The identity crisis of the internet

The architecture of the Internet is fundamentally decentralized, a fact that continues to impress to this day. The breadth and depth of the sea of applications and uses we have made of it, and its resilience, impress perhaps all the more, because many of our experiences from everyday life tell us that some of the strongest things in society are singular and centralized — huge companies and governments, for instance. I’m actually not an expert on internet architecture, but my understanding is that the only thing that is fixed in it is the DNS system, which relies on some top level hardcoded IP addresses and coordination.

But even though the Internet is built on a decentralized architecture, it also supports applications/services that are highly centralized in their architecture and in their intended use. Google and Facebook are two very famous such applications. On the other extreme are applications that might be called P2P, including notorious file sharing systems such as Bittorrent, and also simple email (which was designed for decentralized use but is becoming heavily centralized with services like Gmail).

In recent days there’s been much discussion about Facebook’s role, particularly since it has been taking more and more liberties with the vast amounts of data about it users that it holds, scaling back the notions of privacy and integrity as they see fit. Many people are calling for decentralized alternatives to Facebook to rear their heads, and I suppose people have been calling for decentralized search engines as well for some time.

Much seems to be at stake here. What’s the future direction of the internet? A few giants holding all the data, monopolising certain functions, or a distributed network of peers, creating functionality together? The debate is ideologically charged and could be mapped into a big government/small government discussion, although I think it would be fruitless to do so. What is certain is that radically different applications can be created using the centralized/decentralized models and that it is rarely a case of merely “porting” an app from one architecture to another, the way you port an application from C to Java. On an abstract level, the two models could serve as substrates for the same functionalities (such as social network services), but the concrete implementations would have very different characteristics.

Do we create centralized applications because our legal systems, property rights systems, and so on, have not evolved at the same pace as our infrastructure, so that our tendencies, habits and ideals from a brick-and-mortar world are preserved in the world of fiber and switches, appearing ever more outdated?

In Sweden this debate has been especially pronounced recently with companies like Flattr being firmly on the side of decentralized models. Flattr is trying to be a universal donation system for content on the internet, and the vision behind it is a large number of decentralized creators of “content” (which are themselves consumers).

I’m not sure which model will win in the long run. I prefer to think that both models have a role to play and that they can coexist nicely. But lately it seems as if the centralized model has had a bit too much momentum. Let’s dig deeper into the decentralizing potential of the internet!

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