Created by Badriel on Deviant

Will Technology Decentralize Power?

This essay originally appeared on my website. See the tweetstorm here.

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).

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?

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.

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.

The Internet is destabilizing liberalism

Palladium’s opening essay defines liberalism as

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.