New technologies have enabled a do-it-yourself approach to certain services that used to be limited to the government. It is not just public services that are transferring to the common man – the middle man is increasingly being cut out of our lives. DIY is transforming the way we consume, monetise and earn an income.
The first question that comes to mind is: what exactly is decentralisation? According to inventor and thinker Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near, decentralisation is “the movement from centralised technologies to distributed ones and from the real world to the virtual world” [sic]. Simply put; with the help of the internet you can now do things for yourself that you were previously unable to. Kurzweil also states that decentralisation will continue to grow because unified services are costly and vulnerable. “Today, we have highly centralised and vulnerable energy plants, and use ships and fuel lines to transport energy. The advent of nano-engineered fuel cells and solar power will enable energy resources to be massively distributed and integrated into our infrastructure.”
Even office buildings and cities, in fact also centralised facilities, will become obsolete thanks to virtual reality. “The ability to do nearly anything with anyone from anywhere in any virtual-reality environment will make obsolete the centralized technologies of office buildings and cities.”
New technologies. Currently, we already see decentralisation on the grid. Affordable solar panels allow citizens to generate electricity themselves and even sell the remainder to the energy provider. A main contributor are subsidies provided by governments to make it easier for people to install the solar cells. And of course, the prospect of a cheaper energy bill at the end of the month helps too. Even electricity companies themselves recognise the benefits of decentralised energy. Power and gas company E.ON lists some benefits on its website: lower carbon emissions, lower energy prices in the long run, and increased stability and national security.
The biggest development of decentralisation currently, though, is coming from the digital world in the form of blockchain. Blockchain technology is described by The Economist as “The trust machine”. Blockchain “decentralises trust” according to Shermin Voshmgir, founder of BlockchainHub, at the hub conference 2016. To her, this means that we are going from an “information and data monarchy to a new paradigm of data democracy over peer-to-peer systems”.
Online, you could never be sure whether the person on the other end was who he or she claimed to be, or actually followed up on their word. Blockchain is still in development, but it has the potential to change all that. In essence, it means that many services that require trust can potentially be executed online in the future. Banking and notary services rely heavily on the legitimacy provided by the institute. Now that legitimacy can also be provided online – it is possible, for example, to execute signed contracts and create money on the Web. The sectors that used to instill trust, like notary and banking services, are slowly being replaced by digital alternatives that offer the same thing. Smart contracts – automated and closed online – might even eliminate the need for an expensive notary to transfer a deed or sell a house. And cryptocurrency brings, for the first time, the ability to create money away from central banks.
Even whole organisations can be run without a centralised location or formal structure. Decentralised Autonomous Organisations, or DOAs like Open Bazaar, function perfectly well online without a management team running it. The software is open sourced, payments are made in Bitcoin, and there are no fees. This is a great example of technologies and trends colliding and creating something entirely new and exiting.
Collaborative economy. Over the last few years, there has been a trend towards decentralisation. Thanks to new technologies and initiatives, we are able to perform activities that previously could only be offered by institutions or corporations. More and more, public and private services can be conducted by people themselves. Often in the comfort of their own home. 3D-printing is an example of technology that increased autonomy for consumers by transferring the production of goods to your own home. We can now simply buy or create a design of a cup or chair, and fabricate the final product ourselves. Once the 3D printers themselves have become more affordable, the cost of producing goods will decrease, thanks to the lack of transport and worker fees.
Broken goods can be restored as well, with help from the 3D printer. Overall, there is a trend of declining consumerism and increased efficiency of the products we already own. In that sense, decentralisation is closely linked to the collaborative economy where people share possessions. The most common examples of peer-to-peer platforms are of course Uber and Airbnb. In her book Peers Inc, Robin Chase (founder of Zipcar), states that “leveraging excess capacity comes at a far lower cost than buying raw material”. This seems to be a trend that is here to stay. The European Commission, for example, stimulates collaborative making, consumption and the economy by ‘designing and piloting online platforms to create awareness on sustainability problems’.
But, lest we forget about the side effects of increased production in the home, be it online or offline. It is now possible to print guns with the help of a blueprint released by Defense Distributed. American legislation to be enforced on July 1st, 2018 requires that every 3D printed gun has a serial number provided by the Department of Justice. Until that time, it is not illegal in the US to create or carry a 3D printed gun as long as it has a metal component so it can be identified by metal detectors. Another concern is that DIY products are not safety tested. So, DIY probably also means ‘at your own risk’ and some rules will have to be put into place to prevent the easy production of illegal and, potentially, dangerous products.
Colliding trends. The simultaneous emergence of the collaborative economy, decentralisation and technologies like 3D-printing has transformed many services. Government, banking, hotel, taxi and manufacturing industries all lost their monopoly in their respective sectors and became DIY-activities. We can drive taxis, rent out rooms, create money and electricity as easily as painting a wall.
There are more ways to do-it-yourself than ever before. And the end is not in sight. As these developments mature, their impact will be felt in increasing numbers of services and products. The question is, whether any aspects of our lives will be left untouched by this trend? I believe not.