Help, I’ve been atomized! Obliterated! Shattered and scattered in the cyber-ether! My corporate overlords have heard the call: “Decentralized” is the new “disrupted.” It’s not just about putting stuff “on the blockchain” anymore—it’s fuzzier than that, hipper, more notional. Whatever can hold without a center, must. Ditch the banks for crypto; crowdsource justice; blow up Zuck’s public square. Is this what freedom looks like—dispersed floaters in an uncharted sea? At least disrupt started off as a compact, muscular verb, an implicit call to arms. Now it’s been traded for polysyllabic corporatese, a negation (de-) of an abstraction (centralize). I like Angela Walch’s formulation. She’s the legal scholar who refers to the “veil of decentralization,” a way for companies to obscure responsibility for their creations. Got hacked? Sorry to hear—take it up with our distributed consensus algorithm. Yes, it’s nice to imagine online life as a zero-gravity zone, untethered from the giants, governed by the immutable laws of cryptography. Generally speaking, I’m all for calling out institutions when they get corrupt or stupid or lazy. The trouble happens when these ideals collide with my life offline. Like everyone else, I’m anchored to this thing called the real world. A physical being, I rely on other people—mail carriers, city councils, health care workers—bound by navigable networks. I need nodes and mediators, accessible points of entry. (If you’d like to see man at his most helpless, check in with me after I lose the keys to my bitcoin.) So you see? If Angry Nerd gets decentralized, where do readers send hate mail? It goes everywhere and nowhere. Don’t expect a reply.
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