Decentralisation can fix digital – if we learn how to sell it

Decentralisation of technology is central to the success of digital. The problem is that no-one cares. How do we make them care?

Decentralised technology is great. You, quite literally, would not be reading these words right now if it didn’t exist. The distributed technology underlying the internet allows me to write these words from the south coast of England for a conference in Germany, which I was first invited to through liveblogging a conference in Exeter, which I found out about through a blog on the internet. Every link on that chain was facilitated by the decentralised tech that gave us the internet, the web, e-mail and blogging.

Martin has done a superb job of listing both the advantage of distributed tech, and some of the efforts underway to build new waves of it.

There’s only one problem: nobody cares. If you start talking about decentralised services to the average user, their eyes will glaze over. It’s too oblique to their day-to-day experience for most to engage with the idea. If you start talking about it to the average VC, they’ll put the chequebook away and start heading for the exits. They know that the big, big Unicorn wins aren’t there. The number of users who are technical – or technically aware – enough to care is pretty much a rounding error.

This fundamental disconnect between that which is important and that which people care about is our biggest problem.

The implicit advantages of decentralised technology

It’s not that people can’t see the advantages to us of distributed technology. For example, it’s unimaginable to us that we could open a web browser and only be able to see one company’s corner of the web. People would scoff if you said that we’d need separate e-mail apps for us to e-mail someone who uses a different internet provider. The success of the internet was built on these distributed systems, because it made it easy to pick up a software tool – usually the one that shipped with your computer – and get on with things.

And yet, we accept this from messaging providers and social networks without question.

The great trick of the startup business has been to create that sort of ease of use, but with centralised solutions. You can only WhatsApp or Messenger to other users on the same platform. I can’t open iMessage and send a message to a Telegram user. Their motivation for effecting this shift is obvious: when it all flows through their servers, they can extract value from every single message that passes through. Even less explicitly commercial products like iMessage still facilitate lock-in to the Apple ecosystem.

The early web was built in a distributed way because it was non-commercial. It was birthed of obscure government research bodies and academics, building something because they thought it would be useful.

And it was useful. Insanely useful. And so commercial businesses started building on top of it, and a handful realised that you could make a lot more money by subverting the decentralised nature of digital tech. If you can create a digital bottleneck through, say, search or social networking, you can charge people money to access it. You have created artificial scarcity in a digitally abundant space, and that’s a path to big money.

Paying the centralisation tax

Those of us outside this tiny bundle of giant tech firms actually suffer in this relationship in both aspects of our lives. In our private lives, information about who we are and what we do is being rapidly built up into digital ego that can be used to sell to us – or manipulate us. But in our business lives we find a small cadre of tech companies controlling the narrow gateways between us and our customers. They took an open, flat playing field and created gateways on it to their benefit, rather than ours. And they charge us a fee for every transaction we are now forced to pass through their artificial gateway.

Imagine you’ve built a business ferrying goods from one town to the next. And then, one morning, you wake up and discover that you can only carry on your business by passing through a narrow gate in a perviously open path, and paying Mr Sugarmountain of AspectTome a toll to pass through. You would be outraged. And yet, that is pretty much exactly the situation many businesses find themselves in now.

Back in the late 90s — when I was writing about “eBusiness” rather than digital or online — we talked about the internets’ ability to disintermediate; to cut out the middle man. The consumer can talk directly to the producer. Why would we need intermediaries? Oh, how wrong we were.

Two decades on it’s become clear that the internet has been the greatest producer of powerful intermediaries the world has known. Google and Facebook have such a grip on the advertising business between the two of them that they’re known in media circles as the duopoly. Medium has abandoned any pretence of being an open platform for content, and it walks the path to being a closed social network for content. Even Wikipedia has a centralising effect on knowledge, handing the power to define what is important to a small cadre of obsessives rather than the decentralised nature of the open web.

These centralised sites have done a fantastic, terrible job of persuading users that this is just the way the web works. We have to reverse that.

Don’t sell decentralisation, sell its benefits

If we let this stand, we squander the potential of digital, both creatively and commercially. And yet, as we’ve said, the users don’t care. So, it’s up to us to make them care.

Here’s the challenge. If we acknowledge that distributed systems and protocols are better for us, and actually create better platforms for financial success than do closed systems, then we need to find ways of creating products that sell the sizzle not the steak. No-one signed up for e-mail because of the joys of SMTP or IMAP transfer protocols. They signed up to send a letter instantly to anyone else on the internet.

The technology work is happening — and has been happening for years. What we now need is the product work, the marketing effort, to sell the benefits to people of using distributed systems without necessarily ever using those terms. Right now, we might just be at a rare infection point where a change is possible. People are distrustful of today’s gatekeepers. Facebook is, quite rightfully, being dragged through both the court of public opinion and the more formal legal systems of the world.

If we can start building products that allow us to use our data in distributed systems, while owning it ourselves, in a way that makes it easily portable, well. There’s an added appeal right now. “Network with anyone” and “own your own data” are a powerful couple of messages. The first will always work, we may only have a limited window for the second.

Building the technology is not enough. We need to sell it. And we need to build compelling, financially viable products on the top, to make it sustainable.

Are you up to that challenge?