate to, directly to companies that can profit from that information.
It’s all fun and games until PornHub predicts your next weird fetish before you do.
I hope we don’t hit that point. To me, that means that we’ve created so many relevant content bubbles that society fits easily into, that there is no more individuality at all. All content is fed through specific funnels to specific audiences, all quality is determined by algorithms that determine what content is seen by the masses.
Life imitates art far more than art imitates life because art is too busy trying to appeal to the Youtube search algorithm.
Which is a damn scary thought.
If life imitates art, while art is constantly trying to conform within what centralized content distribution channels consider “appropriate” or “good” content, then our current path can lead to a world where life has become an imitation of what search algorithms believe humans want to see- it’s mental masturbation. A constant loop of self-fulfilling content being dictated by what different search algorithms decide is most likely to retain attention.
So, Why Decentralize?
Because right now we haven’t reached the extreme end of the spectrum. We still have time. The great barrier of our generation won’t be a plague or a world war, it will be having to remain intact and humane while power completely shifts to corporations and centralized entities who then are challenged by the vast majority as soon as they realize their powerless and broke. We need to decentralize to avoid a small group of organizations dictating everything we consume, produce, or utilize.
I think the steps leading up to a cultural shift to decentralization (if decentralization doesn’t occur naturally) will be something like this:
- Micro Communities Become Idealogical Bubbles
- Larger companies gain more power than governments (except for monarchies and communist nations because they’re essentially 1 gigantic centralized business)
- Faux-Paradise occurs: technology advances to a place where enough data has been accumulated and there is enough infrastructure for us to live, please forgive me, “our best lives”. Everything will be easy, everything will be connected, everything will be monitored, everything will be controlled.
I think we’d be happy with the results of centralization to a point. Extreme centralization would allow seamless interoperability which will be cool as hell. It’s just that extreme interoperability will require either extreme decentralization or extreme centralization- and we’ve seen how much luck we’ve had with extreme cooperation in the past.
The question of whether or not you personally believe humanity needs to start shifting towards decentralization comes down to your values. I find myself struggling to truly determine my own ideology. I can be a hypocrite, I preach about privacy & security but unlock my iPhone with facial recognition.
That being said, I value free thought, independence, and what little sense of individuality we currently have. I value the future we’re creating and the hopes I have that it’s one I’m not ashamed to have contributed to.
Life Imitates Art Imitates the Algorithm was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.