Internet centralization is inevitable, and may even be good

Here is something about the “logic” of the Internet that we should not ignore.

Internet centralization is inevitable, and may even be good /img/barlow-og-cyberspace_0.jpg

Early proponents of the internet saw it as something that would free people from physical constraints, and centralized, controlling powers of any kind.

So far, the opposite has happened: the cyberspace has not made states obsoletes, (quite the contrary, actually). Borders between nations or other powers have not disappeared, but are now “reflected in cyberspace”. Most web traffic is a gracious concession of a handful of “websoft giants.

This trend, says one section of the REALLY great article I am commenting today, reveals that the internet is “technology of centralization”, regardless of everything the advocates of personal clouds me included! have been saying for years.

The starting point of that thesis is a thought-provokind definition of the internet: “One of the core functions of the internet is to record material of human interest in digital format”.

But that, and this is the point, is information that individuals cannot access and would not know how to use anyway, because it would be almost useless isolated: that information “is only useful en masse - in other words, only insofar as it makes us legible and visible to centralized institutions”.

Therefore, behemots like Amazon or Facebook would be a natural, just and necessary result of that “real logic”: if the internet is not centralized, it is useless. Equally inevitable, then, would be this other insight:

“This kind of information asymmetry has strong political implications: what is [centrally] legible is eventually regulated."

The article goes on to say that individuals will never be able to gain such a power, in spite of any efforts of decentralization advocates to push in the opposite direction:

“the internet cannot be anything but a centralizing force, so long as there are groups that are situated to disproportionately benefit from that which it renders visible. We should expect the hackers and cyber-visionaries to remain in the fringe, while the interests of governments and large companies dominate the use and development of web technologies”.

What can we do then?

The centralized internet of today has and creates huge problems to society. I won’t even add links here, because half of this site covers them. But if decentralization is a naive dream, what remains?

The article basically says “accept centralization, because not only it won’t go away, but it can and should be good." What we should aspire to, that is, is a “thriving and centralized internet”.

More specifically:

  • states and companies are creating new ideological tools to determine what the internet should look like.
  • Many aspects of human life are better off centralized

To make the point, the article remembers the effects of the printing press: it reduced the Catholic Church’s control over intellectual institutions, and allowed more centralization by state bureaucracies. But hardly anybody would deny that overall, the benefits of the printing press vastly outweigh its costs.

The conclusion is that, when it comes to the internet, “we may be better off looking to see what institutions are best positioned to wield these technologies, and to what ends, and seek to ensure that they are put to good use."

I have no doubts that some things works better for the common good when centralized. I am still as sketptical about bottom-up mesh networks replacing telecom providers, as I was in 2008, for example.

In general, the problem is subsidiarity, that is when and where to draw the line between what individuals can, and therefore really should do better by themselves, and what must be left to centralized organization. A problem simple to name, very hard to solve. Articles like that help to look in the right direction.