(I just got back from That Thing in the Desert and there’s playa dust in my playa dust. There are probably a handful of posts to be squeezed out of my first trip to Burning Man, so uhhh…if you don’t like BM, sorry. But not sorry. It’s just what’s happening.)
A culture where there are no strangers
I worked out pretty early on that I wasn’t a night burner – everything was more disorienting, it was harder to meet people and easier to lose your friends when they zoomed off on their bikes and didn’t hear you yell out for them to stop. But I considered my first year a tasting plate of Burning Man experiences, so I wanted to try it all before I rejected it for an early night’s sleep. The sound camps were booming and the music somewhat indistinguishable and muddled together, but I somehow ended up at a large DJ stage with the label Slutgarden and the music wasn’t bad so I decided to stay.
‘Safety third’ is a motto you hear a lot at Burning Man, and it typifies the principle of self-reliance embedded into the culture. A veteran burner I talked to once remarked ‘they [the Burning Man organisation, BMorg] really only do rigorous inspections on the pyrotechnics. All other structures, like rigging, well, they don’t really care. So it’s up to you to evaluate if you think something is safe enough to do. If you get on something, like a tower or an art car, and it feels unsafe, well, it probably is. No one is going to tell you what to do.’
With this in mind I noticed a metal cage in the crowd in front of Slutgarden’s stage. It was tall enough for someone to stand in, and had a platform for someone to stand inside it. I wanted to climb on top of it. Knowing it hadn’t been evaluated by an external authority, I examined it to see how strong it was. Pretty damn strong, but not bolted to the ground. I climbed up and sat on the top, letting my head and shoulders doing some kind of laidback introvert dancing as I perched above the crowd.
Suddenly I felt the cage jerking and looked down to see some drunk dude grabbing the front of the cage with both hands and shaking it violently. In that instant I was terrified, because he could easily tip the whole thing over and throw me off onto bodies and hard playa below. All I wanted was for him to stop. Without thinking, I kicked out and connected with his head – much harder than I’d intended. He stumbled back and swore at me, shocked. I was shocked too. I didn’t mean to hurt him; I just wanted him to stop rocking the cage.
I climbed down and tried to apologise, but he was still shitty at me and he didn’t seem to feel bad for almost tipping over the structure I was sitting on. We apologised to each other but neither felt that the other had understood or really shown any remorse. I no longer wanted to be there so I went to go unlock my bike and started to leave. Tears welled up and my body was hot, with knots of energy pulsing in my chest.
‘Hey, if you’re staying, could you move your bike across the esplanade so we have more space?’ It was someone from Slutgarden, trying to keep the kaggle of bikes out of the way of flailing dancers. He took a closer look at my face and his expression changed.
‘You look like you could use a hug. Would you like a hug?’ I thought about it for a second and then said yes.
The instant I was wrapped in this stranger’s arms I burst into tears. He was open, and comforting, and just held me and let me let it all out. My very primal need to be seen, and to release the tension that had arisen from the kicking in the face incident gradually dissipated in the face of this stranger’s generosity.
As I became calmer and wiped the tears off my face we started talking. He introduced himself. I described what had happened and why I had become so upset. He said I should meet his friends and pulled his friends over to meet me. They were open and friendly too, and when they wanted to leave, I left with them to ride through the night together onto the next adventure. This little group adopted me and for a night I was one of them.
One of the nicest things about Burning Man is that so many of your conversations start at what would be the mid-point in the default world. While riding to the next venue I started talking to one of the guys in the group about playa relationships and how Burning Man had influenced his relationship with his girlfriend. We got deep into how we were negotiating insecurities, both ours and those of our partners, and offered heartfelt advice to each other. I never introduced myself, nor did I get his name.
After misplacing my watch earlier in the week I would occasionally ride up to people wearing watches on their wrists and ask them the time. They would respond, and sometimes I’d just say thank you and ride off. A ritual like that is completely normal, and even perhaps more intimate than normal street-stranger interactions in the default world off the playa. But in the desert I realised the words were hollow and I was often using them on autopilot, speaking magic words that would grant me the items I desired without interacting with the agentiness of the human I spoke to. The context offered the opportunity to re-imagine even the smallest interactions into actual chances to connect as human monkeys, rather than treating other humans as rigid, abstract phenomena. Noticing and reacting to real things as they happened let you be more alive in the presence of others.
People are more agenty at Burning Man; in front of your eyes they become real actors playing alongside you, rather than melting into a background of non-player characters. Any interaction on the playa or in Black Rock City is a real conversation, where you are talking to a real soul behind the eyes of a human animal. This starkly contrasts with the so-called ‘humans’ we interact with in our heavily bureaucratised lives. A person can have a full range of expressions, but a police officer has a limited set. (The contrast between the actual Nevada police officers and the Burning Man rangers illustrated this beautifully.) Any time you rocked up to a bar and asked the person behind it for a drink, you were talking to a real human who would behave the way they naturally wanted to. They would sing, start a conversation, or perhaps make fun of you. All of these things can theoretically happen in the default world but the overwhelming dominance of them at Burning Man was surprising.
On Sunday morning I watched a woman working on the Perimeter team tell someone he couldn’t enter the Temple (as preparations were being made to burn it down), but that if he wanted to write something to add she would be able to put it in the Temple before it was burned. She had some position of authority, but the interaction was strikingly different from authority interactions in the default world. She wasn’t merely enforcing a rule. She was doing work (preparing the temple for burning) and in the course of that work had created a boundary she needed others to agree to. But there was no authority-public relationship.
As she explained things to him in this momentary interaction, she recognised the humanity in him and in what he wanted. She saw that what he wanted was to pay his respects at the temple, not to cross her (rather arbitrary) boundary. Her offer let them fulfill both her need to protect the boundary and his need to get whatever catharsis the Temple gave him. The entire ten second conversation was a meeting between two fully sovereign beings, rather than an agent of authority (bureaucrat) and a subject of authority (citizen).
I saw intense flickers of this relationship dynamic, this lack of a subject-to-authority ‘public’ all across the playa. When my friend and I had scored good spots to watch the Man burn high up on a four-storey scaffolding ‘sky lounge’ and the people who ran that camp, (having spent the evening making sure the scaffolding wasn’t overloaded with people) wanted to come up and sit on the highest level, they asked us to leave as humans. They recognised what we wanted, honestly acknowledged what they wanted, and offered alternatives, (the lower levels did, in fact, have perfectly adequate views) and asked, not forced us to accept them. Conflicts of interest became a negotiation between relative equals, not an imposition of rules or policies.
Negotiating with people as agents rather than as representations of abstract phenomena like companies, communities and governments meant two things. One, that every human you encounter is, or is on the way to being, the fullest expression of humanity that that body, mind, identity, environment and cultural context can create. A bureaucrat or a service worker is a shadow of a human – not in the sense that the person is any less person-y in the remainder of their life, but that within that role their self-expression is limited to the sets of actions that carry out the explicit or implicit aims of the hierarchy their role exists within.
An usher cannot drop their usher-like habitus and give you a full-bodied hug as a stranger when you need it – the professional customs that define their role prohibit it, even if implicitly. We distrust public displays of emotion by CEOs and other executives precisely because they are a representation of an idea, and not a real person; thus any outburst of fear or sadness must merely be a tool serving the purpose their role was created to serve.
Second, being immersed in an environment of agents meant that there was no ground. There is an illusion of safety that comes with giving responsibility and ownership to someone, even an abstract entity. Anyone who has ever submitted as a D/s sub will have felt this feeling of release, where worries are gone once they are out of your sphere of control and in someone else’s. In a healthy dominance relationship, like the one we might have with our parents as young children, this translates into space for being less of an agent, and for growing into becoming more of one. When we don’t have to worry about where we’re going to live at age five, it gives us space to learn how to be a social animal, and practice skills in order to interact with others. Being forced into premature agentiness stunts the growth of less survival-critical skills. On the other hand, being bound to dominance relationships when we don’t need them, or when they are more overbearing than we need, leads to anxiety, depression, and limiting of our potential.
