Decentralization: An Incomplete Ambition
Decentralization is a term widely used in a variety of contexts, particularly in political science and discourses surrounding the Internet. It is popular today among advocates of blockchain technology. While frequently employed as if it were a technical term, decentralization more reliably appears to operate as a rhetorical strategy that directs attention toward some aspects of a proposed social order and away from others. It is called for far more than it is theorized or consistently defined. This non-specificity has served to draw diverse participants into common political and technological projects. Yet even the most apparently decentralized systems have shown the capacity to produce economically and structurally centralized outcomes. The rhetoric of decentralization thus obscures other aspects of the re-ordering it claims to describe. It steers attention from where concentrations of power are operating, deferring worthwhile debate about how such power should operate. For decentralization to be a reliable concept in formulating future social arrangements and related technologies, it should come with high standards of specificity. It also cannot substitute for anticipating centralization with appropriate mechanisms of accountability.