Holochain – the Perfect Framework for Decentralized Cooperation at Scale

Oliver Sylvester-BradleyHolochain is a new technology project with huge potential for the cooperative economy. Members of The Open Co-op have been promoting the idea that new software could, potentially, revolutionize both our failing democracies and our predatory capitalist economies, since 2004. Back then we weren’t quite so clear on exactly how the required information architecture should be designed – but we knew what we wanted it to do and how it should work. In 2004, I published a paper entitled Participatory Democracy Networks, which explained how I thought some new information architecture could facilitate participatory democracy worldwide.

The above diagram illustrates the undemocratic nature of the current system and the required power relationships of a truly democratic system. The extent to which any ‘player’ controls any other is represented by the extent to which its color encapsulates any other. For example, in the current situation individuals influence business to some extent (by buying things) and the government to some extent (by voting) but do not control them, individuals only control the NGOs.

Not long after that we founded The Open Co-op and designed some screenshots of our “dream communication system” which we called PlaNet, to illustrate how the new software we wanted might work, and developed a presentation using some fictional cartoon characters to illustrate how a system like PlaNet could help people live together in a collaborative sustainable economy.

In 2017 we updated the PLANET screenshots – presenting the idea as An open source operating system for a collaborative, sustainable economy incorporating a range of interlinked apps on a smartphone. PLANET is still not a software project, it remains a vision which aims to illustrate some of the concepts and advantages of a collaborative, user-owned and managed economic platform.


The purpose of the PLANET concept is to illustrate, through a Graphical User Interface, what it might be like to interact with a new economic system which has been built collaboratively as an open source project. PLANET would be owned and controlled by its members, giving them complete control over how it is run via proposals and votes on other members’ proposals. PLANET incorporates concepts such as: Agent-centric architecture, Personal data licenses, Portable reputation, Alternative currencies, Group management, Local relevance and Delegative voting – all the same ideas we were proposing in 2004 to help build participatory democracy networks.

So, for 12 years PLANET has remained a dream. And then we discovered Holochain.

Whilst everyone has been getting very excited about the potential of blockchain we have remained skeptical for a variety of reasons;

  1. You cannot store all the data in the world in a blockchain
  2. The blockchain is a spectacular waste of energy that could instead be used to improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world – just see the insane energy consumption of Bitcoin. If growth continues at the present pace, researchers estimate that Bitcoin mining alone would consume more power in 2020 than the entire world does today.
  3. A system that is designed to enable total anonymity is actually not very appropriate for building collaborative, trust-based systems and organizations.

Sometimes technology gets over-hyped and there’s a growing body of evidence explaining why you don’t need to use blockchain. This paper by Karl Wüst and Arthur Gervais from the Department of Computer Science in Zurich gives a good outline of whether a blockchain is the appropriate technical solution to solve a problem.

Flow chart to determine whether a blockchain is the appropriate technical solution to solve a problem – Karl Wüst & Arthur Gervais

Whilst blockchain has and is being used on some great projects, this amazing story from inside a Jordanian refugee camp that runs on blockchain to help Syrian refugees regain legal identities that were lost when they fled their homes, is the perfect example of how the technology is failing to deliver. To quote the conclusions “the transactions were slow and the fees were too high” … ” so “Instead of cutting the banks out of the equation, [the World Food Programme] has essentially become one”. Haddad, who runs the programme acknowledges that—“Of course we could do all of what we’re doing today without using blockchain…”. But, he adds, “my personal view is that the eventual end goal is digital ID, and beneficiaries must own and control their data.”

Owning and controlling your own data. That’s what we want. That’s the fundamental idea behind PLANET.

But trying to force a system like blockchain, which was designed to enable anonymous transactions, to help you own and control your own data is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Wouldn’t it be better to start with a system which is specifically designed to enable you to own and control you own data? That also, by design, encourages trust between peers and, as well as that, enables giant volumes of transactions at low transaction costs?

That’s what Holochain does. And it does it very well.

Whilst some people have been embarrassing humanity by creating mind-numbing concepts such as Crypto-kitties and trying to force tomatoes on a blockchain, the team at Holo have been figuring out the fundamental information architecture for a new, sustainable, collaborative and cooperative economy. Such a valiant and laudable mission is clearly not for the faint-hearted and the Holo team brings together brains such as Eric Harris-Braun, Arthur Brock, Jean Russell, Jean-François Noubel, and Matthew Schutte to name just a few.

