Decentralized Systems: End The Cycle of Indifference

polarzero
16 min readOct 17, 2023

This article intentionally neglects the actual functioning of blockchain and decentralized system (as in allowing for truly fair, transparent and censorship-resistant democratic governance). It is built upon the acknowledgement of these abilities, mostly due to the way smart contracts work, to try to address higher-level political/philosophical involvements. Additionally, it abstracts from the assumption that everyone has access to electricity, internet, and devices — prerequisites not at all universally available. Some educational resources are provided in the references section, if you need/would like to understand it at a lower level.

Our traditional systems, from education to politics, have long promoted a culture of delegation. From the early days in schools where we elect student delegates, to later in life where we’re conditioned to elect officials — presidents, senators, and other leaders — to make decisions on our behalf.

British writer Graham Greene observed that indifference is “the perfection of egoism”. This prevalent delegation might indirectly foster and reinforce such societal indifference and sense of detachment.

This post is an attempt to shed light on the potential of decentralized systems in reshaping societal norms and challenging the status quo of delegation.

1. The essence of decentralization

I believe that blockchain and decentralized systems directly address the concern of indifference, as they contribute to reshaping both systemic and societal structures.

This aspect isn’t always highlighted, as there are more immediate and easily observable consequences that tend to overshadow it. This one, however, is a natural consequence of distributed ledger technologies, which encompass distributed systems like peer-to-peer networks, decentralized governance models, and various consensus mechanisms.

Ultimately, this shift appears to perfectly reflect the ethos and culture associated with these kinds of systems.

2. The flaws of traditional governance

2.1 Pitfalls of established hierarchies

Traditional hierarchical systems, from educational institutions to political organizations, have long incentivized people to delegate their power — choices — to chosen delegates.

This process usually takes the form of an election, which by definition is a choice exercised through a vote. As this action is actively presented as participating in governance, it often inflates the actual impact of this systematized process. You get to pick a delegate during a ceremonious institutional event, based on a commitment, that you can only hope will be honored during the following years/months.

The influence of people’s choices, and by extension their lives, fluctuates dramatically — occasionally being exceedingly significant, but in between, diminishing to almost negligible.

Additionally, constantly delegating our choices means far too frequently delegating our knowledge and understanding as well. Which consequently emphasizes the belief that most people are “not educated enough” to perform decisions. Which incentivize them to delegate to these better informed ones. You get the point.

The vicious cycle of delegation.

True participation seems more than just electing representatives, but about taking direct responsibility, compelling us to inform ourselves and make mature decisions. However, our established systems often discourage such active engagement.

2.2 An illusion of rational compromise in democracy

One way of approaching large-scale decisions is to consider them — to borrow words from Vitalik Buterin — as either concave or convex. This applies more extensively to any tradeoff between compromise and purity.

Concave/convex worldview as described by Vitalik Buterin.

Given a choice between two alternatives, often both expressed as deep principled philosophies, do you naturally gravitate toward the idea that one of the two paths should be correct and we should stick to it, or do you prefer to find a way in the middle between the two extremes? [Note: respectively convex and concave.]
Vitalik Buterin, Convex and Concave Dispositions, 2020–11–08, vitalik.ca.

I believe a significant part of modern democracies is designed with a concave disposition. This could be roughly illustrated as follows, assuming that the options are interchangeable; this is not the point here. This conception will be later discussed and iteratively refined.

A concave perspective on modern democracies — as it could be conceived.

The way we delegate through elections would be (very) roughly considered somewhere between anarchism and dictatorship. Arguably, this is precisely where democracy lies. However, there’s more: governance directly by the population is just as much democracy as it is through representatives — consider participatory democracy as an example.

2.3 Delegation’s drawbacks and power struggles

Nevertheless, a significant flaw in the current system is the concentration of decision-making power. Even if it could always be more centralized, most representatives carry heavy responsibilities. Which results in virtually the same symptoms as their absence, i.e. growing indifference — in this case rather due to a decreasing sense of connection with the actual people these delegates represent.

This detachment is not just inefficient; it poses tangible dangers. Decisions made without fully understanding ground realities can — and will — have adverse, widespread impacts.

As a matter of fact, everyone has some kind of purpose, whether it’s personal, collective or, more often than not, both. Representatives are no exception, and by being unable to maintain contact with those around them, they eventually come to rely decreasingly on empathy. At this point, the cherished concept of common good will inevitably be reduced to a merely abstract idea and lose all its essence — an essence that yet provides a safeguard against occasionally misplaced ambition.

This brings us to corruption, which at this stage becomes a conceivable option.

