The emergence of the decentralized stack

May 20, 2019

Many of the issues of the internet we encounter today, such as vendor lock-in, platform feudalism, large-scale internet black-outs, hacks or leaks, are in one way or another related to its increasingly centralized structure. On the one hand, governments are trying to reduce these risks through legislative measures and policies, on the other hand, computer scientists are looking into technical means that can help (re-)decentralize parts of the internet with the aim of dissolving central points of failure that are currently vulnerable to malfunction, coercion and corruption. Here we take a closer look at what decentralization means and how it can help resolve some of the current issues of the internet.

Our observations

  • On May 9th Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook published an opinion piece in which he calls for the break–up of Facebook due to its disproportionate concentration of power. Similarly, democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has already called for the break–up of big tech and is gaining more support from other candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.
  • In the last few years, quite a few projects (e.g. Solid, IPFS, Freenet, Zeronet, Blockstack, SAFE Network) have been developing open-source protocols, conventions and tools which try to realize data ownership, open data, privacy and decentralized applications.
  • Microsoft announced their decentralized identifier (DID) system called Identity Overlay Network (ION), which allows for a decentralized digital identity that users own and control, backed by self-owned identifiers that enable secure, privacy preserving interactions. By running on top of the Bitcoin blockchain and IPFS users do not have to rely on trusted third parties.
  • As written before, Facebook is also looking into the potential of decentralized tech. Mark Zuckerberg has mentioned that a decentralized identity management system could be achievable in the short term, whereas a decentralized alternative of Facebook is further away due to scalability issues. Furthermore, Facebook is presumably working on a crypto stablecoin named ‘Libra’ with the aim of facilitating all transactions on their platform.

Connecting the dots

From a systems theory perspective, decentralized systems have the characteristic property of being emergent in nature. In other words, instead of lower-level components falling under the control of a central actor, decentralized systems rely on lower-level components acting on local information which give rise to complex behavior at a collective level. The internet is just one example of such emergent behavior. In the book ‘The Starfish and the Spider’ by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, many parallels are drawn between digital, social and biological decentralized systems. For instance, the Apache tribe versus the Spanish colonizers shows a similar behavior as peer-to-peer file sharing networks prosecuted by the government. Both lack a central point of attack, are extremely flexible and grow more open, decentralized and resilient under external coercion.

From a political perspective, there are generally three reasons why one would choose to decentralize a system, whether digital or physical. The first one is to increase a system’s fault tolerance, i.e. to what extent a system fails accidentally. Since decentralized systems offer more redundancy, they are more tolerant when individual components fail. Secondly, decentralization helps improve attack resistance by making a system more costly to attack as it lacks vulnerable central points of attack. Lastly, decentralized systems make it harder for participants to collude, as they have to mobilize a large amount of autonomous actors in order to compromise the system.

However, in the case of digital systems, simply running an open-source protocol on as many nodes (i.e. connected computers) as possible, does not necessarily guarantee any of these aforementioned goals. After all, the operating nodes themselves could be owned by one corrupt actor or by a group of collaborating corrupt actors, the software could have a bug, the developers of the software could be corrupt and/or the computers running the node could be faulty. As it appears, one should consider the entire context and the different aspects that can be decentralized. Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, discerns three different dimensions of decentralization, namely to what extent a system is politically, logically and architecturally decentralized. The architectural dimension considers how many physical computers the system consists of. Political decentralization refers to how many individuals control the nodes in the system. Lastly, if the system behaves like an amorphous swarm instead of a large virtual computer, it can be considered logically decentralized.

Regarding the centralization of the internet at large, political, architectural and logical centralization can be found at different layers of the stack. Instances of government internet shutdown, ISPs compromising net neutrality and distrust in internet infrastructure (e.g. Huawei ) mainly relate to architectural and political centralization of internet communication infrastructures. However, issues surrounding big tech can largely be traced back to political, architectural and logical centralization at the application level. Even though the core protocols of the internet mostly guarantee decentralized data transmission (e.g. TCP/IP protocols), at the application level we see more centralized structures due to client-server protocols (e.g. hypertext transfer protocol) who grant considerable control to the application owner in terms of setting the application rules, controlling application resources and most importantly, having leverage over user data collection.

