The first and second articles in this series explored the nature of unenclosable carriers and their potential to underpin an unprecedented explosion of human creativity and social flourishing. We suggest starting there if you haven’t already.
This final installment delves into the unenclosable carrier Holochain specifically, including what makes it unenclosable and how it can be used.
(One thing this article doesn’t provide is much of a comparison between Holochain and blockchain technology; we wrote another piece to serve that purpose.)
Let’s get right to it.
What Holochain Is
Holochain is an open-source, unenclosable framework that enables hosting of peer-to-peer applications without any centralized or consensus-based infrastructure. It provides a way of ensuring the integrity and accuracy of data in a network while also enabling every user to host and represent their own data. Rather than having actions validated and information verified by centralized entities (as in internet apps) or global consensus mechanisms (as in blockchain apps) — both of which are enclosable and result in power imbalances (see Part 1) — actions and data within Holochain apps are validated entirely peer-to-peer.
- By “framework”, we mean a database for storing, organizing, and finding data that is spread across many computers, so that no one has to hold a lot of data. In Holochain apps there can be data that remains local to one’s own computer, on what’s called a Source Chain, and there can be data that is shared across many computers, on what’s called a Distributed Hash Table (DHT).
- By “peer-to-peer applications”, we mean a version of decentralized applications (dApps) that are hosted entirely by the participants in the app, rather than by a central company. (Holochain applications are sometimes called hApps.) There are no limits to the kinds of apps that might be built on Holochain, other than that they have to involve two or more parties communicating or transacting. Apps for social networking, currency systems, ride-sharing, travel booking, buying and selling, team coordination, collective decision-making, chat, weather, and news applications are all possible. Most ways that you currently interact digitally with people or businesses, as well as many ways you might imagine doing so, can be built on Holochain and can probably be enhanced by unenclosability.
- By “data integrity”, we mean the assurance that data cannot be tampered with once it has been created, including by anyone storing data about themselves on their own Source Chain. For example, if you have 100 currency units and you spend 50, it has integrity for you to represent to the network that you have 50 units remaining; it would not have integrity for you to be able to represent that you still have 100. Similarly, it would not have integrity if you could display a 5-star user rating when the average of your ratings is actually 3 stars. Holochain provides a way of cryptographically ensuring that if you misrepresent any data, such as your account balance or reputation score, it will be obvious, and your communication or transaction will be flagged and rejected by the peer-based validation mechanisms.
Each Holochain app is a collaborative platform within which users host themselves and also provide just a little extra computing power and storage so that extra copies of data are always online and agreements are mutually validated and enforced.
What Makes Holochain Unenclosable
Holochain is agent-centric. Holochain enables individual choice over just about everything, including which applications and networks to participate in, your identity and address within those networks, and what information you expose to other participants. And you always store and own your own data, taking it with you as you move between applications, which is not possible with internet search engines, social networks, or shopping sites — or even blockchain apps.
Holochain enables direct interaction. With Holochain, you act truly peer-to-peer, free from intermediaries except those you freely choose. You and your actions write directly to the ledger of events, and you share only share with the network what you have agreed to share according to the terms of whichever apps you have freely chosen to participate in. You represent yourself, rather than being subject to representation by central authorities like legislators, miners, stakers, or even internet service providers.
Direct interaction also means that Holochain functions on any network. It can operate through the internet (TCP/IP) but doesn’t require it; apps can just as easily operate on mesh networks or even local area networks, Bluetooth networks, or any other means of communicating data among peers. Even when offline from the larger network of app users, a subgroup of connected peers can run the app with full functionality among themselves (since everyone hosts a copy of the core application code) and synchronize their changes with the network later.
Holochain enables groups of any size, whether 2 people or 2 billion people, to operate on a shared set of agreements. Most blockchains have problems at the low end, requiring hundreds if not thousands of players before there is enough of a distributed consensus mechanism to prevent attacks by a majority of nodes. And so far, blockchain-based dApps (decentralized applications) haven’t demonstrated much of an ability to scale beyond a few thousand active users, suggesting they may have problems at the high end too. For a carrier to be unenclosable, it’s important that any number of people can interact and mutually enforce the integrity of the space they’re participating in.
