Decentralized systems, such as blockchains, are enabling new systems that would previously have been impossible.
The following interview focuses on the radical potential of distributed systems, transcribed from a chat room for Holo, the creator of Holochains.
Holochains may prove suitable for replacing platforms such as Facebook, AirBnB, and Uber in the future with new structures that share wealth transparently if not equitably.
For a general interview of Holo and what it makes possible, read my previous article.
For a seeking a more technical overview, check out Moritz’s article.
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TRISTAN ROBERTS: Who are you, and how did you get involved with Holo?
EMALINE FRIEDMAN: I'm passionate about the link between human dignity and the dream of post-capitalist social arrangements. I was working on a doctorate in Psychology, a critical perspective on "Internet Addiction", when I got involved with Holo. I realized that the suffering caused by our Internet dependence has a lot more to do with the economics arrangements and power asymmetries in the digital world, so it didn't take long for me to see that I had found the right project.
JEAN RUSSELL: I have a passion for group and collective productivity. Since 2007, I have been championing "Thrivability" as an aspiration, which is our collective generativity. My latest book on the topic is Cultivating Flows: How Ideas Become Thriving Organizations. Arthur invited me in to be "outcome oriented" back August 2017. I have been playing with Art, Eric, and Ferananda on projects since 2005. It fits as the next step in work I had been doing with Kaliya, aka Identity Woman, on Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium and some of her other efforts.
TRISTAN: Emaline, you mentioned that you’re excited about shifting the “economics arrangements and power asymmetries” currently embedded into the internet. Can you perhaps define the entities or trends that are emerging, and broach why you feel Holo is particularly suited to empowering these shifts?
EMALINE: I'm talking straight, unbridled capitalism-as-usual, online. People often complain about ads being annoying, and yet that's just a superficial reminder that we spend most of our digital lives on someone else's platform--companies that don't necessarily have our best interests in mind.
Our attention is captured for the express purpose of generating user data for which there's a massive market of actors who can use it to better structure our world, so to me the Cambridge Analytica stuff is pretty much just business as usual. I think that with enough awareness of the business model of the net folks will want to start reclaiming it by dissolving it into many distinct public spaces. Of course, this has to start at the infrastructural level... that's Holo all over. Cooperatively owned and operated platforms are an absolute must to do any bottom-up organizing.
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TRISTAN: Holochain describes itself as being agent-centric - why is this important?
EMALINE: Agent-centrism is a term we use to mark the way that Holochain's approach is distinct from the data-centrism of most computational models. Technically speaking, agent-centrism describes the fact that each Holochain node is responsible for keeping track of its own history and the little fragment of gossip that it propagates in a given community.
I specifically appreciate that that model is more similar to our physical bodies--how they are ultimately a collection of historical traces and things we've lived across time. Contrast this with the data-centrism of our current Internet, or blockchain, where data rather than people are taken as the unit to be watchful of. In both instances instead of a person applying this watchfulness to him or herself (including how they play roles in communities), some actor, either every node on the network, or a global company, portends to a god's eye view of the whole.
Art Brock talks about this as bringing computing up to speed with the theory of relativity, but to me this is aligning computing with the feminist critiques of science that have also been around for decades. The message of the feminist critics is one that Holochain most definitely enacts: when everyone is willing to embody or otherwise take responsibility for their unique perspectives, we get a system where people can pursue their own paths with far greater equality (and in the case of computing, incidentally, greater efficiency).
JEAN: For me this is the natural evolution from a critique of objective reality... some sort of data truth to out at the center. Of course there isn't a single truth. Most of the time that is a really magnificent thing. Shifting from the data to the perspective on the data means we can have a multiplicity of truths. More than that, the work of centering and reconciling data in a decentralized but data centric world is computationally costly. Shifting to agent centric makes it so that only nodes that touch have to reconcile their views of reality and only where that matters (accounting but not on breakfast).
TRISTAN: The internet has certainly enabled a multiplicity of perspectives that would be hardly imaginable in the days when newspapers and T.V. broadcasts reigned as our information 'feed'. But this multiplicity that Web 2.0 offers seems dampened by the intentions of content-aggregators that design our feeds. Do you think distributed platforms will allow us to better separate the signal from the noise?
JEAN: So far this has been quite a game. You develop tools to reduce noise and marketing people are very clever about coming up with new creative ways to work around those filters. Beyond that, what is noise to one is music to another. FB and Twitter are not useful at full throttle if not carefully managed. My hope is that we keep putting the choice in the hands of people for how to filter instead of letting a company do it. Filtering is imperative. Who, how, we filter matters. I hope distributed solutions provide ways to filter (and filters we can share, so the admin load is lighter). However, it might be a never ending game to navigate.
TRISTAN: What are some ways in which identity is evolving through Holo/agent-centrism?
EMALINE: So, identity is everything that we say we are. I'm a huge proponent of psychoanalytic thought, so to me there's a glaring gap between what we say we are and the things we actually end up doing and saying. Provided that the immutable self-records on which Holochains rely count as legitimate evidence in communities of practice, one has a much greater ability to match their self-image with their collected history. This has huge implications for identity and for something a little more spiritual.
