Decentralization cannot be marketed


The Redecentralize conference at the London office of ThoughtWorks this past weekend was framed as:

Taking back the net. A weekend to learn, connect and make technology that shapes society.

I can’t imagine for one moment that your weekend was more enjoyable! πŸ™‚

This post doesn’t attempt to cover the full depth and breadth of the presentations and conversations, but rather offers up my view on our common purpose and a way forward in light of these.

Why decentralize?

As and when a company can centralize the action it can achieve economies of scale and make corresponding investments that benefit it and its customers. Right? In terms of those benefits, your online world may be dominated by just a handful of companies – the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo for example – and you may not be thinking of leaving their orbit because, well, it just works fine thank you very much.

There is however irrefutable evidence that if we all coalesce around the services of just a few companies then we all lose something rather precious. It’s a bit like a tragedy of the commons in so much as everyone makes an independent rational choice but the collective suffers. When that phrase was coined it referred specifically to unregulated grazing on common land, and its use has expanded to include all unregulated resources especially those in the natural world. And it’s this natural world that tells us that centralization of the Internet and related services doesn’t bode well.


If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is Nature’s way.

Nature has had a very long time to think about these things. More accurately, through Darwinian processes, what works, what adapts best to its circumstances, survives. Sustains. And you will be hard-pressed to find centralization in Nature because such reliance is fragile in the long-run.

I wrote about sustainability in the context of natural and digital systems for the Drucker Society recently, and I will borrow a short section from that here:

The ultimate information technology challenge is the care and maintenance of a digital infrastructure that can help us rise up to so-called super wicked problems, collectively. Given the growing appreciation of the nature of complexity and the complexity of nature, we know we’re in the domain of systems thinking and sustainability – the health and resilience of living systems including our planet, our societies, and our organisations.


Sustainability requires healthy, distributed networks, with both diversity and individual agency, to facilitate the emergence of collective intelligence. It is these qualities our digital technologies must enable and encourage.

By design

The Internet was designed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to be decentralized specifically because such an architecture is resilient to attack. It’s fair to say that it was revolutionary thinking at the time.

Decentralized means having very many hubs rather than very few, and the Internet in fact goes further than that; it is distributed by design having little need for hubs of any kind. You want to connect to my computer? Sure. There’s no need for any computer in between. If any part of the network is taken out of action, data can flow around it uninterrupted.

The Web runs on top of the Internet and it too is decentralized and indeed distributed. By design.

Neat. The original architects understood the lesson Nature teaches us.

The network effect

So if distributed networks are so vibrant and sustainable, how come there’s this natural tendency to agglomerate?

When the value of a product or service is dependent on the number of others using it, we call this the network effect. There’s not much point owning a telephone if no-one else does for example. The more people with a telephone, the more valuable the telephone network.

It’s critical here then to make a couple of distinctions.

By protocol, not by company

Email has a network effect – the more people that can send and receive email, the more useful it is. The email protocol accrues value. The network value of a protocol is not enhanced further however should we all procure a service based on it from the same provider.

By innovation, not for evil intent

And yet some companies have made network effects work for them. In such instances I’d argue that they were in the right place with the right innovations at the right time, encouraging a network effect achieved in one area to fuel another network effect in another area, creating compound value. Google is a classic operator in this respect, translating a dominance in search into email into advertising into video into mapping into mobile OS.

While the emotions of decentralization advocates can run high, I believe this niche group is less concerned with the motivations of companies like Google and more with the fabric of the network that might allow this commercial effect to be maintained, or worse, grow.

Decentralization makes you richer, happier, and more attractive

Here’s a challenge.

You’re brainstorming a new TV ad for WeAreTheInternet and you want to influence people’s minds and behaviours to encourage decentralization. You’re also developing some “content marketing” explaining why your friends and family and everyone else come to that should wean themselves off the convenience, comfort and connection afforded them by the suites of services from the likes of those companies listed earlier.


The very best of luck with that. Do let me know how it goes!

In The Business of Influence I adopt Kotler’s definition of marketing:

the process by which companies create value for customers and build strong customer relationships in order to capture value from customers in return.

In other words, marketing focuses on the customer value proposition. Marketing doesn’t focus on converting the whole world at once, and yet the value of decentralization cannot be realized until some considerable fraction, perhaps even a majority, ‘gets it’. And here’s the real kick in the pants – until such time as decentralization can be said to have been achieved, anyone tempted by our marketing communications suffers a cost rather than accrues value, a burden they’re unlikely to carry for long before reverting.

Here’s my definition of public relations:

the planned and sustained effort to influence opinion and behaviour, and to be influenced similarly, in order to build mutual understanding and goodwill.

We must continue to champion decentralization of the Internet and the Web to those concerned with robust and healthy living systems, with sustainability. We need to build mutual understanding and goodwill with targeted stakeholders in order to build support for ways to secure decentralization that aren’t unrealistic in requiring an unprecedented, coordinated, global volte-face!

By design, again

Decentralization is a primary objective of the hi:project. It is core to our raison d’Γͺtre. And yet other than in the context of awesome geek-outs like this past weekend and the SOCIAM meeting at Oxford University last month, we don’t talk much about decentralization.

We know that we’re not contemplating the start of a two horse race – centralization has already won; well the last round at least. There is, in our opinion, no hope for any viral mechanic taking a decentralizing initiative anywhere close to mass market in the absence of a powerful and unprecedented strategy in this regard.

Here then I’d invoke Doc Searls’ love of because/with, a fondness shared by JP Rangaswami, bending it slightly to the topic at hand here …

We cannot secure decentralization with a project for decentralization, but rather because of a project that delivers other compelling value. And the hi:project team would strongly recommend the hi:project!

Our project gives everyone domain over personal data (aspects of privacy) and helps make this digital world considerably more usable and accessible (relating to digital inclusion). Developing such personal agency and participation is integral to sustainability, and yet unlike decentralization these have value at the atomic as well as collective level.

Our proposition is designed to appeal to organizations who can secure competitive advantage by seeding HI (human interface) with customers in parallel with or in replacement to UI (user interface). It spreads because it gives the earlier adopting organizations competitive / commercial advantage, allowing them to win customers’ respect and valuable loyalty at less cost with less risk and without intermediation, and at the same time helps the organization comply with emerging privacy legislation around the world.

Individuals get to interact with the organizations in their digital lives in ways that better suit their unique nature – their numeracy, literacy, visual literacy, and accessibility needs. Individuals get domain over their personal data, empowering them to translate data into information into self-knowledge.

This is a tangible and mutual value proposition. And almost as if no-one was noticing, each and everyone one of us is also then equipped to peer – to connect to each other and to the things around us via our own HI rather than via centralizing mediation.

HI is then a perfect Trojan horse for example for SoLiD as APIs are harmonized by sector and service, perhaps gravitating towards a linked data platform (LDP) design if we’re successful in communicating its relative advantages in this context.

Decentralization cannot be marketed. Yet if we know where the value lies for organizations and for individuals, we can design for decentralization to re-emerge in consequence.

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