The Breakthrough For Distributed Computing May Be More Than Technological
Since the launch of Bitcoin more than 10 years ago, there has been growing interest in and around the concept of decentralized and distributed computing platforms (DCPs). Much of this interest has focused on the development of novel digital currencies, commonly referred to as “cryptocurrencies.” Many of these cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin and the popular Ethereum, make use of cryptographic ledgers to verify and reconcile transactions between participants. These ledgers, known as blockchains, are maintained, and operated by independent networks of computers. The actions of these networks are largely automated, spelled-out in vast collections of computer code authored by the project’s founders. Naturally, as with any technology, the industry’s players are always trying to anticipate what is next. As it relates to cryptocurrencies, the industry is currently working on new ways to use blockchains for much more than simple bookkeeping.
The industry’s latest efforts have centered around expanding the utility of the autonomous computer networks that form the foundation of many blockchains. Early projects focused on building lightweight applications on blockchains, with the code executed by the resources of the underlying computers. Recent projects have been more ambitious, working to increase the blockchain’s capabilities to resemble more closely those of a shared virtual computing environment. These computing environments can execute complex code, enabling the blockchains to host robust applications for services like domain names and digital currency exchanges. There are also groups working on full-featured web applications that run on enhanced blockchains, including social networks, ride sharing, vacation rental and subscription video.
So what is next? Very recent projects, and those with the potential to shift the landscape of decentralized computing, are working to augment blockchains with novel data distribution systems. These systems work by utilizing the devices connected to blockchains and other specialized networks to store and transmit data. This data, in the case of a social network app, could be in the form of images, audio and video related to posts. As expected, these largely peer-driven data systems can increase the performance of blockchain-based applications, which, as a by-product of their overall design, are ill-equipped to handle the storage and transfer of large files. Peer-drive data systems can also decrease the resources needed for content delivery, especially for applications that deal extensively with video, as in the case of blockchain-based alternatives to YouTube and Netflix. Yet, as it relates to the DCP space as a whole, there are even more impressive projects looking to decentralize significant portions of the World Wide Web’s existing infrastructure.
In fact, entire ecosystems of decentralized applications and services are starting to emerge, built around the capabilities of enhanced blockchains and peer-driven data systems. These ecosystems can be thought of as their own webs, ones in which the resources needed for services like domain names, network addresses, data storage, payments, content delivery, user authentication, web and application hosting, are provided by the underlying networks of computers. The computers, in this case, are the personal computers and mobile devices of the users accessing those very same services. The code that makes all this possible is vastly complex, parts of which are only understood by a handful of brilliant computer scientists. Since the code for most DCP projects is open source, it has highly likely been evaluated and tested by a global community of developers and engineers. As a result, the code operates nearly free of the bugs and security holes common to many centralized, closed-source application. Furthermore, many DCP projects borrow code from other projects, as such each project can be thought of as containing the best and most refined pieces of code from other projects.
The more critical factor as it relates to DCP projects, however, is the broader consideration of what is driving growth in this space. It is probably safe to assume that the majority of projects are not purely academic. But if the overall measure of success for these projects is gauged by the number of users, and the data indicates that most users are satisfied with the current offerings from Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google, at what point will these projects be deemed successful and worthy of the billions invested? More to the point, most users are not going to simply jump ship because an application touts itself as being decentralized or distributed. Especially given that most users have invested considerable time in what they are currently using, and what they are currently using, at least in their eyes, works just fine.
There is the idea that DCP projects may be leveraging the enormous popularity of Bitcoin, which has caught the attention of even large institutional investors and numerous publicly traded companies. There is also the consideration that DCP projects typically fall within the purview of what is referred to as the crypto community, many of whom were early holders of Bitcoin. Therefore, it is entirely possible that these early holders of Bitcoin, who are now flush with cash, see DCP projects as relative bargains. The rational being that since nearly all DCP projects feature some type of cryptocurrency, any one of them could be the next Bitcoin. Yet these reasons, as compelling as they might be, are not by themselves sufficient to justify the goal of many DCP projects. That goal being, of course, the recreation of the very web itself. A goal that would require gaining the support of millions of even billions of users, a milestone that only a handful of the world’s largest tech companies have achieved. Any project that is able to garner this type of support from users, will certainly be worth the billion or even trillion-dollar valuation it entails for its stake holders.
The reason for the growing investment in DCP projects, and the justification for their huge valuations relative to user numbers, could be as much psychological as it is technological. Consider that for a large percentage of users, moving to these platforms may present a risk, one that weighs on their psyche in a unique way. Most users are only now, after more than a decade of online banking, socializing, dating, worshiping and traveling, comfortable with the idea of handling most of their daily affairs online. Consequently, these same users have become accustomed to the fact that the bulk of their personal information is stored online. Are DCPs then mistakenly anticipating that millions of users are going to move a significant portion of their online identity to a new platform simply because it is decentralized and distributed? Most users are not familiar with these terms, and it may not be obvious what a decentralized or distributed application can do that centralized applications cannot. Nevertheless, there’s Bitcoin, which was basically created out of thin air and is now worth almost a trillion dollars. Add to this, a number of DCP projects that are raising huge amounts of capital and worth billions, based on the presumption that millions of normal users are going to be moving to these platforms in the not-so-distant future.
