On Monday, Microsoft announced that it had acquired code-collaboration site GitHub. Initial reactions have been mixed. More than a few have pointed out that Microsoft has embraced open source as of late, seemingly sincerely. Many of us, though, can't help but feel uneasy seeing the Redmond behemoth, whose then-CEO once literally called Linux cancer, now in control of the hub of all open source software.
What happened here, anyway? Given that git is an open source protocol for decentralized version control, how did we end up re-centralized around a Bay Area startup- one which, in retrospect, was almost certainly destined to end up inside one of the tech giants? Let's examine this more closely. There is an important lesson for the cryptocurrency/blockchain community to learn.
New Powers, New Problems
Git was created by Linus Torvalds to help manage the development for the Linux kernel. Existing version control systems relied on a centralized, client-server style architecture. Your repository lived on a server, controlled by an admin, while you, the lowly developer, merely ran a client to interact with it. Git flipped this on it's head, as Linus himself explained:
...having a local copy of the repository and distributed merging was a big deal. The big thing about distributed source control is that it makes one of the main issues with SCM’s go away – the politics around “who can make changes.” ... you can avoid that by just giving everybody their own source repository.
In stark contrast to existing systems, git made branching, merging, and forking painless. Anyone could grab a copy of a repo from anyone else, create a branch, commit modifications to the code, and provide those changes to anyone else for easy merger. Previously, the centralized repo had been the choke point of a given project. That choke point was gone.
With this new set of powers, we saw a Cambrian explosion of open source that coincided with git's adoption. But with so many developers now able to hack on so many projects, new problems also arose. Discoverability, collaboration, communication, bug tracking- all of these became challenges. That's where GitHub stepped in, providing elegant, centralized solutions around all of these new problems.
The introduction of a distributed, decentralized, peer-to-peer protocol for source control removed one set of choke points. But it also created a new set of problems, and we ended up re-centralized around a single tool- one that literally has hub in the name, in case you missed exactly what was happening.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
This turn of events shouldn't surprise us that much. In fact, we've already seen it, and on a much grander scale. This is almost exactly the story of the Internet.
Where previously, the dissemination of content was controlled by a small number of entities who managed distribution (publishers, broadcasters, etc..), the internet introduced a distributed, decentralized, peer-to-peer protocol that removed those choke points. And it also created new problems. With virtually infinite content to consume and people you can communicate with, how do you find what and who you're looking for? Enter Google and Facebook, the centralized colossi that solved these problems, and in doing so became the new choke points.
Twice now, (and there are many more examples), we find the introduction of a decentralized protocol demolishing old choke points but also creating a new set of problems, and thus leading users to re-centralize around the companies that solved those new problems. Could there be any application of this idea to the world of cryptocurrencies? 🤔
This Time, It's Different?
Many of us believe we're in the early days of introducing decentralized protocols for money, identity, ownership, and possibly many other things. In so doing, we'll remove a whole host of existing choke points. But what are the new problems that will arise if we do? And could the solutions to these problems lead to re-centralization: a new set of choke points? There are already some early, obvious examples of problems that are being solved in centralized ways: on/off ramps to fiat, interfacing with regulatory bodies, production of mining hardware, and key custody are just a few examples. Many other less obvious issues are likely to arise over time.
A large part of the crypto/blockchain community is excited about the potential for these technologies to diffuse power from central authorities. Me too! But I can't help but wonder if, in our glee to see things decentralized, we're missing a valuable lesson from history. Much of the focus now is on the disintermediation of middlemen sitting at existing choke points. Perhaps we should be much more attentive to, and concerned about, the rise of the new ones.
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