3. Towards a decentralized governance model

3.1 Reimagining decision-making in decentralized systems

The emergence of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) presents an alternative to the conventional hierarchical model. In DAOs, authority isn’t centralized; rather, it operates on a horizontal plane. This decentralization is not merely a technological innovation but a societal one. It encourages active participation, challenging the established norms of passivity and detachment fostered by traditional systems — or to phrase it roughly, pushing back against the usual sit-back-and-watch mindset.

Obviously, it’s not without its flaws. Some of them, pointed out by Vitalik Buterin, are reflective of issues we’ve seen in traditional companies, and they echo the challenges inherent to any democratic system — or it’s probably more accurate to say any capitalist system. Examples include insider trading, delegates collaborating for personal gain, or straightforward bribes.

Vitalik points out three typical strategies to combat such corruption: “retroactively punish malicious deciders, proactively filter for higher-quality deciders, add more deciders. While conventional centralized corporate structures — and by extension, most representative systems — often lean towards the first two solutions, any decentralized system, with its inherent challenges like anonymity, is more likely to push for the third.

3.2 The mechanics of decision distribution in decentralized platforms

The decentralized world has less access to such tools: project tokens are likely to be tradeable anonymously, DAOs have at best limited recourse to external judicial systems, and the remote and online nature of the projects and the desire for global inclusivity makes it harder to do background checks and informal in-person “smell tests” for character.
Vitalik Buterin, DAOs are not corporations: where decentralization in autonomous organizations matters, 2022–09–20, vitalik.ca.

Following this, Vitalik explains how distributing decision-making power among a broader pool not only dilutes the authority of any single participant but also makes collusive acts riskier and more likely to be exposed.

This solution may seem impractical for traditional representative systems; in decentralized platforms, it integrates seamlessly. By distributing choices through collective decision-making, not only is the process more transparent, but it also ensures that each person can be involved, especially on matters that affect their lives. Additionally, this broader participation naturally leads to greater empathy; by being actively involved, individuals gain a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives. This not only results in well-informed decisions but also promotes choices rooted in compassion.

3.3 Power distribution: The nuances of scaling and incentivization

Recalling the earlier concave graph discussion, the issue isn’t with the delegate system itself — it’s its scale. As responsibilities increase, the system seems to grow too large to be effective.

Our current compromise, which positions delegates as the middle ground, might be misconceived. Perhaps the real balance is found between full autonomy and a revised, more limited form of representation — one that engages people more while still benefiting from selective delegation. This doesn’t eliminate delegation but refines it. For instance, we could occasionally trust elected representatives with minor, local issues while actively contributing to wider concerns, and any significant ones. This mechanism ensures that people don’t get paralyzed or burnt out, by filtering out the “noise”.

When we delegate on smaller scale concerns, the allocated power shrinks, which could inherently diminish corruption risks due to lower profitability, lack of significant hierarchical elevation, and more constrained privileges. Additionally, delegates make choices with stakes they cannot circumvent, creating a higher incentive to “stay clean”.

This revised perspective might be represented as an adapted concave graph.

A more detailed concave perspective, with revised positions of sweet spot and current delegation.

Incidentally, this graph could be enriched to include the knowledge/understanding levels we earlier associated with different scales of delegation.

The same graph further enhanced with knowledge/awareness indicators compared to delegation.

At this point, one question that naturally arises when discussing participation is the matter of incentives: what drives individuals to actively engage and contribute?

In Decentralized Finance (DeFi), and most likely in finance altogether, there is a prevailing assumption that financial incentives are essential. This certainly makes sense, given the very nature of such environments. However, this is by no means a requirement for the most diverse political, cultural, educational and institutional systems, as well as for DAOs. To mention only a few incentives:

  • community welfare: people are naturally eager to engage in topics that directly affect them and their immediate community;
  • collective accountability: shared responsibility means any decision reflects collective insight/wisdom;
  • empowerment & validation: having a voice makes people feel acknowledged and in control;
  • educational value: engaging in discussions helps to clarify and better understand different perspectives — a form of continuous learning, that can effortlessly serve as a self-sustaining incentive;
  • strengthening community bonds: active participation can foster tighter-knit communities, especially as most people have a desire to belong and contribute.

These are just some natural incentives generated by such a participative system — in fact, by any democratic system, assuming its scale is reasonably limited.

To the question of scale, a real-world election is difficult to orchestrate; the larger the scale, the more middlemen are required. With blockchain, aside from resource constraints, the underlying technical process stays virtually the same. But this very absence of intermediaries introduces an inherent complexity in ensuring the fairness and accuracy of the data.

