Fixing the internet: how Holochain wants to change the way we interact

Let us start with a rather simple but necessary statement: The internet is as amazing as it is dreadful. It is time to fix it, make it more human, and holochain wants to be this tool. 

The internet has completely revolutionised the way humans and machines connect, create and share. It has built countless bridges and at the same time erected manifold walls. It has liberated us and made us slaves.

What started as a military technology in the 1970s, became the cornerstone of the 21st century. By the early 00’s the dot-com bubble proved that the internet was not linear nor easy to grasp. With hindsight, it wasn’t difficult to predict that in the coming decades, those who figured out how to forge the digital architecture would ultimately conquer the real world.

Today our time, attention and money are aggressively fought over by mainly four major tech companies. Those who understood the potential of the internet, those who set the rules and cash in every time we play the game.

But what if that digital architecture wasn’t the only possible one? What if we have been living in a prison not knowing we could build our own infrastructure? What if we could fix the internet?

A group of internet enthusiasts decided to take on the challenge, and their solution is rather promising. Allow me the pleasure of introducing you to Holochain, the new internet paradigm.

Matthew Schutte, Director of Communications

If this is the first time you’ve heard about Holochain, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. If you have already come across the project, congratulations, you are one of the few lucky ones aware of the next internet frontier.

A couple of weeks ago we had the honour of talking to Matthew Schutte, the Director of Communications for Holochain. He patiently explained to us what Holochain is, how it works and why it can save the internet in ways Blockchain simply cannot.

What follows is the first of two articles that explore the origins and potential of Holochain.

The interview was made with Ehab Elia and Manuela Yamada.

The origins of Holochain

Holochain comes out of the MetaCurrency Project. We are a group of hackers, designers and digital activists that have been working on trying to design systems, including technology, that enable communities to function well. Our focus was how can we as humans organise ourselves, coordinate and collaborate in ways that actually work, both for individuals and the group.

This has been an all-volunteer project for over ten years. It is now transitioning into something different so that more of us can work on it full time. A couple of years ago, we had built some amazing things and Holochain was sort of the next step. It’s not the end-all-be-all. It is not our grand vision. But it’s a first big public step and a tool that others can use.

So what exactly is Holochain?

Holochain is a way of building and running applications using just the devices of the users themselves. In a traditional web app architecture, there is always someone in the middle. You always have a web server. For example, on Facebook, if I want to talk to you, I don’t send a message to you, I send a message to Facebook and then they send it to you. This is now an old story people are familiar with.

Then blockchain came along and said “Ah! We can get rid of the party in the middle… by  putting everyone in the middle”. Actually,  it wasn’t everyone, but just everyone wealthy enough and tech savvy to be able to be in the middle: the group of miners that hold on to the records. The Blockchain strategy was to come up with one truth at the network level. We’re trying to do something different. Instead of having a bunch of people, outsiders, holding on to the content, it is just us. So if you and I are running a Twitter Holochain, where we each have the program on our device, we don’t need to have anyone else in the middle. It could just be the two or three or ten of us or even the whole world. What is truly radically different is the ability for the individuals to be able to change how they are coordinating or extend what they do without having to get everyone in the space to agree to that change.

 Blockchain strategy was to come up with one truth at the network level. We’re trying to do something different

Holochain is about changing how collaboration works.

What is the ethos of Holochain?

We wanted to address one of the inherent problems with the internet. Because the intent behind the internet is amazing, but it is the architecture that determines what you actually get.

We built this system so that any two people or five or a million, can communicate and collaborate in the way that works for them, and that others can’t stop it.

The way we think of it is less as a language and more as a medium to communicate. Writing is a medium. Air molecules are a medium that carry sound waves. We call these mediums carriers. What you are able to send through that carrier is what we call a signal. Different carriers have different properties. We’re trying to create a user-defined carrier, meaning no one else gets to decide whether or not you can communicate in that way. Even in sound, the user cannot define his range of perception and interaction. For example, I can be trying to talk with you, but if the person sitting next to you starts screaming, you might not be able to hear me, so other people can drown out the sound and potentially block our communication. Our system would facilitate a line of communication between the two people conversing that is defined only by them, so no more drunken screaming interruptions, and of course, no middlemen.

We built this system so that any two people or five or a million, can communicate and collaborate in the way that works for them, and that others can’t stop it. They don’t need permission from someone else, they don’t need someone else’s business model to support it. Each member and user can develop and hold the capacity internally to participate.

One of our biggest problems is that because this is such a big change, (this is not blockchain!) it’s very easy to go into the very abstract and sort of lose track of what we’re doing. So we usually just keep it at ‘We’re running an application together’ but it’s actually about changing how collaboration works.

It sounds amazing on paper, but is there a catch? What is your business model?

Holochain is just technology. It is a way of building applications and no, it doesn’t have a business model. We’re giving Holochain as a gift. You can think of it as a pattern, sort of like writing is a pattern. When was the last time you paid your writing bill? No, you hold the ability to write inside of you. You master that skill, and then you can communicate with others that can read and write. Holochain is similar.

The way we see this working, is people learn how to build Holochain applications and start using them with other people. Our organization might never even learn about that application, let alone charge for it. And we think this is appropriate. That said, in order to support the growth of Holochain, we’re building an application called Holo to bridge between the old and new internet.

Holo is a service application that we think many Holochain apps will use and this has its own business model. Holo makes it easier for these new peer-to-peer applications to speak to the outside world, to anyone who opens a web browser and types a URL.

