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Tag: centralization

Exclusion from the Mapped Physicality Database

some kind of space shuttle? not sure

“Put me back on the GOD. DAMN. MAP.” Alden was yelling into his laptop speaker. He was so angry that he brought his face close to the computer, voice distorted by the overloaded audio processors.

“My apologies, sir,” the tinny customer service chatterbot responded. “At this time we cannot reinstate your business on the Mapped Physicality Database.”

Alden made a noise of pure frustration, a growling sort of scream, and then banged his mouse to click on the hangup button.

Stacy sat in the corner of his office, feeling awkward. They had been removed five days ago, and she wasn’t sure how long Alden would keep her on. She wasn’t sure how long Alden could afford to keep her on. It wasn’t like Stacy was privy to the details of cash flow.

Alden stood up and started pacing, hands in the pockets of his grey suit pants. He muttered expletives to himself. Stacy didn’t move, still watching him from the corner.

Alden stopped abruptly and turned to look at her. “Is this a glitch?”

That was when Stacy felt the alarm in her stomach. She had never heard Alden sound plaintive.

He was tough. He didn’t whine. He didn’t ask her questions. Not until now.

Five days ago, the store was suddenly dead. No one came in to buy new rigs or fancy up their old ones. This was very unusual; Stacy was used to furiously taking notes on her netpad while customers dictated what they wanted. The regular clientele was all bored upscale folks, since no one else would bother to come in person. Alden said they liked the attention.

But five days ago there was no one. Alden said it was a fluke.

Four days ago, there was still no one. Alden laughed it off to Stacy, but he went into the back room and didn’t emerge until after closing. Stacy left without seeing him again.

Three days ago, Stacy opened up the shop and Alden arrived an hour later. By noon he told her, “I’m looking into this.” No customers had come in.

At two o’clock he strode back into the showroom, where Stacy was sitting, and shouted, “We’re gone! It’s like we fucking disappeared!”

She looked at him quizzically. “We disappeared? But, aren’t we… here?”

“Yes, Stacy, we’re here. I KNOW WE’RE HERE. Jesus. We’re just not on the maps. Not any of the maps. Not the suggestion APIs or the service maps or the retail maps. Not any maps.”

Stacy hesitated to ask why. If he knew, wouldn’t he lead with that?

Two days ago, Alden told Stacy the name of what they were missing from. “It’s called the Mapped Physicality Database. I didn’t know about this goddam thing. Did you?”

It took Stacy a moment to realize that it wasn’t a rhetorical question. “No,” she responded. “I don’t… I don’t think so. The name doesn’t sound familiar…”

Alden blew a frustrated breath through his nose. “I’m gonna talk to them. You don’t have to come in tomorrow.”

Stacy didn’t ask if she would get paid anyway.

Today was a day and a half later.

Stacy had not been able to enjoy the time she had off. When she looked up the Mapped Physicality Database, results were disturbingly thin. But she kept her faith in Alden. He seemed to force obstacles out of his way through sheer rage.

But now he seemed desperate. The grey suit, so impressive one week ago, was suddenly crumpled. His eyes were fearful.

“Why did this happen?” Alden spread his hands like he was reaching for something. “Tell me what we did. Stacy. Tell me what the hell is happening.”

Stacy tendered her resignation. Alden didn’t say anything else. He turned and went into the back without acknowledging her.

Two days later, a week later, two weeks later, a month later. Stacy kept checking the suggestion service on her palm module. The shop didn’t reappear on the map.

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Something Something Blockchain

Yay, We Don’t Need Politics Anymore!

The DAO's logo, grabbed from their website.

The DAO’s logo, grabbed from their website.

I wanted to resist writing about The DAO — that stands for “decentralized autonomous organization” — but after going through my notes from this past week’s reading, I realized that I can’t avoid it.

The reason I wanted to steer clear is that everyone else has already said it better, but maybe you don’t subscribe to their newsletters. Besides, who else will address the cyberpunk angle?

Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine covered The DAO with delightful snark:

“One of the great joys of our modern age, with its rapid advances in financial technology, is examining the latest innovation to try to figure out what centuries-old idea has been dressed up in cryptographical mystification.”

To summarize aggressively, The DAO wants to crowdsource an entire company, which will sort of act as a venture capital partnership, dispensing ETH, a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency. You can read plenty more about their structure and setup on their website. The DAO’s main differentiators are “smart contracts” and, as the name suggests, decentralized governance:

“The ETH held by The DAO will never be centrally managed. DAO Token Holders are able to vote on important decisions relating to the management of The DAO, including the power to redistribute its ETH amongst themselves.”

