Losing your center

Decentralization. That’s the theme of the day. We’re not linear, we’re networked. We’ve lost the center, the authority, even the middle-man. Often called democratization, as in the ‘the democratization of news’, it engenders a heady feeling of freedom, access, openness, breaking down barriers.

It’s things like: crowdfunding, peer-to-peer lending, the sharing economy, q+a forums, citizen journalism. On the more technical side: decentralization is the core of bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology. Also mesh nets, where devices can connect to each other without going through a main server.

Mesh nets remove what could be a choke point. Now, if a government, or a bad actor, wants to shut down the internet, all they have to do is shut down AT&T or Comcast and we all go dark. In a mesh net, every device (that’s configured to use the technology) is connected to every other device within a certain proximity, so you’d have to shut down every connected device separately.

Decentralization is less a positive than simply the reality, with certain characteristics.

First of all, the idealism gets old quickly. Uber is not a power-to-the-people organization, it’s a capitalistic enterprise leveraging new technologies for (surprise!) money, and it has to work within the current framework of government regulation, whether they’ll admit it or not. Second, networks can be super inefficient, and messy, and not great at curating.

Look at journalism. The internet has given a voice and a platform to millions. We have this tremendous clamor of voices saying incredibly wise, mundane, stupid, cruel, quirky things. (In theory, this is wonderful, but the reality of it challenges our democratic notion that everyone SHOULD have a voice. Just read all the jeremiads about how the internet has ruined journalism, and ergo, the world.)

What we no longer have is a Walter Cronkite, or the New York Times (of old) – a central command, respected by the nation as a whole. There is no national conversation, or agenda. We don’t know who to trust. And that’s a loss. Authority is not inherently bad, not when it’s used to guide instead of dictate, to inform instead of command, and when it responds to the will of the people.

All the old media/new media discussions compare then and now like they exist on a spectrum. It’s not clear that they do. There’s a new world-order. The new isn’t on a spectrum, it isn’t linear. There’s a chance it will turn into anarchy or the dictatorship of the mob, and a chance we’ll become a more open, voluble, accessible society where everyone knows how to make the best use of the bewildering amount of choice around him or her.

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