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Decentralization: Why Dumb Networks Are Better – Article by Andreas Antonopoulos

Decentralization: Why Dumb Networks Are Better – Article by Andreas Antonopoulos

The New Renaissance Hat
Andreas Antonopoulos
March 8, 2015
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“Every device employed to bolster individual freedom must have as its chief purpose the impairment of the absoluteness of power.” — Eric Hoffer

In computer and communications networks, decentralization leads to faster innovation, greater openness, and lower cost. Decentralization creates the conditions for competition and diversity in the services the network provides.

But how can you tell if a network is decentralized, and what makes it more likely to be decentralized? Network “intelligence” is the characteristic that differentiates centralized from decentralized networks — but in a way that is surprising and counterintuitive.

Some networks are “smart.” They offer sophisticated services that can be delivered to very simple end-user devices on the “edge” of the network. Other networks are “dumb” — they offer only a very basic service and require that the end-user devices are intelligent. What’s smart about dumb networks is that they push innovation to the edge, giving end-users control over the pace and direction of innovation. Simplicity at the center allows for complexity at the edge, which fosters the vast decentralization of services.

Surprisingly, then, “dumb” networks are the smart choice for innovation and freedom.

The telephone network used to be a smart network supporting dumb devices (telephones). All the intelligence in the telephone network and all the services were contained in the phone company’s switching buildings. The telephone on the consumer’s kitchen table was little more than a speaker and a microphone. Even the most advanced touch-tone telephones were still pretty simple devices, depending entirely on the network services they could “request” through beeping the right tones.

In a smart network like that, there is no room for innovation at the edge. Sure, you can make a phone look like a cheeseburger or a banana, but you can’t change the services it offers. The services depend entirely on the central switches owned by the phone company. Centralized innovation means slow innovation. It also means innovation directed by the goals of a single company. As a result, anything that doesn’t seem to fit the vision of the company that owns the network is rejected or even actively fought.

In fact, until 1968, AT&T restricted the devices allowed on the network to a handful of approved devices. In 1968, in a landmark decision, the FCC ruled in favor of the Carterfone, an acoustic coupler device for connecting two-way radios to telephones, opening the door for any consumer device that didn’t “cause harm to the system.”

That ruling paved the way for the answering machine, the fax machine, and the modem. But even with the ability to connect smarter devices to the edge, it wasn’t until the modem that innovation really accelerated. The modem represented a complete inversion of the architecture: all the intelligence was moved to the edge, and the phone network was used only as an underlying “dumb” network to carry the data.

Did the telecommunications companies welcome this development? Of course not! They fought it for nearly a decade, using regulation, lobbying, and legal threats against the new competition. In some countries, modem calls across international lines were automatically disconnected to prevent competition in the lucrative long-distance market. In the end, the Internet won. Now, almost the entire phone network runs as an app on top of the Internet.

The Internet is a dumb network, which is its defining and most valuable feature. The Internet’s protocol (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol, or TCP/IP) doesn’t offer “services.” It doesn’t make decisions about content. It doesn’t distinguish between photos and text, video and audio. It doesn’t have a list of approved applications. It doesn’t even distinguish between client and server, user and host, or individual versus corporation. Every IP address is an equal peer.

TCP/IP acts as an efficient pipeline, moving data from one point to another. Over time, it has had some minor adjustments to offer some differentiated “quality of service” capabilities, but other than that, it remains, for the most part, a dumb data pipeline. Almost all the intelligence is on the edge — all the services, all the applications are created on the edge-devices. Creating a new application does not involve changing the network. The Web, voice, video, and social media were all created as applications on the edge without any need to modify the Internet protocol.

So the dumb network becomes a platform for independent innovation, without permission, at the edge. The result is an incredible range of innovations, carried out at an even more incredible pace. People interested in even the tiniest of niche applications can create them on the edge. Applications that only have two participants only need two devices to support them, and they can run on the Internet. Contrast that to the telephone network where a new “service,” like caller ID, had to be built and deployed on every company switch, incurring maintenance cost for every subscriber. So only the most popular, profitable, and widely used services got deployed.

