By now, most of us have heard that Web3 is going to “decentralize” the Internet, to break it out of the control of “Big Tech.” Many of us have likely been getting ready for a Teams or Zoom call, or using some collaborative tool, while we were hearing that promise. Does this seem like a contradiction in the making? Communications and collaboration are definitely centralizing, so how can Web3 decentralize them? To find out, we need to dig a bit into both.
Whether we’re doing a multi-party video call or cooperatively editing a document, the presumption of “collaboration” is that we’re working together. If we’re not physically together, then the things each of us are doing have to be communicated to the others involved. On a Zoom or Teams call, we see and hear each of the others, and each of us can control whether our cameras are active, our microphones are muted, and our screens are shared. There’s a server somewhere in the cloud that’s collecting all our feeds and creating a common point of data control.
Effective collaboration really depends on this central process . For one thing, can you imagine how difficult it would be to establish two-way video connections with every collaborative partner and somehow organize the screen to display and update each separate video feed? Even a dozen partners would be a chore, and for a big collaborative event...forget it.
Central control may be most important in how it relates to identity and conference rights. In the “centralized” model, the people on our hypothetical call have to receive an invite, sign on, and go through some level of authentication. How do we authenticate a caller on a decentralized call? There’s no central process, so either every individual user has to separately accept the new collaborator, or somebody has to do so on behalf of the group. The first option is intrusive even for our hypothetical dozen-person call. The second means we’ve kind-of-recentralized.
Oh, but you might say, our new collaborator is validated by blockchain! Not so fast.
First, even if we assume that we could establish the new collaborator’s identity with blockchain, does knowing who they are mean they’re invited on the call? Identity assurance doesn’t equate with access rights, and can we accept blockchain processing for every conference entry and exit? Bet there are a lot of companies out there, eager for competitive intelligence, who would be happy to have one of their blockchain-validated people join your product planning call. This leads to the next question: Can blockchain validate an identity at all? Suppose you’re just setting up your virtual identity, so you’re going to create a blockchain-you. Who assigns it? The popular material on distributed identity management via blockchain says that users would create their digital identity using an “identity wallet,” i.e. an application that generates an identity blockchain. But whose identity is being created? We don’t let people create their own passports or drivers licenses, because there’d be no assurance the person is who they say they are. Blockchain is no different.
Once you have your blockchain identity in your wallet, you can add information like credit cards and bank accounts. What prevents you from entering your rich uncle’s bank account and credit card? Credit card companies and banks, logically, but isn’t appealing to an institution to curb financial fraud reinstating a type of data centralization? Even your demographic information, the stuff that advertisers would rely upon to offer you free services in return for viewing ads, could be totally false if it’s provided by the individual and isn’t credibly validated by another entity.
The point here is that even the simple concept of identity requires authority to back it, and authority implies centralization. The national government issues passports, the state government issues drivers licenses, and your bank issues you a debit card . It’s the centralization that makes all these processes work because it’s what lets you and others trust the relationship between a document, a person, and associated rights. The same material that talks about decentralized identity then goes on to talk about how it would be verified by this or that agency. Sounds like decentralization is centralized big tech in a brown paper bag .
And we’re not done with issues yet. Web3 is built around blockchain, and so is the seemingly onrushing metaverse. Could we be looking at a collaborative future where, instead of my having to dress up, shave, and comb my hair to appear on a Zoom or Teams call, I simply call up an appropriate avatar? I’ve talked to a lot of Teams/Zoom users who think that would be great, but think about this point; how would someone know that the avatar presenting itself as me was actually being controlled by me? On a real call, you’d see my image and if you recognized me, you could be reasonably sure of my identity. In a metaverse, it’s not so easy.
If “decentralization” is the primary benefit of Web3, then we have some work to do in making it work for collaboration. Collaboration without central coordination—a “peer” process—is going to demand a distributed model of collaborative management that we don’t have. It’s also going to need some really reliable, believable , way of assuring that everyone is who they say they are, and that everyone’s assets are protected from intrusion. It’s not impossible to do this, but it’s hard to see how it can be done without reinventing “big tech” and recentralizing on it.
I’m not saying that these issues couldn’t be resolved, only that waving a wand and saying “decentralization” isn’t going to solve them. Hybrid work and work from home are fixtures now, things not likely to go away. Business travel for physical meetings isn’t an automatic choice, and so collaborative tools are going to be critical for a very long time. Collaboration suggests that “collective” processes may be inherently “centralized,” and if Web3 wants to change the way we work, it’s going to have to deal with that point effectively.