“The Hammer’s Coming Down”
In my work with open source blockchains, distributed hash tables, and peer-to-peer systems in the area of identity, I have run across people making this statement from time to time, often in an effort to minimize open source, decentralized, distributed systems vs their centralized or proprietary counterparts:
“The data on these decentralized, distributed systems will only be persistently available if people continue to run them.”
These folks often add:
“This is a serious concern because the people running these systems must have an economic incentive to keep them running.”
I’ve never spent more than an eye-roll of my time on people who make these statements because they’re pure fallacy, but a random assault committed on my eardrums (Britney Spears – Oops I Did it Again) in the admission line at Google I/O 2016 inspired me to finally drop the hammer on this FUD. I’m sure you’re wondering how Britney Spears, Nickelback, and fallacious statements about decentralized, distributed systems are all related: slow your roll, I’ll get there.
“Believe It, or Not”
Let me channel my inner-@pmarca for a moment:
“I am hearing disturbing rumors that a system’s data won’t be unavailable if no one is running it.”
Wow, what a profound thought! While that is technically true, it’s also the Least Plausible Hypothesis for why data on a decentralized, distributed system with any traction, scale, or utility would suddenly become irrecoverable.
The craziest part about these statements is how absolutely backwards they are when used to target decentralized, distributed systems vs others. Perhaps the folks who emit this brand of truthiness need a reminder about the reality of their claim: A centralized or proprietary system is just as likely to go dark for any number of reasons.
Disturbingly (not really), you can no longer access these systems (though some have been archived by various sites):
- Yahoo Auctions
- Google Wave
- etc. etc. ad infinitum
For whatever reason, a person might be inclined to gravitate toward centralized or proprietary systems because they believe them to be more trustworthy, secure, or permanent, but that is far from a reliable truth. In fact, centralized or proprietary systems can be worse for many reason, including:
- Shutdown can happen more abruptly, sometimes without notice
- Proprietary system shutdown is often permanent
- Centralized and proprietary systems usually have a single arbiter that decides their fate
- Almost without exception they are driven by revenue, sometimes at the expense of users
In contrast, decentralized, distributed systems with significant traction, scale, or utility:
- Are very difficult to shut down abruptly – most if not all nodes need to go dark
- Can be restarted by anyone in the community with copies of the data
- Are not subject to the shutdown whims of a single arbiter
- May persist because parties have a principled or personal desire to ensure they do
The Nickelback Persistence Conjecture
Now we get to the fun part. How does one articulate to someone deeply skeptical of open source, decentralized, distributed systems, such as a blockchain, that their data will not vanish suddenly? How does one rebut the statement that these systems must rely on unsustainable economic interests for anyone to run them?
After hearing that Britney Spears song at Google I/O, I wondered: “Is this noise pollution still available on decentralized systems (torrents, etc.) after this long?” When I got home I decided to up the ante in my search for long-lasting, distributed trash, so I chose to base my conjecture on the poster child of musical eye-rolling: Nickelback. Not many people like Nickelback, and that’s great, because those who are circulating its songs on a peer network are probably doing so out of some unnatural affection for them or specific self-interest. As it turns out, I took a look and found that Nickelback’s songs are still available on peer networks 20 years after they first appeared. Herein lies the conjecture I present to you, without further delay:
The mean duration that data will remain persistently available on an open source, decentralized, distributed system that reaches at least the size, popularity, or acolyte following of Nickelback, is roughly equal to the time period from which Nickelback’s songs first became available to the day no peer nodes remain that circulate their ‘music’.
“Never Again” let one of these purveyors of persistence FUD keep you up “Into the Night” thinking about if “Today Was Your Last Day” to access the data you have stored on an open source, decentralized, distributed system.