The Virtues of Decentralization

General by Adam on 2005-05-03 03:43

Lately there has been some buzz about decentralized systems such as Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file sharing, Wiki, and the Internet itself. These systems are different from our conventional notion of organization in that there is no single seat of power. Instead, responsibility is spread amongst many nodes of matching function. These nodes are sometimes called term peers, indicating their status with regard to one another. The immediately noticeable benefit of a peer-based system is that the removal of any given node or even a large set of nodes does not necessarily cripple the entire system. In the case of the Internet, for example, service providers can come and go without the network as a whole ever going offline. Compare this to a network like CompuServe or AOL which are run by a single company; were that company to go bankrupt, the network would disappear.

So decentralized systems are a cutting-edge new approach to organization, right? Actually, they are not new at all.

It is a common and deep-seated conception that centralized authority is the best and most prevalent system of organization. Indeed, even the word “organization” (as a noun) brings to mind corporations, governments, and the military - all of which are typically arranged in a hierarchy, with power flowing from top to bottom. At the top of this power pyramid you will find a single person: the CEO, President, Commander in Chief, or King. Unlike a decentralized system, taking out the top of the pyramid cripples or even destroys the entire organization.

In truth, decentralized authority is an approach with a longer and more distinguished pedigree than its centralized counterpart. While centralization is a relatively recent invention of modern civilization, perhaps in the last few thousand years, decentralized systems have been a part of human existence for even longer than civilization itself. An example you are probably familiar with is what we call a market. Markets emerges whenever two people engage in a trade of objects or activities that enriches both parties. “You scratch my back in the spot I can’t reach, and I’ll give you this tasty handful of berries” was the precursor to modern commerce. The aggregate of these transactions over time produces all the traits we associate with markets including supply and demand, prices, capital, and so forth.

Where is the centralized authority for a market? There is none. Even in today’s world where there are numerous regulatory bodies that claim to oversee the flow of commerce, the truth is that these groups barely even scratch the surface of the markets they seek to control. Like a cowhand trying to handle a stampede of cattle, the best they can hope to do is make minor adjustments to the direction and flow. The overall market/stampede is simply too powerful and too adaptable to be controlled in any sort of direct fashion.

There have been attempts at replacing markets with centralized authority, most notably in the Soviet Union. For over half a century the Soviet ruling party attempted to guide products and services to where they were needed, assuming (as most people seem to do) that centralized authority could do a better job than the decentralized, chaotic system of an open market. It is not hyperbole to speculate that this could the most costly lapse in judgment ever executed. For decades, Soviet citizens in one part of the nation starved to death, while heaps of food rotted in warehouses in other parts. The decentralized market system excels at putting resources like food exactly where it is needed, and in exactly the quantity it is needed. Chances are you don’t even worry about where your next meal is coming from on a daily basis; you blindly trust the power of decentralized authority to deliver exactly the food you want, when you want it, each and every day without fail. This is the power of decentralization.

In a nutshell: The task of feeding a nation is simply too important to be left to the inferior capabilities of centralized authority.

Now that I’ve demonstrated the worth of decentralized systems, let’s delve into how they work. I suspect that lack of understanding may be the reason why people have such a hard time accepting the validity of the decentralized approach. The simple, rigid structure of a centralized power hierarchy is easy for most of us to grasp; while the fluid, chaotic structure of a decentralized system tests the limits of human comprehension. So let’s take a simple example. Remember the stampede I used as a metaphor above? This was more than just a metaphor: a stampede is a decentralized system itself. A similar example (minus the panic) is a flock of birds.

You may have the mistaken impression of centralized authority while watching a wedge of migrating birds fly overhead. In fact the bird at the front is not in charge or guiding the flock. You can confirm this by watching non-wedge-shaped bird flocks, such as pigeons flying between buildings in the city.

Flocking is a specific approach to spacial organization where each node (in this case a bird) follows a simple set of rules based on its local knowledge. These rules might look something like this:

  1. Keep a distance of double my wingspan from other nearby nodes/birds on all sides.
  2. Fly in the same direction and at the same speed as the bird immediately to my right. If there is no bird to my right, use the closest one I can see.
  3. Turn to avoid running into any obstacles.

