Decentralized vs Centralized

19 Feb 2015

Decentralized vs Centralized Services

In the history of computing, things have oscillated between centralized and decentralized services. In the beginning was the single Computer, with the same utility and decentralization as a pocket calculator. Then came the mainframe, centralizing users around terminals. (Computer-to-computer connections at the time were initially implemented as both computers pretending to be a terminal to the other one, until the fundamental insanity of this approach became apparent – see Mike Padlipsky’s book for an excellent collection of rants from the early days of inter-computer networking.)

Decentralization came with the personal computer and email. In a parallel universe, I am having accounts on CompuServe, BIX, GEnie, The Well. When I am sending an urgent message, I will call the recipient and ask them to check their BIX inbox. Of course, in our universe, everyone can send email to everyone else without caring which provider they are on; I even can (and do) organize my own mail server without relying on a central provider. In the same way, we just send an Instant Message without caring whether the recipient uses SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Line, ICQ, Kakao Talk, … – haha, just kidding, not in our universe!

One of the big centralized fields in today’s computing is the living, present address book, which is owned by facebook. ENUM never took off, so there is no way for individuals to be addressable and findable on the web. Email servers are run by organizations, and the domain name system (DNS) does not scale down to individuals; it is the one centralized part of the internet architecture, and it makes everything else centralized. Facebook and its combination of self-updating address book, push-and pull-based undirected communication (a baby! a wedding! my friend’s having a good time!) should not necessarily be run by a single world-wide private organization, but in our universe they are.

What is the role of the blockchain?

… I do not know yet. But the blockchain is a global, distributed, decentralized fact-establishing mechanism, and Sidechains seem to make it possible to “plug” your own facts into the central (heh) mechanism. (See also a talk by Rusty Russell on early work in a similar direction.) But to the extent that centralized services collect economic and political power, it gives me hope.

So why have I been thinking about this?

Because there is a mobile game that uses the blockchain to implement trading cards that the players own, in a more substantial sense than an entry in a corporate database: