Will Technology Decentralize Power?
What will be the long run effect of technological progress on the distribution of power? Will governments and big tech companies closely cooperate to strengthen their control over society? Or can the cypherpunk dream of technology as a tool of individual freedom and privacy be realized?
These questions are discussed in The Centralized Internet Is Inevitable by Samo Burja and in this podcast featuring Burja and Palladium editor and cofounder Wolf Tivy. Their position is that the Internet is an inherently centralizing technology.
I’ll describe below how technology has already decentralized power to a large degree and why we might expect a continuation of this trend.
The Internet has decentralized control of information
Compare the information landscape in Western countries now to what it was in 1990. Today we have easier access to a wider variety of information and narratives, which are often more critical of large institutions and elites than the narratives people were exposed to in the past. This criticism has eroded the legitimacy of institutions and elites, as described by Martin Gurri in The Revolt of the Public (ten minute video version).
It’s a lot easier now for random members of public — you or me or anyone else — to challenge what scientists are saying, what journalists are saying, what politicians are saying. To just throw rocks at them and say, “You guys are full of shit”.
– Rob Wiblin in his excellent podcast with Gurri
In the pre-Internet era everyone was deplatformed by default. There were a limited number of TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers making it necessary for information distributors to exercise heavy curation. This gave information distributors cover to curate content partly based on its narrative. They wanted to distribute profitable content but they also wanted to trade favors with powerful people and institutions who didn’t like criticism.
The small number of information channels meant there was no room for niche content — it was most profitable to try to appeal to a broad swath of the population. The high costs of pre-Internet information distribution gave advertisers more leverage over content. Both of these factors limited anti-establishment narratives.
On the Internet almost everyone can have a platform, but it is still true that only a small percentage of people have a large platform. There’s still a fixed amount of attention to go around. Content on the Internet is implicitly filtered (everyone only sees a minuscule fraction of all content produced) but this filtering is done mostly based on popularity. There is some narrative-based filtering but far less than exists in legacy media.
So much information is produced on the Internet that people no longer need to ever return to the fold of mainstream narratives. Before the Internet, even if you were reading subversive books you still probably got much of your news from TV or newspapers. Today someone might get almost all of their understanding of what’s going on in the world and what it means from Joe Rogan, Eric Weinstein, Chapo Trap House, Scott Alexander, and Reddit.
Governments, the media, corporations, and educational institutions can no longer control which narratives are taken seriously and this is a direct result of the Internet.
Doesn’t this “decentralization” exist at the mercy of big tech?
One might object that most anti-establishment narratives spread via YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, which are all becoming increasingly powerful platforms. Isn’t this just a manifestation of a tendency toward centralization?
Control of information is decentralizing despite this because in a world of near-infinite information channels deplatforming someone is more conspicuous than in a world of few information channels. Traditional media platforms must always exercise judgment about who they broadcast because of limited space, and they can use these judgments to deplatform people for reasons that are not obvious.
On Internet platforms deplatforming is the exception and the act of doing it attracts attention and demands an explanation.
Tech platforms do impose some narrative filters on information. There have been coordinated deplatformings of Alex Jones and Gavin McInnes. Twitter recently prevented sharing of a story by the New York Post (a decision Twitter later said they were wrong to do), and Twitter sometimes puts warnings on tweets (including Donald Trump’s). Tech platforms have started instituting “soft” filters on some content by reducing the likelihood that it appears in users’ feeds. Recently YouTube said it would start deleting videos which claim that the 2020 US election results are fraudulent.
The censorship decisions of these companies are best understood as delicate balancing acts to avoid political heat — censor too much and the right becomes upset, censor too little and the left becomes upset (that tech companies are helping to spread alleged misinformation or hate).
It’s important to compare this narrative filtering with what existed before the Internet. The relevant question is whether the Internet is leading us toward more centralization than what existed before, not whether it’s leading us to more centralization than we think is ideal.
Jones and McInnes would never have had their narratives broadcast on mainstream media pre-Internet. Even after his deplatforming, Jones (via his site InfoWars) has almost ten times greater reach than The Economist. Jones’ most recent appearance on Rogan’s podcast has over 15 million YouTube views, 60% more views than the top rated network TV news show (ABC Nightly News).
What about China?
Network effects have led to most Internet communication being mediated by a small number of companies. China has shown us that if these companies are captured by a government the effect on power can be strongly centralizing. However there may be no plausible path for this sort of capture to develop in the West.
When the Internet was new the Chinese Communist Party was in a position of higher information control than Western governments. The CCP made a deliberate choice to maintain high information control over the course of the Internet’s rise and they’ve largely been successful. This took a lot of effort and planning.