The kind of freedom offered at Burning Man (offered; I’m sure not everyone takes it) is the freedom required to truly access our wants, needs and values, and to engage with the wants, needs and values of other people around us without fear that they will be politicised (read: co-opted into a story that reinforces a dominance hierarchy we’re in or adjacent to). The structure of Burning Man comes top-down from the publicly-visible ten principles and participants’ interpretation of them, as well as ground up from the decades of experimentation of the old burners who form the backbone of the city, both through literally serving important functions like being medics and trash collectors, and through serving as a model of the new culture for virgins to emulate.
This structure provides a minimal grammar for interaction between humans without proscribing what interactions should take place. In this way the culture fosters a healthy kind of sovereignty in participants that doesn’t demand subjugation of others, only freedom from their own subjugation.
People die at Burning Man. There’s often outrage at it, particularly in the outside world, but I think this outrage stems from either a misunderstanding or a disagreement with what the culture is and what it is trying to facilitate. People die in the default world too, from suicide, car accidents, heart disease, medical malpractice. it seems that people take death within a system as evidence that the system is flawed, but within all social systems there is a trade-off to balance between risk of death and harm and risk of oppression, stifling and stasis.
When we blame the Burning Man organisation for, say, a death by suicide at Burning Man, we are treating the BMorg like a regular Western organisation with sovereignty over its participants and a hierarchy that controls and determines the actions of those within it. In a collective hierarchy, yes, those with more power can be responsible for the deaths of those with less, in the same way we hold parents responsible for child neglect and politicians who refuse to pass more stringent gun laws responsible for school shootings. Because these hierarchies have taken away power from individuals, we blame those who have taken it when preventable incidents occur.
The BMorg takes nothing away from the citizens of Black Rock City, except the bare minimum it is required to by law, enforced on site by Nevada police, and not by Burning Man. It creates a few key incentives, such as determining camp placement by the cleanliness and participant activation of the camp in previous years, largely to manage externalities that otherwise don’t affect the camps themselves, but affect the whole city, or the environment in which it is created.
Burning Man does not, for better or worse, take away its citizens right to die, or to do risky things that might lead to death. And for the most part, people look after that bit themselves, with help from their friends and some excellent public institutions like the medics, rangers, and the Zendo (the psychedelic crisis management camp). And in this way, those with the most incentive to act have the power to act in any given situation. If I think a structure is unsafe, I get down. If someone is upsetting me, I leave. The culture provides the space to vote with your feet and exit situations you don’t like, and prevents unnecessary power accumulation so that your voice can reasonably be heard. Other than that, it’s up to you and your campmates to determine the course of your life in that short eight days.
There is a trade-off in societies and the institution that enable them between safety in the moment and longer-term resilience. A lot of the rage at governments like the US government is about the lack of short term safety. An experiment at anarchy, like Burning Man, is to some extent an experiment in refusing to build short term safety nets in the hope that it will build more resilience to risk in the future.
There are other trade-offs in protecting people from violence and death too that aren’t about personal decisionmaking. Lack of autonomy makes us sick and depressed, and forces us to rely more on the institutions that trade our autonomy for protection. Both literally and metaphorically, at Burning Man you are closer to the earth. Many of the civilisational bubbles we’ve settled into don’t exist in Burning Man, and as we are forced to directly reckon with duststorms, deathtrap artistic creations and the naked self-expression of 70,000 other fully realised human beings, we become more capable of dealing with those things.
This Burning Man culture is not quite real-world ready, and it’s constantly threatened with being overrun by flashy Insta-capitalism, but as it is, it creates spaces to process and heal trauma, relax out of hierarchically specified roles, and then provides the foundations for an iterative process of gradual expansions of autonomy. The most wonderful burners I met were the middle-aged men and women, particularly men, who still functioned as members of society and weren’t ‘crazy hippies’, but could breathe outside of Western society’s rather constricting definitions of what a ‘man’, ‘professional’, ‘leader’ or ‘father’ might look like. They were so alive and so much fun to get to know!
