The Web is Decentralising. So Will how We Work.
The Web is Decentralising. So Will How We Work
The Web is Decentralising. So Will How We Work
The internet is the most important technology in our lives today. How we interact with it through web and mobile applications is entering a new and exciting phase centred around an architecture of decentralisation. The foundational technology is called blockchain, the most well—known use case of which is Bitcoin. What is important about blockchain-based applications is that they are, through a series of encrypted records, controlled and maintained by the community that use them. They are truly peer-to-peer (p2p), and require no centralised organisation or authority in order to function.
This is significant, and stands in contrast to the internet and digital economy of today, where a handful of centralised organisations and applications control the vast majority of the digital world. What is even more significant is that beneath the complex technology of blockchain, there is a philosophical movement at work. By creating direct connections between people, its aim is to break up the concentration of control (and wealth) held by centralised leviathans. The promise is that individuals, small organisations and micro-communities – real or digital – will have greater personal freedom and agency. Many of its followers and developers go so far as to call themselves activists, even revolutionaries.
Whether one buys into the movement aspect of blockchain or not is irrelevant past a certain point. What is relevant is that blockchain as a technology is on a similar trajectory to the early internet, with new use cases and industries spawning from the core technology and ideology. Niche product adoption is growing at an exponential rate, particularly in the younger Millennial and Z generations, and so too therefore is the philosophy that underpins it. The technology might be new with relatively few use cases so far, but the movement is what is most important. It signifies a societal mindset shift is underway.
Outside of technology, there is evidence of this mindset shift occurring in work. “The battle over the future of work is about autonomy”, read a recent FT article, while ‘The Great Resignation’ in America is seeing workers resign in record numbers. Businesses on both sides of the Atlantic are struggling to reopen or deliver their goods for lack of staff. Some argue that Pandemic unemployment supports are the root of high job vacancy rates, while others would cite burnout or a desire for greater meaning. Wherever your opinion lays on the matter is likely a function of your own experience and circumstance.
Taking a macro, futurists’ view, I believe that the decentralisation movement in technology and the structural shifts happening at work are related on a philosophical level and will shape the future of work more than any other aspect. Centralisation - to concentrate control of an activity or organisation under one authority, or to bring activities or processes together in one place - is the structural preset of the industrial age. In an industrialised economy, large centralised organisations employ large numbers of workers, with whole towns often being built around a single organisation. How people engage with work, the way work is allocated across a workforce, and the authority distribution at play in work today are built upon the industrial model of centralisation and hierarchy, and are, in my view, out of sync with the will of the modern worker.
Decentralisation, on the other hand, is historically a term used to refer to the physical movement of a government or organisation’s departments away from the HQ location. In work, a decentralised architecture would comprise a workforce that is closer to a cooperative network than a hub and spoke system. Untethered to one central ‘node’ or company, workers are more autonomous and job-mobile, moving regularly, and at will, back and forth between companies that offer the best opportunities. In this way, it is more heterarchical, placing workers on an equal footing with companies. Logically, increased decision making power and leverage would rest with workers, but also more responsibility. It is often more cooperative than competitive, with workers perhaps joining together to serve bigger jobs together. A real world example is sole traders operating in largely blue collar and construction-related industries, often cooperating in unions or trade organisations. Recently, while not organised in the same way, tech workers often work across multiple projects with various companies, and collaborate when needed in co-working offices. Looking forward, Web 3.0 - the next iteration of the web that is setting up to be highly decentralised and focussed on immersive experiences - could yield distributed and autonomous collectives of workers, regardless of physical location, coming together with a unifying purpose.
Outside of technology, this type of decentralised, cooperative, and heterarchical system may become more prevalent across a spectrum of industries and skill sets. Up until recently, I had not seen the terminology of decentralisation used in the context of work. However, a recent HBR article entitled ‘A Labor Movement for the Platform Economy’, talks about worker-led movements that are similar to Unions but less hierarchical, and structured from the bottom-up. ‘Decentralisation’ is starting to be used, as it is in technology, as a bridging term between the philosophy of individual empowerment, and the activities or structures that can bring it about.
As a structural preset for work and society, the philosophical aspects of decentralisation have greater historical precedence than centralisation does. Economic history broadly comprises three stages; hunting, which lasted approximately 10 million years; agriculture, which lasted 10,000, and; industry, around 250 so far. Given genetic adaptations in people take approximately 25,000 years, we can say that we are naturally more suited to societies that are closer to the hunting and agricultural ages than the industrial.
In the ages up until industrialisation, people were largely autonomous in their efforts to provide for themselves and their families. We fend for ourselves and our kin, while cooperating in tribes in the hunting age, or as villages in the settled agricultural age. The individual, the family and the community were essentially self-sufficient units of production. We were connected daily to our work and its fruits, and we all had essential roles to play.
The lack of cohesion between our natural evolution and how we live today might seem academic, but its effect is seen in our everyday lives. ‘Self-determination theory’, as explored by Sebastian Junger in his book ‘Tribe’, holds that people fundamentally need three things to be content; autonomy, competence and community. He hypothesised that it is difficult to achieve these 3 pillars of contentment in modern, industrialised society, which in turn has led to increased experiences of alienation and depression. This view is supported by a statistic from the WHO that industrialised and affluent nations have a depression rate 8 times higher than that of poorer, less developed ones. It follows that the predominant industrial and societal models at play in western societies could be seen as incompatible with our natural evolution. This model does not promote autonomy, feelings of usefulness, or community – often the opposite of all three.
In society today, we might then be seeing a natural reversion to decentralised – or autonomous – lifestyles. While technology continues to evolve to support this philosophy, I expect the theme for the future of work to continue to revolve around decentralisation, while creating real and digital space for work communities to form on lines decided by the participants – not too similar to the hunting and agricultural ages , but in a new context.
Work is an incredibly complex and nuanced subject, and of course there are challenges that accompany any large-scale change or movement. With decentralisation, the argument against this is that there is potential for an inherent lack of security at work, or for increased marginalisation of those who are unwilling or unable to operate autonomously. The counter-arguments here are equally as strong, especially in that the failures and ill deeds of a few large centralised organisations have caused historic levels of economic hardship, like the financial crash of 2008. At this point, to get into a philosophical argument on the virtues of one versus the other is moot. The fact is that evidence of the societal changes are all around us. They are happening regardless of whether those observing and analysing agree or not.
It is therefore the responsibility of those creating technology for the future of work – one that is decentralised - to consider and mitigate some of the negative natural repercussions, like lack of security and greater inequality. As an example of decentralised work lacking due consideration, the early gig economy is a good example. While espousing the virtues of independence and flexibility, most companies in the space provided little to no transparency or genuine entrepreneurial opportunity for workers – core tenets of a decentralised system. In reality, it was - and still is in most cases - closer to a centralised organisation, without any of the normal responsibilities that go with that.
As a technical manifestation of the decentralisation philosophy, we have blockchain. Our mission at Gigable is to be the manifestation of the same philosophy at work, but to create a decentralised network that is genuine, and provides real transparency, independence and equal opportunity to workers. This mission will take time, ingenuity and patience. But to do it right, it will also take a high degree of empathy. Empathy is a concept we pride ourselves on, so much so it was the stated theme to our recent and first ‘Giga-Con’, or team conference. We met, discussed and considered ways to continue to build a network that gives workers real autonomy, while simultaneously developing a spirit of cooperation and empathy between the network participants themselves, and between us and the network.
In a world that is decentralising, we believe our mission as a technology company building the future of work is not only the right one, but one that will also lead to a lasting foundation to our business because it is inherently focused on what people want, and what evidently makes us happy; autonomy, competence and community.