The post-platform economy
Returning to basics with Juergen Geuter, alias tante
We are slowly approaching the end of our asynchronous conference. After hearing so many voices and stories during these weeks, we thought we’d go back to essentials, like discerning the very infrastructure of the promised Web3 and its foundation, decentralization. To explore if there is a possibility of a post-platform economy, Monika Jiang, our head of curation and community, spoke with Juergen Geuter, alias tante, who is an independent theorist working on the intersection of technology, politics, philosophy, and the social.
Tante scans new technologies for whether they are relevant for business propositions, and de-evangelizes them, meaning that he takes these narratives and ideas of the future, whether Web3, AI, or blockchain, and sees if they hold up to scrutiny. In the process he tries to explain and contextualize technical knowledge to make it accessible to all and help all readers and users have an opinion on things.
During this conversation, tante shared some of that analysis with us. First of all, it’s important to understand that decentralization isn’t the silver bullet to solving all kinds of problems, he said. Just slapping “open code” and “decentralization” on something is tech solutionism — and it’s easy to fall into that trap.
Secondly, the transition from Web2 to Web3 isn’t a done deal, in tante’s opinion, and even something we shouldn’t be pursuing. How so?
The answer is not to find someone who’ll shatter all familiar structures and run the software for us, but maybe to keep the centralized infrastructure intact and find other ways of running it.
Decentralization is mostly used when we talk about a place where decisions are being taken. A centralized technology means: having a server, putting software on it, and inviting users. Then there is the idea of distributed systems—with a bunch of servers that are still a controlling entity. And decentralized technology means: not having just one server, but many different instances of server and software—with every operating group able to make decisions. Brought to the extreme, this model holds everyone on their own, running their own software, communicating with others through defined protocols. This absolute decentralization means you never have to trust anyone; the software is under your control, and you make the decisions for yourself and no one else.
Decentralizing the web would call for deplatformizing the whole infrastructure. But would that lead to a more democratized way to engage with the digital space?
“Decentralization and democratization are at best very loosely connected,” tante says. You don’t need democratization to build decentralized systems—those latter ones can also be built in plutocracy. And, on the other hand, centralized systems aren’t, by definition, undemocratic; once again, it’s about making decisions. If it’s a privately-owned server, it’s the owner who makes the decisions. But if the server is owned by a collective, and it has defined political processes of how to make decisions, it qualitifies as a democratic system, while also being centralized.
“Many of the problems that we have with digital democracies get exponentially harder when they try to become decentralized,” tante says. The idea of not having one entity controlling everything sounds very democratic, but in democracy we also have the ability to enforce things (for example, enforce the principle “one person—one vote”)—and that option doesn’t hold with decentralization.
There are also certain advantages in centralization when it comes to building trust: you know everyone’s being in the same space and rule set, the same governing principles, so it’s sometimes easier to build efficient kinds of communications.
So how can trust be created within a centralized technology? Some platforms, like Signal, use encryptions for that purpose. And yet, in tante’s opinion, both decentralization and encryption are “tech fixers” that are a little too simplistic for the social problem they’re trying to solve. They tackle the issue of trust from a highly technical perspective, with math and protocols—but trust is a social and psychological thing, tante says. It’s built on knowing people, having shared history and shared values. And in Signal’s case, trust is first and foremost based on the reputation of its founder, Moxie Marlinspike.
And what are some alternative scenarios to the wishful decentralization? Tante refers to Ben Tarnoff’s most recent book Internet for the People: certainly, these big centralized systems can be problematic, especially if they belong to companies whose goals don’t usually align to the goals of the users. Should this be reorganized geopolitically? Having one government running a service used globally isn’t an option, either—different countries have very different moral and legal code. What if we brought the scale down? Tarnoff argues for smaller platforms connected by protocol, so that you have access to a service maintained and supported by, say, your city. The people on the platform would be familiar to you, as well—they would be your neighbors, so you’d already have trust relationships with them.
“Maybe we can leverage existing trust and governance relationships, processes and institutions to build a space where we can analyze and understand: what works in a global governance hierarchy, and what doesn’t, and figure out the things that don’t work in politics. Maybe they can be fixed in the decentralized people-governed social networks better than in existing governance structures. In the end goal, we should have an infrastructure that we can control. We should have the right to vote on the laws and the processes of the platforms we use, and veto certain things—it’s a fundamental human right we should enforce in the digital space. The core functionality and the core data should be governed by entities that we have influence over—and that means they need to be run by coops that are funded by tax money, but run independent of the government.”
Curious to hear more? Listen to tante and Monika’s full conversation here!
And join us for the last stretch, including a final townhall next Wednesday, featuring many of our speakers!
Katia Zoritch, writer at the House of Beautiful Business