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The Diary Problem: On Hyper-centralized Non-autonomous Data-retentive (block) Chains

tl;dr Blockchains are centralised in some fundamental way – the web is fundamentally decentralised.  (Part of a series of posts.)

For years my heart inquired of me 
      Where Jamshid’s sacred cup [≈ Holy Grail] might be,
And what was in its own possession
      It asked from strangers, constantly;
                Hafez, as translated by D Davis

There is a recurring story in Persian literature: how we search for some “ideal” in distant places - be it a Holy Grail or a divinity - only to realize that it lies within ourselves, and that we possess it already. In Attar’s Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world set out to find the legendary Simorgh to guide them. They pass through the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Knowledge, Detachment, Unity, Wonderment and Poverty / Annihilation, only to learn that that the 30 birds that make it to the end are themselves the Simorgh  - a play on words as simorgh also means “30 birds”. What they had been seeking elsewhere, they possessed within themselves all along.

Sometimes, when I read about some of the efforts people are making in the blockchain world to seek a decentralized ideal, I get reminded of the Conference of the Birds, as I believe that the web, as it was originally conceived, is indeed, already decentralized in principal– and in many ways, it is more decentralized than blockchains. 

Of course, blockchains are an amazing innovation and one expects that they can play a significant role in a decentralized future. But they are not a decentralized remedy to all centralized systems. In fact, blockchains are only decentralized in certain ways, and they are hyper-centralised in others. Vitalik Buterin himself states that “Blockchains are politically decentralized (no one controls them) and architecturally decentralized (no infrastructural central point of failure) but they are logically centralized (there is one commonly agreed state and the system behaves like a single computer).” (https://medium.com/@VitalikButerin/the-meaning-of-decentralization-a0c92b76a274) The key here is that by using blockchains, we are effectively sharing the same computer – so in that way, being part of a blockchain is being part of a hyper-centralized giant computer. 

To use a simple example, let us imagine we are 5 people wanting to keep our precious, hand-written, leather-bound diaries safe. In a centralized world, we would all put our diary in one central safe, and give someone a key. The centralized solution places trust in one central key holder. The way we imagine decentralization should work is that we would each have a safe with each of our diaries in it. But that’s not how things actually work in the world of blockchains. With blockchains, we would each get a copy of each other’s diaries and we would each keep all of the other diaries in each of our safes. This makes blockchains very decentralized in some ways – there are five copies of the diaries spread out in the safes. But this would not be a good way to keep our personal diaries - we would be storing a copy of our private diaries with 4 other people, who could read it.

Admittedly, in the digital world, the diaries would be encrypted and unreadable by others. But given that previous blockchains are always accessible – ie they are data-retentive - each of us would have all the time in the world to decrypt the other 4 peoples’ diaries. (One of the brilliant innovations of bitcoin was to put time limits on “mining” thus limiting the amount of time each player has to solve a decryption puzzles and to create the next block. But the time limit was designed for a specific purpose. It was not designed to keep previous blocks private – only to make them subsequently irrelevant. This works well if you are keeping transactions and public materials, it doesn’t solve the diary problem above.)

Blockchain enthusiasts would also argue that none of the major blockchain initiatives are suggesting that personal private data be kept on blockchains in the way I have characterized  above, and many are trying to solve the issues above. And that would also be fair. But the example above serves to make an important distinction. The “trust” and “decentralization” inherent in some aspects of blockchain technology cannot be used blindly outside the context of the way they are used in the blockchain technology. I have heard too many blockchain enthusiasts describe blockchains by saying that it is like storing your google photos or facebook posts on a decentralized network. This is akin to saying you will store your diary in everybody else’s safe. 

I am making this distinction  only to try and resolve the above marketing obfuscation or simplification. The way blockchains work, if we put a piece of our data on them (1) our data will remain there forever and (2) our data loses its autonomy because it is part of the large single computer which we cannot control, and from which it can never be extracted. So blockchains violate critical data-freedom principles I had outlined previously. Data on blockchains is neither free, nor mobile, nor autonomous. 

That doesn’t mean that blockchains cannot be used to create a market for data storage solutions for example, or to keep timestamped hashes of posts for verification, or that the technology won’t be adapted to address the diary problem in some new way. Each of these innovations may help to unlock a distributed storage market, but they would not be using the those parts of the blockchain technology that have made it so special – the fact that it resolved “trust” and “decentralized control” by replicating copies of your data multiple times and keeping it forever under other people’s control. 

So if we assume that data is not to be kept directly on a traditional blockchain, then we can agree that we would still need a place to store our private data – a place which would allow it to retain its freedom.  And I suggest that at the least, one viable solution is for our data to safeguarded by using the same web-based technologies that we already have and that we understand and that have matured over the past years, using the same open source layers and open protocols that have enabled such amazing services to come into being over the past decades. 

There may certainly be a role for blockchains within a newly decentralized ecosystem, but if we want to store our data and bestow upon it the freedom it deserves, we need not necessarily travel the seven valleys of new technology development, asking strangers for the Holy Grail of decentralization… because what we are seeking we already possess in our own web technology stacks. 

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