Digital Public Space

How can Holochain help create it?

We are doing a 5 part series on how Holochain can save democracy. This is part three.

It doesn’t take a highly educated analyst of the net to recognize that the ever-increasing digitalization of our world, marked by participatory, social media, puts us face to face with our assumptions and expectations about liberal democracy. As previous modes of being informed, like television and radio, cede to various practices of gathering information online, and interacting with public opinion merges with actually contributing to it, we see clearly the tacit standards we held and social agreements we deemed reasonable for sustaining a democratic society. With shifts in paradigms of knowledge come shifts in perspective, and clear sight of what came just before.

Let’s say that the change from “being informed” to “gathering and contributing to public opinion” creates a general air of uncertainty related to the veracity of information, a corresponding crisis of who to trust, and the chilling effect of surveillance / capitalization that stems from users offering up so much information. If both gathering and trusting others is problematic, and we know we can’t simply return to a time of “actual” gathering and trust based in primarily face-to-face interactions, it seems as though we have a problem of public space on our hands that does not simply come from the move to digitization at large. So, instead of thinking nostalgically about one-way media and less competition in the domain of acting social authorities, we need to think strategically about the public spaces we want to create. But before we really get into it…

Digital space is not dissimilar to physical public space in one important sense: if it’s not explicitly protected and preserved as public space, and crafted to enable the things that we most cherish about public space, it will be put to other purposes. Public space is an interest that (obviously) competes with private, often for-profit space, and it’s worthwhile to consider that the roots of the problems of public opinion that threaten the trust and veracity we think is important for democratic societies come from the profitable nature of big data, collected from attention, clicks, likes, and other forms of feedback. Since most Internet users visit about five different websites, all of which are for-profit platforms…well…small wonder that we have to get creative about the digital public spaces that we’d like to see. This is where Holochain comes in.

Education on Digital Spaces

It’s already been proposed that the public-education system, technology companies, and publishers can address this crisis by investing in civics education and digital infrastructure. Freely available webinars about being a critical consumer of information, broadband Internet, and public data feeds ameliorate problems of end-user confidence, the inequality owing to private infrastructure, and authoritative sourcing of information. Civic education now has a great deal to do with digital education, and undoubtedly individual, consumer-education solutions would inspire confidence around the veracity of information.

Holochain’s approach to education on digital spaces is somewhat different, but equally important. Because the change it makes, broadly defined, is distributing networked communication, it requires some public education about digital infrastructure (at least initially!). In Holochain’s big push to make participation in a distributed Internet easier for non-technical folks — which is what Holo is all about — its adoption inadvertently relies on educating the public about the importance of owning one’s data, participating in the infrastructure provisions of applications, and cooperative models for platform governance.

These crucial bits of education fulfills a piece of civic education in terms of informing of the importance of data ownership and informational “membranes”. Now, onto what it implements rather than just campaigns about…

Encouraging a Data Commons

Most threats to democracy come from outdated thought and behavior about information. Holochain makes it possible to empower new, coordinated group efforts at different scopes, like the municipality, the city, the cooperative business, or local federations of institutes and organizations without threats of surveillance and the content bloat that comes from extractive monetization of information. There’s added privacy, so to speak, with the fracturing of networks, from massive corporate-owned platforms to for-purpose apps all operating on their own Holochains. In this way it encourages maximal coordination but that nevertheless guarantees individual and group self-determination of information.

It makes data coordination possible with new permissions, new membranes, and inherent data portability (or application “interoperability”) for individuals. Again, this comes from the ownership and management of one’s own data baked into Holochain’s design. Everyone carries a source chain that reflects interactions with other users on the terms of a particular application or applications. Source chains of signed hashes constitute personal, individual records of transactions and non-monetary system changes executed by the node in question. And, nodes need not only be individuals — they could also be collectives, businesses, etc.

Open, Immutable Data, Freely Given

Decode and other organizations also actively incubate approaches to “Internet-ing” that encourage the creation of new social rights surrounding data. Owning one’s own data also creates the conditions for generating public value with data, beyond just making individuals feel less watched and more sure that their data won’t be used against them at a later point. A “data commons” can arise from data produced by people, sensors and devices, which Francisca Bria describes as “a shared resource that enables citizens to contribute, access and use the data — for instance about air quality, mobility or health — as a common good, without intellectual property rights restrictions.”

And, of course, the role of the data aggregator is key — this is the trust that we cannot do without.

Holochain is built such that applications, for-purpose data coordination, become the hubs of data stewardship. Applications on Holochain function as communities themselves, and it helps that voting and chat mix-ins have been written first. And, why not recreate the Internet precisely as democratically managed groups, rather than thinking of it only as a tool for creating informed voters in national elections? Permissions, membranes, and degrees of anonymity can be set, voted upon, or even designed such that people can volunteer different degrees of their information with different levels of attachment to their personal identity.

Such a common infrastructure for managing different classes of data might be useful for social organizations and new institutions who could leverage data sets for public works and commons-style projects. The veracity of such information is easier to trust when it’s collected from individuals who opt-in and held in a distributed manner such that it cannot be tampered with.

In that holding is distributed to individuals who have personal stakes in the information, but verified by “the many” (using a distributed hash table), Holochains may well be the public spaces we are seeking. Its design requires data ownership, making it easy for individuals and groups to “vote with their data” by choosing to contribute their information to public works and scientific endeavors that they care about rather than having this information collected automatically, sold to the highest bidder, and used for who knows what. Holochains constrain information bloat by reconfiguring the purpose of the net — informational overwhelm is limited by silos, greater intentionality of spaces from the start, immutability of signed data, and more transparency and democratic process for institutions that manage important data. On the other hand, information is freed by curtailing surveillance, making it easier to speak freely about uncomfortable topics.

In this way, we can go about rebuilding the components of democracy without reverting to the modus operandi of days gone by.