IRL: Decentralization

Some people believe that decentralization is the inevitable future of the web. They believe that internet users will start to demand more privacy and authenticity of information online, and that they’ll look to decentralized platforms to get those things. But would decentralization be as utopian as advocates say it could be?

Host Manoush Zomorodi speaks to Eugen Rochko of Mastodon, an ad-free alternative to Twitter; Justin Hunter of Graphite docs, a decentralized alternative to GoogleDocs; Maria Bustillos who hopes to help eliminate fake news online through the Blockchain; David Irvine, the co-founder of MaidSafe who plans to make the centralized internet as we know it redundant; and Tom Simonite of WIRED, who comments on both the promise and also the pitfalls of decentralization.

Show Notes

The Big Blockchain Lie

Now that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin have plummeted from last year’s absurdly high valuations, the techno-utopian mystique of so-called distributed-ledger technologies should be next. The promise to cure the world’s ills through “decentralization” was just a ruse to separate retail investors from their hard-earned real money.

.. Faced with the public spectacle of a market bloodbath, boosters have fled to the last refuge of the crypto scoundrel: a defense of “blockchain,” the distributed-ledger software underpinning all cryptocurrencies. Blockchain has been heralded as a potential panacea for everything from poverty and famine to cancer. In fact, it is the most overhyped – and least useful – technology in human history.

In practice, blockchain is nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet. But it has also become the byword for a libertarian ideology that treats all governments, central banks, traditional financial institutions, and real-world currencies as evil concentrations of power that must be destroyed. Blockchain fundamentalists’ ideal world is one in which all economic activity and human interactions are subject to anarchist or libertarian decentralization. They would like the entirety of social and political life to end up on public ledgers that are supposedly “permissionless” (accessible to everyone) and “trustless” (not reliant on a credible intermediary such as a bank).

.. Yet far from ushering in a utopia, blockchain has given rise to a familiar form of economic hell. A few self-serving white men (there are hardly any women or minorities in the blockchain universe) pretending to be messiahs for the world’s impoverished, marginalized, and unbanked masses claim to have created billions of dollars of wealth out of nothing. But one need only consider the massive centralization of power among cryptocurrency “miners,” exchanges, developers, and wealth holders to see that blockchain is not about decentralization and democracy; it is about greed.

For example, a small group of companies – mostly located in such bastions of democracy as Russia, Georgia, and China – control between two-thirds and three-quarters of all crypto-mining activity, and all routinely jack up transaction costs to increase their fat profit margins. Apparently, blockchain fanatics would have us put our faith in an anonymous cartel subject to no rule of law, rather than trust central banks and regulated financial intermediaries.

A similar pattern has emerged in cryptocurrency trading. Fully 99% of all transactions occur on centralized exchanges that are hacked on a regular basis. And, unlike with real money, once your crypto wealth is hacked, it is gone forever.

.. Moreover, the centralization of crypto development – for example, fundamentalists have named Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin a “benevolent dictator for life” – already has given lie to the claim that “code is law,” as if the software underpinning blockchain applications is immutable. The truth is that the developers have absolute power to act as judge and jury. When something goes wrong in one of their buggy “smart” pseudo-contracts and massive hacking occurs, they simply change the code and “fork” a failing coin into another one by arbitrary fiat, revealing the entire “trustless” enterprise to have been untrustworthy from the start.

.. Lastly, wealth in the crypto universe is even more concentrated than it is in North Korea. Whereas a Gini coefficient of 1.0 means that a single person controls 100% of a country’s income/wealth, North Korea scores 0.86, the rather unequal United States scores 0.41, and Bitcoin scores an astonishing 0.88.

As should be clear, the claim of “decentralization” is a myth propagated by the pseudo-billionaires who control this pseudo-industry. Now that the retail investors who were suckered into the crypto market have all lost their shirts, the snake-oil salesmen who remain are sitting on piles of fake wealth that will immediately disappear if they try to liquidate their “assets.”

.. Moreover, in cases where distributed-ledger technologies – so-called enterprise DLT – are actually being used, they have nothing to do with blockchain. They are private, centralized, and recorded on just a few controlled ledgers. They require permission for access, which is granted to qualified individuals. And, perhaps most important, they are based on trusted authorities that have established their credibility over time. All of which is to say, these are “blockchains” in name only.

Pope Francis Is Beloved. His Papacy Might Be a Disaster.

the great achievement of Pope Francis’ five years on the papal throne. He leads a church that spent the prior decade embroiled in a grisly sex abuse scandal, occupies an office often regarded as a medieval relic, and operates in a media environment in which traditional religion generally, and Roman Catholicism especially, are often covered with a mix of cluelessness and malice.

And yet in a remarkably short amount of time — from the first days after his election, really — the former Jorge Bergoglio has made his pontificate a vessel for religious hopes that many of his admirers didn’t realize or remember that they had.

.. the theological risks he’s taken in pushing for changes that liberal Westerners tend to assume Catholicism must eventually accept — shifts on sexual morality above all, plus a general liberalization in the hierarchy and the church.

.. But when people say, “He makes me want to believe again,” as a lapsed-Catholic journalist said to me

.. What my friends and acquaintances respond to from this pope, rather, is the iconography of his papacy — the vivid images of humility and Christian love he has created, from the foot-washing of prisoners to the embrace of the disfigured to the children toddling up to him in public events.

.. Like his namesake of Assisi, the present pope has a great gift for gestures that offer a public imitatio Christi, an imitation of Christ.

.. And the response from so many otherwise jaded observers is a sign of how much appeal there might yet be in Catholic Christianity, if it found a way to slip the knots that the modern world has tied around its message.

.. we — are always at risk of finding in the mirror the self-righteous elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, who resents his father’s liberality, the welcome given to the younger brother coming home at last.

.. The cardinals who chose Jorge Bergoglio envisioned him as the austere outsider.

.. Vatican life is more unsettled than under Benedict XVI, the threat of firings or purges ever present, the power of certain offices reduced, the likelihood of a papal tongue-lashing increased.

.. the blueprints for reorganization have been put off; many ecclesial princes have found more power under Francis; and even the pope’s admirers joke about the “next year, next year …” attitude that informs discussions of reform.

.. Francis just spent a recent visit to Chile vehemently defending a bishop accused of turning a blind eye to sex abuse, while one of his chief advisers, the Honduran Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, is accused of protecting a bishop charged with abusing seminarians even as the cardinal himself faces accusations of financial chicanery.

.. the idea of this pope as a “great reformer,” to borrow the title of the English journalist Austen Ivereigh’s fine 2014 biography, can’t really be justified by any kind of Roman housekeeping.

.. Instead Francis’ reforming energies have been directed elsewhere, toward two dramatic truces that would radically reshape the church’s relationship with the great powers of the modern world.

.. The first truce this pope seeks is in the culture war

.. the conflict between the church’s moral teachings and the way that we live now, the struggle over whether the sexual ethics of the New Testament need to be revised or abandoned in the face of post-sexual revolution realities.

.. Instead of formally changing the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage, euthanasia — changes that are officially impossible, beyond the powers of his office — the Vatican under Francis is making a twofold move.

.. First, a distinction is being drawn between doctrine and pastoral practice that claims that merely pastoral change can leave doctrinal truth untouched. So a remarried Catholic might take communion without having his first union declared null, a Catholic planning assisted suicide might still receive last rites beforehand, and perhaps eventually a gay Catholic can have her same-sex union blessed — and yet supposedly none of this changes the church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble and suicide a mortal sin and same-sex wedlock an impossibility, so long as it’s always treated as an exception rather than a rule.

.. At the same time, Francis has allowed a tacit decentralization of doctrinal authority, in which different countries and dioceses can take different approaches

.. In effect he is experimenting with a much more Anglican model for how the Catholic Church might operate — in which the church’s traditional teachings are available for use but not required

.. different countries may gradually develop away from each other theologically and otherwise.

.. seeking a truce not with a culture but with a regime: the Communist government in China

.. Such a reconciliation, if accomplished, would require the church to explicitly cede a share of its authority to appoint bishops to the Politburo — a concession familiar from medieval church-state tangles, but something the modern church has tried to leave behind.

.. A truce with Beijing would differ from the truce with the sexual revolution in that no specific doctrinal issue is at stake, and no one doubts that the pope has authority to conclude a concordat with a heretofore hostile and persecuting regime.

.. the two truces are similar in that both would accelerate Catholicism’s transformation into a confederation of national churches — liberal and semi-Protestantized in northern Europe, conservative in sub-Saharan Africa, Communist-supervised in China.

.. both treat the concerns of many faithful Catholics — conservative believers in the West, underground churchgoers in China — as roadblocks to the pope’s grand strategy.

.. they both risk a great deal — in one case, the consistency of Catholic doctrine and its fidelity to Jesus; in another, the clarity of Catholic witness for human dignity — for the sake of reconciling the church with earthly powers.

.. they take this risk at a time when neither Chinese Communism nor Western liberalism seem exactly like confident, resilient models for the human future — the former sliding back toward totalitarianism, the latter anxious and decadent and beset by populist revolts.

.. the “Francis effect.”

