The Distinction b/w Two Oft-Confused Concepts/Terms
In crypto, I often see “autonomy” and “decentralization” either confused with each other or used interchangeably or inconsistently. I think it’s important to keep these two concepts clear and distinct from one another and yet to understand the real nature of their relationship.
First, let’s get this out of the way: “autonomy” or “autonomous” is often confused with “automation” or “automated”. I believe this is a major mistake. If you mean ‘automation’ or ‘automated ‘— those terms work quite well without trying to make ‘autonomy’ a pretentious synonym. Even “algorithmic” works well, if you want a more academic-sounding word.
Smart contracts are not “autonomous” because they are automated (in fact, they’re not automated — they require external function calls by humans, bots, etc.). Instead, smart contracts are “autonomous” because they are censorship-resistant. Censorship resistance, in turn, facilitates self-sovereignty. We should be using “autonomous” in the anarchist sense of the term — signifying freedom, self-sovereignty, independence, the condition or state of being resistant to extrinsic exercises of power.
Blockchains and smart contracts have this property insofar as it is difficult for extrinsic powers — governments, intermediaries, etc — to exercise power over them: to halt them, mutate them, confiscate the assets stored on them, etc. In other words, autonomy is the state of being relatively free from extrinsic powers.
“Decentralization” is the broad distribution of intrinsic power. For example, the power of adding blocks to a blockchain is an intrinsic part of the functioning of blockchain systems — we can’t get rid of that power or merely resist it, we must embrace it, or the blockchain is a mere dead archive.
But, to prevent the intrinsic power of adding new blocks from being exercised arbitrarily or unfairly, and to try to ensure it is always available on cheap (or at least fairly priced) terms, we decentralize that power of block production across many actual and potential actors (miners, validators). Decentralization is always a distribution of power.
III. DECENTRALIZATION FACILITATES AUTONOMY
Autonomy and decentralization, although separate concepts, indeed are related. Decentralization is a method of helping to achieve autonomy. When you decentralize the forms of power that are intrinsic to a system, you harden it against exercises of extrinsic power, and thus make it more autonomous (or, more precisely, better able to facilitate autonomy for users).
For example, because the intrinsic power to create new blocks on a blockchain system is widely decentralized among geographically diverse and potentially anonymous miners/validators, any single government, intermediary or other bad actor will have a difficult time acting on those agents through extrinsic power (bribes, fines, prison, violence, coercion, wrench attacks, etc.) in a manner that would limit the freedom to use that system. Therefore, the system’s autonomy is at least partially a function of its state of decentralization.
Well, that’s it. I encourage others to use these terms more consistently to enhance our feeble, wheezing attempts at crypto-related discourse. 😎