Decentralized Woo Hoo

In science communication there’s a term that’s often bandied about to describe a type of ineffective communication style that flirts with quackery and pseudoscience, it’s known as quantum woo. The term refers to a class of rhetoric that works backwards from some large human phenomenon, which is shrouded in scientific ambiguity and deep questions, and then proceeds to derive an explanation for said phenomenon by working from quantum mechanics.

It extrapolates the micro “weirdness” of quantum mechanics up to the macro level of human experience through a series of non-sequitur claims involving the misreading of complex ideas and/or misinterpretation of technical terms. These arguments are often used to justify claims for things like crystal healing, panpsychism, heaven or other human mystical or pseudoscientific beliefs. Or similarly they suggest misguided equivalences, like that that quantum mechanics and consciousness are both weird and therefore equivelent without a reference to a mechanism. The Dirac equation has nothing to say about the phenomenon of mind except to describe the chemistry that gives rise to it.

Much of this confusion is nothing but word games arising out of imprecise language. Quantum mechanics uses the word observable to refer to a technical concept, however the word has a colloquial meaning that carries emotional and anthropocentric baggage. Used interchangeably the word mistakenly connotes a person or a mind is involved with this process when in fact the scientific usage has no such requirement. This ambiguity itself has led to an amazing amount of quantum woo purely from the misinterpretation and interchange of words.

The essence of the fallacy is based on either an intentional attempt to construct a post-hoc rationalisation for a crackpot idea through a specious relation to the rigour of physics; or it is an unintentional category error that attempts to use reasoning applicable for one strata of discourse and apply it to a different level, where such models cannot make predictions. In technology we have an almost identical phenomenon surrounding the word decentralized.

In a vast amount of the legal, regulatory, ethical, and policy discussions around crypto assets we encounter questions about the intrinsic value of these investments. Yet if we value these assets in terms of traditional valuation models we find they should be worth absolutely nothing. But crypto assets come with an attached narrative economics that tries to rationalize their existence by appeals to either libertarian politics or technology. If we venture down the technology arguments, at this point the discussion of intrinsic value of crypto assets reduces down to a rhetorical word salad of decentralized woo making all manner of appeals to alleged ideals of decentralization and networks, yet like with quantum woo, without a reference to a mechanism.

Advocates of these assets claim crypto platforms will make things trustless, transparent, open, immutable, secure and decentralized. All which are prima facie noble ideas, but at the same time these words that are emotionally and politically charged and have vastly different interpretations when used in different stratas of discourse. Just like with quantum observers, the use of the word “decentralize” in technology is used to dubiously anthropocentrize a concept that has different meanings when moving between the strata of humans and the strata of network technology.

In democratic societies we fundamentally base our idea of government on the diffusion of power and the separation of roles, these ideas are cherished in our discourse and baked into our received values. The notion of “decentralization” of human powers has a tenuous connection to democratic ideas but fails to really describe the more structured reality there is to governance and the role that centralized institutions play. Decentralized is an ill defined term at the human level that involves an intrinsic level of projection on behalf of the word-user concerning their personal values and political leanings.

However in technology, there’s a much simpler definition simply in terms of the connections and responsibilities of software running on servers. We have systems like BitTorrent and Tor which are decentralized networks and whose responsibility is to blindly distribute data according to a set of prescribed rules and algorithms. But rarely do those nodes correspond to individuated humans or their interests. They’re just servers and the world is quite simple and predictable in this strata of discourse just like the ideal world of physics.

The essence of decentralized woo, and why it’s such a pernicious form of sophistry, is that it’s simply a proxy meme of the more dangerous idea that technology can fix social problems. This is an idea that is popular and dangerously seductive in its appeal, the idea that every social woe is simply a problem of lack of either connectivity or or lack of technology.

If you see tech monopolies as a fundamental societal problem … you’ll find an answer in decentralization. If you see income inequality as a fundamental societal problem … you’ll find an answer in decentralization. If you see government overreach as a fundamental societal problem … you’ll find an answer in decentralization. If you see monetary policy as a fundamental societal problem, you’ll find an answer in decentralization. There is no meme that you won’t find an answer for because how someone sees decentralization is like a Rorschach for their fears and tragic flaws. Because this mode of inquiry is fundamentally a question about power and privilege. How a person draws their map to utopia tells you exactly how they see the world they desire and what they will do to get there.

Nowadays techno utopianism and decentralized woo is front and center in public discourse as society debates how we should regulate crypto assets. It is quite surreal that so many crypto projects now wrap themselves in the sophistry of decentralized woo to attract like-minded believers into denominations of similar ideas and politics. These tribes seemingly derive their ideological validation from the financial success of the investments they offer, no matter how intellectually incoherent they are. They all have their idea about how to “make the world a better place” and to do it they need you to tithe and purchase their ponzicoin today to buy a stake in a better tomorrow.

The intellectual siren song of crypto that seduces clever people whispers in your ear that no matter what problem you see in the world, a magical coin is going to disrupt human power relations and rearrange the world to your liking. And it’s a siren song many people can’t resist.