We believe that running a community application that works for you doesn’t mean that you should only be able to talk to the earliest of adopters and the tech elite. Holo makes it so that you can have the members of your own community translate between the web and your peer-to-peer Twitter, Airbnb, Uber or whatever it is that you are running. And when the members of your community do that, when they contribute a little computing capacity for serving up web pages for other folks, the developer or the community compensates them in our crypto-accounting system. Which is worth saying is not the same thing as today’s cryptocurrencies, it’s quite different. Our business model is to take 1% as a transaction fee on the transfers that happen through that currency. That supports the growth of that bridging system (Holo) and half of our revenues go to subsidizing the underlying architecture of Holochain.

(…) we are not trying to build a business, we are trying to change the world.

What is the user experience for someone that has never coded?

It depends because there are two different things: Holochain and holo.

For Holochain, you don’t need anything other than your devices. Now it works on laptops, soon we’re planning to support mobile. The idea is that if we are running our peer-to-peer Twitter, I’m running it on my phone, you’re running it on your laptop, it works and it’s just us. You don’t have to buy anything from our organisation.

However, Holo is about bridging. You wouldn’t probably host websites from your phone, as it’s not as fast, you’d use your desktop or a special device like the HoloPort that we sold as part of our crowdfunding campaign. If you bought it, the whole point of that device is that it makes it just easier. You plug it in, you get it on the internet, you can click automate, and it starts hosting for anybody, or you can decide: “Hey, I want to support this community, I want to give this other group some capacity for free, and this other community I don’t want to support at all“. The goal was that without needing to be technologically savvy, you could join and participate in helping to bridge this new internet. To make it easy when somebody builds one of these new apps, so that they can still have customers, even though not everyone else has started to make use of this technology. And if you are just coming to visit, all you need is a device with a web browser.  You might not even realize that on the backend is a community instead of a company.

You talk about bridging between the old and new internet and getting compensated by doing so, how does that work more precisely?

Our focus is on enabling a community to interact. If that community wants to have a website that allows others to visit them, then they need a bridge. Holo is just that, it enables visitors to come and interact with your community. When one of the members of that community, does the work of bridging to the outsider, they get compensated for that for the work that their machine does with Holo Fuel.  

Holochain means a truly distributed internet. No more middlemen. Ever.

This might feel like it’s tiny and not worth much, but Amazon is one of the largest companies on the planet, and a huge part of their business is web hosting. They are literally providing the same service of allowing visitors to interact with your system, and today, developers pay for Amazon’s computers to do that work. Amazon Web Services counts for about 10% of their revenues, but it makes up more profit than the entire rest of their business combined. Web hosting is literally Amazon’s cash cow. What we’re trying to do to Amazon, is basically what Uber did to taxis. We’re trying to make it so that every person on the planet with a computer with some spare capacity, can make use of it and get compensated for doing so.

Does this mean that in the future we wouldn’t need any more web servers?

Right now we are using Twitter to communicate, and Twitter has their web servers, but if instead, we start using a service that is run by us, then there is no need for web servers. That isn’t to say people will just hit copy/paste and move their existing websites over to Holo. Web sites are designed and built today to run on the existing infrastructure. This is a new pattern, we are not expecting people to go take all their existing sites and dumped them here, it’s not really built for that. It is built to enable anyone with a web browser to interact with communities who are running peer-to-peer applications.

We need to start building more things that actually support these patterns, and as those start to grow, then they would use Holo to speak to the outside world. It’s really hard sometimes to explain because the paradigm is so different. It is like being in the world of typewriters when computers were first being introduced. People were like “but where do I put the paper?” It’s such a different model that you can’t just adapt the existing, we need to build new systems.

Do you think that Holochain could eventually have the capacity to replace Amazon Web Services?

I think the question is over what timeframe. By next year? Not really. Over five years? Probably, Ten years? Absolutely. But the point for us is to make visible that web hosting is not small. Our ultimate goal is not to tackle Amazon or Uber, is just to show there is a lot of demand for this. It turns out that today most of how humans communicate is through web servers, probably more than we actually speak to one another.

What is the most successful Holochain app so far?

We are relatively new, we launched the alpha version in October 2017, and ever since then we’ve been mostly focused on crowdfunding and sharing our vision and story. So far we have only done some proof of concept apps. One is a peer-to-peer Twitter (called Clutter), that name is a joke, but allowed us to give people an example of how to build a truly distributed app on Holochain and to demonstrate how lightweight the architecture is. Even if there were millions of folks running Clutter, after about 6 months of use, it should only take up about as much storage space on your phone as one 12 megapixel photo. Another is Holo Chats, our peer-to-peer alternative to Slack with an alpha release in the coming weeks.

We’ve also had a bunch people in the community build things like a federated wiki where you don’t have to have a web server. We’ve also had people creating a fractal wiki, which is fascinating and very different. Instead of having just one page that presents the same information to all its users, you have topics discussed by different groups. Our take on this is that the ability to hold multiple perspectives is actually really enriching. If you cover one eye you see an image, if you cover the other you see a slightly different image, but if you have both you see depth.

Most of the systems we use today don’t enable us to make use of multiple perspectives and compare them easily. They end up forcing us into picking one, and in part that is because of how text works. But if you think of other forms of signalling, you could get a much more complex image.

Stay tuned for the following article exploring in more detail the impacts of Holochain, Holo and Holo Fuel.


Featured photo by Randall Bruder on Unsplash

Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Image courtesy of Holochain.org

Photo by William Bout on Unsplash