What might a civilisation be like, that actually helped its participants become more resilient and sovereign? Certainly not the one we have now, and most libertarian fantasies don’t have it right either. But this little anarchic experiment in the desert provides one glimpse into the necessary pieces we could assemble to make it happen.
Being an EA is a weighty undertaking; I imagine the title of Effective Altruist being something that is conveyed on someone after years of fruitful service like a knighthood, not something someone calls themselves by the time they’ve ordered Doing Good Better off the Internet. I do not call myself an Effective Altruist; effective altruism is one goal I strive for, but not the only one.
This prepubescent movement has, like all good social phenomena, experienced its fair share of growing pains. There are lots of ways the movement could easily go astray and only a few ways it could truly succeed.
What might the world look like, with Effective Altruism in it? Let me sketch out three visions of the future.
In the first, EA has grown big, with members in the seven or more digits. EA leaders shout new thoughts in blog posts and conference talks like through a megaphone, desperately trying to transfer the intricate and complex knowledge they’ve developed about their respective problem-spaces into the heads of people vastly different in experience, culture and geography from them. It’s still hugely an internet phenomenon, and many hardcore EAs have never met another one in real life.
The pockets of EA physical communities collaborate wildly, but there’s always a lag between the ideology of the capital and the ideology of the colonies.
In remote outposts like new university groups sometimes it takes years for people to hear that a previously promising career track has been devalued, or that a new and promising cause area has sprung up. There are lots of shouting matches about Earning to Give.
In many of the more remote places the groups recycle the same ten intro ideas over and over again, with a revolving door of fresh acolytes learning the mantras ‘how can we use reason and evidence to do the most good?’ and something less polite along the lines of ‘shut up and multiply’ and instantly becoming insufferable in their local communities. Local leaders find the rhetoric very hit or miss amongst newcomers; precise Facebook ad targeting reveals a tight demographic – aged 20-32, mostly Caucasian males, educated at elite universities, living in countries with high trust in the government; atheism, low neuroticism, high openness, high grades in maths.
The drone of the mantras drowns out the questioning, and in the colonies people don’t question, they just leave. People wring their hands about the too-small movement numbers but the churn is just as bad. Once the honeymoon period is over and the utilitarianism starts biting newcomers in the ass, they coalesce into depressive social circles when no one feels like they are effective enough to be worth anything; there’s an exit trail littered with the broken souls of those who couldn’t stand the self-flagellation.
In the big cities of the empire, the mood is different. EAs are highly specialised, and fly frequently to efficiently-run conferences to continually explain their niche to other niches. They’ve caught the tech bros’ reputation for simplifying complex societal issues into highly distilled models that tend to break things when implemented; that one test where they got rid of all the mosquitoes in Sierra Leone still makes Effective Altruism PR people shiver. All the while the mostly white, mostly male, mostly utilitarian and tech-fluent population in the capital spends half their time publicly boasting of their effectiveness and privately dying inside of the same feeling of worthlessness that traps the EAs in the outer colonial network.
They’re getting attacked by the diversity brigade relentlessly on social media. They really can’t, for the life of them, work out why people from poor and marginalised communities don’t want to adopt the EA mindset. Who wouldn’t want to save the world effectively with them?
In the second future, the EA movement has become influential in some sorts of public policy positions. EA doctrine became much more concerned with the need for surveillance in order to prevent unfriendly AGI being developed. They haven’t yet either made or prevented a real AGI, but they’ve harnessed the less-general AIs that exist – to implement government policy for the British and Canadian governments that optimises the happiness potential of peoples’ newsfeeds and does some minor law enforcement.
More and more EAs are standing for government on a platform that some sardonically refer to as ‘Well, we’re effective, and we’re altruistic, so we’re obviously better than those ineffective slobs you’ve currently got’. The Elitism platform. They’ve got some good policies, and they want to get rid of factory farming. They’re probably a good influence?
