It is tempting to look at history in terms of dichotomies: left versus right, capitalism versus, communism, rich versus poor, and Coke versus Pepsi. Since this is the holiday season, I will yield to temptation and look back at 2010 in terms of centralization versus decentralization.
Putting matters rather roughly, centralization is just what it sounds like: the concentration of power, wealth, authority, fame or other such resources in the hand of relatively few people. Decentralization is, of course, the opposite:it is the distribution of such resources.
On the face of it, 2010 seems to have been a decentralizing year. For example, a major grass roots movement, the Tea Party, arose to challenge the centralized power of the Democrats and the Republicans. As another example, WikilLeaks has distributed secrets far and wide and Anonymous has rushed to its defense by hacking. As a third example, Twitter, Facebook, the web in general, and good old fashioned email have helped spread information and power throughout the world. Naturally, other examples big and small could be presented; but this should suffice to provide a quick sketch of things. I will now look at each in a bit more depth.
When the Tea Party formed, it seemed to be a leveling and decentralizing force. After all, it got ordinary citizens involved in politics, it gave them a loud voice, and it challenged the bi-polar system that has dominated American politics for quite some time. It appeared that some of the power that had been carefully gathered up by two parties was being pulled away from them, thus making the field a bit more level.
However, while the Tea Party did have an impact on the political situation, it did seem to be rather quickly absorbed by the Republican party. After all, the Tea Party members ran as Republicans and ended up working within the existing power system. As such, they did not so much level the field as help some folks get on the Republican mountain (as was the case with Paul Rand) or move a bit closer to the peak (as in the case of Sarah Palin).
That said, the full impact of the Tea Party has yet to arrive. Perhaps 2012 will show that the Tea Party remains an independent factor in politics, rather than operating merely as part of the Republican machine.
WikiLeaks does seem to be an excellent example of decentralization. While people have taken secrets and revealed them to the public before (Watergate and the Pentagon Papers server as two excellent examples), previous leaking involved established news agencies releasing information. In the case of WikiLeaks, it seems that a single individual (Manning) leaked secrets to a small organization (WikiLeaks) that was able to distribute it around the world via the web.
This incident would seem to show that the playing field of secrecy has been leveled, at least to a degree. People do not need to rely entirely on the state or the establishment news to provide them with information and states are vulnerable to public disclosure of their secrets.
Of course, it is important to put the matter in perspective. The leak was mainly a matter of chance: there just happened to be someone who had access to information who happened to be willing to pass it on to WikiLeaks. As such, it was something of an accidental decentralization and it seems likely that there will not be an ongoing leaking of secrets once the original “vein” of documents is mined out. As such, the WikiLeaks incident does not seem likely to be the start of an information revolution.
Finally, the web, Twitter, Facebook and so on seem to be empowering individuals and thus a force of decentralization. The web allows individuals to share information (as well as porn and malware) in a very democratic way. Twitter was lionized in the media for its role in Iran and Facebook is supposed to empower us by allowing us to create virtual communities across borders.
While the idea that these things are forces of leveling and decentralization, they often merely create new centers. For example, consider Facebook. While it has millions of users, it is owned and controlled by one company. As such, it is actually highly centralized. While the web is supposed to be a virtual kingdom of anarchy, most folks access the web through ISPs owned by major companies and it depends on companies and governments for its infrastructure. And there is, of course, Google. While it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that Google is the central memory of the web, it would not be much of an exaggeration.
While there is a multitude of small web sites and so on, the web is also a place of centralization. Much of the software comes from Microsoft, Google dominates searches, Facebook dominates social networking and so on. The hardware is controlled by companies and nations. The mountains of centralization are still there and still beyond the reach of most who dwell on the level planes far below these lofty peaks.