Joel Monégro refers to these applications as ‘fat applications running on thin protocols as most of the created value is accrued by the application. In contrast, he expects that permissionless blockchains could flip this model to ‘thin applications running on a fat protocol’, since user data is not controlled by the application layer, but is captured in a shared data layer at the protocol level, namely the blockchain itself. Furthermore, in order to compensate for the lack of a rent-seeking business model that we have grown accustomed to in centralized applications, permissionless blockchains have an integrated reward and penalty system. The built-in consensus protocol (e.g. Proof-of-Work or Proof-of-Stake) provides individual contributors with a stake in the network (e.g.through energy consumption, staking funds) which drives actors towards honest behavior, while the built-in token facilitates a reward system which incentivizes actors to contribute to the network. Thus, the value of the token is determined by the demand of the token which is a function of its usefulness. The consensus protocol in permissionless blockchain systems is thereby a form of logical centralization at the protocol level which stimulates political and architectural decentralization with the purpose of increasing trust and security in a network. Therefore blockchains are expected to become an important enabling factor in creating decentralized applications (dApps) and data marketplaces.

However, it is important to realize that the decision for a client-server architecture has not been an arbitrary one, as it allowed the internet to scale much faster and more efficiently. However, now that we are encountering the repercussions of this approach, users are looking for systems that have different trade-offs. As theblockchain trilemma highlights, blockchain systems compared to centralized ledgers, are sacrificing scalability for the purpose of achieving decentralization and security. After all, in order to become independent from central actors, these decentralized systems rely on enormous redundancy, as many of the resources have to be distributed across the network. However, looking at the many different solutions that are emerging, some willingly choose a less decentralized design in order to allow for more scalability (e.g. Bitcoin vs Bitcoin Cash). Some solutions also choose for more centralized control (e.g. government intervention) to mitigate the disadvantages of decentralization. For instance, censorship resistance is usually seen as an advantage of decentralization (e.g. within the context of dictatorial regimes), however it can also be unwanted in situations where harmful information is distributed (e.g. child pornography, social harassment). This shows that decentralization is not a binary quality and an end itself, but a continuum in which some solutions will makedifferent trade-offs, depending on the specific values and functionalities that are being pursued at the application level.

Lastly, the question arises as to why current dominant centralized actors would ever allow this decentralization trend to take place, as it could undermine their current business model. However, as we can already see, society at large is increasingly experiencing the disadvantages of an internet that is too centralized. Consequently, we can already see how big tech companies are pursuing and developing decentralized services to gain an advantage over their competitors (e.g. Microsoft) or they are simply being forced to implement decentralized tech to prevent being disrupted by it (e.g. Facebook).


  • As we rely more on ‘fat protocols’, the barriers to entry will be lower and will lead to more open innovation since more developers and applications have access to data, instead of a handful of dominant services. This will also have considerable consequences for the development of AI as its development is largely dependent on the large-scale availability of data.
  • Taking the blockchain trilemma into consideration, it is likely that we end up with a few complementary blockchains, each having a different trade-off in terms of scalability, security and decentralization, in order to facilitate the different qualities (secure value storage, high transaction density, government intervention) the broad spectrum of applications will need.
  • In the long term, with the expectation of peer-to-peer wireless connectivity to become cheaper, more capable and widespread, crypto-driven mesh networks could emerge, which could have considerable consequences for ISPs and governments seeking to control the flow of information at the communication infrastructure level.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Arief Hühn headed FreedomLab from 2018 until 2023, directing our research and business endeavors with a special emphasis on the impact of emerging digital technologies on the economy, politics and society. He holds a master's degree in communication sciences from Radboud University Nijmegen and a doctorate degree in human-computer interaction from Eindhoven University of Technology.

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