The Future is Decentralized

Are we on the brink of a second enlightenment?

To many observers of the last 22 months, political events have been inexplicably chaotic. The idea that these convulsions of society are entirely about a virus is growing more far fetched by the day, not in the least because those who ostensibly are leading us seem to be flying blind. So what gives? What, exactly, is going on around us?

It is tempting to describe the events of these 2 years as being solely about the pandemic: the restrictions on movement, speech and protest in particular. Restrictions have been unevenly applied, or applied in the face of overwhelming evidence of their ineffectiveness (and outright harm). But step back a little and it becomes clear that the current instability and irrationality within our democratic institutions is a symptom of a much larger shift, one that has been underway for generations. 

Hundreds of years ago, the church served the role of maintaining an official narrative in the western world. This was true for most aspects of life, whether religious, political, economic or moral. The advent of the printing press offered greater accessibility of information, but hurdles to access remained substantial for the average person. Disseminating information more freely was the theory, if not the actual outcome. 

The scientific revolution and the enlightenment period transferred the church’s power to media structures that historically still served an official narrative consolidating centralized power. The legitimacy of these media structures, and the narratives they produced, were built with the blessing of rulers and governments of the day. 

This has been the prevailing paradigm following the age of enlightenment. Our societies have largely existed in a system of centralized power controlling a centralized narrative. To be sure, the enlightenment achieved much, laying a foundation in human dignity, tolerance, liberty and rationalism. Those values guide our legal and moral structures to this day. However, despite its significant achievements, the promise of the enlightenment fell short in at least one regard: information has never truly been free. What appeared to be progress was merely a  new form of information feudalism that offered the taste of something different, something democratic.

And so it has been that for nearly 300 years, we have lived in a state of mass information feudalism-an improvement on the conditions prior-but short of the true ideals of the movement that began with the age of enlightenment.

Today we stand on the doorstep of the second enlightenment. For the first time in human history, the possibility of the free exchange of ideas and information is being fulfilled before our eyes. It is a messy process, as the expert class will be loathe to relinquish its gatekeeper function on information. But with the advent of widely available internet access, this noble aspiration is now unstoppable. 

The convulsions we are now experiencing – the silencing of intellectual inquiry, the demand of obedience to the technocracy – are the death knells of this power structure. This is the current disalignment between a growing decentralized information structure that cannot co-exist with centralized power. We are, for the first time in history, emerging from magisterial or aristocratic media into a world that offers a true marketplace of ideas. 

What replaces our current paradigm in the new information economy still leaves a lot of details to be figured out. It seems inevitable that power structures will have to yield to a world of freer information. Narratives will become unsustainable. Humans will have to adapt to the availability and ubiquity of information of varying quality. Perhaps a true history of the modern world may even emerge. 

The information economy faces the challenge of a significant realignment ahead. One thing is certain though: the future is decentralized, and it is bright.