Monthly Archives: May 2017

Between two extremes, but not quite in the middle

If you’re reading this, you probably know that the Bitcoin community is amidst a civil war.

And you might also know that for almost 2 years, I’ve been advocating the position that if no agreement or compromise can be reached, the best course of action is to have a clean split of the network into two incompatible, competing currencies.

However, I also said that a compromise is the better outcome if at all possible. And I also said that for a split to work it must be done properly, and my fear that this will not be the case is growing.

Which is why I think we should give diplomacy another shot and pursue a genuine compromise, and why I urge people from both sides of the fence to be more receptive to it. And yes, compromise does mean giving up things that you hold dear.

I will not go into exact detail about what such a compromise could consist in. But overall, two key components will almost certainly have to be activation of Soft-Fork SegWit as soon as possible, together with a hard fork to increase the block size further (perhaps with a built-in growth schedule) without more delay than is necessary.

My own side in the debate is no secret – I believe that the best technical solution is to activate SegWit immediately, and figure out later whether we need a hard fork, and which.

But I support a compromise along the aforementioned general lines, for several reasons which I will explain.

Technical merit

I’ve said before that I didn’t really personally experience the dreaded datageddon that others reported, with slowly confirming transactions and prohibitive fees. Transactions still confirmed quickly and with relatively cheap fees. This made me question the need to rush the scaling solutions.

But time has passed and I’m sad to report this is no longer the case. Bitcoin has experienced another burst of explosive growth, and so did demand for space in the blockchain. I’ve observed firsthand that getting transactions confirmed within reasonable time requires fees upwards of a dollar. I don’t care too much about my own costs, but I’m beginning to feel embarrassed to praise the merits of Bitcoin as I have always done.

This leads to two conclusions: First, we need to resolve the situation, we can’t remain in the current situation indefinitely. If a compromise is what it takes to move forward, so be it.

Second, if previously I thought that SFSW is good enough for now – now I think that SFSW is probably sorta kinda good enough for now. If growth continues as it has so far, we’ll need a more aggressive blocksize increase sooner rather than later. So despite all the risks and disruptions, an expedited movement towards a hard fork starts to sound like not such a terrible idea.

The other technical issue is that I think we should be more open to the concept of a hard fork. When I got into Bitcoin I didn’t sign up to the idea that a hard fork would occur only whenever a mule foals. There are many much-needed upgrades to the protocol which can only be done by way of a hard fork. If we can’t even change a well-understood parameter, it doesn’t inspire confidence that we’ll be able to handle the bigger changes ahead.

Conservativeness in forks is important, but there is such a thing as too much conservatism, and we might be approaching that point. Which is why, again, expediting the hardfork schedule might not be such a bad idea.

For people, by people

More important than the technical reasons why a compromise is palatable, are the social reasons why we need it.

I don’t see Bitcoin as a piece of art, an engineering wonder that I can put on display and marvel at its technical correctness. It is a tool created by people with the goal of benefiting people. If it fails at this purpose, it should be fixed.

And right now Bitcoin is stuck, and what’s important is to unstick it, not to pat ourselves on the back for how rigorous our technical development methodology is.

Furthermore, Bitcoin is not as robust as some people might think – it is always at the risk of attack by a determined attacker of means. Its security is based on a combination of its own technical defense mechanisms, together with making sure it has as few enemies as possible. Bitcoin has enough enemies from without to worry about. It doesn’t need infighting and the threat of some segments of the Bitcoin community attacking others, which may well be the case if we go for the more militant methods of resolving the conflict. Bitcoin is strongest when all its proponents are allied, and this is what a compromise aspires to achieve.

But the issue goes much deeper than that.

The debate, it seems, becomes more and more divisive every passing day. People who express disagreement are labeled as sellouts or traitors to the Bitcoin cause. Demonization, personal attacks and mudslinging are rampant. People have picked sides. Propaganda has succeeded. It’s sad and doesn’t further a solution.

It is becoming clear that people have firmly tethered their identity to their side on the debate. And this is bad news. As Paul Graham eloquently explains, you can’t have a rational, civil debate when people’s identities are on the line. People adopt new ideas and resist others not for their underlying merit, but for which side the idea is associated with. This can quickly escalate (and in our case, already has), as people become more and more entrenched in their position, and the more vile a person is perceived just for expressing a dissenting position.

I miss the times when all Bitcoiners were on the same boat. When we could discuss technical topics based on their technical merits. When you could express an opinion without being painted as belonging to one camp or another, or having your opinion ignored just because you are already perceived as belonging to the wrong camp. When ideas were just ideas, not “the ideas of this side” and “the ideas of that side”.

But despite our sad state of affairs, I hope that we can reach a compromise. That we will each make sacrifices and rally behind the same banner. If we can do that… Then I hope it will take us back to those better times. That it will diffuse all the tension that has been built up over the years, and take the sting out of the debate. That we will be able to trust each other once more and spend our energies not on quarreling, but on moving forward and furthering solutions.

That, I believe, is a vision worth fighting for.