Western countries made little effort to control the flood of information stemming from the Internet and as a result have suffered the crisis of institutional authority described above.
Maybe Western governments could have avoided this fate if they had acted sooner, but they’re now in a situation of reduced legitimacy and little control over the narratives their citizens are exposed to. Without these things it’s hard to enact and enforce the far reaching policies (restrictions on criticism of the government for instance) needed to transition to high information control over their citizens.
Rather than serve as an example of success to emulate, China’s rise may harden Western citizens’ resolve against authoritarian governance. When groups are in competition they often focus on and take pride in their differences. The narrative “In the West we are free, unlike in China” is appealing to Westerners and may become more so as conflict with China increases — recall the heightened pro-freedom sentiment in the US during the Cold War.
Power dynamics in the US
Even though the US government knows a lot about its citizens, its low information control and low legitimacy constrain the authoritarian actions it can take. For the US government to become significantly more powerful it would need to establish higher information control, which it could only achieve with the tech industry’s help.
However it is not in the interest of tech companies to help the US government become authoritarian. Such a system would lock tech companies into a subservient role, subject to the whims of the ruling party. Zuckerberg, Bezos, and Page have grand ambitions for their companies and do not want to be in the position of Jack Ma, who was likely forced out of Alibaba by the CCP and recently disappeared after criticizing them.
In the US the balance of power between tech companies, government, and citizens is more evenly distributed than in China, leading to more of a (temporary) stalemate. In the struggle between tech platforms and the US government the support of the public is critical, making both groups cautious about abusing their power.
The Internet is destabilizing liberalism
Palladium’s opening essay defines liberalism as
a political ideology that emphasizes a synthesis of individual rights, free markets, free speech, freedom of culture and religion, primacy of the individual over society, democracy, limited government, division of powers, checks and balances, and separation of church and state.
“Liberal” and “liberalism” will be used only in this sense below.
Broad acceptance of liberal principles in the West has served as a barrier against authoritarianism. These principles have not escaped the erosion of legitimacy described by Gurri. Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have found that “The citizens of wealthy, established democracies are less satisfied with their governments than they have been at any time since opinion polling began.”
Despite these changing attitudes, liberal Western democracies have mostly held firm. Freedom House’s comprehensive analysis of the rise of authoritarianism since 2006 finds that “The decade of decline has been principally characterized by a steady erosion of political institutions in established authoritarian countries, or in countries that were clearly headed in that direction.”
Hungary, Poland, and Turkey are often held up as concerning examples of democracies becoming more authoritarian, but these countries are culturally and historically different from the US and Western Europe in ways that make it unclear how far we can extrapolate their trends. Turkey is roughly 80% Muslim and liberalism has never become deeply ingrained there. Poland and Hungary have long histories of communist rule which only ended in 1989.
In liberal countries the Internet has created a new barrier to authoritarianism (increased distrust of government power) while simultaneously weakening an old barrier (endorsement of liberal values). It’s unclear what the overall effect of these opposing forces is on the likelihood that established liberal countries become authoritarian.
Even if the likelihood of authoritarianism in these countries increases, the size of this increase is critical for understanding how things will unfold. Because this likelihood was so low during the pre-Internet peak of Western liberalism, it would take a huge shift to make authoritarianism inevitable.
Immigration and liberalism
In Western countries liberal institutions and elites are far more in favor of large scale immigration than the public. This disconnect was a major factor behind the election of Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the U.K. The increases in authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary were aided by the unpopular immigration policies of the more liberal politicians who were displaced.
In general authoritarian-leaning politicians are getting a relative boost in popularity because of the unwillingness of liberal politicians to move more in line with the public on immigration. Yet liberal values are not inherently incompatible with stricter immigration policy. In the pre-Internet era elites could impose their immigration preferences on the public via their higher control of information channels, but they can no longer do so. Once liberal politicians fully internalize this lesson authoritarians may lose one of their best tools for gaining support.
Tools for resisting centralized power are becoming widespread
Digital privacy advocates had tried and failed to get people to use end-to-end encryption for decades. Technical challenges prevented the existence of user-friendly options and people didn’t care enough to go through the cumbersome process of using these tools.
This changed in 2010 with the release of TextSecure, which evolved into Signal. Signal uses end-to-end encryption, produces very little metadata, is open source, and is as easy to use as any other messaging app. Signal has become popular among protesters, the European Commission, and the UK’s ruling Conservative party.
WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging app, has integrated Signal’s technology and now two billion WhatApp users have end-to-end encryption enabled by default. Zoom, the world’s most used video conferencing software, just released their own end-to-end encryption feature in October 2020.
