Resistant protocols: How decentralization evolves
Why do we build decentralized technologies? How do we predict what will be successful, what will get shutdown, and what will end up as a science experiment that no one uses in practice?
As I’ve written before, blockchain isn’t the first decentralization craze and we can learn a lot from studying the history of p2p file sharing. By examining how decentralization for file sharing evolved, I think a few lessons stand out:
- Mainstream decentralization emerges in response to the law when a certain use of centralized technology is denied
- Decentralization is best used sparingly, obfuscating the technology which cannot possibly exist as a centralized system
- If you want to know if something should be decentralized, look for informal decentralization which reveals demand for a formal system
- Decentralization is part of a bigger playbook of legal tactics used to keep technologies alive despite the best efforts of a hostile government
- Decentralization doesn’t work in a vacuum, mainstream decentralized systems require a degree of activism to keep the system working
If we rewind to 1997, we can watch as the distribution of mp3s starts centralized and grows decentralized with time. The history helps answer some tough questions:
- When should we build decentralized technology?
- How do we know what to decentralize?
- How should we reason about how people will use and support the decentralized technology we build?
These questions are at the core of every decentralization project being built today. The answers are relevant to entrepreneurs, open source contributors, investors, and internet activists.