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The Pendulum Doth Swing

The pendulum is swinging back to an era of de-centralization and distribution of resources with Web3 and distributed technologies (IoT, edge computing, blockchain and more) leading the way.

The relationship between religion and science has been a subject of study since antiquity, addressed by philosophers, theologians, scientists and others. Most scientific and technical innovations prior to the scientific revolution were achieved by religious scholars. Many elements of the scientific method were pioneered by ancient Pagan, Islamic and Christian practitioners. However, with the advent of the Industrial Age, religion and science shifted to a state of seemingly continuous conflict. When societies and states shifted from a foundation of agrarian to industrial, the way they made war also changed and became more mechanized. Industrial nations furnished their armies with tools very different from those produced by agrarian nations: the machine gun, steam and petroleum powered engines; the railroad, telegraph, radios, aircraft and much more formed the basis of modern society and business.

Observers have said for more than thirty years that the impacts the information revolution will have on society will be far greater than the impact science had during the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society. But, where’s the evidence?

Our ability to take advantage of digital technology’s true promise remains close to nil. The Internet began as a great experiment in collaboration and decentralization; in a mere 20 years we’ve siloed it into Meta (Facebook), Google and Amazon. We were offered the opportunity to craft organic global ecosystems; instead, we pedaled backwards as fast as we could, crafting not utopias but dystopias of surveillance capitalism and government-operated facial recognition.

THE DECENTRALIZATION OF EVERYTHING We’ve experienced hundreds of years of volatility around the cycle of centralization and de-centralization of resources, authorities and decision making. In recent years, it seems a long wave of centralization has reached its peak in social, industrial, financial, technology and geopolitical spheres. We can now see the emerging scale and influence of centralization in new digital businesses that collect and sell data on behaviors (consider how large, powerful and intractably indivisible businesses like Google and Meta have become).

But, just as tides shift according to the gravitational pull of the moon, we are also seeing the emergence of a cycle of de-centralization and distribution of resources. Powerful distributed technologies such as IoT, edge computing, blockchain and more are once again demonstrating the power of decentralized systems, relationships and interactions and potentially setting the stage for a new era of large-scale collaboration and problem solving. These days many people believe Web 3.0 technology developments are the “ultimate” answer to the many challenges that centralized authorities and control mechanisms foster, we think not. At least not entirely.

We all need to acknowledge that there is no single or stable definition for Web 3.0 technically or otherwise. Recent definitions of Web 3.0 focus on distributed ledger technologies, such as blockchain with its ability to authenticate and decentralize information. The goal here is to return the power from the large platform players like Google and Facebook to individuals.

We applaud the idealism, optimism and vision of the diverse promoters of distributed systems, but we have been here before. We have all gone through several cycles of decentralization and recentralization. The personal computer decentralized computing by providing a standard PC architecture that anyone could build and that no one controlled. But Microsoft figured out how to recentralize the industry around a proprietary operating system. Open-source software, the Internet and the World Wide Web broke the stranglehold of proprietary software with free software and open protocols, but within a few decades, Google, Amazon and others had built huge new monopolies founded on data analytics and surveillance.

Just as the extensible, technology-neutral nature of the Internet has allowed it to scale so dramatically and gracefully with minimal central administration, we need a similar approach to enabling problem solving at scale for our most intractable problems.

As we continue to evolve through the third decade of the 21st century, many of our biggest challenges in society and business still originate directly from our inability to creatively collaborate and solve many paramount cross-border problems (pandemics, climate change, availability of water and food, and more). Let’s think in terms of essential resource examples: Optimization of any resource illustrates the value of shared systems and data.

In the early 1960s, Buckminster Fuller said that we had the food and ingenuity to feed the entire world; we just lacked the will. Feeding the world was too hard because it involved rethinking everything. So, we let food rot in fields and—yes—in silos, while humans starved.

Today, the “farm to table” phenomenon suggests that decentralized, distributed systems are the path out of our dilemma. Ditto for distributed energy systems where my excess renewable power goes back to the grid to become your power. But do we really understand what it will take to leverage digital technology for common and collaborative good?

What’s the lesson?

What do isolationist nationalism and digital-transformation failure share? Human fear and the need to maintain control, however fantastical those things may actually be.

Religion and science? Centralized versus decentralized? Things always change. The pendulum doth swing and opposing forces must be aligned. The two thrusts need to be mutually supportive without inhibiting one or the other. Governments don’t exist to only control people and enterprises don’t exist only to make money. Governments exist to help people and businesses exist to make money by solving problems. And wow, do we ever have those: Climate change from our past “externalities,” hungry people without food, thirsty people without water, cities with crumbling infrastructure, healthcare systems that don’t work, unprecedented levels of inequality everywhere.

The only thing in the way is us. ♦

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