At the beginning of 2019, none of the new theories and labels for the era after postmodernism, which itself seems to have come to an end, have so far gained widespread acceptance. Post-postmodernism, trans-postmodernism, post-millennialism, pseudo-modernism. digimodernism or metamodernism are some of the attempts to find an appropriate label for the times we are living in.
My suggestion is: Predecentralism.
With predecentralism I mean an era before most of our thinking, behaviours, architectures and processes will have become fully decentralised. Now, in 2019, most of our structures and processes are designed in a centralised way: there is someone or something who or that is at the top or at the center of a system and more or less governs and controls this system. Obviously, there are numerous variations of these centralised structures and processes, with various degrees of participation by the respective systems’ members. However, most basic frameworks, such as legal or regulatory frameworks, have been designed in a centralised way: ultimately, there must be one entity that is held responsible for transactions between members.
With postmodernism, societies have experienced the rise of technology — the computer has not only changed the way we calculate, but it is the nucleus of the fundamental change of how we communicate, work and live today. The internet, as a communication layer of distributed computers, has miniaturised the world: when the tree falls in the forest, we can know about that within minutes, regardless of where the forest is located.
Once connected to the web, everybody can communicate and transact globally. Originally designed as the great leveller, the internet morphed into an oligopolistic network dominated by large companies, influencing global communication and transaction processes with algorithms and advertising. Lulled by their promise of convenience, individuals almost exclusively communicate in just a few large social networks, usually unconsciously adapting to the networks’ algorithms.
This pattern of entities that grow bigger and bigger within a system is a natural aspect of evolution. For some time, there is a seemingly linear development and growth. But, at some point, the growth trajectory flattens and individual entities show signs of weakness: companies that can’t add new users at a significant rate any more start committing errors when trying to attract users or increase revenues in more questionable ways, like Facebook has been doing for the last few years. Fake news, privacy issues, discriminating contents are obvious signs of systematic flaws in the system. Accordingly, customers and users of these dominant companies start trying to question their services and products — early users leave others complain and try to aggregate their influence in order to make the companies change their behaviour.
In our predecentralised times, we feel that the the internet — as the epitome of technology — has failed to keep its original promise to be a truly peer-to-peer communications network. We ask ourselves how we could change our behaviours and this of the dominant companies in order to regain control of authenticity and privacy of our communication.
Beside the achievements in the field of technology itself, the internet has enabled the individual in general to significantly enlarge her knowledge about the world at the click of a mouse. Individuals, or small groups of people, have started to add content to the internet . by blogging, podcasting, etc. This has led to a significant differentiation and specialisation of content: if you’re interested in some specific pastime, there probably is a video series dedicated to it. If you want to deepen your knowledge of category theory, there is a podcast about it. If you want to study Aramaic — go for it and enrol for a respective course at an online university. In short, today, we can download or stream any content on demand. The interested individual can connect herself with experts around the globe within minutes.
Education on the rise
This decentralisation of knowledge has brought huge improvement regarding the overall level of education. In many countries, you’ll find more experts in the public than on the government level. The original goal of democratic governments was to have those representatives of the public elected that belong to the most intelligent and wise population stratum. Today, we have to conclude that this is no longer true: many — if not most — participants of the traditional legacy governance structures in democratic societies are not part of the knowledge sharing communities that have evolved on the basis of the above described knowledge evolution. From the public’s point of view, heads of states and many executive political servants — in short: the political élite — behave and act in ways that seem somewhat detached from reality. On closer examination, you’d almost think that their behaviours and opinions date back to former times when today’s knowledge wasn’t accessible for everybody.
Movement — Countermovement
For me, there is clear evidence that we live in predecentralism. Some parts of our world are already decentralised and some people have started thinking and behaving in that way. However, most trust in centralised structures and processes, still. This lead to a certain friction: there are groups of people and movements proclaiming autonomy: newly formed states, secessions, individually created digital money, etc. Then, there is a countermovement of representatives of centralisation, such as the Communist Party of China, that has invented a social credit system to attach every Chinese citizen and business to a score that assesses her economic and social reputation. We can regard the people score as a good example for a typical attempt of a central power agent to keep control over the decentralised participants in its network and preemptively prevent actions and behaviours that would not be in line with the central governance doctrine.
Predecentralism is a transitional phase with lots of friction. We learn how to cope with the paradigm shift that comes with decentralisation. The individual regains autonomy and responsibility over her own life. Blockchain technology as a further development of the internet, will facilitate decentralisation by allowing for secure transactions in a distributed network. At the same time, private and public institutions, such as companies and governmental bodies, try to prevent a true decentralisation by technological, political — and also maybe violent — means. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 that marked point zero for many forthcoming geopolitical developments, the unstoppable forces of decentralisation lay ground for a fundamental change of societies. Our era of predecentralism is only the beginning.
This article in the FT adds a different perspective, but comes to the same conclusion regarding the necessary re-modeling of the corporation, that I described in a more boroader sense here.