2008-07-19T15:39-0800 wide anarchy
Prompted by Dave Birch's talk on digital money at OpenTech, I've been going on a long mental escapade through my own political roots, and the history of the Net.
I think that it's inevitable that the dominant explanatory context and the direction of successful advances in technology and society heavily influence the politics one subscribes to. I grew up cheerleading microcomputers and later the Net, and lived through the vindication of their (material) success, so I'm naturally going to be a fan of decentralisation -- actually, that's a pretty empty statement. I don't think anyone actually comes out as against decentralisation these days. Nobody says "Me, I'm a big fan of increased concentrations of power." It's like being against democracy -- by the time you've explained why you have your doubts about it, no-one is listening to you any more. The main question on this topic in our time is not "is decentralisation good for the body politic?" but "how much of it should we have?".
Which is not to say that the conventional answer would be "a lot". People get rather shifty if you start on any project of power dilution, because such projects represent a loss of control to almost anyone who matters in the current system: even Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition want something to remain loyal to. You can disagree with the direction a ship is taking without wanting someone to come along and pull out the steering mechanism (or replacing the captain with a voting committee of the passengers).
Decentralisation deliberately pulls power away from the center. Either it works, and total control ebbs away. Or it doesn't, and power gets re-concentrated in entirely random (or worse, actively dangerous) hands. Since almost anyone making a decision to decentralise has at least some access to the current levers of power, that makes it an unpleasantly radical decision to make.
Those who first built the Net and first to be drawn to it (the two groups are inextricably merged) were fans of decentralised power structures.(One of my favourite second-hand stories of the early years of the Net was from someone who wasn't involved, but was around the research labs at the time. He claimed that the ARPANETters were always the flakes who everyone else avoided; obsessives out to pursue an idea that no-one else took seriously. If you wanted to have tenure in computer science, you stayed well away from packet-switching loons back then. He may have been bitter.)
If you're a real fan of decentralisation -- and your sole lever on power, as a packet-switching loon, is designing and distributing instruments that deliver decentralisation to everyone -- the question "how much" becomes much more pertinent. Just how far can and should you take this? What happens when you turn all the dials to 100%?
Anarchy is the answer to that question. The truly hardened advocates would then say: "And would that be a bad thing?"
Those hardened advocates, in the middle history of the Net, were the cypherpunks. The strongest statement on their position was -- is -- the Cyphernomicon, and in particular Tim May's Cypherpunk Manifesto: a prediction and prophecy of a radically-decentralised world, created inevitably by virtue of the widespread use of strong cryptography.
Would it be a bad thing? Just as it's hard to cheer on extreme centralisation of power as a good thing, it's hard to imagine complete elimination of central power as a good thing. I'm not saying that you can't advocate for it: in fact, most people in liberal democracies in our times default to advocating for it, with the assumption that it'll never get so far as to turn into something horrific (or transformatively beautiful). Call it a lack of idealism, call it a failure of creativity. It's just hard to imagine it. Go on: imagine a world without governments. Despite what John Lennon (or Vladimir Lenin) claims, it's not easy at all.
I've been thinking a lot about that difficulty, because I think it illuminates what we want from decentralised power, and what we think the practical limits are. It also challenges us to see beyond them.
One of the most vivid positive descriptions of a world under the Cypherpunk model of anarchy would be David Friedman's Machinery of Freedom. But Friedman's book is a series of arguments, not a vivid picture of daily life in such an environment. The closest he gets is a depiction of what he says is a close equivalent to the anarcho-capitalist vision, medieval Iceland.
Right now, I'm intensely enjoying S. Andrew Swann's Hostile Takeover Trilogy, a space opera which includes as its backdrop an anarchist planet of Bakunin. It's a great counterbalance to re-reading these broadly positive depictions of extreme decentralisation: Bakunin is a rough and vicious world, the sort of anarchy that most people would imagine would follow the collapse of an all-powerful State. On the other hand, it also paints a strong picture of sympathetic characters who rather like Bakunin's backdrop. They remind me of the cypherpunks. Is that what extreme and irreversible decentralisation would lead to: a world order only a cypherpunk could love? Or a place where ultimately, any group could find comfort and freedom?