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Decentralized vs. Distributed Organization: Blockchain, Machine Learning and the Future of the Digital Platform

Published: 2020-12

Organization: University Collage London

Tags: bitcoin, blockchain, ai, artificial, intelligence, decentralized, distributed, antitrust, blockchain, decentralized, distributed, machine learning, platform, trust

Overview: The terms decentralized organization and distributed organization are often used interchangeably, despite describing two distinct phenomena. I propose distinguishing decentralization, as the dispersion of organizational communications, from distribution, as the dispersion of organizational decision-making. Organizations can be distributed without being decentralized (and vice versa), and having multiple management layers directly affects only distribution – not decentralization. This proposed distinction has implications for understanding the growth of digital platforms (e.g., which dominate the global economy in the 21st century. While prominent platforms typically use machine learning as their core technology to transform inputs (e.g. data) into outputs (e.g. matchmaking services), blockchain has emerged as an alternative technological blueprint. I argue that blockchain enables platforms that are both decentralized and distributed (e.g. Bitcoin), whereas machine learning fosters centralized communications and the concentration of decision-making (e.g. Facebook Inc.). This distinction has crucial implications for antitrust policy, which, I contend, should shift both its analysis and its target of action away from the corporate level and focus instead on the data level. Based on this essay’s framework, I make several predictions regarding the future of competition between centralized and decentralized platforms, the evolution of government regulation, and broader implications for managers in the digital economy and for the business schools charged with their education. I conclude with reflections on the opportunity to revive cybernetic thinking for preventing a dystopian future dominated by a handful of platform behemoths.

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