.. If current trends continue, China could have one of the world’s largest Christian populations by this century’s end, and this population is already heavily evangelical

.. Francis will have ceded the moral authority earned by persecuted generations, and ceded the Chinese future to those Christian churches, evangelical especially, that are less eager to flatter and cajole their persecutors.

.. The gamble on an Anglican approach to faith and morals is even more high-risk — as Anglicanism’s own schisms well attest.

.. it will ensure that the church’s factions, already polarized and feuding, grow ever more apart.

.. it implies a rupture (or, if you favor it, a breakthrough) in the church’s understanding of how its teachings can and cannot change

.. Francis’ inner circle is convinced that such a revolution is what the Holy Spirit wants — that the attempts by John Paul II and Benedict to maintain continuity between the church before and after Vatican II ended up choking off renewal.

.. this pope has not just exposed tensions; he has heightened them, encouraging sweeping ambitions among his allies and pushing disillusioned conservatives toward traditionalism.

.. here is no sign as yet that Francis’s liberalization is bringing his lapsed-Catholic admirers back to the pews;

.. Whereas accelerating division when your office is charged with maintaining unity and continuity is a serious business

A Generation Emerging From the Wreckage

It’s not that the students are hopeless. They are dedicating their lives to social change. It’s just that they have trouble naming institutions that work.

.. The second large theme was the loss of faith in the American idea. I told them that when I went to public school the American history curriculum was certainly liberal, but the primary emotion was gratitude. We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.

.. Others made it clear that the American story is mostly a story of oppression and guilt. “You come to realize the U.S. is this incredibly imperfect place.” “I don’t have a sense of being proud to be an American.” Others didn’t recognize an American identity at all: “The U.S. doesn’t have a unified culture the way other places do,” one said.

.. I asked them to name the defining challenge of their generation. Several mentioned the decline of the nation-state and the threats to democracy. A few mentioned inequality, climate change and a spiritual crisis of meaning. “America is undergoing a renegotiation of the terms of who is powerful,”

.. I asked the students what change agents they had faith in. They almost always mentioned somebody local, decentralized and on the ground — teachers, community organizers.

.. One pointed out that today’s successful movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, don’t have famous figureheads or centralized structures.

.. one big challenge for this generation is determining how to take good things that are happening on the local level and translate them to the national level, where the problems are

.. I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. “We’re more connected but we’re more apart,” one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. “How do you create relationship?” one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.

Why decentralized social services fail

>The “why” is not technical.

This is one of thr few essays about decentralization that understands that the problem isn’t technical.

However, I’d go further than his explanations of incentives and say that the fundamental problem is that decentralized technical protocols do not solve the centralization of how money is spent.

Examples of that misunderstanding:

– SMTP the protocol is decentralized (technical) and yet we have giant email providers GMail/Hotmail/Yahoo which is centralized (money). The big providers spent $$$ on 1 gigabyte mail storage + backups + convenience. SMTP specifies how fields are laid out but it doesn’t put money in everyone’s bank account so they can run residential SMTP servers so the email ecosystem stays decentralized.

– Git the protocol is decentralized (technical) but Github the service is centralized (money). Why? Because Git the technical protocol is not a bank fund that gives every programmer a free $10 VPS account to host their own git repo. The centralization of money spent (Github invests in a datacenter but individual programmers do not) results in centralization.

– Bitcoin protocol is decentralized (technical) and yet the phenomenon of giant China “mining pools” emerges which is centralization (money). The ability to spend money on liquid cooled ASIC chips in a datacenter located near the Artic Circle is “centralized” to the entities that can spend that vast amount of money. The exceeds the ability for the home enthusiasts to compute hashes on a spare computer in their bedroom.

The common theme: technical protocols can be decentralized but the real-world implementation of those protocols end up centralized because physical things like cpus, harddrives, network bandwidth, etc cost money.

This pattern of decentralized technical protocols vs centralized economic behavior is ignored by virtually all decentralization enthusiasts.

So the real puzzle to decentralization is, “How do we _decentralize economic behavior_ when everybody doesn’t have the same amount of money to spend?” Nobody I’ve read about so far has figured that out . That includes Sandstorm/IPFS/Filecoin/Mastadon/Diaspora/Ethereum etc.

> The common theme: technical protocols can be decentralized but the real-world implementation of those protocols end up centralized because physical things like cpus, harddrives, network bandwidth, etc cost money.I agreed with you up until here. Not convinced that centralization is due to the economics of running a computer on a network. It’s also a due to reputation and trust.

People use gmail and hotmail, not just because they don’t want to pay for the computer, it’s because they trust these companies will do it properly and reliably.

