By Troy N. Egan
In 1960, a 34-year-old Polish-born electrical engineer named Paul Baran wrote a report that would reshape the way we communicate. He and his wife of five years had moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he obtained his Master’s degree at UCLA the year before, and where he began his work at RAND Corporation, an industry leader in research and policy analytics. On one such assignment, RAND would be approached by United States authorities to answer a sobering question for nations living amid the Cold War: what ways could a critical communication network withstand a nuclear attack?
Baran would propose an answer. In On Distributed Communications Networks, later published in 1964 as part of a US Air Force sponsored memoranda series, Baran would visualise three types of distribution models through which communication could be relayed: Centralised, Decentralised and Distributed networks. These models made it visually clear that, in the case of enemy attack, a Centralised network held the greatest vulnerability since all network nodes were dependent upon a central node – and if that node collapsed, so did the entire network.
A Decentralised network would attempt to “decentralise” the central node by splitting into clusters, so that if one cluster were destroyed, then the network could still survive. However, it was still feasible to target, destroy or at least isolate central-nodes within clusters, taking down those clusters and even the entire network. In Baran’s study, the most robust model was the Distributed network, or the lattice. Essentially, every node within the network is interconnected and intrinsic to the survival of the network, so that no one node is more privileged or vulnerable than any other. His research would discover that a Distributed network could still survive with 50% node destruction (1964, p. 6).
Baran’s solution to the critical question was two-fold: to embed networks with redundancy, through a full interconnection of nodes; and to quantize information into digital “blocks” or data packets that enable faster travel around the network.
Although faced with some initial scepticism, Baran’s ideas would become influential in the development of the U.S. Defence Department’s ARPANET, and its world-wide predecessor: the Internet.
Bases of Power
Paul Baran died in 2011, but his legacy lives on, especially if we consider his research through a socio-political lens, applied to our immediate global milieu…
In their book The Myth of Capitalism, Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn of Variant Perception – a global research and investment strategy firm, lament the death of competition borne from monopolistic capitalism. They describe the nefarious strategies, lobbying and gatekeeping that enable market leaders and oligarchies to concentrate power and capital within entire industries. They describe the control of the digital space by web2 social media giants, the control of the online retail market by the Amazon-ian empire, and the control of the American pharmaceutical, aviation or poultry industries by a handful of players. The concentration of industrial power amongst the wealthy elite, of course, is not new.
Just this week, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO allies including Canada, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, the U.K. and the U.S. have imposed economic sanctions on Russia. These include sanctions on Russian oil and export products, SWIFT international payments, financial institutions and the assets of “oligarchs” associated with Vladimir Putin. This last sanction is telling. One of the most punitive non-military consequences for the death, injury and displacement of a nation of people, is to seize the assets of its most powerful individuals, those literally described as the “few … to rule”. The concentration of political power amongst the wealthy elite, of course, is not new. Which brings us to the distribution of wealth.
The global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 prompted the U.S. Federal Reserve, America’s central banking system, to “print” $3.38 trillion dollars (or 18% of the total supply). The short-term gains of such fiat-generation is that families and businesses could receive immediate pay-outs for lost income. The midterm losses include the potential decrease in the value of the dollar and increase in inflation. Federal money-printing on such a scale is not only unsustainable, but is also inequitable. If our current economic systems are designed to funnel wealth to a few owners of the means of production, then more money flooding into the system will likely pool with those owners – particularly central banks. The concentration of economic power amongst the wealthy elite, of course, is not new.
The Internet and the decentralised network
What is new is how the decentralised platform-cluster model of the internet is evolving into the distributed Web3-compatible blockchain; with a social awakening about what this might mean. And more so, Baran’s network models can inform how political, industrial and economic power can be better distributed from within this emergent technological space.
In a recent YouTube stream to his 300k subscribers, Cardano blockchain and IOHK co-founder Charles Hoskinson shared his thoughts about the circumstances leading to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: ‘The lesson of Ukraine, if we choose to accept it, is we can do better as a society. And the only way we can do better is to change the way we think, act, treat each other, and the way that we build institutions. The blueprint’s all there’. For Hoskinson, this blueprint lies in the blockchain industry, in decentralised models of finance and governance (like Cardano’s Project Catalyst), and in web3 applications capable of distributing these tools to the disenfranchised masses. Hoskinson calls blockchain ‘the technology of freedom’.
We’re living in a time of grand transition, where the prevailing Centralised network model of institutions, corporations and governments have proven unstable – particularly when malignant players grasp central roles of power and wage war against the benign. Baran’s communications theory has taught us that these models prove least effective for survival during global calamity – as they tend to collapse once the central node collapses. Alternative models such as Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAO’s), Decentralised Finance (DeFi) or emergent modes of blockchain governance are more likely to endure, because these models are democratised amongst a secure, global network of participants, whose contributions are weighted against the smart contracts of the network.
However, Hoskinson emphasises the primacy of the social contract: ‘The only way it gets better is if we collectively decide we’ve had enough, and it has to get better; and we do the work to get there’. We are still far from a world where distributed technologies will save us if the economy or social system were to collapse tomorrow. But, there is enough groundswell and hope that humanity can still work together for the benefit of the many even if 50% of the network should collapse.
Troy is a PhD candidate at Auckland University, studying peer-production strategies within the creative sector. He has worked in creative production and community development in New Zealand and Australia; and he is passionate about blockchain, Web3 and how they can shape the creative economy.