Matthew SchutteThey are an incredible group of system-thinkers whose ideas have evolved out of the metacurrency project and CEPTR and synergized as Holochain, a new applications framework that they are giving away to the world for free. To help subsidize that effort, they are also launching the first flagship application built using Holochain, a peer-to-peer web hosting platform, confusingly named Holo host, for which they recently raised over $20 million through a crowdfunding campaign and an Initial Community Offering. In order to explain what Holochain is, how it works and why co-operators everywhere should take note, we interviewed Matthew Schutte, Holo Hosts' Director of Communications.

Oliver Sylvester-Bradley: What is Holo in layman’s terms?

Matthew Schutte: Holo is a peer to peer app hosting marketplace. Today app hosting is the domain of big business. If a developer builds an app, they serve it via a hosting company like Amazon or Google and pay to use their big data warehouses – huge server farms which present the app to end users. Holo makes it possible for normal folks to make use of the idle storage and processing capacity on their computers to get into that business… For example, when I’m writing an email, my machine is doing some work but it has the capacity to do 1000 times more work – so HOLO enables you to rent some of that extra capacity.


OSB: OK, that sounds great, but I can imagine people worried it might slow down their computers. Is that something users will need to think about?

MS: You can set your own parameters. You can specify the settings for how much of your machine you allocate to Holo – Our goal is to prioritize your use over Holo’s use (although this may not be included in the initial version at launch) so you never get slowed down. Some people will be dedicating whole machines to Holo hosting… but if you’re using Holo on your main computer you don’t want it to be annoying… you just want it to make use of the spare capacity. If it’s reducing your quality of life – that’s not a cost most people are going to be willing to pay.

OSB: Will it be secure? I can imagine people worrying that if a Holo service or app is running in the background on their computer then maybe it can access parts of their machine that they don’t want people to see.

MS: Yes, it’s secure. It only has the ability to interact with certain parts of your computer. This is similar to the way in which a website can change pixels on your screen but can’t read your private files. Technically it’s called “sandboxing”. Holo will use a cordoned off a section of your computer. We’re not inventing new stuff there, the technology to do this securely has existed for a long time.

OSB: Will people need a special computer, or a certain specification of computer to run Holo?

MS: No. Any Mac or PC, desktop or laptop will work but mobile devices are slower and so not so suitable for serving websites to others.

OSB: Why would someone want to host HOLO apps on their computer? How is that going to help build a collaborative, sustainable economy?

MS: It’s kind of like the way Airbnb and Uber work. Their model enables them to make use of spare bedrooms – to help people pay off their mortgages. Holo makes use of the spare space and processing power of your computer to help you pay for your internet connection and maybe even the cost of the computer itself…

There is a massive amount of unused computing power in the world, more than any one company controls… Amazon is king of hosting at the moment, though there are others that are neck and neck, like IBM and Google.

Amazon is the third most valuable company on the planet and their web hosting division, Amazon Web Services (AWS) makes up 10% of Amazon’s revenues but more profit than the entire rest of the company combined. App hosting is the cash cow of the third most valuable company on the planet!

Holo is aiming to do to Amazon’s cash cow what Uber did to Taxis – but instead of taking 20 or 30% of the money from the drivers (like Uber does) with Holo 99% of the revenues go straight to the host who’s computer is doing the work. Holo takes a 1% or less transaction fee.

OSB: I see, so Holo has the potential to disrupt the hosting industry and divert money back to the people who join the network and host apps on their computers. But, if you’ve invented a way to do that why wouldn’t you take more than 1%?

MS: We don’t need it – because we’re distributing everything… just like Airbnb was able to grow from two guys with air mattresses to a company that books more rooms than any other… because they didn’t have to build and own locations – we’re catalyzing existing assets instead. We’ve invented a really efficient accounting system – and a 1% transaction fee is our business model for Holo. And that helps subsidize the larger Holochain ecosystem. This is just a first step in a larger plan to shift how humanity communicates.

OSB: OK, I thought so – there’s clearly more lurking under the hood! But before we dive into that I want to take a step back and try and get a real understanding of what Holochain is and how this idea works. You’ve told us a bit about Holo, which is a Holochain app. Can you explain the technology behind Holochain itself a bit more?

MS: Sure. Peer to peer app hosting is not a new idea. Just like BitTorrent offers peer to peer file sharing, Holochain makes use of some of the same technology.