Ten years later and there’s been a surprisingly brutal famine in poorer parts of Canada when they banned factory farming in one go and diverted a bunch of taxes to AI safety research by firing a boatload of community service workers and healthcare administrators. Nobody’s really sure though if it was the EAs’ fault, because in the meantime they’ve gotten really good at PR, and because clearing the name of Effective Altruism in these incidents is obviously better for the world overall…
I mean. just think how worse off we’d be if the EAs weren’t able to continue their good work because regular people thought some accidents were their fault.
A few years later, the deadly influenza strain in an EA biosecurity lab jumps the fence and kills 20 million people in the US and southeast Asia. Several arrests are made and some EA figureheads are hauled in front of the UN to explain themselves. They patiently explain existential risk mitigation frameworks to the simpleminded, irrational UN Assembly and assure the legislators that the chances of such an event occurring were less than 0.01% in their risk mitigation models.
Google hires a taskforce staffed entirely by EAs and throws millions at them on the condition they make a good AGI in 18 months. A handful of retired senior FBI people are hired to construct incontrovertible evidence that this is the most effective cause in existence based on the Effective Altruist literature to wave in front of the hopelessly anxious EA AI researchers. The EAs pore over the final memo but can’t find the flaws in the model, so they throw themselves into the work in earnest.
A few attempts at public arguments are hashed out online but no utilitarian objections can be found to the memo.
No one in the inner circle of EA questions the project after that.
In the third future the EA movement doesn’t exist. The idea of ‘doing the most good with the resources we have available’ is pretty common knowledge now – it’s not just a cultural meme, but embedded in the dominant political and social institutions. Givewell-like evaluators are a fundamental part of every major national policymaking institute and development agency.
There are a handful of small but well-funded international taskforces that monitor and protect against every kind of existential risk imaginable; somehow someone has made news that ‘We didn’t get hit by an asteroid this year,’ both palatable and entertaining within the news cycle and it’s a regular and welcome part of the media conversation. Major progress in slowing down the rate of development of dangerous technologies has meant that the national x-risk institutions are able to continually react and adapt and the best researchers are optimistic about humanity’s chance of survival.
We’ve stopped asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, and instead ask gentle questions about their moral values; many people pick causes to spend their entire lives on, regardless of income, and institutional programs pick up the slack to fund their work whenever the market doesn’t.
Nobody calls themselves an effective altruist; but there are historical records of the movement existing. Most of it just became the way we collectively thought about the world, and seamlessly melted into the fabric of the biggest and most widespread institutions. There’s even EA art now, even though there’s no real movement anymore; people feel genuinely grateful for the singular focus these types of questions have given to humanity and their own personal lives, and feel compelled to express that in a way that allows lots of people to share in and experience their gratitude.
Altruism, the concern and compassion for all life, present and future, is a key part of what stabilised society after the rocky 2020’s, and the ‘effectiveness’ part of EA grew a lot more nuanced and incorporated a lot more counterintuitive insights before it blossomed into a core feature of business, government and civic life. The nations look slightly different for geopolitical reasons now but the one-world, one-mission viewpoints espoused and developed by the EA movement made some lasting impact on how humans thought of themselves over the longer term.
This EA-flavoured world has learned to see suffering as its enemy, its only enemy; and with work and compassionate collaboration one that can be muted, if not destroyed.
Effective Altruism, as a movement, has its roots in positivist science, orthodox economics, and institutions glowing with privilege like Oxford with a tendency to espouse beliefs that aim at universalism. But as a social movement, it is also subject to pressures to be politicised, to grow as large as possible, and to accommodate diverse and often incompatible aims. It has also become a haven for weird ideas, about radical ideas like eradicating the malaria mosquito using gene drives and using artificial intelligence to maximise utility. The movement also has a tendency towards self-fulfilling insularity; there’s a tautological assumption that the Effective Altruism organisations working on cause X must be the most effective players in the field of cause X by virtue of being EA organisations, and that no other organisations or actors are making important progress or have valuable knowledge. I think this is myopic and likely to make EA as a movement much less effective in the long run.
