“Decentralization is about freedom, flexibility, and choice. Blockchain is just one more tool”
Decentralization is about freedom, flexibility, and choice and blockchain is just one more tool; one that can help in decentralized contexts, but a tool is always less important than the goal. We caught up with Ricardo J. Méndez, Technical Director at Samsung NEXT to discuss the importance of decentralization, his blockchain predictions for 2019 and the decentralized technologies that are gaining ground right now.
“Blockchains and distributed ledgers are just a tool and like any tool, they have trade-offs”
Ricardo J. Méndez: Without question. Blockchain is just one more tool, and one that can help in decentralized contexts, but a tool is always less important than the goal.
JAXenter: What does decentralization mean to you?
Ricardo J. Méndez: Decentralization is about freedom, flexibility, and choice. Technically, it’s about moving activities away from a central controller and towards a network of participants that interact based on a shared protocol. In doing so, it shifts the balance of power back towards the user, giving them a choice between providers, and allowing a plethora of approaches and perspectives to emerge.
For example, E-mail is a decentralized system and we can all contact each other. We don’t all need to use the same e-mail provider, or even the same base software, as long as every server behaves in a standard way.
Imagine most people used “X-mail”, where you can only contact other friends who also use X-mail. Any such platform would have the power to decide what gets discussed and what you get to see. It would be able to monitor everything that happens, and do so blatantly, as users would be reluctant to leave because otherwise, they can’t keep in touch with their friends. And what would happen to those people that X-mail decides to exclude from the system or those who don’t wish to be monitored?
On a decentralized system, the user has a choice.
JAXenter: What are your blockchain predictions for 2019?
Ricardo J. Méndez: Heh, there’s that line attributed to multiple people that “Making predictions is very hard, especially about the future”. It’s hard to say this early in the year, but I would say that blockchain will become less and less of a magic word and that the ecosystem is likely to get “saner”.
The runaway cryptocurrency prices in the last couple of years brought the idea of blockchain into the mainstream. This also brought in a lot of “hustlers” – i.e. people more interested in cashing in quickly than solving a problem. It became a magic word for people to short-circuit common sense and raise massive amounts.
I’d predict that these speculators and opportunists are going start leaving for greener pastures, which will reduce the amount of noise in the ecosystem. The teams that remain will need a sane focus on building working software and actual use cases.
Blockchain will become less and less of a magic word and that the ecosystem is likely to get “saner”.
JAXenter: Is blockchain the land of milk and honey? Can it really offer an exponential benefit above other existing technologies?
Ricardo J. Méndez: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
Blockchains and distributed ledgers are just a tool, and like any tool, they have trade-offs.
Relational databases offered amazing benefits compared to older systems, but you won’t find anyone suggesting that you use PostgreSQL to store absolutely everything, including documents and vacation photos.
If the problem you are solving fits a distributed ledger’s particular characteristics, then they will be a huge help, but anyone advising that you need to replace every system with a blockchain is trying to sell you a lot of consulting time.
JAXenter: What other decentralized technologies are gaining ground as we speak?
Ricardo J. Méndez: There are three particularly interesting technologies that have been gaining a lot of traction:
- Peer-to-peer web: best showcased with the Dat Project, HyperDrive and Beaker Browser, p2p web allows any machine to become a server or mirror a website. The Dat Protocol was originally created for sharing scientific data, but it has since been used for everything from censorship-resistant web hosting to peer-to-peer maps.
- Federation via ActivityPub: Federation is not a new concept – e-mail is actually a federated system. ActivityPub is a protocol for federation which allows, effectively, a decentralized social network to emerge and flourish. This network can be heterogeneous, built out of multiple platforms, but anyone can share content that users on other systems can consume in a standard manner. Its best-known implementor is Mastodon (which you can think of as decentralized Twitter), but it’s also supported by multiple other systems which can all communicate transparently through it.
- Zero-knowledge proofs: ZKPs are a method to demonstrate that you know a value or hold some information, without having to reveal the information itself. They are more commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, as they came into public attention with Zcash, but have implications in decentralization beyond blockchains. A decentralized system is one in which there might be no trusted intermediaries, and ZKPs can allow you to still transact and provide positive identification while retaining your privacy.
JAXenter: Is decentralization a prerequisite for privacy?
Ricardo J. Méndez: Absolutely. I think there can be no privacy when all the information is flowing through a centralized system. Even if most of it were encrypted, it’d be sensitive to metadata analysis by the central overseer. Just tracking who communicates with whom, when, and how often, reveals a lot.
It’s just not a guarantee. You need only look at most cryptocurrencies, which are completely decentralized but also 100% public – their pseudonymity only needs to be broken once. Peer-to-peer approaches require you to broadcast your activity to peers, so they need an extra privacy layer (like a VPN or mix network).
This is why, as an industry, we need to get better at explaining to users the trade-offs of different approaches.