The Double-Edged Sword of Decentralization

Anna Rose

Anna Rose

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In this last week’s episode, James Prestwich and I chatted with David Vorickfrom Skynet Labs about his work on Sia and Skynet.

In this last week’s episode, James Prestwich and I chatted with David Vorickfrom Skynet Labs about his work on Sia and Skynet. One topic that came up around minute 45 was the double-edged sword of decentralization & the danger that comes with creating something unstoppable.

Zero Knowledge Episode 164: The road to Skynet & beyond with David VorickThis week, Anna and guest co-host James Prestwich chat with David Vorick from Skynet Labs about the scope and goals of…share.fireside.fm

As the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility” — and it’s the second half of this sentence that our conversation with David highlighted. While decentralization has the power to transform in amazing ways, it also is built to be unstoppable. As such, if it isn’t designed well, it could be potentially damaging to the very people it aims to empower, with no off switch if something goes terribly terribly wrong.

One key aim of a decentralized web is the removal of a central power or authority. The logic is that when power is centralized, it is inevitably a corrupting force. And so the removal of the power of incumbent authority is seen through this lens as an unassailable net positive. But it is naive to think that what replaces it couldn’t be even worse.

Decentralized communities can be helpful, allowing for individuals to flourish, and can free people who are in some way unfree. But decentralizing tech is ultimately disruptive — in every sense of the word — and can also be negatively disruptive to existing systems in balance. Once out of balance, these same systems produce the worst versions of ourselves: fearful angry mobs driving inhumane action and damaging people’s lives along the way.

You just need to look at the decentralization of media to see what happens when most incumbent arbiters of power & “truth” (with all their flaws and biases) are removed from the equation. Are people better served with today’s decentralized media? Are communities healthier and more empathetic? As a society, are we smarter, less afraid, or more “free”?

While some in society do benefit from this change, to highlight this alone is to ignore the impact affecting a majority of people. And yes, there still remains a few centralised bodies that can shut things down — as in the case of big tech shutting down Parler — but it is those very authorities that a decentralized world aims to remove. So in the domain of media and communication: how should we manage hate speech, damaging lies, propaganda — all very real things that, if left unchecked, can cause us harm. Even the most fervent free speech advocate must agree that for a healthy society, you need something to neutralise or at least balance these with equal potency. What could that look like in a decentralized context?

We as a community are building ways to disrupt and change other parts of our lives, especially those online. And I thought that David’s message was not a call to stop this work, but rather a call to decentralize *wisely*. Decentralization should not just be an end unto itself. We should strive to build technology that benefits real people as the ultimate end-users. Because the dream of cryptocurrency and blockchain is so much more than just to replace our current, centralized systems with a digital version of mob rule. Instead we must develop the systems to tame the beast that is the decentralized web, to allow it to adjust when it does wrong, and to keep it from becoming the boogieman AI Skynet that aims to destroy all of humanity.

You can hear the Zero Knowledge Podcast episode “The road to Skynet & beyond with David Vorick” and be sure to subscribe (either to the podcast or this blog) to join the conversation.

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