Github isn’t the best example either. It didn’t spring up because of the economics of running a git server. It got big largely because of its social features, and also because it was a pretty trustworthy git repository. I feel far more confident pushing to a git repo than to some physical server somewhere. There’s a trust aspect.

I’ll skip Bitcoin and got to another mostly decentralized system: paper currency. Exchanging paper currency is largely decentralized, but most people deposit it in a bank, in part due to interest, but largely due to the trust the bank provides.

The common theme to centralized services isn’t the cost of computing hardware, but rather raising trust/reliability in the service, outsourcing expertise, and risk mitigation. Big central service providers are good at exactly this.

Political Violence is a Game the Right Can’t Win

Anybody who’s ever tried to get five people together for dinner knows it’s a pain, but look at the airport protests after the travel ban, and see how many people the hard Left can turn out on next to no notice.

.. righties face two major challenges: building things, and understanding the strengths, weaknesses, and tactics of their Lefty opposition.  Righties won’t do the same things as the Left, or do them in the same ways, but that doesn’t mean the Lefties don’t have lessons we can learn.

.. The first thing righties have to understand about Lefties is that lefties have a lot more practice building their own institutions, and assuming control of existing institutions, than their counterparts on the right do, and they share their practical experience with each other. Righties who like to build churches will build a church and worship in it. Lefties who like to build churches will:

  • build a church,
  • write a book telling people how to build churches,
  • go out and convince people church-building is the thing to do,
  • run workshops on how to finance, build, and register churches, and then they’ll
  • offer to arrange church guest speakers who’ll come preach the Lefty line.

.. The most organized groups on the Right are the pro-life and RKBA activists; everybody else on the Right should be learning from them.

.. The second thing to understand about Lefties is how they actually function.  There’s a lot of independence involved. Righties like hierarchy, so often think of the Lefties as taking marching orders from George Soros or whoever in a very hierarchical fashion. Not so much. A lot of left-wing organization is very decentralized, and they negotiate with other lefty groups as to exactly how they’ll do things and time things to not hurt each others’ work, so the labor movement’s march is not derailed by black-bloc window-smashing (see, for example, DIRECT ACTION, L.A. Kauffman’s excellent history of the Left from the 60s on).

.. The Lefties call that approach “embracing a diversity of tactics,”

.. But while it’s impossible to imagine, say, an abortion clinic bomber getting a cushy job at an elite university, that’s exactly what happened to a number of alumni of the 1970s leftist terror group known as the Weather Underground. As fugitives, they were financially and operationally supported by members of the National Lawyers’ Guild; afterward, they were so normalized that the 9/11 issue of The New York Times infamously ran a profile lauding Weatherman alumnus Bill Ayres.  By contrast, right-wing terrorist Eric Rudolph’s fugitive days were spent hiding in the wilderness because no one would help him. He was caught literally dumpster-diving for food. Potential right-wing extremists face opportunity costs that their left-wing counterparts do not.

.. Righties frequently make allegations of paid protestors when Lefties get a bunch of people together. Again, that’s not how it works. Think of Lefty protests as being like a Grateful Dead concert.  People absolutely got paid at a Grateful Dead concert: the band got paid, and the roadies got paid. But the Deadheads who followed the band around didn’t get paid.  They weren’t roadies, they weren’t the band; they were there because they loved the music.

.. The protestors aren’t paid.  The organizers are paid.  The people who train the organizers and protestors are paid. Basically, the way the Lefty protest movement works is sort of like if the Koch brothers subsidized prepping and firearms classes.

.. The affinity group structure began in Spain: anarchists there organized themselves into small groups of very close friends who knew each other very well, because such small groups were difficult to infiltrate.  Even if they were infiltrated, exposing one group wouldn’t blow the whole organization.

.. The idea is to create a very collaborative discussion.  This is partly due to the influence on the modern hard Left by Quaker organizers — if you remember those lengthy Occupy meetings that just went on and on and on, it’s because that’s how decision-making is done in Quaker meetings, and Quaker organizers taught the technique to Lefties in the ’70s anti-nuclear movement. And it spread, because lefties in different movements talk to each other and work together all the time.

.. More unfortunately, when righties do become active, they tend to do something like start a blog. Or make a YouTube channel. Or write a magazine article. In short, they become street-corner evangelists.  They tend not to do things in meatspace.

Lefties do the work in the real world. Guess who wins?

.. The recent Battles of Berkeley have shown that right-wing defense groups can acquit themselves admirably in street-fights, but hard experience has taught Lefties that an all-one-tactic mentality is a good way to give your opponents time to figure out how to counter you. If righties going to build things, they need to look at how the lefties are doing it, because they’ve been working on it for forty years.