Holochain is free to use. Since all users host themselves on Holochain, there is no need for costly central hosting infrastructure as there is in web apps, nor any need to pay tax-like ‘gas’ fees to miners or stakers to run the network as there is in blockchain apps. Each peer carries a bit of extra load to store and validate a portion of the information that’s distributed to the group. Any fees that occur in Holochain apps are chosen and mutually enforced by those freely participating within a given app space, with no revenues skimmed by the network.
(Holochain is not to be confused with Holo, which is an optional, peer-to-peer hosting framework that enables users who are not hosting themselves to access Holochain apps through a web browser.)
What You Can Do with It
In Part 2, we imagined how applications built on an unenclosable carrier like Holochain could have game-changing effects on our food supply, energy infrastructure, financial systems, and natural ecosystems. But virtually all of today’s web and blockchain apps could be improved in some way by shifting to unenclosability and peer-to-peer infrastructure.
- An agent-centric social network, intrinsically proofed against centralized surveillance and the selling of data to advertisers, with content-ranking algorithms that serve the common good – or your own individual preferences – not the interests of an enclosing corporation.
- A self-hosted community chat, similar to WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal, where freedom-of-speech policies can be implemented by the communities themselves according to mutually-agreed rulesets, not imposed by a centrally controlled software company that is subject to all sorts of economic and political pressures.
- A self-hosted team chat, similar to Slack, that doesn’t share your data with a corporate entity, works asynchronously and can be used offline, and operates without infrastructure costs. (Elemental Chat is currently live as a proof-of-concept.)
- A rideshare system, similar to Uber and Lyft, that eliminates most of the hosting costs and corporate overhead that is currently paid by riders and drivers. Rideshare networks could even be owned collectively by drivers, with relatively small fees paid to a software provider that could serve hundreds or thousands of driver collectives. Rides could become more affordable even as drivers are paid more. And bonus: rider locations would never be visible to a corporate entity.
- A knowledge base like Wikipedia that is collectively held by the people who use it.
- A media-sharing platform like Spotify or YouTube that could reinvent revenue-sharing models from the ground up, without the layers of royalties paid to ‘distributors’. For example, what if subscribers of a given artist actually participated in hosting music for others to stream, with those gains being partly retained by the artists and partly cycled back to the fans as rewards in some form or other?
- A document-editing system similar to Google Docs that is truly private, not vulnerable to observation by anyone who might gain (or already have) access to Google’s centralized databases.
- A system for peer-reviewing scientific articles that could replace expensive scholarly journals while promoting more diversity of thought.
- A tamper-proof election system: an immutable, crypto-signed voting system in which any voter is able to verify that their vote was accurately included.
Or imagine (or build upon!) these more innovative possibilities:
- A location-sharing app (like a Weasley clock, for Harry Potter fans), where your information is shared only with family and friends you choose, not exposed to companies or governments.
- A medical data repository where you are in charge of your data and can grant access to providers – and to trusted family members – so that they are able to provide information in cases of emergency.
- A neutral layer for sense-making that sits atop the web, enabling people to associate into networks and then comment on, share, and discuss the information they find online.
- A simplified supply-chain system: Cross-organizational REA accounting where digitally signed payments become the accounting entry for both parties in their ledger history. An immutable, easily-auditable, self-populating accounting framework that streamlines compliance with contracts and regulations.
(By the way, in case you’re wondering whether blockchain technology could support some of the same ideas: probably not most of them, due to its limitations around speed and cost of storage.)
And building on Holochain doesn’t mean sacrificing profitability. You can't make money by controlling data, but there are lots of other ways of earning a profit. In fact, most Web-2.0 revenue models still work for Holochain apps, including:
- ‘Software as a subscription’ (Saas), with or without a free trial
- ‘Freemium’ in which a free version remains functional while subscribers get upgraded features
- Service fees, like on Airbnb or Uber
- Fees for hosting data, like on Dropbox or Gmail
- Sponsorships from service providers relevant to the audience
- Promoted listings by item sellers or service providers, like on Amazon and eBay
- Donations, like on Wikipedia
The only Web-2.0 model that doesn’t work, really, is the one that many people today find the most distasteful: surveillance-driven advertising, in which a company collects personal information or tracks user activity, then uses that information to either sell targeted advertising on its platform or straight-up sell the data to advertisers.