The financial services industry is built on top of many highly specialized and service-specific networks. Most of these are layered atop the Internet, but they are architected as closed, centralized, and “smart” networks with limited intelligence on the edge.

Take, for example, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), the international wire transfer network. The consortium behind SWIFT has built a closed network of member banks that offers specific services: secure messages, mostly payment orders. Only banks can be members, and the network services are highly centralized.

The SWIFT network is just one of dozens of single-purpose, tightly controlled, and closed networks offered to financial services companies such as banks, brokerage firms, and exchanges. All these networks mediate the services by interposing the service provider between the “users,” and they allow minimal innovation or differentiation at the edge — that is, they are smart networks serving mostly dumb devices.

Bitcoin is the Internet of money. It offers a basic dumb network that connects peers from anywhere in the world. The bitcoin network itself does not define any financial services or applications. It doesn’t require membership registration or identification. It doesn’t control the types of devices or applications that can live on its edge. Bitcoin offers one service: securely time-stamped scripted transactions. Everything else is built on the edge-devices as an application. Bitcoin allows any application to be developed independently, without permission, on the edge of the network. A developer can create a new application using the transactional service as a platform and deploy it on any device. Even niche applications with few users — applications never envisioned by the bitcoin protocol creator — can be built and deployed.

Almost any network architecture can be inverted. You can build a closed network on top of an open network or vice versa, although it is easier to centralize than to decentralize. The modem inverted the phone network, giving us the Internet. The banks have built closed network systems on top of the decentralized Internet. Now bitcoin provides an open network platform for financial services on top of the open and decentralized Internet. The financial services built on top of bitcoin are themselves open because they are not “services” delivered by the network; they are “apps” running on top of the network. This arrangement opens a market for applications, putting the end user in a position of power to choose the right application without restrictions.

What happens when an industry transitions from using one or more “smart” and centralized networks to using a common, decentralized, open, and dumb network? A tsunami of innovation that was pent up for decades is suddenly released. All the applications that could never get permission in the closed network can now be developed and deployed without permission. At first, this change involves reinventing the previously centralized services with new and open decentralized alternatives. We saw that with the Internet, as traditional telecommunications services were reinvented with email, instant messaging, and video calls.

This first wave is also characterized by disintermediation — the removal of entire layers of intermediaries who are no longer necessary. With the Internet, this meant replacing brokers, classified ads publishers, real estate agents, car salespeople, and many others with search engines and online direct markets. In the financial industry, bitcoin will create a similar wave of disintermediation by making clearinghouses, exchanges, and wire transfer services obsolete. The big difference is that some of these disintermediated layers are multibillion dollar industries that are no longer needed.

Beyond the first wave of innovation, which simply replaces existing services, is another wave that begins to build the applications that were impossible with the previous centralized network. The second wave doesn’t just create applications that compare to existing services; it spawns new industries on the basis of applications that were previously too expensive or too difficult to scale. By eliminating friction in payments, bitcoin doesn’t just make better payments; it introduces market mechanisms and price discovery to economic activities that were too small or inefficient under the previous cost structure.

We used to think “smart” networks would deliver the most value, but making the network “dumb” enabled a massive wave of innovation. Intelligence at the edge brings choice, freedom, and experimentation without permission. In networks, “dumb” is better.

Andreas M. Antonopoulos is a technologist and serial entrepreneur who advises companies on the use of technology and decentralized digital currencies such as bitcoin.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

The Extraordinary Business of Life – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The Extraordinary Business of Life – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
May 25, 2013
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I heard it again from this year’s commencement speaker: the common mistake of thinking economics is just about business and making money. I know I’m not the only economics teacher who every year has to disabuse his students (and many of his own colleagues from other disciplines) of that same error.

Economics is not business administration or accounting. Economics is a science that studies how people interact when the means at their disposal are scarce in relation to their ends. That includes business, of course, but a whole lot more as well.

Where Does That Notion Come From?

