Decentralization: People before technology

Ricardo J. Méndez
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Decentralized technologies have the potential to transform the lives of ordinary people as much as they do computing infrastructure. In this article, Ricardo J. Méndez, Technical Director at Samsung NEXT, explains why this is crucial.

One of the greatest obstacles for the adoption of decentralization today is the gap between developers and their potential end users. Just because a tool is free and readily available, whether open source or in an app store of choice, doesn’t mean that non-tech-savvy users will understand how or why they should use it.

This is a fundamental, frustrating issue. Decentralized technologies have the potential to transform the lives of ordinary people as much as they do computing infrastructure. From blockchain to peer-to-peer web hosting, these systems promise to empower individuals and grant them greater agency, whether it is over their money, identity or data.

As a result, the communities that stand to gain the most from decentralization are likely to be those that have traditionally found themselves to be the most economically and politically disempowered. Take the example of cryptocurrencies, which are especially attractive to people living in unstable economies, something we’ve seen evidence of with the recent explosion of Bitcoin-trading in Venezuela. Or consider the work that Digital Democracy is doing with the Waorani in Ecuador, using peer-to-peer tools to help them map their territories and defend them from exploitation.

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A long way to go

But we can’t just appreciate the transformative potential of decentralized approaches, or build them because we feel they are technologically superior. We need to be clear on how much responsibility lies with those who develop, design and fund them. There’s a key responsibility that should inform the way we go about our work: we have to make sure these systems are accessible and understandable to those who could benefit from them the most.

The truth is, many of these systems are still a long way from being accessible to the average non-technical person. And if the decentralization community fails to appeal to the mass market, we risk true decentralization being relegated to a niche, while organizationally-centralized alternatives dress themselves in the trappings of decentralization and co-opt the narratives the community has been building.

To avoid this happening, there needs to be a dramatic shift in the way developers approach their work. We need to start considering not only usability but also more important issues of conceptual accessibility.

Usability and accessibility are key

Yes, usability is a prerequisite for the widespread adoption of any new tool. Thankfully we’ve come a long way in recent years in terms of the importance placed on user experience when developing new systems. In reality, however, usability is only one of several requirements for creating a tool that best serves the interests of the end user.

For a tool to be accessible, it needs to be both usable and comprehensible. Comprehensibility is essential because these tools and systems are the means by which end users access the wider world, and are therefore also a lens through which the world is viewed. Users need to understand the perspective that this lens imposes, including any potential trade-offs involved.

This isn’t just essential for adoption – it’s an ethical responsibility. Because how can users really be empowered if they have no understanding of the fundamental facts of the system they’re using?

A user won’t need to understand every detail in a system, but we should strive to make sure they understand the fundamentals. To sort the fundamental facts of a system from the technical details (which non-tech-savvy users don’t need to be bothered with), we need to determine which aspects could cause irretrievable damage to a user who doesn’t understand them.

Consider the case of a cryptocurrency wallet. One could present this similar to an online bank and pattern it after what the average user would expect. This would make the application usable, but wouldn’t make it comprehensible, since we would be hiding fundamental concepts that are intrinsic to ledgers like key management. Users who think of this wallet as just another banking app would be surprised when there isn’t a customer service department that can recover their keys like a pin number or website password.

SEE ALSO: “Decentralization is about freedom, flexibility, and choice. Blockchain is just one more tool”

Empowering individuals with decentralization

This all essentially boils down to thinking about the people behind the problems we are trying to solve and keeping in mind their needs and individual circumstances throughout the development process. We must remember that the vast majority of people will simply adopt whichever system they feel solves their problems in the most easily understandable manner. This may cause them to end up using a service that reduces their individual agency, that feeds on their data or that may censor them in the future, only because they feel they understand it better.

Only by ensuring that decentralized tools are equally accessible to all users can we avoid this and stand a chance of successfully empowering individuals.


Ricardo J. Méndez

Ricardo J. Méndez is a software engineer, privacy advocate and speaker. He has worked all over the industry – from building systems for large financial institutions, starting a small game studio and running a number of startups. He is also the Technical Director at Samsung NEXT– Samsung’s investment and software products arm, which invests in innovative technology startups.

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