So, what’s different about a Holochain-based social network versus Facebook or Instagram isn’t that the Holochain version is more philanthropic; it’s (1) the choice that people have in how to interact with one another and with the application, (2) the ownership and authorship that people retain over their own data, and (3) the decreased infrastructural costs because the load of running the software and hosting the data is spread across the user base.
Of course, for people that do want to create hApps just for the common good and not for profit, Holochain makes that easier because the infrastructure costs are so low. Maybe you want to set up a reputation-enabled child-care directory because you want easier, safer access to reliable babysitters and nannies in your neighborhood, not because you want to make money. You can do that without needing to configure, manage, or pay for servers, plus Holochain’s developer tools simplify app development (more on those in a bit). Then if your application happens to become a big success, it can scale on Holochain without adding cost, and you could choose to adopt a business model at that time.
Why All of This Matters (a Recap)
Today, a single person’s message can reach billions of people in seconds. This phenomenon, which would have been unfathomable to prehistoric humans, exists thanks to a progression of carrier technologies that have emerged over thousands of years, including written records, the printing press, sound amplification and recording, radio, television, film and, more recently, the internet, email, and social media. These developments have unleashed tremendous human coordination, but, as a side effect, we have surrendered covert power to those who control the carriers, enabling them to decide what gets transmitted and how we interact with each other.
Our mainstream monetary systems are examples of carrier enclosure, too, since they empower governments and financial institutions to say what counts as legitimate currency and trade, as well as to make fiscal policies that affect the behavior of our currencies. Blockchain technology commendably turns over the job of legitimizing transactions to a ‘decentralized’ consensus network, but it still converges to the same side effect, simply replacing governments and corporations with people who control computing power and cryptotokens. A system that is unenclosable is not just decentralized; it cannot ever be centralized.
Over the centuries, the power and wealth differentials have become so extreme that instead of a level economic playing field we have a steep mountainside that most people aren’t able to climb. (We explored some of these imbalances and their consequences in Part 2 of this series.) When disproportionately powerful people (understandably) act in their own interest, it often comes at the expense of the greater good. This is why many of humanity’s greatest challenges — rainforest destruction, pollution and climate instability, food supply degradation, the looming energy crisis, and so on — won’t be solved at the levels of policy or diplomacy, but only by shifting the underlying architectures that determine how wealth and power are allocated and how people are incentivized to act.
The good news is that such a shift is technologically possible in ways it hasn’t been before. Suddenly, at the outset of the 2020s and for the first time in history, we are now able to build communication and transaction systems that let us have it both ways: capacity for massive scale and freedom from the power distortions of enclosability. What is available, and what we must undertake, is a proliferation of new forms of social organizing so expansive that it deserves to be named analogously to the Cambrian Explosion of new biological organisms. We call it the Holocene Explosion, after the current geological epoch.
Designed as a carrier for this Explosion, Holochain preserves individual sovereignty by giving all agents the power to represent themselves in all interactions, and to voluntarily enter (or not) into spaces where mutually agreed-upon rules are mutually enforced. If someone comes to have broader influence than someone else, it’s not because of carrier control, but because that person has gained capabilities according to rules voluntarily opted-into by the people participating in that app space. If anyone doesn’t like the rules of a given space, they are free to leave and join or start another, and since they own their data, they can take it with them.
Holochain is the spark. You are the flame.
It’s come time to close out this series, and we’ve considered a number of ways of doing so. What haven’t we said, we asked ourselves, that still ought to be said?
We considered getting into how scalable Holochain apps are – how easily they can accommodate millions or billions of users because everyone shares in the work of writing and storing data. Or how fast they are – how they enable virtually-real-time interaction. These are actually key reasons, beyond unenclosability, that Holochain may be more suitable than blockchain for real-world collaborative applications. But we covered these topics in the Holochain-blockchain comparison we published recently, so you can go there if you want to learn more about them.
We also considered talking about how a truly unenclosable, peer-to-peer future implies a truly peer-to-peer internet, completely replacing the existing one. But this seems like a story for another time.
