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Counterbalancing Decentralization

In ‘A Thousand Brains (2021), Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the PalmPilot and neuroscientist, offers a novel perspective on how the brain operates.

Through the neocortex, the brain’s principal function is to construct a model of the world. This model enables the brain to make predictions and determine actions based on predefined objectives. The more experienced an individual, the more sophisticated and reliable the model.

Knowledge, it turns out, is broadly distributed in the brain. Composed of objects and concepts, it is recorded in 150,000 ‘cortical columns’ holding complementary information.

The brain’s ability to control this highly decentralized organization is remarkable. For instance, when an individual interacts with an object, such as a cup, the neocortex will seek to match it with its database of similar objects stored in thousands of columns. The columns compare and combine information to collectively reach a singular view of an object through ‘process voting.’ Because it cannot operate with conflicting information, ‘the brain wants to reach consensus.’

Once the object is identified, the brain relies on the column’s algorithm named ‘reference frame,’ a unit of the broader model of the world, to predict what the individual will see, feel, or hear in connection with the object and determine the suitable goal-seeking behavior. If the actual perception is different from the prediction (e.g., discovering a crack in the cup), the brain will update the model of the cup.

In The Global Power of Decentralization(2022), the argument was made that the world is currently undergoing a huge decentralization process. This is apparent in geopolitics, political systems (devolution), power generation, supply chains, remote work, and corporate organizations.

Many domains seem to be finding comfort in increasingly decentralized structures, perhaps driven by a flight to simplicity. But the atomization of everything presents a serious challenge, including within large organizations. The unifying architectures needed to manage conflicts, bring complementary pieces together, and establish a singular view of the world are placed under significant strain.

This challenge extends to the concept of truth. Indeed, if there are a thousand brains, there are nowadays at least a thousand truths, each underpinning competing moral principles.

In ‘After Virtue(1981) and his famous ‘disquieting suggestion,’ Alasdair MacIntyre contends that ‘the integral substance of morality has […] been fragmented.’ Consequently, ‘there seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our world‘ because a universally acceptable notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ has been lost. It has been replaced by subjective, fragmented preferences. As a unifying concept for morality, he proposes to reinstate Aristotle’s ‘human proper function:’ living in accordance with unadulterated reason.

Decentralization is unlikely to yield sustainable benefits and may even end up being destructive in corporate organizations and beyond without investments in the development of an overarching, intelligent architecture that can act as a unifying agent, much like in the brain or in morality.

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