A Paradox at the Center of the Internet: No Big Deal

December 2, 2022

The Internet is a mess, but compared to how it was in its early decades it is way more organized. The organization of the Internet is called centralization. Gordon Brander of Unconscious wants the Internet to be decentralized. He says that will happen after it becomes more centralized first, read his explanation here: “Centralization Is Inevitable.” Brander says that the best way to understand the benefits of decentralization is to understand how centralization first happens.

While there are many ways to map centralization, the Internet is concentrated into different hubs or a scale-free network. The best way to define a scale-free network is:

“The defining characteristic of scale-free networks is a power law distribution with a long tail. A small number of nodes with an extremely large number of links, and an extremely large number of nodes with a small number of links. Think Twitter. Most users have a few followers, while a few influencers have millions. This power law distribution grants the biggest hubs a lot of power over the network. It also makes hubs important to the functioning of the network in ways that are not immediately obvious, like keystone species in an ecology.”

These networks emerge because there receive preferential attachment or “the rich-get-richer” scenario. Users prefer a hub/network, ergo it will receive more attention, trust, users, etc. Scale-free networks are also more efficient, because links between systems are smaller.

Another advantage is that they are resilient to attack, i.e. if one part of the hub fails, the entire system continues to run. That also makes networks more vulnerable to attacks, because a well-laced virus could knock out all the nodes.

Brander ends his spiel by stating the centralization and decentralization of the Internet is the circle of life: random start-ups, exponential growth, consolidation, collapse, then repeat. Someone cue The Lion King’s opening song!

Whitney Grace, December 2, 2022


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