“The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.” (Tim Berners-Lee)
During the first Dezentralized Web Summit at the Internet Archive in San Francisco about 70 builders of the web convened to explore the technology required to build a ‘Decentralized Web’. Presenting various technologies such as blockchain, content-addressable and distributed storage, decentralized messaging and communication as well as self-sovereign digital identity, they discussed the decentralized future that could be just around the corner and which could restore the web’s original promise as a free and open network.
However, as tempting as it may be to think that technology could solve it all, and as promising as many of the concepts and protocols sounded, a looming question still remained: how will any of this work in real life?
Governance structures for technological success
Technological decentralization cannot be put into practice successfully without the appropriate decentralized governance structures supporting it. The recent attack of The DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) for instance shows just how treacherous such blind confidence in new technological forms can be.
“all processes of governing, whether undertaken by a government, market or network, whether over a family, tribe, formal or informal organization or territory and whether through the laws, norms, power or language….”
“processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions.”
Describing itself as a “new breed of human organization”, that is “born from immutable, unstoppable, and irrefutable computer code”, the DAO operates without any real management structure but is run entirely by its members. Fueled using the crypto currency of the Ethereum blockchain ‘Ether’, the DAO creates tokens that for example can be used for investment and crowd funding purposes.
Seemingly as invincible as the Titanic, The DAO recently crashed due to a overlooked loophole in the code of its smart contract. Although luckily most of the funds were secured through a hard fork of the Ethereum Blockchain before the attacker could run away, the hackers were able to drain about 50 million US $ from a total investment of roughly 180 million US $ within less than a day.
Catastrophic as this may seem, such failures – or inevitable growing pains – are extremely valuable in helping us develop and better understand each other and the technologies we are creating. The attack of the DAO shows how important aspects like governance and open discourse are on this path to innovation because it reveals the fragility of a system based on technology alone. It highlights the necessity of creating a surrounding framework of values, rules, forms of communication and decision making procedures for new technologies, in order to prepare the community for unforeseen challenges and avoid scenarios such as the DAO theft.
What this requires however is not only a shift of technologies but also ideologies. If we fail to rethink the ways that our communities operate and continue to work within a capital driven governance system, hoping that technology alone will fix it all, we risk replicating the ‘silo-structures’ and conventional ideologies of concentrated ownership and power that manifest themselves in most of the dominating players of the web today.
… it’s not enough to build a decentralized technology if you do not make it resilient to re-concentration at the institutional, organisational or cultural level – you have to integrate for all of them. We have a multi-system problem, therefore we need a multi-system solution. Yochai Benkler, Co-Director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, summarizing talk at this year’s Ouishare Fest.
Indeed, creating a decentralized web may be less a question of technological prototyping and “locking the Web open” for good, but also relies on the ability of its surrounding community, with its numerous technologies, to find a common denominator in terms of goals and values. They must form the adequate decentralized governance systems that engage more holistically with the concept of decentralization as part of a larger social change.