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery by Namecoin.

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery by Namecoin.

The cryptocurrency crowd fascinates me because many of them seem to think they can opt out of normal human power structures, or somehow use code to avoid disputes. And I think that’s… well, impossible. (Maybe I am strawmanning egregiously, in which case I hope a cryptocurrency enthusiast or garden-variety libertarian will email me to point it out.) As I’ve written before:

“There is a reason why centralization happens over and over again in human history. We didn’t invent the Code of Hammurabi out of the blue. Monarchy did not develop randomly, and republics require executive branches.”

Direct democracy is a terrible system; I would go so far as to say it’s unworkable. Does anyone endorse mob rule? And centralized power is an oft-repeated pattern because it’s efficient. Furthermore, we have courts and the like because they’re useful — because the need for arbitration arises frequently despite the existence of contracts. Going back to Matt Levine’s article:

“The reason that ‘law and jurisdiction’ come into play is that sometimes stuff happens that is not addressed with perfect clarity in the contract. Sometimes the parties need to renegotiate to address something not specifically anticipated in the contract. Sometimes they can’t agree, and need an outside adjudicator to decide what should happen. And sometimes the project affects people who never signed the contract in the first place, but who have a claim nevertheless.”

And as business analyst Ben Thompson wrote in his “Bitcoin and Diversity” essay:

“I can certainly see the allure of a system that seeks to take all decision-making authority out of the hands of individuals: it’s math! […] If humans made the rules, then appealing to the rules can never be non-political. Indeed, it’s arguably worse, because an appeal to ‘rules’ forecloses debate on the real world effects of said rules.”

Lots of people don’t want to do the hard things. They don’t want to admit that decisions always carry tradeoffs, and they don’t want to negotiate messy human disagreements. But a world without those hard things is fairyland — nothing more than a nice dream.

As we continue to integrate computing into our daily lives, our legal system, and our financial system, we will have to keep grappling with human fallibility — especially when we delude ourselves into thinking we can escape it.


Update circa June 19: I was tempted to write about The DAO again, since it’s been “hacked” (sort of) and a “thief” (sort of) absconded with $50 million (USD value). However, a lot of other people have already published variations of what I wanted to say. The drama is still unfolding — /r/ethereum is a decent place to keep track — so I can’t point you to a canonical writeup, but Matt Levine’s new analysis is both cogent and funny. Also this Hacker News comment is smart.

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I Swear I’m Not a Statist

Allow me to string some ideas together, using technology as a metaphor:

“A world where people, businesses, and governments rely on IT for almost everything they do is a world where SIGINT will be the most important form of espionage.” — John Schindler on “SpyWar”

“If you’re not looking for the structure, you won’t find it. If you are, it’s obvious.” — Scott Alexander on his mystical universe

“Only machines that can be inventoried and centrally managed can reasonably be secured against advanced attackers.” — Brandon Wilson on enterprise security

The community of Bitcoin developers is currently struggling to decide between a couple of different technical directions that I don’t understand or care about. The interesting parts are the human conflicts and what the whole brouhaha says about group politics. When I wrote “Power Is Necessary”, this controversy was on my mind.

Wind turbine photographed by Paulo Valdivieso.

Wind turbine photographed by Paulo Valdivieso.

There is a reason why centralization happens over and over again in human history. We didn’t invent the Code of Hammurabi out of the blue. Monarchy did not develop randomly, and republics require executive branches. Centralized power is efficient. Hierarchies of decision-makers, each able to dictate and veto the level below, allow for instructions to be disseminated and enforced.

“It is generally considered that there are four forms of structure employed by terrorist groups: conventional hierarchy, cellular, network & leaderless resistance. The decision to employ one of these formats is grounded in the security/efficiency trade-off of each; conventional hierarchy providing the most efficient and least secure, leaderless resistance the opposite: highest security, least efficiency.” — Tom Hashemi on guerilla warfare

I love the ideals of anarchy, but it fundamentally doesn’t work. Neither does direct democracy or its hands-off “don’t tread on me” equivalent. Coercion is a basic component of societal structures that accomplish things and manage to self-perpetuate. Are fear-based incentives good? Are they virtuous? No, of course not. But they get the job done.

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