What does Decentralization mean?
Wikipedia gives us a broad starting definition of decentralization: it’s the process of distributing or dispersing functions, powers, people or things away from a central location or authority.
In the context of blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies / cryptonetworks, what might decentralization mean? Is it a means to an end? If so, to what end, or ends? Is it completely contextual? Or, just a meaningless buzzword?
It can be instructive to attempt to understand the concept of decentralization in relation to its dynamic twin, centralization.
It’s easy to envision the center a simple geometric object like a circle or sphere. In practice, locating centers can get complex fairly quickly.
The very concept of a center is relative to a given system. And different systems can share the same space. For example, our brains serve as the center of our nervous systems, our hearts the center of our circulatory systems, our lungs the center of our respiratory systems. Thus, one body can have many centers.
This means that while decentralization itself is an abstract concept, instances of decentralization are always relative to a specific center within a specific type of system.
Nested systems add further complexity. And try pointing out the “center” of a fractal zoom video. It can appear to change frame by frame. Sometimes, “strange attractors” can be thought of as centers. Sometimes, our language for describing complex systems falls short.
Gravity is the dominant centralizing force in physics at the macroscopic scale, through which all things with mass are naturally brought toward one another. Dynamic twins of gravity might include concepts such as buoyancy or levity. As a species, we’ve long been fascinated with things that appear to defy gravity: rising embers and smoke from fires, fog, clouds, birds, airplanes and rocketships, magnetic levitation, the ascension of a messiah, magicians making their assistants appear to float, or “anti-gravity” powered UFOs. As a kid, I even remember marveling at Peter Criss and his whole drum set appearing to levitate on stage during a KISS concert.
Another centralizing concept from physics is the centripetal force, Latin for seeking the center. Newton described it as “a force by which bodies are drawn or impelled, or in any way tend, towards a point as to a centre” when those bodies move along curved paths. A dynamic twin to the centripetal force is the centrifugal force, Latin for center-fleeing. A centrifugal force directs objects away from an axis of rotation when viewed within the rotating frame of reference.
The notion that the decentralizing centrifugal force is “fictitious” or “pseudo” force, which only exists inside a certain frame of reference, is very interesting. It tells us that we sometimes need frames to understand some concepts. And we sometimes need reframing to get us to reconsider our prior learning, beliefs and biases.
As a teenager, my dad used to remind me, “The world doesn’t revolve around you.” I would think, “Well, *my* world does!” I eventually came to have a more adult view of interdependence among people. Still, presenters are reminded by coaches that the audience is always asking WIIFM — “What’s in it for me?” Everyone’s world revolves around themselves.
If you’re working in a system whose center is rewarding you, the concept of decentralization as applied to that system might naturally give you some pause. Imagining things from a wider perspective, outside that system, away from the spin, can be useful.
Balance and Flow
Living systems require flows of information and resources. Often, flows are unidirectional. Efferent nerves and vessels carry signals and supplies such as lifeblood away from the center, toward the outskirts. Afferent nerves and vessels carry messages and supplies towards the center. Imagining arteries with no veins or vice versa would make no sense to a functioning body. An appropriate balance of center-fleeing and center-seeking flows is required for a healthy system.
Blockages in flow systems can become severely debilitating. If you resent a bypass or a stent, you might be part of the blockage. Or perhaps you wish that certain blockages wouldn’t form in the first place — if that’s the case, hopefully you’re supporting efforts to prevent them from forming in the future.
I tend to view working on decentralization within cryptonetworks such as Ethereum akin to developing anti-gravity, applying centrifugal forces, and strengthening efferent vessels. This tends to reduce stress and relative dependence on centers within existing systems.
Thus, decentralization is not the goal in itself. Appropriately balancing new software-based tools of decentralization against existing powerful centralized forces in many spheres is a means to an end. What end?
Evolution, the Constructal Law and Rebalancing Perceived Inequities
In 1995, floating in a plane over the Atlantic, Adrian Bejan wrote down what he called the Constructal Law, “For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it.” The term constructal is a dynamic twin to the term fractal. To fracture is to break; to construct is to build (or BUIDL as a purposeful misspelling in the cryptonetwork space, playing on the HODL vs. hold theme).
Humankind and indeed all life on the planet can be viewed as a finite-size flow system. I believe that the goal of greater decentralization via cryptonetworks is to help us address systemic societal and planetary imbalances, and evolve in such a way to provide easier access to the flow of goods and services including food, energy, information, capital, insight, artwork and other vital resources which form the lifeblood of human expression and our collective creative flourishing.
In such a way, our abundance of resources can be distributed more equitably among the many vs. being concentrated among the few. This rebalancing is a jugular issue, and it’s a carotid issue, depending if your current frame of reference is the head or the heart. Either way, and from multiple other perspectives, it’s vital for our evolution.
Aligning with the Decentralization Trend
Interestingly, the concept of greater decentralization has itself begun to ramify throughout our collective consciousness. (ramify — v., to divide or spread out into branches or branchlike parts; extend into subdivisions.)
Still, many people are currently being rewarded as part of an intermediary that restricts or controls the movement of goods and services in a given system. As new efferent vessels emerge via cryptonetworks which can more efficiently distribute flows, perhaps even route around and disintermediate an entire industry and its existing business models, it’s worth paying attention.
The pace of change in technology continues to accelerate. Blockchain and cryptonetworks are going to be very disruptive, in a good way for the whole of humanity. Aligning your part to what’s best for the whole is a wise strategy.