"We should hold a protest outside the Mayor's office."
So began a typical conversation at a political action meeting I attended in 2015. The discussion frequently went one of two ways. One option was disagreement — someone may raise a concern or objection like "Why should we focus on the Mayor's office when we should be trying to reach people in more populated areas?" or "We need to focus on fundraising right now, not action." Such disagreements could cascade into potentially endless debates, consuming our limited meeting time and rarely leading to consensus. Another, and in my opinion worse, option was lack of debate. A few might voice approval, and then someone would declare: "It looks like we have consensus." Over time, I grew wary of that phrase because it was almost always a lie. Rather than reflecting genuine commitment, universal approval, or even general non-opposition, it signified a group of people hesitant to face the potential discord of scenario #1. Consequently, only a few enthusiastic individuals would participate, later resenting those who abstained from a plan "the group" had supposedly endorsed.
This phenomenon is, in my experience, typical for most groups that lack explicit decision-making systems, and to some extent even those that do. I view coordination issues as central to every aspect of civil life, and its challenges as a major barrier toward prosperity. In the case of grassroots activism, I find it especially disheartening to see so many people willing to freely contribute their time toward helping others, but end up struggling with effective collaboration. The problem of how to make decisions is not new to humanity, and there are a plethora of prescriptions including various forms of despotism, democracy, and consensus. I mention the group above because its chaotic nature illustrates the organizing problem in its purest form, but I have participated in many groups with a range of structures, including traditional corporate hierarchies, Parliamentary Procedure, and Sociocracy, and in every case I have witnessed profound dissatisfaction and conflict over decision-making.
The core problem lies in balancing cohesion with scale. As more individuals participate in a decision, communication challenges escalate, potential conflicts multiply, and individuals feel their influence wane. This leads larger groups, typically, to either fail or centralize power in the hands of a smaller group of decision-makers. Even with the purest intentions, these decision-makers cannot truly harmonize vast, diverse opinions. Inevitably, they end up enforcing their chosen resolutions rather than fostering genuine consensus. Cohesion, then, arises from coercion, either overtly through force and incentives or subtly via social pressures.
Scaling Without Centralized Decision-Making
But there are some who believe it is possible to achieve group cohesion without central leadership, even at scale. They hold the dream of entire organizations, nations, and even the whole world working together and solving shared problems horizontally. Advances in internet accessibility have spurred experiments in "e-democracy," such as the citizen-generated legislation tool vTaiwan, Occupy Movement-inspired Loomio, and the Polis polling system. Additionally, a growing academic discourse, notably LSGDM ("Large-Scale Group Decision Making") predominantly from Chinese universities, aims to improve collaboration among myriad stakeholders from businesses, state agencies and the public.
In 2017, I set out to make my own software to address these issues. I envisioned a user-friendly suite of digital tools that could transform any group of like-minded individuals into a cohesive organization without centralized decision-making. I gradually developed a three-part model based on research in game theory and LSGDM, my own experience, and a mediation process called Convergent Facilitation. I also pulled ideas from scientific research on how birds, ants and even children manage to work together without designated leaders or concrete rules.
This package consisted of three interoperable tools:
- Mobilization Tool: Rooted in the principle of contingent agreement, this feature enables users to propose collective actions or events. With it, anyone can suggest a joint action or event, which other people can agree to on the contingency that every necessary role is filled. This allows group action to grow effortlessly from idea to reality without anyone having to worry about its viability. It can be used in a wide variety of contexts from hosting a party with friends to forming business agreements.
- Deliberation Tool: Focused on consensus-building, this tool allows stakeholders to shift focus from outcomes to refining a set of criteria that has maximal support. Using this list, they can evaluate and refine proposals to meet those broadly supported criteria. Use cases have included forming covid policy for a school and deciding how to use a large monetary donation.
- Strategy Building Tool: Designed for infinitely detailed and broad strategy mapping, this tool facilitates the construction of intertwined multi-step strategies. Participants can outline their goals as sequential phases within a grander scheme, and also identify shared objectives with others.
All three pieces are designed to be used in conjunction. Deliberations and actions can be linked to goals, and actions can be linked to deliberations.
Once I had a basic version of each tool, I approached a handful of groups to test them, including activists, Nonprofits, and intentional communities. Several groups used them and offered feedback. I steadily improved and simplified the processes, and as I did so, I began to see their potential to achieve truly decentralized organization.
Despite several successes, a few challenges soon emerged. First, many of these groups wanted their information to be completely secure — that meant heavy encryption and private servers. Second, they had no money to pay for those servers. I did not intend to profit from these tools, but it became difficult to host new instances of my software for every group that was interested. I also realized that if my technology was ever to be used by large groups, that system was untenable.
That’s one reason I decided to move to Holochain. If I, or an organization I created, owned and controlled the software, it would exist only as long as I could support it. Investing in a structure to support group coordination requires trust, and it would help if that trust didn’t rely on the stability of one person or company. Furthermore, Holochain addressed another problem: with traditional architecture, I would have the power, and in some cases legal responsibility, to monitor and censor users. For a system to provide real liberatory power, it couldn’t be run this way. A platform designed for individuals to organize horizontally requires infrastructure that is also horizontal. With Holochain, the platform can be completely controlled and powered by its users. Moreover, as a designer and developer, I am free to focus my energy on improving the tools, without worrying about bureaucracy or scaling.
So far, I have developed two of the three tools for Holochain — "Who’s in?” to mobilize people for events or joint actions, and “Converge”, for deliberating and making collective decisions.
To download and try these apps, visit: https://dcan.app/
Who's In?: A Mobilization Tool
With Who’s In?, anyone can add suggested actions which can be joined by anyone in your network. They can add necessary roles for an action, and other members can commit to participating if the action gains necessary support.
Converge: A Deliberation Tool
With the Converge app, you can start a new deliberation that anyone else in your network can join. Anyone can add and evaluate criteria, as well as add and evaluate proposals against those criteria. Controversial criteria can be objected to and alternatives can be proposed and accepted.
Strategy Building Tool
The strategy mapping tool will be released soon. It will allow users to list goals they might share with others, as well as sub-goals and sub-sub-goals, and so on. These goals may then be adopted by other users, creating a unified list of popular goals. This makes it easy to see where there is shared motivation, and find out who might be interested in collaborating on what.
Are you in?
For as long as humans have existed, they have been forced to reckon with the fact that the bigger their groups, the more powerful they can be, but also the more difficult it is to organize without entrusting that power to a few people. The problem has been tackled from every possible angle, but with the advent of peer-to-peer information technology like Holochain, there is an opportunity for brand new forms of organizing to emerge, allowing humans to coordinate organically as peers. If we can crack this problem, I’m hopeful that we can unleash vast amounts of untapped human potential — and if I’m lucky, I won’t have to attend those lengthy and unproductive activist meetings ever again.
For anyone interested in learning more, visit the DCAN website to download and explore Who's In? and Converge. You can also gain a more thorough understanding of the project by reading the DCAN whitepaper.