The Future is Decentralized

Let’s start with a bit of my background. In 2014, while I was doing my masters, I got introduced to the world of decentralization. My employer at that time had started a new company and had asked me to join. The goal was to create a language, a Domain-specific languages (DSL) if you like, with which business processes could be described. From these specifications we could generate models, databases, interfaces and last but not least, smart contracts.

Around 2012 was the first time I heard about Bitcoin. I didn’t think much of it at the time as to me it sounded like ‘digital money’. At that time I thought: “Isn’t most of our money digital?” At the end of 2013 the price of a Bitcoin briefly reached over 1000 dollars, which made some of my friends very happy. It was towards the end of 2014 where I finally became interested in Bitcoin. However, it was not because of the price, but because of the underlying technology: blockchain.

I was studying for my Masters in Software Engineering & Distributed Systems when my employer proposed a subject for my thesis: a decentralized Reddit. I read all the articles, books and documents I could find. We even organized a small conference where Andreas Antonopoulos was the keynote speaker. Often I found myself in discussions with friends and family on how amazing this new technology is and that soon it will be used for everything. I quit Facebook hoping that I would preserve any of my online privacy. We were talking about washing machines ordering their own detergent via smart contracts. Yes, I was very naive. On the other hand, people were talking about Bitcoin one day being worth 10k dollar, which seemed impossible to me.

During the research I found a lot of promising technologies. I looked at Distributed Hash Tables (DHTs) and their usage in BitTorrent, IPFS, Storj.io and Cjdns. I looked at Tor and I2P for anonymous browsing. DNS could be tackled by Namecoin or okTurtles. Keybase and Onename were the solutions for decentralized identities. BitTorrent Maelstrom, IPFS and ZeroNet were the future of browsing. Telehash, Tox and Bitmessage showed that messaging could be done as well. Social networks existed in the form of Diaspora, Twister, Aether and Synereo. And then there were OpenBazaar, Ethereum, Maidsafe and a couple more project that I forgot. All of this changed blockchain from ‘the technology that will safe the world’ to ‘another tool for decentralized systems’. One of the big conclusions I made in my thesis is the need for a global decentralized identity.

All the technologies I looked at felt so promising, but at the same time it was hard to see how any them would gain mainstream attraction. The technology was too complicated to be developer friendly, the installation and interface were not user-friendly, and the problems they tried to solve did not exactly match with what the big corporates are trying to achieve. That is, for the projects that came out of the theoretical and closed-beta stages. Most of these projects also suffer from needing a critical mass to become successful.

It has been 5 years, and a lot has happened since then. I left the company a year after my thesis was done and decided to work as a consultant software engineer. I have mostly worked on web and web-shop related projects, but I always kept an eye out for the decentralized technologies that caught my heart. IPFS is a technology I found myself going back to. I even gave some talks on it and spent some hacking days on it where I tried to improve npm by adding IPFS to distribute the libraries.

The technologies on the other hand have made a lot of progress. Of course there is the enormous diversification of blockchains and alternatives like IOTA. There is a spread of cryptocurrencies, and their value spiked around Christmas 2017 which made everybody see green instead of technologies. Bitcoin got a small identity crisis and split in two.

Looking at the practical side, not much has changed at all. I’m not using any decentralized technologies on a daily basis and neither is my mom. I haven’t worked with any company that is actively looking at decentralized technologies to be incorporated in their enterprise stack. I’m not using any new social medium, and I still use fiat currency for all of my banking.

There are developments that make me hopeful though. The Decentralized Identity Foundation got started and W3 is actively working on decentralized identifiers. The ecosystem of IPFS is growing every day and becoming more and more practical. Soon I’ll make this blog available over IPFS using a pinning service like pinata or textile (¿Por qué no los dos?), but more on that in another blog post.

I do not regret stepping out of the decentralized technologies. As a consultant you get the opportunity to see different companies from the inside. I learned about how things can go wrong, but I also learned a lot about the processes and dynamics around software development. However, I would love to get back to it as it feels like decentralization is actually going to make the world a better place, and I can contribute to it.