Decentralization will bring about a radically freer and more dynamic world, and without waiting for the blessing of government.
Decentralized, DIY Beginnings
I got my start when I was 14, dialing into local BBSes to play text games, post to FidoNet, and download warez. This would’ve been 1993. For those of you born about that time, these just someone’s personal computer, running software like Tag or Renegade, and plugged into a phone line via a modem. They’d sit waiting for guys like me to dial in when our parents were out of the house or asleep, because a parent picking up the phone would sever the connection.
More centralized, “professional” online services existed, which is why everything anyone ever bought at that time included an AOL CD. But, to be honest, they offered little of interest over the BBS scene, with its uncensored message boards, pirated softwares downloads, and low res pornographic images.
I grew up, then, with a decentralized network. Even as the early web became more widespread, this decentralization persisted. Websites were personal. If you wanted one, you either bought space on a server and uploaded HTML and Perl scripts. Or you went to Geocities, and that place was basically the Wild West.
Centralization vs. Political Liberty
Centralization displaced this delightful chaos in stages. Even as AOL was dying, ICQ came along, and we moved our communication from distributed email servers to a single service. Blogs got eaten up by Blogger. Then came the social networks, and before we knew it, only businesses and the hardcore ran their own websites or hosted their own communications tech. Everyone else — which amounted to very nearly everyone — moved to AIM, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever else the kids are into these days.
Of course, centralization brings benefits. The services do more, are more reliable, and the barrier to entry way lower. But they also hold us at their mercy. Innovation slows because you have to wait for them to decide something’s a good idea, and a profitable one, too. Your data belongs to them, which means they can do what they want with it, but also they can give it, or be compelled to give it, to people we’d rather not have it, like agents of government who’d like to be sure we’re not up to subversive activities.
From the perspective of an advocate for radical political liberty, this is troubling, to say the least. For the same reasons it’s bad to turn over increasing power to the state, and to shift more and more of our economy from free market dynamism to nationalized services, it’s bad to do the same to Facebook et al, though in less acute ways. The digital world increasingly simply is the world. We exist within it, communicate through it, engage each other in exchange for goods and services via it, define ourselves and create and grow through use of its tools. If Hayek was right about the problems of centralization in government, we ought to at the least be somewhat concerned about problems of centralization in tech, and for the same reasons.
This is not to ignore a difference between Facebook and the state. The state, as Max Weber noted, gets to use coercive physical force, and claims a monopoly on legitimately doing so. Facebook can make it hard for you to delete your account, but it can’t hold a gun to your head and pull the trigger if you persist. That’s a big deal. Those on the political left too easily believe corporations are as powerful as governments, and so to treat them as just as much of a threat — or as threats that can only be reined in by giving government (i.e., the guys with the actual guns) even more power. At the same time, however, if the state gets its way and these centralized services become every more heavily regulated, ever more burdened with requirements of cooperation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, or even nationalized outright, the lines will blur or disappear entirely. The digital world enables many amazing things but, particularly when as centralized as it is today, it also enables many awful things because it makes so much of what we do scrutable and legible to those who want more and more control over our lives.
Reclaiming Our Freedom
That’s why I’m so excited about all these emerging techs that point the way to a return to a decentralized internet. We’re fast approaching a point where the benefits of the centralized services aren’t as unique to their particular architecture as they once were, and where decentralization can bring us more security and more innovation, with fewer trade-offs.
Senator Al Franken recently gave a speech calling for more direct government regulation of social media. These companies are too big to be left to their own devices, he said.
“Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?” Franken asked in a speech to a Washington think tank. A handful of companies decide what Americans “see, read, and buy,” dominating access to information and facilitating the spread of disinformation, he added.
Of course, as someone rather less sanguine about government’s motives and abilities when it come to “protecting” us from disinformation, it’s easy wonder whether some of Franken’s frustration comes from his belief that Facebook is muscling in on the state’s turf. Governments love to control most aspects of their subjects’ lives, and we need only look as far back as the Citizens United Supreme Court case to see the federal government arguing it ought to be able to decide what, to use Franken’s words, we “see, read, and buy.”
That’s why decentralization, blockchains, and strong encryption are so exciting. Yes, they will enable new avenues of economic growth and new ways for people to earn a living. Yes, they will enable us to experiment more and innovate faster. But this emerging tech will also allow us to more easily and safely ignore people like Al Franken, and get on with the business of communicating, exploring, learning, buying, selling, organizing, and self-defining, free from the possibility of officious or authoritarian interference.
Bitcoin gives us money without the state, and sidechains and level 2 tech will help us make that money more efficient and more private. Filecoin and IPFS will enable us to keep our data private, secure, and inaccessible to regimes who want to see what we’re up to and want to punish us if we don’t toe their line. The Orchid Protocol promises to hide all of this activity behind a distributed VPN, making it not only invisible to snooping eyes, but also unblockable unless a state takes the drastic step of turning off the Internet entirely. We’ll soon have distributed organizations that can self-govern and pay contributors, without the need to let the state in on any of it. We’ll be able to ditch centrally run social media networks, replace them with encrypted peer-to-peer services, and not have to worry about whether the feds can force Facebook and Twitter to turn over our data.
The result will be a freer, more dynamic, wealthier, and safer world.
Technology and Our Libertarian Future
Liberty. It’s a simple idea and the linchpin of a complex system of values and practices: justice, prosperity, responsibility, toleration, cooperation, and peace. Many people believe that liberty is the core political value of modern civilization itself, the one that gives substance and form to all the other values of social life. They’re called libertarians.
Permissionless innovation matters, not just because it’s what gave us Uber, but because it’s what will give us our freedom from unnecessarily large and unjustifiably intrusive governments. Unbreachable privacy matters, not just because it means we can talk to each other without fear of embarrassment, but because it will let us think thoughts and exchange ideas that will become the foundation of a radically better world, without the crippling worry that governments opposed to that world will hunt us down and punish us to silence our voices.
This is not to say technology is always good, always a force for freedom. It’s clearly not, and we can go wrong with it in countless ways. But the technologies of encryption and decentralization and private exchange of ideas and resources put a heavy thumb on the right side of the scale. We need to work to ensure that the people developing and deploying those technologies do so consciously, with virtue, and a healthy respect for human dignity and rights. That’s why I’ll keep doing the moral and political philosophy work I do at Libertarianism.org. But I have faith in the technology community, and I’m more hopeful about humanity’s future than I’ve been in a long, long time.