Defining what is ‘altruistic’ is a group activity, and the EA movement needs to continually re-engage with this process, and encourage engagement with it at every level and in every location and not only in the inner circles of top EA organisations. Similarly, understanding how the needs, desires, biases and worldviews of the initial founders of the movement have grown out into the limitations, focus areas, and ideological frameworks that now define the movement is necessary if we want people who don’t look or think like us to be a part of it.
I think there’s an important project to be pursued in spreading the principles of effective altruism into the non-EA institutions where they can help, and inspiring people already in do-gooder roles to adopt this lens in their work. That’s a vastly different project than either growing or intensifying the Effective Altruism movement, and, I think, a more sustainable one – more of a percolation than an expansion. But it requires separating the EA identity from the movement from the values and principles that people within the movement uphold, and being willing to adapt and remix them to different contexts, in collaboration with the people who are already there.
I’ll be talking about Holochain, a crypto project I’m particularly interested in, and how it relates to how we make and share meaning in society.
This is an attempt to synthesise two illustrations I’ve previously made that point at a theoretical cluster some of us are calling metarationality, metasystematicity or fluid mode with what I think is currently one of the clearest attempts to make that theoretical cluster into a reality. I’ll try to be clear with the tech, but it does help if you understand a bit about how blockchains work and what makes them useful for decentralisation.
There is a lot of theory and implementation detail about Holochain that I’m leaving out – if you are interested I recommend you read this super clear introduction by my friend Moritz, check out more of Holochain’s online material or take a stab at their technical but well thought-out whitepaper.
Hierarchy versus grammar
When I’m ‘thinking in systems’ I’m thinking of the system as both a set of things – nodes, objects or agents – and the rules for interaction between the things. We can use this model to think about technical systems (computer networks), social systems (communities and institutions), and belief systems (ideologies and paradigms). Both the loosely-defined metarationality community and the Holochain team are rethinking how these human-made systems are designed, and what it even means for a system to be ‘designed’ at all.
I wrote in an earlier essay about existing as a human within two different types of systems – formal and playful – using the metaphors of ballet and contact dance. Within the context of being a ballet student or ballet dancer, there is a set of clear aims and a linear, planned process for training your body and mind to work together to achieve those aims. The aim is an abstract direction, a platonic ideal – the ‘perfect ballet dancer’ does not exist, but the abstract idea is largely the same for all dancers. In contact dance there is no abstract ideal. There are qualities of beauty, expression, aliveness that you might be aiming towards, but each dancer’s conception of that ideal is different. What the system provides is a grammar; rules for building interactions between dancers. There are no ‘mistakes’ in contact dance, in the sense of things that are not predicted by a formal system of movement. There are, definition, mistakes in ballet. In ballet, the purpose of the system exists outside of the movement – the goal is to be a beautiful or excellent dancer, or to perform for an audience. In contact dance the purpose is inherent in the movement; it’s just to dance.
A lot of the systems we exist within in modern society act more like formal systems, which is excellent for coordinating large groups of people or objects but not as good for maximising the flourishing of each person or organism within the system. Moreover, each formal societal system thinks it is the best, and must beat out all the other systems for the prize of becoming ‘how society works’. I’d argue that we’re in the process of noticing (slowly from the perspective of humans, quickly from the perspective of history) that no one system can actually be ‘how society works’ and that we need a new way of thinking about how these formal systems influence and relate to how society is organised.
What is the current paradigm?
In another earlier essay I discussed David Chapman’s clear but simple model that maps Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development to the organisation of society.
Stage 3 – Pre-modern, relationship-driven, pre-theoretical stage, where coordination of groups of people happens by appealing to relationships and the emotions that go along with them. (e.g. tribalism, many corporations, extended families). Group size is limited by peoples’ ability to keep track of relationships.
