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The point of Hayek and the academic work on the merits of decentralized decision-making is that the point of contact has better information than any centralized mechanism could ever achieve. This is usually true with people. But computing is much different.

A thin client computing system turns the information gap upside down -- the centralized processing system has better information than individual clients or points of contact about key computing elements such as overall computing tasks and resource availability. The centralized system can allocate computing tasks among distributed networks of computing resources to gain efficiency. In contrast, my desktop is left to handle whatever I give it without visibility into outside resources.

Put differently, just because a system offers decentralized points of contact doesn't mean those are better decision nodes than a centralized mechanism. Think about traffic. If you could re-direct local drivers according to the analysis cranked out of a centralized traffic data repository you could have much less traffic, despite the centralized decision system.

The Stalwart

Thank you for your comment, SK.

Let me start off by saying, I disagree with your traffic analogy. If that were the case, then why couldn't we write software to tell people what products to by to meet their needs best, or what major to take up based on an aptitude tests. What the computer lacks is local knowledge...maybe the driver wants to take a scenic route, or needs to stop for coffee on a specific street, or is driving by a house that they're interested in. This is what Hayek was talking about, I think. Knowledge that can be held only in a man's brain due to its unique and temporal nature.

With respect to computing, it gets shakier, true...but there's a reason that so many institutions dropped their mainframes. And, by the way, here's another article making the direct comparison between Google and a mainframe.

The power of the internet is that a computer can be decentralized and tap into all of the information held on every other computer and then make a decision about the best way to approach a problem...including farming some of the work out to other dedicated computers. With ultrafast-broadband, and virtually zero-transaction costs, this is a reality. This is what Google will serve very, satisfying the second half the Hayek quote.


I agree with Hayek, but must disagree with your application of his insights in this instance. :-)

Redmond/ Microsoft is the centralized decision maker. They have to decide what features to include in Vista/ Office. Once they've done that (and largely, they already have) its very hard to change course.

The Browser OTOH, is much more adaptive and responsive to my daily needs. Although Google is centralized, I (the decision maker) can easily choose between Yahoo, Google, MSN, AOL, or even Ask Jeeves. I can direct my browser to Kiko.net for an AJAX calendar, or do any number of things.

Of course, I can also download cool little apps like Skype or Desktop Search. I guess not _everything_ goes through the browser, eh?

The real question is: Where does the software live, and can the user interact with it in real time? Can he personalize it? Mainframes were the shiz-nit because the PC's of the day were not capable of running powerful software. PC's were the shiz-nit because they could run software more quickly as the user perceived it. The pipe between PC and Mainframe wasn't big enough. Broadband has changed the balance of power again, in favor of Web 2.0

It's a tug of war between rich applications that are too big to "stream" to a thin client in real-time and simple applications that are more efficiently handled at the server level (like gmail).

MS will win the Web 2.0 fight IF AND ONLY IF they can provide a development platform that allows developers to make programs too rich and data-heavy to stream over broadband networks.

Considering that the telcos are currently rolling out FTTP, that's going to be one tough challenge (other than Doom 4, of course).


I am not sure that some of my colleagues have read Hayek carefully. The "knowledge of time and place" does not assume that the individual knowledge is duncelike. Indeed, it is often superior. In the case of computing, the real question is not about whether the browser or the operating system controls. When the first prophets started to discuss this set of options I was strongly turned off. Having anywhere anytime computing (the thin vision) does not preclude you from also having the alternative (thick) vision. There are parts of my computing life that I want in the thin environment but a good deal of it is also done off line. Thus, having a robust operating system that links you into the thin world is critical. But at the same time- even if we ever get to the world of 24-7 anywhere any time access - I would still prefer to retreat out of the net to do some things - in which a passive device will not be adequate. I want my bank statements and my pictures on the web -for universal access but I still would like to be able to construct investment scenarios using something like a spreadsheet off line. I would also like to take the time off line to think about editing my photos.This is not, as some of your commentators have said, an either or decision - it is a balancing issue. Too often MSFT seems to ignore the wisdom of Hayek - which argued forcefully for the unique nature of individual natures applied to individual and localized problems. Hayek was talking about the then developing world of macro economic statistics but he could also have been talking about world of network versus laptop computing. In my mind I would not buy Vista because Panther already has all of those characteristics.


It seems to me that so far everyone is focusing mainly on the advantage of one system or the other. I take a somewhat more pessimistic approach, what are the weaknesses? To me the bottom line is that either way, decentralized or not, both Google and Microsoft(not to mention their like-minded counterparts) want to control access to the information. Google wants everyone to have to use their servers and Microsoft wants everyone to have to use their OS. Both are inherently flawed arrangement from the user/consumer point of view.

If we are to store "all" information in a central database, we become dependent on that single source and it's administrators for access to our own stuff. What happens if they decide they don't like certain kinds of information? What happens when that big central server goes down? What happens when some snarky hacker decides to put a virus on it? You get a fascist host, information transfer grinds to a halt and or every dependent console (that's what computers would become)becomes useless. Not to mention the fact that some people just don't want their information centralized where anyone can access it.

On the other hand what if all is decentralized and we are required to use specific proprietary software in order to be compatible so we can gain access to the information. Suppose the software giant takes a cue from cable or satellite television and decides we have to pay a usage fee rather than licensing the product outright. What can we expect to pay for this "key to the library" so to speak? What happens when they decide to start charging for anti-virus protection needed because of their own crappy programming(as microsoft now plans to do)? What happens if they decide arbitrarily or otherwise that they want to deny access to certain groups or individuals? Not to mention that decentralization effectively makes us all our own little central servers. Suppose one computer has important information on it that has only been accessed but never duplicated. Now suppose something happens that effectively removes that computer from the network, without some sort of backup, that potentially vital information could be lost.

Either way we find ourselves needing permission to use our own computers. But I am not so worried about either scenario because there are a lot of people out there, who like me are wary of other people having too much control. What I would be really be worried about is if they started to work together such that we get all the flaws of both and none of the benefits either. Anyway I know my post is a bit of a tangent but no one else seemed to address any of these things so far.

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