Centralized Vs Decentralized Cycle

One of the perennial debates which has played a crucial role in the evolution of computing and continues to play a pivotal role at the undercurrents of the seismic technological shift we are experiencing today is the debate between centralized vs decentralized architecture. This debate has mind boggling ramifications in the way our social, political, business systems will be designed in the future. (Although, I am aware some would argue that political systems would affect otherwise, that’s another post for some other time)

While  it is possible to dismiss this debate under the purview of a recurring, evolutionary cycle driven by economics and a host of other factors, 

it doesn’t give us necessary insights to understand how these forces would play out amidst the complex interplay of forces which help us to understand the fundamental question of control. Hence it becomes essential to understand the contours of this debate.

I have been personally accosted with this question during several occasions while I began to explore the various aspects of technology through readings and interactions with people. The first occasion occurred when I read Chris Anderson’s article The Web is dead: Long live the internet in Wired magazine. I was quite disturbed by the article at the first glance, as it jettisoned the spiritual roots of the Web as an inevitable evolution from the Web to Internet, with apps coming to the fore. The essence of the argument boiled down to same debate. Would the proprietary, centralized systems rule over open, decentralized systems? 

On another instance, I had the chance to interact with Mr. P.K. Gupta, Practice Director and Chief Architect at EMC on a conference on Storage Networks. Ever since I had been exploring the cloud, I had this discomforting notion about the cloud with its centralized infrastructure, built over as a loosely coupled stack over decentralized Internet networks, in a typical frankensteinian way, nailing the coffin of the decentralized infrastructure from which it spawned. When I raised this point to him, he pointed out the cyclic nature of computing, something I hadn't noticed so far, where, what began as a centralized system moved towards a decentralized system and is now moving again towards the centralized system

I decided to delve further. I took the serendipitous advice I received while I was reading Fritjoff Capra’s amazing book, “Uncommon Wisdom”. At the famous Big Sur dialogues, Dr.Carl Simonton, famous radiation oncologist who pioneered the mind-body connection to fight cancer, points out that “inorder to understand the cyclical patterns in cultural evolutions, it is helpful to understand one’s own developmental cycles.” Capra reinforces the same point with the additional gender element when he says, “We men are much more rigid and don’t usually think of our bodies as living in cycles, unlike women who are naturally aware of biological cycles” 

While I began to probe this further, it dawned that humans are indeed wired for centralization. Research done at National Institute of Mental Health points out that human brains are hard wired for hierarchy. However, nature is inherently decentralized in its design. How does man then co-exist peacefully with nature? 

When I asked this question to the ordinary farmer, he pointed me towards the human ageing process. With ineffable delight, the epiphany occurred when it dawned that the youth hood phase in a man’s life is indeed a classic example of the centralized architecture of the human brain driven by the primal force of human ego, trying with all its might to hold the illusory reins over his life. 

However, with the passing of time, much to the dismay of the human ego, he bequeaths the true wisdom from nature that he was never in control over anything and reconciles the choices that were seemingly made to make peace with them. With the death of the human being, this cycle reaches yet another epoch when he is born again, ready to play at the same old playground.

This philosophical detour would indeed show the ubiquitous cyclic pattern present behind every system/process, be it a business process where innovation inevitably moves towards standardisation ( something I learnt in much detail from Simon Wardley) or the supreme principle of balance determined by the recurring yin yang cycle.
Infact if you observe the Yin-Yang symbol carefully, it beautifully depicts this cyclic nature with black dot inside the white area and the white dot inside the black area. The rounded symbol also depicts the interdependency and the continuous interaction between these polar-opposites. Lao Tzu, the father of taoism, makes a beautiful statement about this and I think it sums up the whole thing.

Thus Lao Tzu:
In order to contract a thing, one should surely expand it first.
In order to weaken, one will surely strengthen first.
In order to overthrow, one will surely exalt first.
‘In order to take, one will surely give first.’
This is called subtle wisdom.’