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Re-decentralizing the web

A few days ago, I came across an article in the Guardian, talking about decentralization as the next big step for the world wide web. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and have written about before.

Re-decentralizing the web is a good idea, but I think some of what’s proposed in the article misses the point. Centralization is mostly a social problem, not a technical one, and it requires social solutions. The technologies needed to re-decentralize the web mostly exist already: we just go back to doing what we did before it all got centralized. We need, for example, to revitalize the culture of blogging rather than posting.

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, as many people are only able to share their thoughts and ideas as a result of centralized services; they aren’t technically proficient enough to make their own website. We don’t want to leave these people behind as we move to re-decentralize things. This further illustrates that the problem is a social one much more than it is a technical one. Maybe the answer is something akin to Geocities (or WordPress.com, Blogger.com, etc.), rather than everyone having a Facebook profile. Technically, this would still be a centralized service, but the design and mentality behind it would much more closely resemble the decentralized web — everyone has their own website — than the social networks of today, in which everyone is part of the same website and all of their data is aggregated and analyzed in increasingly creepy ways.

Still, there are some good links in that Guardian story. Graphite Docs seems cool, although the fact that it’s based on the Bitcoin ledger makes me question its environmental sustainability. Beaker Browser is also interesting but, without widespread adoption, it’s not going to be revolutionary; and I just don’t see widespread adoption of an obscure browser happening anytime soon.

If the Dat protocol was a standard that could be used through any web browser, it might be different. It would still likely be a niche protocol, but it would at least have a chance at finding wider adoption among decentralization geeks.

Ultimately, if we want to retake control of our personal data and push back against the latest capitalist enclosure movement — the enclosure of not only our data, but of our relationships and identities — we need to re-decentralize the web. We don’t need a blockchain to do it. We need to rethink our relationship to the Internet and the big, centralized service providers. The revolution we need isn’t a technological one, it’s a social one.

3 replies on “Re-decentralizing the web”

You’re right that there’s a social component, but I think it partly ends up falling back to technical: Centralized systems are always easier to build. Decentralized systems have all the same challenges (good UX, reliability, marketing, basic security) and then on top of that have the extra challenges of decentralization. That creates a drag on the development of decentralized systems and makes it harder for them to compete. So, two approaches come to mind: 1) On the technical side, we probably need more research into decentralization primitives that can be used broadly in the development of new systems, and 2) on the social side, maybe there’s a way to level the playing field to give less benefit to centralized systems. The GDPR gave a little push in that direction, I think.

That’s fair assessment, I think. But the fact remains, in my opinion, that we don’t need to do things like use a blockchain to encrypt our social media and our Google Docs alternatives. We might need to make better use of existing tech (and, perhaps, invent new things), but I still think the social component is much bigger in this instance.

If you want to convince the majority of the internet population to decentralize their use of technology, you have to make it easy and attractive for them to do so. That’s the core social problem as I see it. Most users don’t care about centralization, probably can’t be persuaded to care, and even if they cared they would not prioritize it over ease of use. (Look at smartphones: They take away a ridiculous number of user freedoms and have an awful user experience in all ways except availability and ease of use. But the latter is all people care about.) So that’s the core social problem as I see it.

The main technical issues I see facing decentralization are 1) how to allocate compute resources, and 2) the identity problem. As a well-off tech-savvy user, I can solve these by buying server space and a domain name. I used to think that was the solution, which was naïve. Those aren’t options for most people. So how do we solve the tech problem? I don’t know the solution to the identity problem, but it doesn’t seem insoluble at all. For compute resources, I think we’re finally seeing people be willing to pay for services online again, and they’re probably willing to subsidize their friends, so as long as end-to-end encryption is used, we just need to make it trivial to buy super cheap storage space, maybe Amazon S3 or similar. (Self-hosting seems to have died with the introduction of the home NAT and the modern ISP, and carrier-grade NATs make it even worse. I don’t know if IPv6 will help.) On top of that, we could build amazing things, but cheap internet storage is required in a smartphone world.

And yeah, the blockchain stuff is a farce. It’s neither valuable nor easy to use. 😛

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