Technological decentralization

The Living Machine installation in the lobby of the Port of Portland headquarters which was completed and ready for occupation May 2010. The decentralized wastewater reuse system contributed to the headquarter’s certification as a LEED Platinum building by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Technological decentralization can be defined as a shift from concentrated to distributed modes of production and consumption of goods and services.[137] Generally, such shifts are accompanied by transformations in technology and different technologies are applied for either system. Technology includes tools, materials, skills, techniques and processes by which goals are accomplished in the public and private spheres. Concepts of decentralization of technology are used throughout all types of technology, including especially information technology and appropriate technology.

Technologies often mentioned as best implemented in a decentralized manner, include: water purification, delivery and waste water disposal,[138][139] agricultural technology[140] and energy technology.[141][142] Advancing technology may allow decentralized, privatized and free market solutions for what have been public services, such utilities producing and/or delivering power, water, mail, telecommunications and services like consumer product safety, money and banking, medical licensing and detection and metering technologies for highways, parking, and auto emissions.[143][clarification needed] However, in terms of technology, a clear distinction between fully centralized or decentralized technical solutions is often not possible and therefore finding an optimal degree of centralization difficult from an infrastructure planning perspective.[144]

Information technology

Information technology encompasses computers and computer networks, as well as information distribution technologies such as television and telephones. The whole computer industry of computer hardware, software, electronics, internet, telecommunications equipment, e-commerce and computer services are included.[145]

Executives and managers face a constant tension between centralizing and decentralizing information technology for their organizations. They must find the right balance of centralizing which lowers costs and allows more control by upper management, and decentralizing which allows sub-units and users more control. This will depend on analysis of the specific situation. Decentralization is particularly applicable to business or management units which have a high level of independence, complicated products and customers, and technology less relevant to other units.[146]

Information technology applied to government communications with citizens, often called e-Government, is supposed to support decentralization and democratization. Various forms have been instituted in most nations worldwide.[147]

The internet is an example of an extremely decentralized network, having no owners at all (although some have argued that this is less the case in recent years[148]). “No one is in charge of internet, and everyone is.” As long as they follow a certain minimal number of rules, anyone can be a service provider or a user. Voluntary boards establish protocols, but cannot stop anyone from developing new ones.[149] Other examples of open source or decentralized movements are Wikis which allow users to add, modify, or delete content via the internet.[150] Wikipedia has been described as decentralized.[151] Smartphones have greatly increased the role of decentralized social network services in daily lives worldwide.[152]

Decentralization continues throughout the industry, for example as the decentralized architecture of wireless routers installed in homes and offices supplement and even replace phone companies relatively centralized long-range cell towers.[153]

Inspired by system and cybernetics theorists like Norbert Wiener, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, in the 1960s Stewart Brand started the Whole Earth Catalog and later computer networking efforts to bring Silicon Valley computer technologists and entrepreneurs together with countercultural ideas. This resulted in ideas like personal computing, virtual communities and the vision of an “electronic frontier” which would be a more decentralized, egalitarian and free-market libertarian society. Related ideas coming out of Silicon Valley included the free software and creative commons movements which produced visions of a “networked information economy“.[154]

Because human interactions in cyberspace transcend physical geography, there is a necessity for new theories in legal and other rule-making systems to deal with decentralized decision-making processes in such systems. For example, what rules should apply to conduct on the global digital network and who should set them? The laws of which nations govern issues of internet transactions (like seller disclosure requirements or definitions of “fraud”), copyright and trademark?[155]

Centralization and redecentralization of the Internet

The New Yorker reports that although the Internet was originally decentralized, in recent years it has become less so: “a staggering percentage of communications flow through a small set of corporations – and thus, under the profound influence of those companies and other institutions […] One solution, espoused by some programmers, is to make the Internet more like it used to be – less centralized and more distributed.”[148]

Examples of projects that attempt to contribute to the redecentralization of the Internet include ArkOS, Diaspora, FreedomBox, IndieWeb, Namecoin, SAFE Network, twtxt and ZeroNet as well as advocacy group, which provides support for projects that aim to make the Web less centralized.[148]

In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live one of the co-founders of explained that:

“As we’ve gone on there’s been more and more internet traffic focused through particular nodes such as Google or Facebook. […] Centralised services that hold all the user data and host it themselves have become increasingly popular because that business model has worked. As the Internet has become more mass market, people are not necessarily willing or knowledgable to host it themselves, so where that hosting is outsourced it’s become the default, which allows a centralization of power and a centralization of data that I think is worrying.”[156]

Appropriate technology

“Appropriate technology”, originally described as “intermediate technology” by economist E. F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, is generally recognized as encompassing technologies that are small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled.[157] It is most commonly discussed as an alternative to transfers of capital-intensive technology from industrialized nations to developing countries.[158] Even developed countries developed appropriate technologies, as did the United States in 1977 when it created the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), though funding later dropped off.[159] A related concept is “design for the other 90 percent” – low-cost solutions for the great majority of the world’s low income people.[160]

Blockchain technology

Blockchain based networks are designed to support decentralization by way of a cryptographic distributed triple-entry accounting ledger, typically with “layers” where each layer is defined by an interoperable open protocol on top of which network participants can transact and build products or services without requiring permission from central authorities.

Bitcoin is the original implementation of a blockchain where proof-of-work is used as a means of establishing decentralized consensus (aka. Nakamoto consensus), thus enabling the uniqueness of its intrinsic digital asset and utility as a scarce cryptocurrency. Since a blockchain is otherwise an arbitrary data structure with no inherent decentralized properties, at present there are limited use cases, although there is active experimentation in many industries and with different methods of achieving consensus.

Decentralized protocols, applications, and ledgers could be more difficult for governments to control, censor, or regulate as has been seen with BitTorrent.[161][162]