On the one hand one has the opportunity to advocate better for oneself, to repudiate false claims, to compile trustworthy resumés related to very specific activities, and to bust out of the current web's model (in which people's information gets used against them, ironically, because it's not collected well enough, but by tons of different companies and data brokers who can only but piece things together quite shoddily).
On the other hand, agent-centrism amplifies the struggles and joys of being human... there's no telling what sorts of things can be achieved with the power of a self-owned, more accurate record. It's like, you may have a lot more awareness of how much you lie to yourself about your online habits (of shopping, chatting incessantly, whatever), and more awareness that you're actually more charitable or more spend-happy than you give yourself credit for. What people do with this such awareness (think Oedipus and the oracle at Delphi) is more profound than identity. It's right where popular modernity meets a sort of tragic, beautiful spiritual growth process.
I have a strong attachment to identity discussions on numerous levels. I will try to be brief.
- identity is how we perceive ourselves AND how others see us as well as the situation we find ourselves embedded in, including which "publics" are watching.
- coding the real complexity of how identity works is quite a challenge.
Imagine if your only experiences of the world were from films: you see what the director allows you to see - a single truth. And then suddenly you have a world where everyone is using their phones to record and share video - the many perspectives available. The difference is huge and yet oddly unspeakable. Same world. Vastly different experience.
TRISTAN: I want to touch on the spiritual side of identity. While idealistic groups have been working on crypto platforms for decades, it seems exceptionally rare for these systems to gain much of a network effect (Bitcoin and Ethereum being notable exceptions). What will it mean for humanity if and when these self-sovereign systems can start to interact fluidly with each other?
JEAN: I don't know what it might mean for humanity if these systems become interoperable. Identity is one of those worldview concepts that it is difficult to see outside. Some say in Shakespeare's time, authorship didn't mean what it does today. And they suggest Shakespeare is an amalgam of a whole troupe of actors together. We have lived in a time with a cult of individuality, especially in the US. And yet depression, often from loneliness and a lack of belonging, is the consequence.
My hope is that this self-sovereign systems help us be both our own identity and a part of something larger in ways that we can feel our agency and yet belong and connect. I believe that both-and possibility is a healthier and more enlivening world.
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TRISTAN: How do you think of the relation between humans and technology, and what is your perspective on how this is evolving? Do you see an end goal, or at least, a next stage?
JEAN: We have so many stories of man against machine or man against nature. Robots helping free us from jobs becomes robots taking our jobs. I am curious how we can have technology support us in being more human.
How can we use technology for what it excels at: repetition, logic, data storage for example? And how can that help humans be more creative, playful, recreational, and connected? There are many ways in which social media enabled us to be more human together. But with the Cambridge Analytics story unfolding, human fallibility is center stage too. How can we keep steering through the tensions toward humans being better humans together, because isn't that what this is all about?
Next stage: yes, specifically I have thought about applications on Holochain that help me be more human such as managing my personal health data making it more portable and easier for me to give a new doctor permissioned access and also giving them information from my Fitbit or other tracking tools. When the system is agent centric, this is way more human of a process instead of bureaucracy that is a time suck and dehumanizing.
EMALINE: I'd say that growing pains mediate the relationship between humans and technology. How each person deals with the part of them that wants to be able to do more, extend their senses, etc. is the difference between the frustration and feeling of exclusion for many, recoiling altogether, or the polar opposite, a kind of hypnotized, "more, more!" attitude that denies all other considerations (eating, sleeping, boring human stuff).
This is the philosophical nature of the beast, so for me this hasn't evolved much at all. What's interesting about Internet tech, though, is that it involves the part of us that wants to be with and learn from others more intensively. At a societal level, though, this pits us with the question of who we want to be exposed/expose ourselves to, when, and for what reasons. I certainly hope, like I mentioned, that we become more aware of this, and wise about grouping ourselves for ourselves. There's power in numbers, and so these coordinative efforts, whether from above or below, will be determinative of where and how we live, and what we live for.
It's all very political, and as always, freedom of association is key. This is what I hope Holochain makes easier...the freedom to find one's pack, so to speak, through the micro-cultural stuff--community rules and norms that are livable and sensible rather than super oppressive and kafka-esque.
TRISTAN: Many upstart projects promote themselves as being decentralized but fail to live up to that term when real money and power become involved. Holo is open about being a fairly a centralized corporation that is in the midst of distributing its power. Could you comment on if and how you've been experiencing this process, and speak to the peer-to-peer community on any lessons learned?
JEAN: First, let's look at the layers at which we might be speaking here. Is the team decentralized at an infrastructure level? Is authority decentralized within the team on the project? Is the economic engine of the project decentralizing or centralizing? What is the trajectory for those things? Are they different between Holo and Holochain?
- The Holo and Holochain team (pretty much same humans) are physically decentralized -- as in work on this project has occurred on 6 different continents. We have never yet all been in the same room at the same time!
