The power of decentralised, self-organising communities to change the world.
In the past, our cultural systems relied on centralisation to manage and share information. Our political structures, our finance system and even our local Girl Guides still run on these principles. Information goes up, gets managed, and then gets spread back down the pyramid.
This is a restriction based on inefficient communication systems. Back when the costs of communication were high it made sense, but new, decentralised structures are forming. They are self-organising systems with no nodal point that is vulnerable to the whims of the few. These systems are allowing the sharing of knowledge, accommodation, travel, files and even currency.
Below we will go through the evolution of decentralised networks. Bitcoin will be used as a case study, and the implications of decentralisation will be discussed.
How Things Change
The printing presses broke the stranglehold on knowledge and for the first time people could share their thoughts without the blessings of gods or kings. But the production costs were high and this medium fell back into the hands of the rich and powerful. For example 97% of Australian print media is now owned by just 3 parties.
The internet has shattered this stranglehold on information. But the powers that be have spent the past decade doggedly trying to jam the cat back into the bag. The FBI have “given the privilege” (their words) to social media platforms to add back doors to make wire tapping easier. The USA wants to create internet licenses and the censorship of internet traffic is already occurring. The fact that we have tried to follow suit before, and undoubtedly will again, does not inspire confidence.
The Power of Peer-to-Peer
The only issue faced by those that try to impose the structures of the old onto a new digital world is that it’s a bit tricky. In China, anything considered anti-government, or falling under their moderately dystopian criteria, is banned. But a VPN and a plucky attitude will get you your Facebook fix. In Turkey, a ban on Twitter saw an increase of twitter usage 138%!
The issue is the internet still passes through pipes controlled by centralised bodies. But as the stranglehold tightens people are turning to truly decentralised solutions.
Peer-to-peer networks are now being used to manage files, share knowledge and create new currencies.
Lets have a look at the decentralised network and currency called bitcoin. This network that can be used to buy everything from soap to trips into space.
Bitcoin – The Peer-To-Peer, Programmable Currency
Bitcoin is a system that allows units of value to be transferred from one party to another. It doesn’t pass through a central verification party (for example a bank or a credit card provider). Instead it is maintained by thousands of computers around the world that work in unison to verify transactions.
This matters because control of money is control of a populace and a government with absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Look at the capital controls in China or the bank account draining that occurred in Cyprus.
The best example of the power of decentralised money is Wikileaks. This is a group that holds the government to account by revealing the sensitive side of running the world. War crimes, financial manipulation and global mass surveillance may be par for the course. But we deserve to know the atrocities committed in our names.
When Wikileaks started rocking the boat too hard, all major payment providers cut them off. By adding a bitcoin address, they were able to receive donations again. They could pay server and living costs, and continue their good work.
Self-organized and Open Source
The entire bitcoin community consists of developers, entrepreneurs and anyone who wants to contribute.
The code is open source and is managed with complete transparency on github. Anyone that wants to analyse or dissect it can do so at his or her discretion.
The community is self-organising; there are meet-ups, learning events and conferences. These events require no governing body and are powered by collectivism.
The Australian Bitcoin Barcamp unconference is a great example of this. The event had no schedule and on the day people presented talks they had created. They used a whiteboard to mark what spaces and times they would like to utilise. No fistfights ensued, no police enforcement was required, just self-organising, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.
Not Just Money
This network is an economic experiment, but for the first time unique data packets can be transferred. It goes without saying that the implications of programmable money are still being discovered.
The founders of Pirate Bay are developing a peer-to-peer website service using bitcoin. This means that the ability for websites to be ‘taken down’ by the powers that be is greatly restricted. The current system is centralised and thus vulnerable. Peer-to-Peer hosting has no central point to attack and thus isn’t vulnerable.
There is also a new iteration of bitcoin called namecoin, which is built on the template of bitcoin. It is an alternative and separate network, designed expressly to register domains. Instead of a unit of account it has become a global decentralised ledger for domain names.
We’re Not There Yet.
The problem is that these networks are still vulnerable. There are only a few pipelines that carry the internet between continents. ISPs and companies that manage data are still at the behest of the government agenda. The revelations of shocking abuses of our privacy by the NSA are proof of how callous governments can be with our personal liberties. ISPs can now identify and control data based on its source and type. This will inevitably be used to stifle communication that challenges old norms.
But innovation will trump stagnation; already true decentralised networks and solutions are being formed.
Why This Matters
Technology and science have always been enemies of the old and harbingers of the new. Power corrupts and empires fall, but the jewel of human innovation and knowledge must continue to shine. Creating networks that are robust enough to withstand the attack by the old is the only way forward.
This is why peer-to-peer matters. This is why decentralised networks and systems of organisation must replace our current systems. By embracing this new world, governments and people alike can reap the benefits of low cost communication, commerce and innovation. Try to shackle innovation or make it fit old paradigms and these hulking behemoths of the old will be left where they belong… in the past.