A few decades ago people realized that it would be useful to be able to store a file on a network of computers, but not have to depend on having any single computer be up and running at a particular time in order to access them. Note that with the web, when you look up a website, you are looking up content based on which machine it is stored on. That means that if that machine goes down, you can’t access that content. That kind of sucks. It’s also a major reason why most people don’t host their own websites anymore. If for any reason your computer goes down, no one can reach your website. This “server maintainer as second job” thing was a pain in the neck, so most folks opted to pay others to “do that hosting work.”

With BitTorrent, it’s different. When you reach out for a file, you don’t ask for a specific machine. You ask for the file. Other machines on the network share information about which files are stored where. Within a split second, you’ve got your file (or at least have started to download it). This even works if every computer that originally received the file has since gone offline. That’s because if a computer notices that one of its neighbors has gone offline, it starts making backups by recruiting new machines to hold onto a copy of that file.

For example, if I send a tweet – it might get stored by 200 different computers. If one drops offline, the system looks for others to make backup copies to ensure 200 copies remain online – these nodes are “gossiping” with each other – if they don’t hear back when they check in with the ‘Oli node’, they say “oh no, we lost him!” and then look for the next nearest node (what “nearness” means is a bit too technical for this interview). Jimmy is the nearest – so they get Jimmy’s node to make a copy to ensure 200 copies stay online. It’s like a self-healing network.

That’s great for file storage – but not to run apps, you can’t run Airbnb like that. You can’t run Uber-like that. Apps need to build sets of relationships and transform resources. Holochain takes the file sharing concept and adds more functionality. Borrowing from three different technologies in the process:

  1. From BitTorrent – self-healing storage, the Distributed Hash Table (DHT)
  2. From Blockchain and other things – the concept of an immutable, unchangeable, tamper-proof data log. A hash chain.
  3. From Git, the most widely used system for collaborative software – the Agent centric model, where there is no one global truth.

In the Git world, I have my version of the code. If I make a copy and add a green button, altering the code, I can suggest the change to you. If you like the change and accept it, you sign it with a cryptographic key, just like track changes in a Word doc. When you suggest changes it shows them to me. If I accept this change, and I sign that acceptance with my cryptographic key, it updates my chain to include the changes I accept. But you can’t change my stuff. I have to update my stuff. As a sovereign agent.

Holochain is an agent-centric model which is very different from the data-centric model of blockchain. There are no miners, and no company in the middle deciding and enforcing the rules. Instead, the participants of a particular of the network running it as a community. By pooling together our computing resources we make possible an entire network of distributed apps that are free from centralized, corporate control. By putting that scale of control back into the hands of users, we enable humanity to access entirely new possibilities for how we do economics, governance, and community.

By putting that scale of control back into the hands of users, we enable humanity to access entirely new possibilities for how we do economics, governance and community.

OSB: That’s awesome, it sounds like you’ve developed a system to run something like PLANET, the open source OS we’ve been thinking about for so long. But if this is going to work the peer to peer network will need to grow pretty quickly, is that where the HoloPorts come in?


As well as running possibly the world’s first ever ethically (rather than purely finically) motivated ICO, which raised £20 million, the Holo team also recently closed a crowdfunder for Holo ports, which raised over $1 million. The supply of ‘Holo Tokens’ which were sold in the ICO was calculated by a fixed formula based on data from the crowdfunding campaign for HoloPorts. HoloPorts are “plug and play” devices which come with software already installed and are optimized to run Holo. When they arrive with the 2114 users who purchased them through the crowdfunder people can just plug them in, follow the instructions, and start hosting the network and earning Holo fuel.

MS: Holo is a bridge between the old internet and the new internet. The people who are running holo are the bridge builders who get paid for building the bridge. So, normal internet users don’t have to do anything new – they might not even know that when they visit a website, on the backend, there is a community rather than a company.

HoloPort Nano, HoloPort, and HoloPort+, each representing a different capacity for hosting.

OSB: I love the fact that Holo’s currency, Holo fuel, is both backed by computer processing power and designed to work as a mutual credit system.

MS: Holo also provides a new accounting process, which solves two problems: giant volumes of transactions and low transaction costs. We don’t even need to own the structures to do the accounting – we’re using a distributed app for that too – a payment system, so we are able to offer payment processing as well as hosting – for less than anyone currently offers. We’ll be able to process millions or billions of simultaneous payments – and have them work even when the transaction value is 1 cent or less. I’m not going to send you 2p if it costs me 20p to do so… We think we’ve solved an important issue. The cost of accounting needs to be far less than the values exchanged.

