This will be the first in a multi-part series on what I predict will be one of the most important technological trends of 2015, the decentralization revolution. By creating a way for the transfer of value to be performed over a trustless distributed network Bitcoin has already changed the world but Bitcoin is only the tip of the decentralization iceberg.
A technological revolution is underway. An array of technologies are being developed that aim to do nothing less than disrupt the deepest fabric of the current world order. In a world where trust is power, decentralization steals the power from the hands of centralized institutions like corporations, banks, and even governments and puts it into the hands of the network. The revolution is beginning with a race to build the next generation of decentralized technologies that may soon replace internet giants like Dropbox or Facebook, but this is only the beginning of a transition to a future world order of decentralized power.
Lets start with a simple question: What is decentralization?
Many people equate decentralization with cryptographic networks like Bitcoin, which combine cryptography with decentralization, but decentralized applications do not inherently require encryption. The prototypical example of a modern decentralized technology would be Bittorrent, a technology with no inherent requirement for encryption. At its base, decentralization is the simple process of taking information and distributing copies among some sort of network so as to enhance data accessibility, security, redundancy, and congruence (consistency between parties).
The idea of decentralization is actually as old as communication itself. Cavemen would share their knowledge of hunting techniques and weapon technology among their tribe in order to be sure that the loss of no single individual would mean the loss of vital information. As humans created increasingly elaborate systems of exchange, organizations learned that keeping two or more copies of important documents was essential to ensuring their security.
The central problem of decentralization is that it also greatly increases the likelihood that information could fall into the hands of untrusted individuals. Thus, balancing the need for privacy and security meant finding a balance between centralized and decentralized structures for information sharing. To solve the age-old problem of privacy in shared information, cryptographic encoding or information was developed. Since at least Medieval times, people have been using simple ciphers to encode messages which they wished to share with only specific individuals.
In the 20th century, cryptography advanced greatly particularly during the world wars, when warring nations needed to be able to move around large amounts of information while preventing it from falling into the hands of the enemy. This spurned great innovations in both encryption and decryption, with both sides pouring resources into figuring out what their enemy was planning. It is widely believed, that the breaking of the Enigma code by British code-breakers which included one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was key to winning the war.
With the help of the universal computers Alan Turing helped invent, increasingly secure encryption algorithms were developed over the last half of the 20th century. Using these modern encryption algorithms, we can hide information well enough to confidently exchange sensitive financial information over a network which is essentially open (the internet). Thus, cryptography means that anyone eavesdropping on your web communications with your bank would have no way to understand the messages.
The Bitcoin blockchain is a distributed, encrypted ledger which stores the holdings of users of the network in individually encrypted data. This way, those using the network can be sure to agree on what amount of Bitcoin each user has, while only allowing those with the keys to be able to unlock their data and send some amount of Bitcoin to another user (see more here). Using the encrypted blockchain, Bitcoin is able to seamlessly transfer a limited supply of units of value between individuals in a way which does not rely on backing from any one central authority to provide value to the currency.
The core advance of the blockchain is that it allows the distribution of highly secure and highly congruent information throughout a network with no need for a centralizing authority.
As a side-thought, I would like to point out that although the software instantiation of the blockchain which underlies Bitcoin is totally dependent on digital computation, I see no reason a similar system based on mechanical encryption could not also be possible. Even if we never had invented computers I think we eventually would have come up with a sort of steam punk Bitcoin through which we could distribute value or congruent information using a cryptographic ledger system.
Bittorrent was the first application to show that sharing of encrypted information over a decentralized network could be used to transfer value securely and efficiently, but there is no reason that decentralized technology could not be used to share any kind of information in a trustless network.
The MaidSafe and Storj projects have the ambitious goal of allowing anyone to share anything securely and efficiently over a decentralized network, something that could have deep consequences for the way that the internet works. If anyone can use the distributed network to share a website, then this could eliminate the needs for centralized servers which currently serve up websites when you visit them. Under these protocols, the cost of storing and sharing data with other users of the network who donate some part of their bandwidth and hard-drive space in exchange for the right to use the network. While some might worry that such a network would be used primarily for content piracy (as has been the case for Bittorrent), the integration of the Safecoin cryptocurrency with the MaidSafe network may actually make it easier than ever for content producers to monetize their content.
According to the project leader, both Maidsafe and Storj could be used to develop alternative, distributed versions of popular services such as Dropbox, Facebook, or even Google. Distributed versions of these centralized services could offer advantages for security and failure resistance. MaidSafe could also dramatically lower the barriers to entry for new players trying to compete such internet institutions as Facebook. While I have doubts whether the massive data-crunching necessary for Google could be pulled off on a decentralized network, a decentralized social network seems an obvious applications for MaidSafe.
Whereas MaidSafe, Storj and Bitcoin are specific applications of distributed technology, the Ethereum project aims to go much further and create a general distributed computer language on top of which anyone could easily develop an application like MaidSafe or Bitcoin. They are essentially trying to create a sort of decentralization operating system on top of which it would be possible to build any sort of program. By allowing the secure sharing of computer programs, Ethereum could allow the creation of advanced smart contracts with defined limits on how and when their funds could be disperse, or potentially even much more complex entities such a corporations.
2014 was a bit of a down year for Bitcoin, with coins falling from a value as high as $1000 to around $230 today. While this might be taken as a sign that the future of Bitcoin is in some danger, it is absolutely clear that it does not reflect at all on the wider cryptocurrency ecosystem. The ability to distribute trust through a network through the use of a Blockchain is a world changing technology, and the value of one currency does nothing to change its utility as a method of exchange. Saying that a drop in the price of bitcoin makes it irrelevant is like saying that the drop in the price of computer chips makes them irrelevant. Bitcoin is just the first in a series of decentralized applications that are already beginning to compete with centralized services.
Decentralization is becoming the gold standard for when you truly need to trust something, and in a world where trust is power it seems inevitable that decentralized technologies are destined to become the new nexus of power. In my next post I will discuss the past present and future of trust and power, and how that has been reshaped by decentralization.