4. Trust in governance: A shift in paradigm

4.1 Trust in traditional voting mechanisms

See this sample of mechanisms associated with voting, as we are used to it; notice how it systematically involves trusting a specific institution to handle it fairly and accurately:

  • traditional ballot counting by appointed officials;
  • electronic voting machines managed by private companies;
  • voter registration databases overseen by governmental bodies;
  • physical documentation and centralized software programs ensuring each individual votes only once;
  • even international observers affiliated with global organizations ensuring election integrity.

In each instance, trust is placed in an entity, with the hope that the process — from ensuring the vote’s authenticity and accuracy to verifying each voter’s eligibility and uniqueness — remains unbiased and untampered with.

4.2 Enabling fair participation with decentralized systems

In contrast, trust-minimized networks, i.e. those operating without the need for trusted brokers, present a solution that can challenge and, often, replace these traditional trust-based models. These systems aim to eliminate the heavy reliance on external entities by integrating mechanisms that promise an equal, if not superior, level of fairness, accuracy, and security.

The requirements for an adequate design can be generalized :

  • decentralized and censorship-resistant: it should not rely on a single actor/entity to initiate an action, and it should be resistant to any attempt to break/manipulate it;
  • private: the voter’s identity should remain undisclosed, although it should be verified and compared to a set of rules;
  • anonymous: individual votes should not be traceable back to anyone, and stay hidden until the result is available

From a description by Phil Kelly & Florian Kluge from O(1) Labs, which incidentally initiated a transition to become an employee-governed company in July 2021.

I’m not saying here that these should be the characteristics of such systems, but rather that any system should be able to integrate such characteristics if needed.

The fact is, there are already plenty of operational innovative technologies and solutions that satisfy these characteristics.

You could — right now — leverage it to build a fully fledged “one person, one vote” voting application, at any scale of delegation, without any third party getting involved, with the same guarantees as a government-powered democratic voting system — and more. Anyone would be able to create an account, prove they fulfill any requirement (e.g. their identity using government issued documents), without ever revealing the data, vote on proposals, as well as submit one. All without compromising the anonymity of the votes, while still being able to ensure the integrity and accuracy of every step of the process.

4.3 Zero-knowledge proofs: Ensuring privacy and integrity

Most of the concepts discussed in the preceding section rely heavily on the use of zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs).

I won’t dive into the technical intricacies here, as this is not really the purpose of this article, and I don’t know nearly enough about it anyway. However, it’s essential to highlight their significance, as they represent the most promising and well-suited technology for this kind of participative mechanism.

Basically, a zero-knowledge protocol allows anyone to prove a claim without revealing any of the information used to back this claim. Instead, they provide a proof that the claim is true, with the guarantee that this proof could not possibly have been tampered with.

The following excerpts provide further insight into how ZKPs can be relevant in our context.

This is specifically down to how ZKPs deal with anonymous verifiable voting. By recording votes on a public blockchain, there is no longer a need for a trusted third party to verify the results. Moreover, the possibility of any sort of censorship is eliminated.

Using ZKPs, eligible voters can prove their right to cast a ballot without revealing their identity, making the voting system anonymous. In addition, ZKPs allow voters to request a verifiable proof that their vote was included in the final tally by the entity reporting the results.

This makes the vote results auditable by the electoral body, even if the individual votes themselves are not visible on a public blockchain.
3 Real World Applications of Zero Knowledge Proofs, 2018–10–26, Coin Bureau.

Newer solutions […] are using zero-knowledge proofs to make on-chain voting […] resistant to bribery and collusion. MACI (Minimum Anti-Collusion Infrastructure) is a set of smart contracts and scripts that allow a central administrator (called a “coordinator”) to aggregate votes and tally results without revealing specifics on how each individual voted. Even so, it is still possible to verify that the votes were counted properly, or confirm that a particular individual participated in the voting round.
Emmanuel Awosika, Zero-knowledge proofs, 2022–07–01, ethereum.org.

An interesting feature is that one can mix traditional digital and somehow physical methods to leverage this infrastructure, and benefit from the security, transparency, and accountability of blockchain.

There are many experienced researchers that can provide accurate and in-depth explanation of what ZKPs can enable, and how. That’s why — rather than keeping on attempting it myself — I’d rather provide some references from companies that are successfully building/enabling practical applications leveraging this technology.

5. Real-world implementations

5.1 Polygon ID: Managing decentralized identities

A platform for managing decentralized identities using ZKPs.

Polygon ID infrastructure makes use of an off-chain decentralized identity model called Self Sovereign Identity (SSI) that enables identity providers like banks or governments to issue credentials such as university degrees or driving licenses. Users store these credentials in privately-held wallets and maintain control over them, opting to submit them to apps and services.