Well, for starters, perhaps from one of the greatest economists in history, Alfred Marshall. He opens his highly influential textbook, first published in 1890, with this statement:

“Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing.” (Emphasis added)

This definition more or less prevailed until 1932, when another British economist, Lionel Robbins, defined economic science as being concerned with an aspect of all human action insofar as it involves making choices, not with a part of individual action. Economics, in other words, is the science of choice. Its starting point is not the “material requisites of wellbeing” but a person’s subjective valuation of her circumstances. Ludwig von Mises got it, which is why he called his magnum opus, simply, Human Action.

Similarly, Libertarianism Isn’t Pro-Business

An equally common mistake is to think that supporters of the free market are “pro-business” and favor so-called crony capitalism. But a consistent free-market supporter is neither pro-business nor anti-business, pro-labor nor anti-labor. A free market to us is what happens when you safeguard private property, free association, and consistent governance and then just leave people alone.

Part of the misunderstanding here might stem from the term “free market” itself. Since people tend to associate markets with buying and selling, jobs, and making (and losing) money, it’s perhaps understandable that they would think that advocates of the free market must be concerned mainly about business-related stuff: profits and losses, efficiency, and creating and marketing new products.

Indeed, I’ve met quite a few who claim to favor “free-market capitalism” merely because they believe in making as much money as possible in their lifetimes. It’s not surprising that many of these folks do tend to be pro-business and supporters of crony capitalism. I want to ask them not to be on my side.

Connotations aside, the free market encompasses far more than the stuff of business or a money-making scheme. Yes, it does include the essentials of private property, free association, and stable governance. But a dynamic market process that generates widespread material prosperity and promotes the pursuit of happiness would not be possible if it were based solely on the relentless pursuit of one’s narrow self-interest. Markets would not have gotten as far as they have today (with per-capita GDP up more than fiftyfold since 1700) if people didn’t also follow norms of honesty and fair play, trust and reciprocity. Such norms are without question partly the result of self-interest; few would trade with us if we weren’t honest and fair. But, as Adam Smith taught us, these norms also arise in large measure from a sense of sympathy, of fellow-feeling and fairness, that comes from our ability to see others as we see ourselves, and vice versa. This is why in most contexts I usually prefer the term “free society” to “free market.”

Bourgeois Virtue

But I think one good reason the association between business on the one hand and economics and classical liberalism on the other has been so persistent is that business and the free society arose together. That is, the liberal idea—that certain fundamental individual rights exist prior to and apart from the State—sparked one of the most momentous social changes in history: the commercial revolution and the emergence of the modern urban middle class. 

The triumph of liberty, of personal freedom, unleashed the creative potential of people, who found expression in art, religion, literature, but most of all—or at least most visibly—in the Marshallian “ordinary business of life.” The changes that have taken place in the past 500 years—scientific revolutions, religious reformations, political upheavals, artistic rebirths—were driven by the same human propensities as the commercial revolution and fueled by the wealth it produced. Indeed, the social and political changes of the past century—for women, workers, and minorities—would not have been possible without the entrepreneurial pressures of competition and innovation that forced radical changes in conventional thinking and socially conservative attitudes.

Tradition’s Worst Enemy

In short, business is the most dynamic social institution known to mankind. The critical and competitive attitudes that enable business to flourish erode custom and break old ties even as they foster new ones. The products of business tend to offend people whose sensibilities were refined by generations of tradition. The free market is tradition’s worst enemy.

Business has become part of the default mode of modern society. We take it for granted. We don’t realize what a radical, subversive force it is, to the point where it sounds strange to say so. But try to imagine a world without businesses and commerce. A world like the Dark Ages of, say ninth century Western Europe: static, grindingly poor, strictly hierarchical, socially intolerant, and, apart from the occasional battle or beheading, boring like you wouldn’t believe.

So, while it’s still a mistake to think economics and classical liberalism are somehow about studying and promoting business, maybe at a deeper level it’s not such a bad one to make after all. Business is subversive.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.