Beyond Democracy: Increasing the Capacity, Context, and Combinatorial Possibilities

Written in consultation with Jean-François Noubel

We are doing a 5 part series on how Holochain can save democracy. This is the finale! Thus far in the exploration of ways that Holochain can save democracy, we have written about known challenges, and even usually known solutions that benefit from being done on a Holochain platform to save democracy as we think we know it. This final piece moves beyond democracy as it has been and makes the case for a vision of democracy that is only now becoming possible.

In part four we wrote about election services and election integrity. Most people confuse democracy and elections. Elections exist as one possible decision making model in democracy, yet it triggers fights and conflicts of interest between opposed parties, leading to manipulation and deception, and triggering lower forms of consciousness. Shouldn’t we talk about better election models available today, such as liquid democracy? What about moving even further beyond that to co-sensing and co-shaping together?

Excitement about Scaling Consensus

The most advanced forms of democracy currently involve consensus. Consider blockchain, of course. Yet, just like the gift economy, consensus has only historically worked in small groups. Blockchain made “consensus” scalable for a very specific outcome: a shared ledger tracking coins. (And what they really mean by consensus is a single version of reality, perspectivism. What holochain offers is aperspectivism.)

Do we always need this kind of consensus? What about forking and allowing different directions and actions to work side by side? We can have our favorite colors or movies side by side. When can’t it work anymore? For instance we can’t have racism and Human Rights work side by side. What about speciesism and animal rights tomorrow? Where we we must converge on one or the other, we need a collective agreement about that choice. In other words, when does something become a collective narrative and standard? Under which conditions? How do we get a collective and coherent narrative with an awareness of our state within that narrative?

Collective Intelligence

In the Holochain ancestry of ideas near the very heart of it rests a deep understanding of collective intelligence and wisdom. Jean-François Noubel has been playing with Eric and then also Arthur on these concepts of currency and communication. I first encountered Jean-François Noubel’s ideas on collective intelligence in the mid-naughts. It has also inspired my work on thrivability. So let’s dig in and see what the root ideas are and what that makes possible in terms of increasing capacity, expanding context, and enabling new combinatorial possibilities.

Democracy is deeply related to a pyramidal form of intelligence. In social networks up to about Dunbar’s number (140 or so) in size, we can all know each other and coordinate information fairly effectively without requiring a go-between as part of a slow game of interactions over time. But as society scales, it becomes more challenging to coordinate activity, so we used pyramidal design — the edges communicate up the chain to a central or top position and then decisions or actions move back down again. This is obvious in most corporations.

In democracy, it is about most of the people having a say by having a representative work on their behalf, and up the pyramid by location (city, county, state, nation). How much power do you give to each layer of the pyramid and what is the scope of their reach? Each voter thinks and then places a ballot (while perhaps pretending they aren’t feeling their options, as we all act as if we are rational actors in the voting booth, selecting what is in our own best self-interest and that of the whole).

Holomidal Intelligence

Holo as a name was not pulled from a hat. It has roots. Back in the original collective intelligence of tribal communities, we had holopticism where everyone participates as part of a feedback loop of the whole. Holomidal instead of pyramidal, where together we sensed the whole. This isn’t just voting or even decision-making, this is about an embodied integral experience of sensing together. In the original collective intelligence there is a co-creation and connectedness, even in a changing environment. We need less democratic debate in this form because holoptical clarity shapes individual actions. Holopticism doesn’t mean you see everything, you see the whole from your perspective. And it then, collectively becomes aperspectival by our sensing and communicating together.

Pyramidal intelligence did help us scale, we were able to interact with many more people in coordinated fashion, but we did so by centralizing authority. And with that, we lost much of the co-sensing and the dimensionality of our experiences (decision making became about information and intellect primarily). We took information rich environments and turned them into yes/no options. Pyramidal intelligence scales through unification/generalization rather than customizing for your flow, desires and abilities etc. With Holochain using holopticism, we can adapt to the flows, and we can optimize them.

Thicker Information, More Context

At the base layers of Holochain, back in the early days of Metacurrency, we shifted away from a single currency to rule them all and toward currencies as ways to shape flows, a current-see that allows us to sense ways forward and attract what is needed. We explored the width of these current-sees. We imagined a world in which we have zillions of currencies in flow, most of them we won’t even think about. Actually, we already have that world. We now are simply learning to be more aware of them and how we can shape and direct them consciously.

Imagine wanting to know the health of your community and looking at the image of a fish aquarium. Maybe the clarity of the water reflects the level of trust in the community, and the temperature is an indicator of the energy used, and the types of fish are the activities in the community or the individuals. Each indicator has a difference that contributes to the perception of the whole tank in terms of health. And through the aquarium as dashboard we can see the well being of the whole.

More Sensing

In the current world, we have transcended the cold simplicity of digital text by adding emotional indicators as emoticons. We can include other feeling and sensing information through music and smells to nurture the emotions that we can communicate through an augmented holopticism.

Finally our technology is reaching a state where we can have collective sensing and action through these ways of making flows visible and increasing the depths of sensing. This goes far beyond consensus approaches and even extends beyond current visions of liquid democracy.

