Decentralization, Patterns and Design

Jan: Since I had some conversations with @bumbleblue about decentralization and design, I thought I put up some reads, artifacts,… and comments on them here.
Post is wiki-fied, so you all should be able to edit.

Basic Terms

Fediverse – Network of independent web services which can communicate with each other using protocols like activity Pub

Design projects:

Federated Social Media

Mansoux, A. and Roscam Abbing, R. (2020) ‘Seven theses on the fediverse and the becoming of FLOSS’, in Gansing, K. and Luchs, I. (eds) The Eternal Network; The ends and becomings of network culture . Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Berlin, Germany: Institute of Network Cultures and transmediale e.V.


Winner, Langdon. 1988. “Decentralization Clarified.” In The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology , Reprint, 85–97. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

85 is decentralization the antidote to what modern technological organizations do?

85 decentralization is a rather foggy term

86 When looking at ((de)centralized) power structures, try to answer: Where are centers? How many? How much power do they have? How accessible is the center?

93 History of modern technology shows a tendency to centralize

93 decentralization does not mean everything about a thing is decentralized: Things can easily be produced centrally, but consumed decentrally. (see: Market logic of information, Winner)

95 in the US culture, structures are only considered if they cause problems or harm, and then only briefly. → SL Star, worm paper, infrastructure

96 decentralization will not be realized by a new technology (or by it alone) [determinism].

Agre, Philip E. 1994. “Surveillance and Capture: Two Models of Privacy.” The Information Society 10 (2): 101–27.

Distinguishes 2 modes for privacy (violations):

  • “Surveillance”: Metaphor: Visual. Experiential basis: secret police observation
  • “capture”: Metaphor: Linguistic. Experiential basis: Computer tracking in industrial work

Work is reorganized to adhere to the needs of tracking.
Tracking can be used for good or bad. Possible “good” examples: track hazardous material.

capturing systems have “grammars of action” which are imposed on human activities (see “active intervention”).

creating a grammar of action by making human activities computer-able

The capturing model is compatible with dystopian (controlled passive people) and utopian (efficiency, fairness) ideas alike.

Taylorism (making human work more efficient) and automatization (replacing human work) also have grammars of action. However, they are inflexible.
Capture is more flexible: People have some freedom (as long as their actions are capture-able)

Agre, Philip E. 2003. “P2P and the Promise of Internet Equality.” Communications of the ACM 46 (2): 39–42. (→link to html)

“Decentralized institutions do not imply decentralized architectures, or vice versa.…The peer-to-peer movement understands that architecture is politics, but it should not assume that architecture is a substitute for politics.”

Munster, A. (2013) ‘Networked Diagrammatism: From Map and Model to the Internet as Mechanogram’, in An aesthesia of networks: conjunctive experience in art and technology . Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (Technologies of lived abstraction), pp. 19–56.

Chapter on Paul Baran’s famous distributed network diagram in a 1964 RAND Corporation memo.

… the map of the concept of the internet—Baran’ s distributed communications image—is cartography ahead of its territory. Is it akin, perhaps, to a blueprint for how to proceed? Or is it a diagram, somehow analogous to the function of circuit drawings, which mark out the routes and impedances of electrical wiring? This depends, of course, on how we deploy the diagram—as a course of action or as inflection of potential movement(s). (24)

Baran’ s distributed communications network has come to possess and project a vector that claims map and terrain simultaneously. (24)

Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43 (3): 377–91.

Defines “Infrastructure”, among other things, as “…by denition invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work. It is ready-to-hand.”
Star suggests some “tricks of the trade” to analyze infrastructure, like “master narratives” (who is the standard actor, who is only implied), “invisible work” which is unglamorous, not well payed but needed to keep the infrastructure running, and “Paradoxes of Infrastructure” in which mundane changes like putting a button at another place interrupt the infrastructure.
The paper relates to decentralization insofar as also the decentralized needs to run on some structure.

Possible insights:

  • Technology alone will not lead to positive changes (decentralization or any other technology can also be used for bad purposes or co-opted in problematic structures)
  • Decentralization usually only refers to a part of a system. What about the other parts? How were it and its standards made? Some decentralized systems run on state-created infrastructure based on standards created by lengthy political processes.
  • What actions does your system allow? Which does it not or make hard?

added a couple of references by editing the post, not sure if this is the correct way to proceed or if you would rather have them as comments. In any case thank you for starting this thread!

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not sure if this is the correct way to proceed or if you would rather have them as comments.

No, I think it is right to edit it directly.

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