The Decentralization Itch

Decentralization. The buzzword of our times.

Increasing numbers and types of people are possessed of an elusive, but very real, visceral “itch” tied to the concept of decentralization. It’s hard to tell if the itch is caused by the concept or if the concept is simply being deployed in an effort to scratch the itch. It can have the appearance of both.

“Decentralization, good; centralization, bad.” We see more and more sectors of society plugging this idea into their thoughts and conversations in whatever way it can be made to fit.

Technologists in many fields talk about the need to decentralize systems. After all, the original strength of and reason for instituting the Internet was that decentralization would allow communications to continue, even in the event of nuclear war. The decentralization push is going forward on an increasing number of fronts, including power generation and distribution, food production and distribution, 3D printing, localized manufacturing, and the list goes on.

Both extreme ends of the liberal-to-conservative political spectrum talk about more decentralization of power, at least on their own pet issues.

The growth of the cryptographic-currency movement is largely driven by a desire to take the control of money out of the hands of the centralized, powerful few, who seem destined to corruption, even if some don’t start out that way. Also, existing financial systems are suffering severe scaling and security issues. Decentralizing currency offers at least one mitigation of both of these problems.

The most radical express their frustration as “Decentralize Everything!” This phrase has even started to appear prominently in graffiti-art for social change.

It is as if people from all different corners of humanity are catching this itch, and the concept of decentralization kind of, sort of scratches it. But thinking and talking about decentralization don’t quite make the itch go away. On the contrary, they just make it come back even stronger.

So What’s Under the Skin?

I, myself, have been worrying this itch for a while now, and have been frustrated by the sense that there’s something there, right on the edge of perception, that needs to be clearly viewed and effectively communicated about.

So, as I often do when I need to sort out something like this, I went to the dictionary (and beyond) to find out if what I’m trying to give expression to has already been said somewhere and is all wrapped up. The fascinating thing about this particular itch is that what I’m glimpsing isn’t clearly touched upon in any place that I can find, at least not in any talk of decentralization. But definition is almost always a great place to start, so here goes.

Since the prefix de- means “reverse of” or “away from,” let’s start with the root concept:

Centralization is the process by which the activities of an organization, particularly those regarding planning and decision-making, become concentrated within a particular location and/or group, or keeping all of the important decision-making powers within head office or the center of the organization.

– Wikipedia [emphasis added]

I’ve checked quite a few references and none varies in any important way from this definition, and from this we can isolate the important kernel, which is of course “decision-making powers.” This is the thing which is being centralized or decentralized: the power of decision.

Okay. So now we’ve got a core something to talk about: Decision or, synonymously, Choice.

One fact I find very curious is that all discussions, dissertations and analyses that I’ve been able to find about decentralization have dealt with the concept only from within presupposed sets of assumptions: i.e., structure of government, structure of organizations, structure of communications systems, etc. Nowhere is there a clear examination of the characteristics of the thing being dealt with, or how its nature might affect the problems being considered, or even the questions being asked.

Decision… Choice, centralization or decentralization of.

Mysticism?

And lest we get tangled up debating metaphysical opinions, let’s ground out the conversation right here:

As you read or hear my words in this moment, do you have a sense of what I mean when I say “you”? If you can think “I understand,” or even, “Does he actually think he’s somehow talking to me?” then you are laying hands solidly on the only datum needed to take the next logical step.

You don’t even need to know what you are to have the sense that you are, so we can bypass any arguments about our ultimate nature. Another way of saying this is that you have a sense of Self.

I think you’ll probably agree that though this idea may give you a mystical feeling, it’s a solid reality that you really can’t avoid, even by asserting that your sense of Self is an illusion. Maybe it is illusion, but the sense persists, does it not? You still have to assert your existence to say, “I don’t exist” – an obvious contradiction. It is wondrous to behold how strongly some will forcefully exert their own existence in order to assert their own non-existence. But for our purposes here, we can set all that head banging aside, right?

So we’re not talking about something out in some distant theoretical realm. We’re talking about something with which you have the most intimate experience, and thus the most empowered position to judge. We are talking about the fact that all of our experience revolves around our sense of Self, and thus around the fact that choice is our constant personal companion. The power of choice is an inextricable part of Self. To pretend it is not is to deny our own existence-impossible to actually accomplish, but we do try it all the time, don’t we.