Feels More Like a Game

Ultimately this becomes something more of a physically augmented reality game, the nearest approximations today being AR games like Ingress and Pokemon Go, except there isn’t a competitive, conquering objective. The goal is to build extremely smart social intelligence with the objective of collective care, to enable games with a real world impact like Jane McGonigal might imagine for cleaning city streets. Some of her games challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale: hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace, for example (see: EVOKE, World Without Oil, Superstruct). That might sound far out, but using currency to get citizens to keep communities clean has already been demonstrated successfully in Curitiba with trash tokens. But that was a physical coin. Now we are moving into a digital system that can track and enrich the awareness we collectively have about what is happening. These games and currencies create feedback loops that enable us to be able to see and feel the impact of our actions. Because ultimately, we are what we do.

Expressive Capacity

To make this sort of leap in democracy, we need to expand our expressive capacity. Currently, we vote. We use a ballot with yes/no options, and either/or choices. We can enrich the option space, as one dimension of increasing capacity. Moving money from physical object to digital object is providing a similarly increased dimensionality — it is not just a buck, it is a buck with a record of who from and who to for what item, it might be attached to a location, it might have a hereditary line. We can include richer sets of information with our expanded digital capacity. And with Holochain, each person gives permission for sharing information, so we don’t lose our agency or autonomy at the expense of collective awareness and welfare.

We don’t need more parliaments and congress, we need to augment our expressive capacity. Holochain is about building that expressive capacity to enable emergence.

This expressive capacity certainly includes providing context. When we first moved into digital spaces, the ability to atomize content was exciting, but for the last decade, at least, we are also now suffering from a lack of context for that atomized information. It isn’t just the bit of data itself, that data has meaning in a specific context. When we lose the context, we lose some of the meaning too. We believe that the architectural shift forward must include more relevant contextual information. More than that, it can allow for combinations and transformations of information to increase knowledge and even generate wisdom.

The real world equivalent is not knowing where a particular fruit or vegetable you are about to eat comes from? Was it grown organically or using petrochemical fertilizer and toxic pesticides? Was it produced by people living under two dollars a day or people being paid a fair wage? Everything has a backstory, the backstory matters and having access to the backstory allows us to make informed, compassionate, and wise decisions.

We start to expand beyond the tradable measures of wealth (money) into the performance measures (organic, fair-trade). See Wealth: a Living Systems Model. And while this chart speaks to wealth, it is also an implementation of extending expressive capacity.


All this may sound visionary and exciting, but what does that actually mean? For example, it means extending the ability to inform. A message created in one space can be shared and transformed in another, information becomes data, becomes knowledge and wisdom. Currently this leveling up of context and expressive capacity is mostly locked down in siloed platforms with a few hacks to make tweets show up in facebook, for example. When we shift from platforms with data-centric architecture to an agent-centric architecture, then you can express what you want and it can populate any of the spaces you want to share in. More than that it shifts us closer to an pull-centric architecture, where I draw in the communications I want rather than having them pushed at me by others who control the silo I speak within. There will surely be a firehose of information one can pull from, and we can all experiment with the filters and tools for sense making that work for each of us (and share the curation that comes from that sorting/filtering). We thought we had that when twitter first showed up, before corporations filtered the firehouse for us. Now we can use this extended expressive capacity to create our own filters and curations.

For example, in a car-sharing application, the default settings in the app might share reputational information like “friendliness” which is a blessing for extroverts and less desirable for introverts, but I could add that I also want to be sorting for the way a vehicle smells and if others also appreciate that signal, on Holochain, it can emerge as a collective standard reputational factor. One benefit of this is providing more expressive capacity beyond the simple rating on a 5 point scale when the criteria for that scale is not clear, and humans are wired for reciprocity. When I can say it smells floral, it isn’t a judgement of whether floral is good or bad, but some people will select strongly for or against that factor.

Back to…Going Beyond Democracy

Here, there is an opportunity to distinguish between normative laws — everyone do x to generative law — what works here? We may also consider John Rawls’ theory of justice. Basically he claims that a legal system should emerge from a simple question: knowing that I may be born anywhere and in any circumstance in human society — with whatever skin color, continent, culture, gender, social class, health condition, intelligence, physical body, short, tall, etc — what legal system would I design that would protect me and others under any of these possibilities? Quite important in our thinking. Extending expressive capacity allows us to be tilting toward generative law.

We begin here to make a list of necessary (yet not sufficient) conditions for moving beyond democracy using a holomidal collective intelligence, (in a non-exhaustive way):

  • Augmented holopticism
  • Augmented social intelligence
  • Distributed AI and Personal AI
  • Integral wealth models
  • Non local peer-to-peer communication
  • Digital self
  • Myths and Narratives
  • Object-links, preferably art-objects
  • Visible architectures (as opposed to invisible architectures)
  • Generative laws in good balance with normative laws
  • Integration and embrace of different levels of consciousness
  • Diversity, as opposed to normalization

Won’t you join us and participate in evolving democracy into something that truly works for all of us?

For a swim through how the architecture can help deliver on this, see how one of our fans describes Holochain taking over the world.