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Redecentralize Digest — January 2022

In this issue:

FOSDEM happened

Strictly speaking this does not belong in January’s digest, but the FOSDEM free software conference just wrapped up as this digest is going out. Video recordings are appearing online over the next days. The web3 infrastructure track had lots of talks about peer-to-peer protocols and the like, but also the matrix, legal&policy and public code tracks may be of special interest to our readers.

Moxie on Web3

Moxie Marlinspike (of Signal fame, though now quitting as CEO there) shared his first impressions after playing with dApps and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), observing the high level of centralisation in purportedly decentralised systems.

There are thorny issues with blockchain-based protocols when they do work as advertised (energy waste, mining power concentration, a single ever-growing global database, lots of overhead and overcomplexity, to name just a few). But Moxie’s article suggests that such concerns are almost irrelevant in practice, as the decentralisation efforts are undermined because the whole ecosystem is accessed through a pair of gatekeeper companies:

“Almost all dApps use either Infura or Alchemy in order to interact with the blockchain. … This was surprising to me. So much work, energy, and time has gone into creating a trustless distributed consensus mechanism, but virtually all clients that wish to access it do so by simply trusting the outputs from these two companies without any further verification.”

However, Moxie is not too surprised either, and being a disbeliever in decentralisation reiterates his explanation why centralisation is inevitable: firstly, “people do not want to run their own servers”, and secondly, something truly decentralised “often remains stuck in time”.

While also rebutted by others before, these points provoked a good response by André Staltz. Firstly, some people do want to run a server, and you only need a few of them to serve the many. Centralisation versus running your own server is indeed a false dichotomy. For comparison: you might not want to grow your own vegetables but still have choice in whose produce you eat.

Secondly, moving slowly need not be problematic, and immutability creates dependability:

“To dismiss dependable systems as problematic is hypocritic, especially when such Silicon Valley companies (and now non-profits like Signal Foundation too!) are building their systems on top of dependable and immutable protocols such as TCP/IP. … The tech world critically depends on immutable protocols and open source software, yet centralized fast-moving proprietary systems accumulate all the power and glory.”

This reminds of the saying that in computing, rather than standing on the shoulders of giants, people stand on each others’ feet!

André also points out that change is not synonymous to progress. This seems especially true because a platform’s fast innovations can easily start diverging from users’ interests once its network lock-in has been established.

Paul on individualism & collectivism

Pondering the point of decentralisation, Paul Frazee draws attention to an important distinction:

“There are two kinds of resources in a network:

I start the conversation here because it sets the context for all decentralization: that we have mastered individualist operation and collectivist standardization but have failed at collectivist operation. The inability to collectively operate networks has created the conditions for large monopolies on the Internet.”

To avoid ending up with insatisfactory, fragmented systems, we would need to get better at governing and running a shared system, collectively; which goes beyond agreeing on a standard for how to interoperate.

While people tend to run towards blockchains as the solution, Paul wonders if that is merely because setting up an international not-for-profit is too hard; instead of blockchains, we may need more ‘ICANNs’:

My point is that decentralization is just as stuck in the mud as blockchains so long as we don’t have good answers to coordinated, shared resources. If we can’t find a way to coordinate operations more closely than Federation’s interoperable islands, we just won’t make any products that compete with centralized services.”

Paul’s own Vitra experiment attempts to help multi-party governance, as it enables “auditable execution of arbitrary programs” by a semi-trusted party through “execution transparency”.



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About this digest

The Redecentralize Digest is a monthly publication about internet (re)decentralisation. It covers progress and thoughts relating technology and politics, without ties to a particular project nor to one definition of decentralisation — figuring out its meanings and relations is part of the mission.

This digest was written by Gerben, with thanks for all tips & suggestions.

The digest’s format and content are not set in stone. Feedback, corrections and suggestions for next editions are welcome at hello@redecentralize.org. We don’t spy on our readers, so please do tell us what you think!