From an uneven few, to many, and perhaps towards unity?
We are now transitioning towards a decentralised Internet…
Instead of requiring communication to be funneled through a few points of concentration, channels of exchange are being enabled end-to-end requiring little or no arbitration or structure.
Client-server relationships, which often involved an uneven dependency between entities, are now being re-envisioned in terms of a confederation of peers.
While this unlocks new potential for transformation and much fruitful activity in the world of technology, the fundamental forces at play might be familiar to us already, and identifying them may yield a valuable perspective.
In many ways this development is akin to the process of growth exhibited in organic systems.
Life emerges as being reliant on the immediate neighbourhood, to various degrees, and evolves to learn the traits needed to engage more fully with the system.
One can, without needing to step back too far, trace the same pattern in our culture; humans progress from being dependent, to being co-dependent amongst peers, and in successful cases, individuated to the point of being nearly independent. Let’s go into this slowly…
The Internet started off amongst the academic circles as being pretty decentralised and mostly read-only, with early adopters being largely motivated to connect to one another’s research material.
The read-write Internet, the one we know today and cannot imagine living without, quickly gained popularity and utility based on the client-server paradigm, where content was offered upon being requested by users across browser sessions, resulting in interaction metadata as a valuable side-effect.
Over time, this reward led to centralisation, where a few lucky winners of positive re-enforcement amassed most of the user activity and learnt to profit from metadata volume.
This leads us almost to the present day. The Internet has grown up. It is lovable, mostly dependable, and somewhat adolescent. Our lives are run by fragmented silos of data and identities maintained by solutions which serve us piecemeal.
Aside from the fragmentation caused by vying monopolies, centralisation has subjected us to violations of privacy and even certain forms of censorship. Like an adolescent, the Internet, and the culture built around it, feels impelled to rejecting authority where it is undue and is very willing to switch paradigms.
The Internet is learning to step away from dependence, and as an alternative choosing to move towards inter-dependence. We are flooded with examples where peer-to-peer (P2P) systems are emerging to shake the dominance of centralised solutions by harnessing the collective capability of the many.
P2P solutions are likely to take over whenever the merging of many small and localised viewpoints or effort exceeds in value compared to the output of a few dominant actors; it also seems like a more holistic approach and aligns with how natural systems accomplish change.
With solutions built around inter-dependence, the Internet faces a new set of challenges. There is the obvious additional cost of having to gossip more information amongst peers and the difficulty of making collective sense of multiple independent viewpoints.
Then, given the lack of accountability and the ease with which information can be fabricated, the question of trust looms even larger and seems more amorphous. Information may no longer represent what is known and verifiable, but what is readily available for consumption.
Trust has always been a very serious problem for true co-operation in any system based on information. It is unfortunate that we commonly learn from culture that it is ‘rational’ to be selfish, or even worse, irrational to be altruistic.
This brings us to the cutting edge of Internet’s growth, where serious effort is being put into guarding trust amongst peers who may have the freedom to act in their own interest.
Even if trust is somehow established or enforced, given the finite and incomplete nature of information, one may still never be able to arrive at complete knowledge or awareness; and therefore it may continue to be rational — to be selfish.
A rationality based upon incompleteness is insecure and lame; nevertheless, in the absence of wholeness, rationality continues to find room to maneuver towards short-term gains, and then it becomes necessary for the system as a whole to keep it in check.
(One senses the need for a better approach… Something other than a cat-and-mouse game of continuously adding guards and learning to circumvent.)
Systems change in two ways: slowly over time, and rapidly in quantum steps; and while these two modes of change may share their stage, their flows may be fundamentally independent.
It is not very difficult to foresee that the internet will evolve to offer provable systems of trust (within controlled domains) and reliable decentralisation.
Centralisation will remain a viable approach for many problems, but the human need for community and locality will gravitate us towards solutions which are built around peers. This will be a reflection of our common growth as a culture.
A quantum leap may, however, be an entirely different thing altogether; a realm in which the globally optimal will not have to stand in competition with rationality, where the common good would be born out of intuition, instead of being substantiated by partial information.
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