Stage 4 – Modern stage, theoretical stage, where coordination of groups of people happens by the evolution of a single shared belief system or set of values, and appealing to that set of values. E.g. Christianity, capitalism, democracy. Group size is often limited by the surveillance/control ability of the leaders, and their ability to suppress competing narratives.
Stage 5 – Metamodern or fluid stage, after there’s a realisation that no one system can adequately explain all of reality (*cough* the death of the metanarrative). A stable version of this metamodern stage allows people and groups to share parts of belief systems through shared grammars, and tools that help one system interact with another.
Chapman’s argument is that the postmodern movement of the last 50 yrs or so marks a transition between the modern stage and whatever this stage 5 is, after a loss of faith in belief systems we used to think were infallible and at the cusp of a larger transition to a new mode of being, and that right now there’s an opportunity to help society build a new way of relating to meaning that doesn’t rely on 100% shared data and rules.
The founders of Holochain, with a wealth of knowledge in systems thinking, mechanism and currency design, seem to be steeped already in this Stage 5 thinking. They’ve long ago somehow already drunk the Kool-Aid. They’ve argued that the fundamental shift that needs to happen in order to bring this kind of meta-system about is from designing in terms of data to designing in terms of agents. Holochains are agent-centric, which contrasts with blockchains, which are data-centric.
Hang on, since when are blockchains ‘modern’? Aren’t they meant to be all about decentralisation and not letting any centralised actor take control?
Well, Holochain argues that blockchain-based systems are just as formal and restrictive as their centralised counterparts – just in different ways. What blockchain people mean when they talk about consensus is that everybody considers the same piece of information to be true. The aim of a data-centric approach is to create one single shared data reality or truth amongst all nodes in the system (in this case, computers connecting to the network). What this means is:
‘Blockchains don’t record a universal ordering of events – they manufacture a single authoritative ordering of events – by stringing together a tiny fragment of local vantage points into one global record that has passed validation rules.’
In a blockchain, every single node must follow the same set of rules about what can be added to the chain, and must hold an identical copy of the whole chain. In practice, as we’ve already seen with Bitcoin and Ethereum, this means that nodes rapidly become huge, expensive and unwieldy, and require specialised equipment to run. This limits participation to a few big actors (e.g. a handful of mining companies taking advantage of cheap Chinese electricity in Inner Mongolia). Running a Bitcoin node now takes 125GB of disk space, and reports say it’s difficult, if not impossible, to run a full Ethereum node on a consumer computer. This problem will only get worse as these blockchains become more popular. In smaller blockchains it is also possible to just spend a bunch of money (with a 51% attack) in order to have complete control over the chain’s data reality.
In a data-centric system, disagreeing with the consensus is costly – you have to hard fork the entire blockchain (and lose the advantages of the network effects), or you are just evicted from a given space (in the case of centralised systems like Facebook and Twitter). Because there is only one reality, who controls that reality becomes incredibly important.
What is Holochain’s suggested alternative?
‘The term consensus, as normally used, implies deliberation with regard to differences and work on crafting a perspective that holds for all parties, rather than simply selecting one party’s dataset at random.’
According to the Holochain founders, the problem with blockchain mechanism design is the need for for ‘absolute confidence’ in order to create a trustless system.
We might be able to agree that a certain ordering of bits was placed somewhere at a certain time, but disagree on the meaning at the level of real-world identity, ownership, agreements or collective decision-making. Agents can only be sure that they see a certain piece of data and that it matches a certain model they already had. Essentially, meaning-making is a continually contested, partial and evolving activity.
The aim of an agent-centric approach is to allow nodes to share independently evolving data realities or truths. In a Holochain each node has their own personal chain, which has its own rules about what can be added to it, and what the threshold is for trusting a given data source (including other nodes). Every agent keeps track of their representation of that portion of reality that is of importance to them – given they need to manage trade-offs between the desire for trust and the cost of validation for particular circumstances. Each app asks that users use a particular set of rules in order to contribute to its shared reality, and different apps have different needs for security and cost-effectiveness. E.g. checking whether an email is spam or not and validating that a large financial transaction was sent require different levels of trust and different levels of willingness to spend resources on preventing a trust violation.