No bird - or anyone at all - has any big picture plan of the overall organization of the flock. The individual birds are peers, in that none of them is special or follows rules different from the others. By every bird following the rules, the organized system we call a flock emerges automatically. This is called an emergent behavior.

The flock shows a remarkable resiliency to disruption. Any one bird or even a group of them could drop out of the flock, and the remaining birds will close rank such that moments later you cannot even tell that any birds are missing. Obstacles (for example, a tall tree) are handled seamlessly: following the last rule, birds near the obstacle veer away, causing their neighbors to veer as well. You get a cool-looking effect where the flock flows around the obstacle with precision and - seemingly - a high-level plan. This last part is an illusion. There is no plan: only the appearance of one, an emergent behavior of the flocking rules.

Given the simplicity, flexibility, and prevailing use of decentralized authority in nature, why are humans so disinclined to trust its application to our own organizations? One might point to the construction of the human body as the culprit: we have a central nervous system. In particular, our sentience resides in a relatively small and centralized location - the brain. It may seems that the human body runs itself on a system of centralized authority, and perhaps we look to that for our first and most important example.

Our nervous systems are somewhat centralized, but in fact if you zoom in a bit you’ll see that the human body (and all other living creatures) are in fact examples of decentralized systems. Our bodies can be accurately described as large colonies - one might even call them flocks - of single-celled organisms working in tandem toward the common goal of mutual survival. Most of these organisms are expendable; we shed and grow millions of new cells each day, without much apparent effect to the colony as a whole.

Our brains do represent a centralized seat of sentience, and although this aspect of our bodies is the most important to us on a conscious level, it is only one part of the continued health and existence of our entire body.

The brain itself may be one of the most impressive pieces of decentralized technology ever created. Quadrillions (that’s a thousand trillion) of peer nodes - neurons - are tied together into a stunningly powerful computer which produces human thought and consciousness. Uncovering the anatomy of the brain poses a tough question to philosophers and others who wish to understand the mechanism of consciousness. There is no “center” to the brain, no single point which can be called “me,” as most people had always assumed. Instead, modern theories of consciousness depend upon a decentralized explanation. Bits and pieces of the personality via for attention in a sort of internal shouting match, the eventual result of which is the actions of the person to which the brain belongs.

This leads me to the most far-reaching, compelling, and probably hard-to-swallow argument for the effectiveness of decentralized systems. Life itself, and indeed the entire universe, is the creation of a decentralized system. Evolution bears the same chaotic, rule-based organic approach as the flock of birds. There is no master plan or eventual goal; individual nodes in the system (in this case, diverse life forms) follow the rules of self-interest and survival. Over the very long term, this produces the wonder and majesty of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe.

Even the galaxies, stars, and planets are organized in this fashion. Following simple physical rules of gravitation and nuclear force based on local (judged on a galactic scale) knowledge, matter condenses into stars; solar systems fall into their orbits; and atmospheres collect around planets. The entire universe is self-organizing, without a higher design or purpose.

When put this way, perhaps we see the true reason why humans eschew decentralized systems: they seem purposeless. Of course, they seem that way because they actually are purposeless. And we don’t like that. We much prefer the idea that there is some single entity in charge, someone at the top with a master plan, a captain who knows where this boat is headed.

And in fact it is this very fear, unique to human consciousness, that led us to invent the idea of a divine creator, a.k.a God. The ultimate father, President, CEO, Commander-in-Chief, King Of Everything - the universe seems so much more comprehensible and safe believing that such a being is in the driver’s seat. And I think that’s why the notion of God continues to be so compelling, even in these modern times where every known phenomenon can be explained in a much more direct fashion. Indeed, the evidence against the gods which appear in popular mythologies (such as the Bible) is nigh-on staggering. Otherwise intelligent and pragmatic people desperately cling to outdated faiths because they offer unwavering belief in a central planner, a big boss, the ultimate Daddy.

These days, many people take the more pragmatic approach to believing in a god who resides outside the boundaries of our universe. He, She, or It may have created the universe, but after that, everything else - from the stars and planets to the creation of life - was left to the decentralized systems of physical laws and evolution. This allows the comforting belief in a divine creator, without requiring the rejection of scientific understanding of the universe.

So, from this perspective, we might state the virtue of decentralization this way:

God, in His infinite wisdom, created the universe in such a way that it would be guided, shaped, and ultimately driven by, and only by, decentralized systems.

If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

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