Predecentralism

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. 

Unkept promis­es

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.

Tran­si­tion­al phase

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.

Update

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.

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