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Promising potentials & unknown dangers of platform decentralization

As the future looks increasingly set to include platform decentralization, artist and programmer Gene Kogan spoke to Strelka Mag about the possible benefits and dangers that will likely come with it – along with the reality that much of its consequences are still unknown.

VJing stills (2013), Gene Kogan

Decentralization has become a buzzword in the media, as the tech industry aims to predict what the future holds when it comes to the way current platforms are run. Kogan, who recently visited the Strelka Institute with a workshop for The New Normal researchers, spoke about his predictions related to the concept.
Most technological platforms are currently highly centralized, with big tech companies making “most of the core design, usability, and permissions decisions – sort of everything about how their platforms are being used,” he explained.
The goal of decentralization, however, is to try to “figure out if there’s a way that many, many, many people can coordinate without central concentrations of decision-making power.”
More specifically, Kogan believes decentralization has the potential to “enable cooperation at a very, very large scale in a way that I think we haven’t really seen before.” That cooperation will be different to the kind of “forced cooperation” that is currently seen in a typical state model.

Gene Kogan. Photo by Timur Zolotoev / Strelka Institute

Although centralized systems of power are not necessarily “bad actors in principle,” they often seem to be that. But decentralization, according to Kogan, can come with the added benefit of making sure that certain kinds of abuse and discrimination that are present in such systems become “effectively impossible.”
However, decentralization will also come with drawbacks and challenges. “The thing about decentralization is that it removes censorship ability. So you can't censor something. You can't discriminate against things. And that's a big strength, but that's also a big weakness,” Kogan said.
But there is, it seems, a way to navigate around issues brought forth by a lack of censorship. “Decentralization doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no means of some sort of censorship... there’s two kinds of censorship. You can’t prevent a transaction, but you can make those transactions have enough layers of parameters – things that you can change – that effectively allow you to rescind certain kinds of behavior.”
And when it comes to any potential conflicts that may present themselves in a decentralized world, Kogan speculated that perhaps an arbitration role can be spread out among many people. “If you work those kinds of systems in, you have a way of having a sort of a policing element to it which can help mitigate the risks that all of us agree are problematic, but in a way that doesn’t concentrate power into some small group of hands which inevitably leads to lots of the kinds of problems that we see with tech companies today,” he said.

Still from Vertex Rivers (2011), Gene Kogan

Still, the fact remains that much of the impact of decentralization remains a mystery. “The funny thing is that I think a lot of the largest dangers are totally unknown because we've never had systems of mass cooperation.”
 

Decentralization and AI

Although it currently seems like decentralization and artificial intelligence are operating independently, Kogan believes that will soon change.
“Decentralization is important to AI because it provides one means of acquiring some sort of autonomy in the sense that it's not just something that's turned on or off by a human being,” he said.
“So I think they'll become more relevant to each other especially as decentralization systems mature and become much more capable of hosting things like AI which require a lot of computational power.”

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