Backbone 409

Decentralisation and its discontents

Keywords: autonomy, individualization, collectivization, mutual aid

Summary: This roundtable will discuss the consequences of decentralising technical architectures and how this impacts the provision of services. On the one hand, decentralisation may provide added protection from repression. On the other, it may make it more difficult to maintain robust services in the face of spam and other attacks. How do we strike a balance between the desire for autonomy and the increasing need for specialisation and reliance on other individuals and collectives?

Levy's 1984 definition of the hacker ethic includes "mistrust authority — promote decentralization". 1 The tenet still rings true in the techno-activist world. However, technical and political discussions often jump too quickly to decentralisation as a desirable techno-political objective.

This roundtable discussion will debate the political effects of decentralised technical architectures. How do they change the setting for our shared values of autonomy, mutual aid and self-organisation? Many radical technology collectives and activist coders realise the undesirable power differential between "users" and "administrators", but is giving users the means of production enough? Decentralised architectures surely change the role of techies in the ecology of activist work.

Decentralised systems may be harder to control. This comes handy against repression and censorship but it also means that they are harder to support, harder to verify their correctness and review their configurations, and may ultimately be harder to provide the data integrity expected from current activist servers. Moreover, many proposals are technically susceptible to spam, Sybil attacks, and rogue nodes running tempered versions of the software. The trust which is currently invested in activist providers would have to be distributed somehow together with the technical solutions.

The question boils down to how we imagine autonomy: is it the autonomy of individuals or the autonomy of movements, networks, scenes and collectives? Can mutual aid include specialisation and reliance on other individuals and collectives? Ultimately, is personal hosting and trustless services liberal ideas for a society of alienated individuals, or the tools for the commonisation of technological power?

The inspiration for the proposal was drawn from the Unlike Us #3 conference, especially the Unlikely Outcomes research project coordinated by Seda Gürses.


  1. Levy, Steven. 1984. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Anchor Press, Doubleday. ↩