OSB: Absolutely. I’ve seen that very problem plague existing blockchain projects, so I really hope it is something Holo solves. Speaking of finances, you seemed to take great care to ensure the ICO was ethically managed and you’ve now raised a huge amount of money! What are your first plans with your new resources?

MS: Our goals were clear:

  1. Get this off the ground – launch the change
  2. Make sure the humans get taken care of for their part in that…

It’s a principle we’re going to follow with the whole community of hosts and ICO investors. We’ve been trying to design the architecture so people end up better off by participating. We’re taking care of our staff and the community that is trying to get the software built. But we’re not trying to become billionaires.

Our people have been living on $1000/month stipend and volunteering their time.

Two years ago I was sleeping in my car to be able to work on this full time. I hard to rent out my bedroom on Airbnb, so I could work on this without having to work on other stuff. That generally meant that I would sleep in the car. Now our project has market cap worth hundreds of millions. But we’ll let that happen… it’s just people betting that we’ll be successful. The point is that now we have the resources we need, the ability to pay people and pull in deep knowledge.

OSB: How is the Holo organization going to evolve?

MS: We’re in a transition period. We didn’t do anything in the normal way. We didn’t give any equity in the company to investors. We didn’t even give equity to the employees. I don’t have equity, for instance, because our intent is to hand over control of the resources to the community over time.

We’re aiming to start by using a CoBudget-like process so that our community will control 1 to 3 % of the revenue. There will be a learning process, so the community can build up its ability to make decisions and exercise judgment about how to allocate resources, towards training / UI / development/security tools etc. Over time the plan is to increase the amount of the revenue which the community controls until the community controls all of the revenue.

We’re also launching a Trust that controls Holochain. That trust receives 50% of Holo’s revenues and that will help to support Holochain and nourish the growth of the network. Basically, we’ve managed to hack together a funding mechanism for Holochain, despite the fact that we are completely giving Holochain away for free.

OSB: So, do you think Holo will help liberate decentralized co-operation at scale?

MS: We’re hacking business structures in order to try to change what types of business models are possible in the world.

We’re hacking business structures in order to try to change what types of business models are possible in the world.

This concept of putting users in the middle will completely shift how co-ops can function. It will enable them to make use of the advantage that they have, which is diversity. What we are calling platform co-ops and protocol co-ops – coming together in alignment to create an ecosystem rather than just a network. So we can try new things and if they prove useful, they can propagate across the community and perhaps beyond. The “beyond” comes from the fact that users can bridge between different networks. That means that I can draw data from 5 or 10 apps and combine them together to create a more coherent user experience for myself. And I don’t need anyone else to agree to also use that particular configuration. If it works for me, I can put it to work. No group meetings and voting required (for that sort of issue, anyway.),

No more top-down, or one-size fits all application experiences, that’s centralized corporate architecture. New ways of digital commutation are going to harness the diversity of co-ops and help give them a learning advantage. This will allow them to experiment and learn faster than centralized organizations – a collaborative advantage in a world that changing fast.

Part 2 of this interview – exploring more of Holo’s plans to enable decentralized co-operation at scale is coming soon…

Matthew Schutte and Art Brock from Holochain will both be speaking at the OPEN 2018 Platform Co-ops conference in London in July – as well as running hands-on workshops on how to download the source code and design apps to work on Holochain.

We’re not the only people who are starting to get excited about Holochain, the concept has caught many other eyes. With developers like Nicolas Luck explaining how Holochain is reinventing applications and how it “works and performs better than Ethereum by several orders of magnitude”, and Jean Russell sharing 5 Ways Holochain can save democracy, momentum is starting to build.

In his post about Holochain reinventing applications Nicolas shares his vision, explains the shift from data-centric to agent-centric architecture and proposes building a Holo browser:

“I am talking about a browser for the Holochain app ecosystem that is not opening HTML documents but instead is facilitating communication between the user and other users, groups, teams, organizations and the network as a whole. Think: decentralized WeChat. Basically, a very generalized address book/team chat/social network/collaboration UI with no specialized functionality as that is to be filled-in by those many apps which are meant to work together as micro-services.”

That is exactly what we have tried to illustrate with PLANET, which is why this is all so exciting. If the users co-own and co-design the browser which Nicolas describes we will finally have a framework within which we can build a democratic, collaborative, sustainable economy – the perfect framework for decentralized cooperation at scale.

Holochain – the Perfect Framework for Decentralized Cooperation at Scale was authored by Oliver Sylvester-Bradley and published in the P2P Foundation Blog. It is being republished by Open Health News under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0). The original copy of the article can be found here.