When there are multiple groups vying to be the first, as is the case with competing DCP projects, there is usually a breakthrough that will result in one group becoming the frontrunner. There is a small possibility that this breakthrough, at least as it relates to the nascent DCP space, will not be purely technical in nature. After all, the Bitcoin blockchain, when compared to today’s DCP projects, is relatively outdated, even considering the constant development around the improvement of transaction speeds. Yet Bitcoin is still worth a tremendous amount of money, due predominantly to the growing number of users who are demanding Bitcoin despite its technological shortcomings. As much as competing DCPs would like to believe that users will flock to their respective platform because of some technical feature, they may be missing part of the equation.
That is because for many users, the allure of decentralized applications may be unrelated to any technical benefit they provide or problem they fix. Early adopters of Bitcoin, for instance, were not looking at the platform as an investment vehicle; rather, they were looking at it as a currency. And in the case of Bitcoin, a digital currency that would provide a greater degree of privacy and anonymity when exchanging money, not unlike physical currency. But privacy and anonymity from whom exactly? Certainly, there are users of Bitcoin who want to use it for criminal activity, thus off the radar of law enforcement. But the new crop of Bitcoin enthusiasts may be drawn to the platform for a different reason. Coincidentally, it may be the same reason on which DCPs are unwittingly betting, and something that most users are only willing to discuss in private. Because for a significant and growing number of users, the reason is that they no longer trust in centralized systems of control. Which in the case of the United States and other developed nations, means systems that derive primarily from the closely aligned interests of government and big tech.
There have been instances in which these factors have caused large groups of users to simply abandon a platform. To be sure, the users in these instances would not be considered tech savvy or early adopters. In fact, it’s safe to assume that most would consider these users the least likely to rapidly leave a platform in favor of another. Yet this fall, that is exactly what happened when millions of conservatives and republicans quickly migrated from Facebook and Twitter to Parler, putting aside any politics for the moment, it was impressive to witness this type of rapid user migration take place.
Millions of normal users — the same type that DCPs are looking to attract — up and abandoned years’ worth of digital identity in favor of a new platform that merely allowed them to speak freely without the risk of being censored. Did Parler offer some advantage or feature that Facebook and Twitter were missing? Not likely. In fact, the Parler web and mobile applications were arguably less refined and less secure than those of Facebook and Twitter. But what Parler did offer was a way for these users to avoid what they felt were the oppressive policies and actions of big tech. And when then President Donald J. Trump was, in their eyes, cheated out of the 2020 Presidential Election, Parler became a place where these users were protected from, and could therefore speak out against, what they perceived as the overreach of bureaucracy and industry.
Based on these observations, it is possible the breakthrough for DCPs won’t be the result of any groundbreaking achievement or technological advancement. It’s also possible the breakthrough won’t be from a new blockchain, distributed hash table or consensus algorithm. The millions of users that DCPs need to justify their lofty claims and huge valuations, do not necessarily care about these concepts. What’s driving people to Bitcoin is not just it’s massive price, it is an unease shared by many concerning the failure of governments to stabilize the value of their currencies amid uncertainty. The eventual frontrunner could very well be the DCP that learns how to appeal to a user’s emotions; specifically, the emotions stemming from their distrust in the alliance of government and big tech. And as was the case with the late Steve Jobs and his brilliant marketing of early Macintosh computers, in which he masterfully crafted advertisements depicting Apple’s devices as tools for breaking free of Orwellian-type oppression, more and more users are viewing decentralized applications as a way of avoiding this new alliance. As we saw with Parler, the DCP that officially earns the title of New Web, may be the one whose applications and services, in the hearts and minds of users, become synonymous with the nation of enhanced freedom.
The dWeb is the platform on which these platforms and services will be built. Pro-free speech applications like dSocial and dPress, where users can share their views and opinions without the fear of being censored. Services like dPay and dNames, where users can pay for and manage domain names without the need of centralized systems or agencies. Ride sharing platforms like dRide and music discovery services like dTunes, where drivers and artists earn the best rates for their hard work and creativity. The dWeb is an entire ecosystem of decentralized apps and services that will finally provide users the freedom they have been searching for. An ecosystem, we might add, that helps users avoid the perilous overreach of government and big tech.
- If you would like to learn more about the dWeb, please visit https://dwebx.org.
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Until next time,
Peeps Development Team