We have said – but it's probably worth reiterating – that we can only speculate about what new social forms will emerge through the Holocene Explosion (see Part 2). We’ve also said, or at least implied, that Holochain’s architects don’t claim to fully know how it will be used in the future: the idea in designing it was not to build a whole bunch of new social patterns, but rather to build a framework for new social patterns. This means that the list of possible Holochain apps we shared earlier is truly partial; it’s likely that the most profound and transformative uses for the framework will only emerge over time. (Even within the apps we listed earlier, the most transformative features are TBD: novel incentive systems, governance systems, currency designs, and so on, yet to be invented.)
We have also said that what makes Holochain so suitable for rapid evolution is its unenclosable nature: Holochain is peer-to-peer, agent-centric, free to use, and able to operate on any transport protocol (even without the existing internet). From Part 1 of this series: “With free association and forkability in place, an evolutionary phenomenon emerges: the spaces themselves, each with their own patterns and protocols, enter into a process of natural selection. The ones that solve problems better or serve people better will gain greater adoption, while the ones that don’t do as good a job will die off.”
If there’s one more aspect of Holochain worth mentioning, it might be how Holochain the project (distinct from Holochain the framework) is building an ecosystem to foster experimentation and iteration. Creating a truly optimized evolutionary space isn’t just a matter of building the right core technology; it’s a matter of making that technology as easy to utilize as possible. To that end, Holochain the project is creating:
- Dev tools: A suite of developer tools designed to make it easy to build with Holochain, including a “RAD” (Rapid Application Development) suite that streamlines common functions into essentially drag-and-drop actions.
- A DevHub: a Holochain application that functions like a decentralized Github for sharing developer resources: modules, applications, and user-interface components. Developers can draw from these resources to mash up new apps from existing elements, and to collaborate on and review code.
- A hApp Store: a Holochain application where people can browse or search for Holochain apps, complete with end-user ratings and reviews.
Lowering the barrier to development increases Holochain’s composability, which means how easy it is to mix and match elements – with one another, as well as with whatever outside elements that the technology needs to interact with. Composability also encompasses cost-efficiency of new application development and making updates to existing software.
(Fixing a bug or making an update is a particular challenge in blockchain-based dApps, where the smart contracts are immutable once live – and already have assets connected to them! It’s notoriously nerve-wracking for blockchain devs to push to mainnet because there’s no way to revise live code the way there is in centralized apps.)
The lower the cost and risk of change, the more participation in creating change, and the faster the change. And rapid change is what we need to keep up with the pace of change in the world, and to address the problems we’re facing on the timeline we need to address them.
A Complex Technology for a Complex World
In one sense, Holochain is quite a simple piece of software: it’s a lightweight framework that allows people to create and share data in a way that ensures accuracy without relying on concentrated power-brokers. It’s not an application layer in and of itself, and it’s highly neutral as to the kinds of applications that are built with it. And it’s unburdened by many of the complications of web2 (where data is subject to centralized control, surveillance, censorship, and points of failure) or early web3 (where global consensus mechanisms and massive data replication result in high computing costs and slow processing).
In another sense, though, Holochain is highly complex: there’s actually a lot of technology that goes into ensuring data integrity without centralized components. This is partly because Holochain is a networking system, and any networking system has to deal with many ‘states’ of data (across many computers) by either updating them all together or otherwise integrating them with one another. But it’s also because Holochain doesn’t force the network into a universally shared state (which would result in enclosure points) but rather enables massive simultaneity of perspectives. Everyone in a Holochain application space represents their own record, yet all the records remain tamper-proof. If that sounds like a complex challenge, you’re on the right track. It’s no wonder Holochain has only recently become ready for prime time, after years of work.
And yet, nothing less complex would map to the problem space Holochain is designed to address. Global challenges are interrelated and multi-faceted in their causes and effects, so they require interrelated and multi-faceted solutions. You can’t solve the energy crisis, pollution, deforestation, or hunger with centralized systems – or, as it turns out, with blockchain tokenization – any more than you can fix a meadow with a hammer. Matters have gotten out of hand precisely because we have been force-fitting living systems through power-entrenching enclosure points for centuries.
What is required is a radical, widespread shift away from extractive economics and toward regenerative economics, yet the power imbalances we’ve created over time perpetuate the cycle of extractive power. This is why we maintain that Holochain or something like it is a necessary foundation for saving the world.
The technological capacity to have built Holochain, and now Holochain itself, have come along not a moment too soon. Now we just need to put it to work.