How is this metarational?
In a Holochain-based system, nodes do not need to agree to one singular set of rules and create one unified system. They only need to agree on enough rules between individual nodes and groups of nodes to establish the level of trust needed for each application they use together. As pointed out in the Holochain whitepaper, a given group of nodes could agree on a set of rules identical to those of a blockchain like Bitcoin or Ethereum – they think of a Holochain node’s parameters as being on a spectrum of highly trusting to trustless where on the ‘trustless’ end you could theoretically just replicate a blockchain within the Holochain paradigm.
On the practical, technical side, this means that from the outset Holochain avoids the scaling problems that blockchains like Bitcoin (that require validation by all nodes) are currently experiencing. On the philosophical side, this means the system does not demand a single, unified ‘truth’. You and I could run Holochain nodes on our phones that each validate the other’s data using the cryptographic hash functions that were iriginally developed as part of blockchain systems like Bitcoin. We wouldn’t need to pay to store data on the Holochains, if we were storing the data ourselves. Moreover, no two nodes would hold the same set of data, but they would share parts with each other in order to form consensus for particular applications.
I would argue that the fully realised vision of Holochain is a playful system. Each node is interacting with other nodes to build its own individual set of truths, and clusters of rules that multiple nodes follow in order to coordinate constitute ‘grammars’ or ways of playing together – rather than complete top-down recipes for defining consensus on reality. You could imagine a Holochain app being more like a grammar or a defined way for people to interact with each other in a way that is truly peer-to-peer, rather than a central ‘location’ where people connect (which is the current metaphor for apps, social networks and ‘platforms’). A truly decentralised holochain Twitter, for example, might allow you to choose your thresholds for parameters about message length, spamminess, or who can connect with you, and you wouldn’t be reliant on a central party to host your data, or protect the platform on your behalf. You could imagine it becoming easier for communities to split when differences emerge without losing network benefits – they’d just change their validation thresholds (how strict they are on who they accept) and let their membranes breathe differently – as opposed to centralised networks like FB with strictly defined, opaque membranes.
There is still a lot more to think about, and a lot more for me personally to learn about Holochain, fluid mode and agent-centric models more broadly. I don’t know how well the Holochain paradigm (and it is more of a paradigm than a single system) hold up when faced with zero-sum actors who essentially provide centralised services for simplicity and security, like Coinbase increasingly does in the regular crypto community. It doesn’t matter if the system is decentralised if you access it using a wallet whose private keys are controlled in a centralised way by a private for-profit company. Other blockchains inadvertently rely on trust in the central actors, like Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin, in lieu of social trust in the mathematic security of the system. It remains to be seen whether Holochain as a concept could see widespread adoption without a correspondingly broad paradigm shift into positive-sum, fluid-mode thinking by a large fraction of the population. Because if it does, then adoption will be a gargantuan task, and educating app developers about the new development paradigm will require a lot of effort.
Personally, I’m going to continue to learn more about the Holochain paradigm, how to build apps using it, and its intellectual influences. I think the question of ‘how does an application designed for fluid mode from the outset behave in practice?’ is fascinating and a question I definitely don’t have an answer to yet. Other crypto communities like Ethereum and Bitcoin have struggled to make the user experience simple and easy, and doing so in complicated crypto systems while giving the user full control of their data and experience is hard. I also don’t really know what the developer incentives are within the system (other than ideological) – what incentivises developers to build apps that truly maximise the agentiness of their users? What happens when developer and user interests clash? I don’t know yet. Developer business models also seem tricky, and I’d like to learn more about that.
I’d also love to hear about other projects that seem to be doing this playful, fluid-mode thing in practice. One of the tricky parts is that there are so many groups with so many influences that often you have no idea that a nearby group is working on a similar thing because the language is so unfamiliar. If you know of projects like this, let me know!