Decentralization. The buzzword of our times.
Increasing numbers and types of people are possessed of an elusive, but very real, visceral “itch” tied to the concept of decentralization. It’s hard to tell if the itch is caused by the concept or if the concept is simply being deployed in an effort to scratch the itch. It can have the appearance of both.
“Decentralization, good; centralization, bad.” We see more and more sectors of society plugging this idea into their thoughts and conversations in whatever way it can be made to fit.
Technologists in many fields talk about the need to decentralize systems. After all, the original strength of and reason for instituting the Internet was that decentralization would allow communications to continue, even in the event of nuclear war. The decentralization push is going forward on an increasing number of fronts, including power generation and distribution, food production and distribution, 3D printing, localized manufacturing, and the list goes on.
Both extreme ends of the liberal-to-conservative political spectrum talk about more decentralization of power, at least on their own pet issues.
The growth of the cryptographic-currency movement is largely driven by a desire to take the control of money out of the hands of the centralized, powerful few, who seem destined to corruption, even if some don’t start out that way. Also, existing financial systems are suffering severe scaling and security issues. Decentralizing currency offers at least one mitigation of both of these problems.
The most radical express their frustration as “Decentralize Everything!” This phrase has even started to appear prominently in graffiti-art for social change.
It is as if people from all different corners of humanity are catching this itch, and the concept of decentralization kind of, sort of scratches it. But thinking and talking about decentralization don’t quite make the itch go away. On the contrary, they just make it come back even stronger.
So What’s Under the Skin?
I, myself, have been worrying this itch for a while now, and have been frustrated by the sense that there’s something there, right on the edge of perception, that needs to be clearly viewed and effectively communicated about.
So, as I often do when I need to sort out something like this, I went to the dictionary (and beyond) to find out if what I’m trying to give expression to has already been said somewhere and is all wrapped up. The fascinating thing about this particular itch is that what I’m glimpsing isn’t clearly touched upon in any place that I can find, at least not in any talk of decentralization. But definition is almost always a great place to start, so here goes coin market.
Since the prefix de- means “reverse of” or “away from,” let’s start with the root concept:
Centralization is the process by which the activities of an organization, particularly those regarding planning and decision-making, become concentrated within a particular location and/or group, or keeping all of the important decision-making powers within head office or the center of the organization.
– Wikipedia [emphasis added]
I’ve checked quite a few references and none varies in any important way from this definition, and from this we can isolate the important kernel, which is of course “decision-making powers.” This is the thing which is being centralized or decentralized: the power of decision.
Okay. So now we’ve got a core something to talk about: Decision or, synonymously, Choice.
One fact I find very curious is that all discussions, dissertations and analyses that I’ve been able to find about decentralization have dealt with the concept only from within presupposed sets of assumptions: i.e., structure of government, structure of organizations, structure of communications systems, etc. Nowhere is there a clear examination of the characteristics of the thing being dealt with, or how its nature might affect the problems being considered, or even the questions being asked.
Decision… Choice, centralization or decentralization of.
And lest we get tangled up debating metaphysical opinions, let’s ground out the conversation right here:
As you read or hear my words in this moment, do you have a sense of what I mean when I say “you”? If you can think “I understand,” or even, “Does he actually think he’s somehow talking to me?” then you are laying hands solidly on the only datum needed to take the next logical step.
You don’t even need to know what you are to have the sense that you are, so we can bypass any arguments about our ultimate nature. Another way of saying this is that you have a sense of Self.
I think you’ll probably agree that though this idea may give you a mystical feeling, it’s a solid reality that you really can’t avoid, even by asserting that your sense of Self is an illusion. Maybe it is illusion, but the sense persists, does it not? You still have to assert your existence to say, “I don’t exist” – an obvious contradiction. It is wondrous to behold how strongly some will forcefully exert their own existence in order to assert their own non-existence. But for our purposes here, we can set all that head banging aside, right?
So we’re not talking about something out in some distant theoretical realm. We’re talking about something with which you have the most intimate experience, and thus the most empowered position to judge. We are talking about the fact that all of our experience revolves around our sense of Self, and thus around the fact that choice is our constant personal companion. The power of choice is an inextricable part of Self. To pretend it is not is to deny our own existence-impossible to actually accomplish, but we do try it all the time, don’t we.
But what about… ?
Ah, groups. Taking language literally can lead us to think of imagined things as being real. For instance, it is convenient to speak of groups as if they make choices, but the truth is that such choices are always, always, always the result of the decisions (or lack thereof) of individuals that constitute the group, even if it is just deciding to “go along to get along” or agreeing to abide by the outcome of a vote, despite disagreeing with the result.