I have been aware of Bitcoin’s existence for a while, and while I was excited about it a few years ago, it had somewhat dropped off my radar. Perhaps because over the past few months, Bitcoin has seen a big increase in value, I started to revisit it and analyze it as a technology. My experience has been nothing short of breathtaking.
A few years ago, Bitcoin was pretty cool. I even wrote a paper about it, discussing the huge potential of the technology and decentralized, autonomous transactions could totally upend the banking industry. But back when I first got into Bitcoin, I was also interested in Austrian Economics, which I’m largely over now. Their focus on control of the money supply and dire warnings about the Federal Reserve weren’t really borne out by the rather mundane economic growth of the last few years.
Nonetheless, the Bitcoin community has been working on without me, and it has paid off: you can now use Bitcoin to purchase from all sorts of retailers, including Dell, Overstock.com, Newegg, and more. You can also buy all sorts of internet specific services, which to me seems like the clearest use case. These include Steam credit, VPNs, cloud hosting, and even Reddit gold.
The price has jumped up to over $1000 at the end of April 2017 (that’s over $18 billion in total market value of all Bitcoins), and it was briefly even higher a month ago on speculation the SEC would allow for a Bitcoin ETF. The ETF was rejected, but the potential of the currency remains. And technologically, Bitcoin is far more impressive than it was, most notably with a concept called the Lightning Network.
This technology would allow for instantaneous Bitcoin transactions (without having to accept risky zero confirmation transactions). These transactions would have the full security of the Bitcoin network, and would also likely allow massive scaling of the Bitcoin payment network. Drivechain is another project with great potential to scale Bitcoin and allow for applications to be built on top of the Bitcoin blockchain. It would create a two-way peg, enforced by miners, that allowed tokens to be converted from Bitcoin to other sidechains and back again. This would allow experimentation of tons of new applications without risk to the original Bitcoin blockchain.
Hivemind is particularly exciting as a decentralized prediction market that is not subject to a central group creating markets; anyone can create and market and rely on a consensus algorithm to declare outcomes. If attached to the Bitcoin blockchain, it also wouldn’t suffer from cannibalization that Ethereum blockchains like Augur can suffer from.
Mimblewimble is another interesting sidechain idea. It combines concepts of confidential transactions with (I think) homomorphic encryption to allow for completely unknowable transaction amounts and untraceable transaction histories. It would also do this while keeping the required data to run the blockchain fairly low (the Bitcoin blockchain grows over time). It would have to be implemented as a sidechain, but any transactions that occur there would be completely untraceable.
And there are even more cool projects: Namecoin, JoinMarket, the Elements Project, and of course other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, Monero, and Zcash. This really makes the future of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies seem pretty bright.
However, we’ve skipped a big point, which is that most of these cool innovations for Bitcoin can’t be done with Bitcoin’s present architecture. Moreover, the current number of Bitcoin transactions per block has just about maxed out at ~1800. This has resulted in something called the Scaling Debate, which centers about the best way to scale the Bitcoin blockchain. Upgrades to the blockchain must be done through consensus where miners mine new types of blocks, institutions running nodes approve of those new blocks, and users continue to create transactions that are included in new blocks (or else find another cryptocurrency). Before any of that can happen, developers have to write the code that miners, validation nodes, and users will run.
Right now, there is a big political fight that could very briefly be described as between users who support the most common implementation of the Bitcoin wallet and node (known as Bitcoin Core) and those who generally oppose that implementation and the loose group of developers behind it. I certainly am not here to take sides, and in fact it would probably have some long term benefits if both groups could go their separate ways and have the market decide which blockchain consensus rules are better. However, there is not much incentive to do that, as there are network effects in Bitcoin and any chain split would reduce the value of the entire ecosystem. The network effects would likely mean any two-chain system would quickly collapse to one chain or the other. No one wants to be on the losing side, yet no side can convince the other, and so there has been political infighting and digging in, resulting in the current stalemate.
There will eventually be a conclusion to this stalemate; there is too much money on the line to avoid it. Either the sides will figure out a compromise, the users or the miners will trigger a fork of the chain in some way and force the issue, or eventually a couple years down the road another cryptocurrency will overtake Bitcoin as the most prominent store of value and widely used blockchain. A compromise would obviously be the least costly, a chain split would be more expensive, but could possibly solve the disagreement more completely than a compromise, while another cryptocurrency winning would be by far the most expensive and damaging outcome. All development and code security that went into Bitcoin would have to be redone on any new crytocurrency. Nonetheless, Litecoin just this week seems to have approved of Segregated Witness, the code piece that is currently causing the Bitcoin stalemate. If Bitcoin’s stalemate continues for years, Litecoin is going to start looking pretty great.
Obviously it’s disappointing that even a system built on trustless transactions can’t avoid the pettiness of human politics, but it’s a good case study demonstrating just how pervasive and pernicious human political fights are. Ultimately, because cryptocurrencies are built in a competitive market, politics cannot derail this technology forever. And when the technology does win out, the impact on the word will be revolutionary. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.
Bitcoin featured picture is a public domain image.
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