We are in the midst of a massive global rollout of end-to-end encryption. For the first time in history normal people are regularly communicating remotely in a way that governments and companies lack the power to listen in on.
Thousands of software developers and researchers are now working on another problem: creating a private, uncensorable form of digital money that’s easy to use and can support billions of users. If they succeed in separating money from the state it will make it much more difficult for authoritarian governments to control their citizens.
Cryptocurrency isn’t yet widespread 12 years after its creation and there are many unsolved problems, but progress is steadily being made and 12 years isn’t that long. It was 25 years between the release of PGP (difficult to use encryption software) and when end-to-end encryption became widely used. It was at least 20 years between the invention of the Internet and when its decentralizing effects on the flow of information became significant.
Can’t governments backdoor our software and hardware?
Western governments have tried since the 1990s to ban end-to-end encryption and have mostly failed, with the partial exception of Australia’s recent anti-encryption law. This law has been controversial and has been blamed for reducing the competitiveness of Australia’s tech industry.
I call this law a partial exception because Australians can still use end-to-end encryption via Signal and WhatsApp. It is not technically possible for the Signal team to comply with the law, so the Australian government’s options involve blocking Internet traffic to and from Signal servers or pressuring Apple and Google to remove Signal from their Australian app stores. They’ve done neither of these so far, and Signal’s blog post about this legislation reveals how to easily bypass both of these measures.
The situation in Australia is worth watching but we won’t get a good sense for whether Western countries could actually ban end-to-end encryption unless the Australian government makes a more serious effort to criminalize its use.
The US government has worked with tech companies to secretly get access to citizens’ cloud data and they have probably secretly backdoored some hardware but there are no US laws mandating that computer hardware contain government backdoors.
The most effective technique for governments trying to access data on an iPhone in their possession is trying every passcode combination. Users can protect themselves against this with long passcodes (10 digits will take about 12 years). There are many instances of the FBI and NSA failing to get into iPhones.
Governments may be able to hack into your phone remotely using sophisticated spyware if they can get you to click on a link, but probably not if you have the latest iPhone OS.
Given that the Internet has already stripped Western governments of much of their perceived authority, it’s far from clear that citizens will hand these governments the additional power they need to access all of our data. We are not yet living in an authoritarian state — Western politicians still fear the consequences of enacting and enforcing unpopular laws.
The Internet is making physical location less important
When humans were hunter-gatherers power was much more decentralized than it is today. One group could not rule over that many people both because the state of technology meant that the ability to inflict violence was proportional to the size of a group, and because the lack of permanent settlements made it easy for subgroups to leave.
The invention of agriculture allowed permanent settlements, caused the accumulation of large stores of wealth that were hard to move, and created economic network effects around physical locations. Whoever controlled a location could extract resources from those wanting to benefit from being near it. Our modern system of nations is a continuation of this trend.
The Internet is bringing us back to a situation where it’s less important to physically be in any one place. We can now get close to the center of economic and intellectual activity from any physical location. This increases competitive pressure on governments and tilts power toward individuals.
Balaji dives deeper into the power of exit in this talk.
Technology and power
Most technologies increase power across the full spectrum between large organizations and individuals, but they do so unevenly in ways that depend on the details of each technology.
Artificial intelligence becomes more effective the more data and computing power you have, so we should expect it to increase the power of large organizations more than smaller ones. The crossbow is an example of a technology which helped individuals more than large organizations — it enabled untrained peasants to effectively wield deadly force. Encryption and cryptocurrency also help to level the playing field between large organizations and individuals. We’ve seen how the Internet produces effects that shift power unevenly in both directions.
Because the distribution of power depends so much on the technological landscape, predicting the distribution of power depends to a large degree on predicting the future of technology. Such predictions have always been difficult but are especially so today given that we’re in a period of rapid technological progress.
Centralization is not inevitable
Whether power centralizes or decentralizes in the future depends on the specific details of current and future technology, the existing structure of power when this technology is developed, and many other difficult to analyze forces.
Weighing these forces against one another and predicting the future shape of power is an enormously complex task. Burja’s essay focused on several forces pushing us in the direction of centralization of power, but as we’ve seen there are other strong forces pushing in the opposite direction.
For those who prefer to avoid an authoritarian future it would be a mistake to prematurely accept that fate.
Thanks to Pasha Kamyshev, Natalia Dashan, Eric Jorgenson, Jack Purdy, Michiel Lescrauwaet, Christopher Wray, Jennifer Kesteloot, Hasu, and Mike Co for providing feedback on earlier drafts of this essay.