- Is authority decentralized? Sort of. We came together held by a vision asserted by a few and money is handles and allocated by a few. However, work is organized by something of a do-acracy and major decisions are conducted as a "sense of the meeting" with everyone providing input.
- Is the economic engine a decentralizing pattern? Well, yes. First, Holochain is open source. Holo is a hybrid with a bridge back to the more centralized web and as such it is also more centralized financially, for now. We worked hard to make sure that whales could not come in to offset the balance of community decision-making and intend for Holo to evolve into a community-managed (or at least heavily influencing) organization. We continue to navigate the finance and community governance toward decentralized approaches. We want this to be a P2P Sharing Application AND a model for more such applications to come. Our job is to make each run well and then build the next. Personally, I think power is a great thing as long as it keeps moving around and doesn't become static. When it stagnates, it corrupts.
- I think I addressed that it is different between the projects: one being more centralized with money flowing through and the other being open source with no native currency.
- We are in the early days of the next evolution in distributed coordination of humans. Lessons? Mind the tensions between how vastly different humans can be, how (overly) simplifying protocols can be, and the administrative time of being clear and aligned together. Personally I would add that the Quaker practice of sense-of-the-meeting is so much better than consensus. It reminds me of Brian at Holocracy talking about everyone being a sensory input for the whole.
EMALINE: I'll leave it at Jean's beautifully laid out answer. Especially because we haven't really started distributing our power yet =P
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TRISTAN: A lot of people can get a vague sense that distributed, self-sovereign systems are going to positively impact their lives, but it seems a mystery as to how that might unfold. Can you speak on how you see this core foundation being developed?
EMALINE: Agreed... it's not easy to envision, and is further complicated by the fact that we've always been super careful not to make egregious promises. The core foundations of the positive impacts of distributed systems is the necessity of explicit rules exercised in a programmatic way.
I think that when it's clear what criteria different communities use to make decisions it becomes easier to feel comfortable jumping in fully or to avoid a lot of heartbreak from the outset owing to expectations that are clearly discordant with people's MO's. There's a lot of fear around identity and reputation systems, but when they're self-managed and used for opting in, one can more easily set reasonable goals, improve or choose to disavow particular reputation parameters, etc.
Given what I've said about data scraping as, essentially, unrecognized labor, just the idea of recognizing and accounting for various contributions, on and offline, is exciting. The key is that the people know the purposes for which their identity components are under scrutiny. This is better for decision-making, better for acceptance, better for awareness of context, and is a lot easier to achieve through a distributed accounting/computing system.
TRISTAN: Presently Holo's most built out apps, if I'm not mistaken, are a Slack and a Twitter clone. These are great examples of structures previously only viable on a fairly centralized system. But it doesn't feel like they have shown the "value add" of a distributed system. Are you using any Holo apps yet regularly? Or for which 'killer apps' are you most eager?
EMALINE: Yep, they haven't... and I think that owes more to the fact that we've done nothing to encourage adoption (except using the Twitter clone at hackathons, and the Slack one internally). I'm interested in the possibility for distributed social media to enable user-selected pooling of psychological/behavioral data for profit or by donation to research initiatives and planning causes they care about personally.
Anyway though... not yet using Holo apps. So very looking forward to rejoining my community in Atlanta and co-creating a community currency/skillshare accounting engine. Have also lately been dreaming about an app that evenly distributes grant, crowd, public, or private investment funds to individuals jointly contributing cognitive labor to particular research projects. And of course some decent rideshare apps, dear god.
TRISTAN: Ahh thanks for getting back into tangible use cases for building local community. It's easy to get disconnected in the heady thoughtspace of distributed peer-to-peer systems. Assume the maturation of the Holochain eco-system. How would you like to bring these systems into your 'real' or virtual life, Jean?
JEAN: I have three personal aspirations with Holochain and Holo. First I have wanted a real Peers Inc (Robin Chase) platform for us to cooperate on access to goods and services together. Holo is the first application we have for this, and I want to help create more through our Commons Engine. Second, I would like to support Cameron Burgess and his team on Billions to Trillions with their model for using markets running on Holochain to address the wicked problems in the world. And thirdly, for myself, I want a personal assistant application that keeps my health data and calendar etc but runs A.I. over it to help me be better at being me, a sort of quantified self plus secretary running off smart data.
TRISTAN: Personal assistant A.I.'s that aren't just trying to sell you stuff while selling your information are one point I'm exceptionally excited for as well. Decentralized big data and algorithm markets like SingularityNet and Oceans might make this happen sooner than we'd think. I'd love to go further, especially on this topic of personal assistance but I imagine you two are both super busy during Holo's initial community offering.
JEAN: This has been super fun as a way to do an interview! Thank you Tristan. I really enjoyed the weave with Emaline too!
EMALINE: I completely feel that-- I'm actually impressed that we've gone this far. It's been really fun reflecting in this way during ICO madness, so thanks Tristan and Jean.