There is an undeniable attractiveness to decentralization. As social animals, we are naturally drawn to anything that allows us to participate and have a voice and decentralization does that naturally by dispensing power amongst many different actors. Decentralization is condition sine qua non for democracy and democratic consolidation; in theory, it exists to strengthen private autonomy and political self-government while permitting a market-like process in political decision-making. The idea is that political decision making becomes more democratic, processes become more transparent and societal progress is achieved through civic freedom.
Just like democracies, however, decentralization can be messy and the cause for dysfunctional decision making and increased cost of control (in the form of monitoring to ensure that delegated decision-making authority is being used appropriately). That’s why for decentralization to work there needs to be something more – something that most technologies and, in particular, the Internet can point to for their existence. That something is collaboration.
History is replete with examples of decentralized collaborations that led to great things. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright developed the three-axis controls that made flying an airplane possible. In 1913, Albert Einstein published with Marcel Grossman a joint paper “Outline of a Generalized Theory of Relativity and a Theory of Gravitation”, which acted as the precursor to the final theory of relativity. When Paul McCartney and John Lennon started writing songs together for the Beatles, they could never imagine that their creative partnership would become the driving force behind the sound that would change popular music forever.
In all these examples, we still do not know who the leader was. And, therein lies the main attractiveness of decentralization: all this innovative and creative thinking happened in spite of a central authority; it happened because collaboration enabled a decentralized relationship which, in turn, enabled decentralization to take effect. In many ways, decentralization and collaboration complement each other in a seamless way. And, there is no better example to this than the Internet.
When it comes to the Internet, decentralization sits at its core. Early on, its small community of engineers realized the need for the Internet to depart from any design that resembled a government, the classic example of a top-down, centralized structure; and, to achieve this, it was important that any notion of “kings, presidents and voting” was rejected. This choice has proven key for the Internet’s past, present future. “We believe in rough consensus and running code” the engineering community would proclaim. And, the only road to consensus is through collaboration.
In his terrific book, “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson, writes: “The Internet was built partly by the government and partly by private firms, but mostly it was the creation of a loosely knit cohort of academics and hackers who worked as peers and freely shared their creative ideas. The result of a such a peer sharing was a network that facilitated peer sharing. The Internet was built with the belief that power should be distributed rather than centralized and that any authoritarian diktats should be circumvented”.
In addition, beyond the cultural influences that shaped the Internet, the process that led to its creation is as significant. “The creation of a triangular relationship among government, industry and academia was, in its own way, one of the significant innovations that helped produce the technological revolution of the late twentieth century," wrote Isaacson. "The Defense Department and the National Science Foundation soon became the prime funders of much of America's basic research, spending as much as private industry during the 1950s through the 1980s. The return on that investment was huge, leading not only to the Internet but to many of the pillars of America's post-war innovation and economic boom."
As the Internet grew in size and use, however, so did its complexity. In the meantime, the appetite for collaboration was shrinking. In the beginning, there was collaboration if only to ensure a certain level of interoperation. The new applications that emerged brought new actors that had to collaborate in order for their systems to interoperate with the existing ones. But, as actors grew, so did their power, which became more concentrated. Suddenly, collaboration shifted from being a shared commitment between a variety of actors to a single act predominantly dictated by players with a significant market power. (manifestations of this include bigger players absorbing smaller ones or annihilating them). With so much concentrated power gathered in the hands of a few players, collaboration appeared to be less necessary or relevant.
When it came to governance questions, things looked more optimistic. The decentralized architecture of the Internet was mirrored in the multistakeholder model that was meant to serve the multiplicity and diversity of the Internet’s interested parties. In the beginning, this new structural arrangement brought a great deal of enthusiasm. Multistakeholder governance assumed that democracy would deepen by the extension of political representation at places like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and that democratic processes would be strengthened through enhanced political participation by a diverse set of stakeholders; it also assumed that benefits in socio-economic development would increase through governments and decision-makers and influencers being more responsive and more accountable to users’ needs and desires.
In many ways, the multistakeholder model hit those targets; but, it also missed a lot others. With no real guidance, lack of a unified purpose and absent a focused goal, there are not a lot of examples globally of truly collaborative processes that came out of the multistakeholder model to lead to something tangible and impactful (an exemption would perhaps be the IANA transition process – the only real and tangible success of a global multistakeholder process). Did multistakeholders miscalculate the potential for collective action? Overestimate the ability and willingness of people to participate? Assemble the wrong type of interested parties? Set untenable goals? Was it an issue of timing, wrong choice of terminology or simply bad luck? Or, is the vulnerability of the multistakeholder approach part of a larger design flaw that considered collaboration and collective action as default settings?
All these questions would most likely involve both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ answer. But, the last one in particular, merits a bit of more thinking. The hope was: allow people to participate and they will collaborate. But, that is a big assumption. The idea that people would creatively come together to deal with the Internet’s challenges is certainly appealing. But, how do you ensure that people actually collaborate? The answer lies in “four important characteristics of collaborative activities that have driven the success and innovation of the Internet to date”:
We rarely see this level of collaboration in the Internet any more. Instead we are noticing an increasing number of actors who are acting alone. Yet, no single entity can solve the problems that face the Internet. Because any single entity will eventually get distracted and self-serving.
I truly think that decentralization can provide many answers to the many questions we face in today’s Internet environment and it is important for the health of the Internet. But, do not believe that by simply calling for decentralization suddenly everything will fall into place – the market will get less consolidated and we will see fewer single points of failure in the way governments approach Internet policy issues. We must collaborate!
I explore all this in a TedX talk below.