With Polygon ID, users can opt to submit these credentials to smart contracts and interact with on-chain dApps [Note: decentralized applications, usually interacting with blockchain infrastructure]. Polygon has made this transition from off to on-chain possible through the magic of zero-knowledge proofs which not only attest to the existence of the credential, but do so in a way that keeps user privacy at its zenith. ZKPs do not reveal specific details about users, they only confirm, or ‘prove’ that a statement about a user is true. For instance, they could confirm that a user is over eighteen without stating their exact age.
Rarimo, Rarimo x Polygon ID Spearheading the World’s First Multi-Chain Zero Knowledge Proofs For Verified Credentials, 2023–07–20, Medium.

5.2 Vocdoni: Pioneering anonymous digital voting

A decentralized digital voting system (Voĉdoni: “to give voice” in Esperanto).

Anyone can create an anonymous voting process that will allow users to vote with the cryptographic assurance that nobody can correlate their identity with the contents of their ballot. […] Users can still trace their own ballots from the time of voting to the calculation of results, and they can inspect the contents of their vote envelope as it is counted.
Charlie McCombie & Nate Williams, Vocdoni Introduces Anonymous Voting, 2022–10–19, Aragon’s Blog.

Additionally, an excerpt that perfectly reflects the essence of this piece:

It’s important to notice that when we talk about voting we are not referring to a digital version of nation-state like elections. This is only a potential instance, and it implies a wide range of connotations that we not necessarily share.
”We refer to voting as a much more generic and low-level system. As a collective signaling mechanism that gives cryptographic guarantees about its integrity and its outcome.”
Xavi Vives, “Vocdoni, reimagining governance”, 2020–01–03, Aragon’s Blog.

Finally, a blog post on how Bellpuig Mayor Jordi Estiarte (Spain) used Vocdoni to conduct a public consultation, as part of his promise to “increase direct citizen participation”:

Charlie McCombie, First Public Institution in Spain Holds Vocdoni Referendum | Bellpuig Council, 2022–08–09, Aragon’s Blog.

And now that this article has brought us all the way from merely philosophical observations to this tangible demonstration of participative democracy, I feel that it’s only natural to conclude our journey here.

6. Concluding thoughts: Our next steps

This post is only an attempt to demonstrate the potential of decentralized systems to reshape how we make decisions and engage in communities. Which would already help mitigate the indifference that comes from constant and unreasonable delegating.

We actually already have the technologies and practical methods required to make voting more transparent and inclusive, with the same if not better security than traditional systems offer. Nothing stands in the path of a collective effort to substantially increase every-day participation in community decision-making, which, as we’ve discussed, has become crucial in modern democracies.

The question is no longer how, but when we will seize these technologies; especially before they get adopted and co-opted by the industry giants, eager to quickly establish a stranglehold on new technologies such as blockchain.

Distributed voting systems are merely one of many opportunities made possible by blockchain. There is much more than is portrayed in the majority of media outlets, which eagerly exploit the slightest occasion to prematurely undermine blockchain’s credibility; this is hardly a surprise, as they have no interest in having a — highly profitable — opaque and flexible system replaced by one with opposite characteristics.

I believe many popular initiatives can find leverage in distributed systems and permissionless networks — ultimately, this is just a step towards democratizing access and empowering people to take back control over their own data, decisions, and virtually any aspect of their lives.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

I welcome any feedback; I’m genuinely open to discussions and alternative viewpoints, as this article is grounded in my assumptions and personal perspective.

For those interested in further conversation or just the stuff I share, you can find me on Twitter. All my work and research are available on my website.

7. References

7.1 Bibliography

7.2 Further reading (Educational content)

A great way to get tailored explanations is to ask ChatGPT (or any AI adapted to chat) “Explain x like I’m y”, where “x” is a concept and “y” an age. For instance, “Explain blockchain like I’m 10”.

7.2.1 Blockchain

You (a “node”) have a file of transactions on your computer (a “ledger”). Two government accountants (let’s call them “miners”) have the same file on theirs (so it’s “distributed”). As you make a transaction, your computer sends an e-mail to each accountant to inform them.

Each accountant rushes to be the first to check whether you can afford it (and be paid their salary “Bitcoins”). The first to check and validate hits “REPLY ALL”, attaching their logic for verifying the transaction (“proof of work”). If the other accountant agrees, everyone updates their file…

This concept is enabled by “Blockchain” technology.

7.2.2 Decentralization

7.2.3 Smart contracts

7.2.4 Peer-to-peer

7.2.5 Self sovereign identity

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