But what about… ?

Ah, groups. Taking language literally can lead us to think of imagined things as being real. For instance, it is convenient to speak of groups as if they make choices, but the truth is that such choices are always, always, always the result of the decisions (or lack thereof) of individuals that constitute the group, even if it is just deciding to “go along to get along” or agreeing to abide by the outcome of a vote, despite disagreeing with the result.

Individuals might choose to identify with a group concept, or practice a uniform behavior pattern, but they are still individuals. They may choose to be selfish or, on the other hand, to sacrifice even their own individual survival for the sake of others or just for the group ideal. But the individual still always chooses, by active choice or by passive acceptance. There is always some option. Self and choice can be thought of as facets of the same thing.

So, what does all this have to do with the urge towards decentralization? The amusing thing is that the answer is simultaneously “Everything” and “Nothing,” because the very nature of human experience is already decentralized. That’s the beautiful, perhaps frightening, but completely irresistible, truth.

The only actual unit of choice is the individual. Choice is decentralized by its very nature.

Uh-oh!

“But,” many will say, “you are promoting anarchy!”

No, not really. I’d have to say that I’m only suggesting that we embrace, rather than deny, this one solid fact and go forward from there, better informed and able to deal more effectively with what we encounter-with humility, of course.

There is nothing inherently wrong with centralization on a structural or organizational level. It is one aspect of how things can be organized and is often most appropriate. There can be great advantages in centralizing resources for scale, as in some forms of manufacturing, and a trusted leader with others following her intelligent direction can accomplish many good things that are otherwise unachievable. Centralization only goes really wrong when it fails to nurture and honor the fact that choice is something that only an individual can truly do.

Neither is decentralization always right. Again, it is one of the ways things can be structured or organized. It can have huge advantages in some situations, but can lose effectiveness if too fractured. On an interpersonal level, if individuals insist too strongly on being independent and making all their own decisions, without respect for the rights or needs of others, all manner of counterproductive conflict results.

The Middle Way

Luckily, few wish to live in either extreme. People want respect for the fact that they can and do choose, always. If they are given a good measure of that respect, they don’t find it necessary to assert their independence so militantly.

On the other side of the coin, people are much happier when they learn to equally respect the fact that everyone else has the same need. This is empathy, the binder of human society. Greater and greater volumes of research and experience indicate that this is the natural inclination of people. It is mainly serious neglect and abuse, especially in childhood, that cause individuals to be unable to empathize with their fellows.

But all that aside, we’re still dealing with the fact that you know who I’m talking about when I say “you.” And, whatever emotional response you might feel when contemplating the fact, you know that the ability and inclination to choose is tied up in your very nature. You need no other credentials or intellectual mastery to evaluate what I’m saying here.

And Decentralization?

So what are we left with regarding the itch or craving for decentralization?

First and foremost, I think we have to acknowledge and properly value the basic truth that, in human experience, the power of choice or decision is a characteristic of the individual. Individuals have many rational reasons and desires to create and seek identity with groups. There can even be a sense of Self invested in groups, but it seems plain that that sense is felt by individuals in harmony, not separately by some superior entity. But even if there is an actual higher Self vested in a group, or even in the universe as a whole, it is still the individual’s choice to surrender to it or not.

Group association and cohesion is vital to harmony and prosperity in human society. But these associations become dangerous when the individuals that comprise them forget the truth, and fail to respect the fact of individual choice.

And isn’t our social failure to honor this fact what underlies both the itch and the scratching? We sense the truth, but our collective assumptions are at odds with it.

Without a true understanding of this in mind, structural and organizational decentralization are just scratchers. Scratch too hard, too desperately, and the flesh bleeds. Let us not forget that the Bolshevik and French revolutions, and countless similar manifestations, have been fueled by that same “itch” or desperate urge for “decentralization,” for righting this wrong which was felt but not understood.

Centralization, in itself, is not the problem; decentralization by itself is not the solution. And the itch will certainly work against us, as it has so often before, if we do not understand, embrace and own the truth underlying it. The salve to completely quell the itch involves an understanding, specifically the understanding that only Self can choose.

This understanding has a lot of far-reaching ramifications that can be challenging to sort through. I hope you will choose to probe further and see where it leads. And when in doubt, put your feet back on solid ground by remembering that in this very moment, I’m talking to YOU.