Blocked By Block Size, Bitcoin’s Brain Trust Goes Back to Basics

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“That’s the thing with bitcoin. You shouldn’t be able to all come to Cancun and make a decision that changes the entire game.”

Faced with a stalemate on critical issues, day two of Satoshi Roundtable saw a notable decline in participation, as the number of attendees tapered off gradually at the ‘unconference’ famed for its invite-only status and secretive public presence.

Whereas day one featured well-attended sessions on a range of issues, day two saw relatively fewer guests attempt to both break new ground on some of the larger issues facing the $14.5bn network and regroup around its core values.

Faced with frustrations about the lack of diversity in participants (not present this year were many major miners and business executives), early conversation mostly served to galvanize users and technologists around common goals, such as how cryptography could be used to protect personal freedoms and remove power from governments and institutions.

Blockstream principal architect Christopher Allen framed the conversation as a return to basics, one that also united a notable number of visible industry participants in an environment that was perhaps more suitable to civil conversation.

Allen told CoinDesk:

“I’m reluctant to use the word reconciliation or compromise, but I think there’s an openness here. We didn’t come up with any perfect answers, but we’d like to heal the rifts.”

Still, in the day’s earlier sessions, older tensions seemed to flare as past debates resurfaced.

For example, there remains a division among the technology’s supporters and entrepreneurs on how to evaluate the developments on ethereum, an alternative blockchain for smart contracts that experienced a controversial split last year.

Elsewhere, there remained an advocacy among developers for prioritizing ways to keep the core bitcoin software unchanged, despite pressures for more aggressive problem solving.

“I think the philosophy of bitcoin people has been, bitcoin is much like the Internet. How many people would say the Internet hasn’t innovated? When you look at the protocol, it hasn’t innovated much at all. We do it in layers,” another attendee said.

The discussions in some ways served to reinforce divides between businesses (drawn to ethereum’s aggressive problem solving) and developers (who have shown a preference for approaches that emphasize conservatism and security).

Us vs them

In the face of technical disagreement, though, unity was often found in rhetoric that positioned bitcoin as a vehicle capable of checking potentially hostile world powers.

One executive of one of the industry’s largest incumbent supporters, for example, gave a keynote address in which he talked at length about his discussions with other enterprise firms. “You have people so nervous,” he said.

There was also humor to be found in barbs aimed at some of the institutions that have gone so far as to announce trials and proofs-of-concept using the blockchain technology.

“They have not internalized how much they have to change. You’ve shown up with a Ferrari and they’re insisting on putting a lawnmower in it,” he said.

Yet, there were also pleas for bitcoin’s enthusiasts to commit to certain core values, an argument that was made under the assumption that pressures from outside influencers will only continue as the technology continues to grow.

One guest remarked:

“If there is a war or another 9/11, there will be prominent people in this space, there will be serious people in this room who will turn.”

‘Trimming the list’

This argument later saw additional color in a more technical session aimed at revisiting the value that each of bitcoin’s features provides.

On the list, sketched out on a marker board, were topics including fraud management, transaction finality, opt-in transparency and permissionlessness.

Notable in the discussion was that attendees displayed a willingness to prioritize features that were perhaps less likely to be obvious to users, an assumption carried out under the premise that such design decisions are being made in the greater good.

“I think the majority people wouldn’t care if it ended up as all the bad things in one spot. Someone would find that worst case acceptable, because as long as you’re playing by the rules, you’re getting rich,” one attendee argued.

The discussion went on to envision scenarios in which bitcoin could plausibly exist, but in ways that diminish the features those in attendance believe would make it more valuable.

Yet, the conversation often felt like a return to square one in the way it sought to envision how bitcoin might best be described in a way that incorporates new understanding of the science that supports its distributed digital transactions.

An attendee said:

“We’re not trying to redefine bitcoin, we’re trying to discover the definition.”

Sidechains considered

That’s not to say that the discussion didn’t provide advances.

In conversation, prominent technologists seemed increasingly interested in testing scenarios in which a sidechain, or a blockchain featuring bitcoins pegged to the main blockchain, would be used as a way to extend the tech’s functionality while preserving its core.

Under this scenario, the bitcoin blockchain could theoretically support a separate blockchain that would have different features, such as say, an 8MB block limit as proposed by those in the community who favor more aggressive scaling tactics.

The discussion focused on two particular sidechains proposals introduced in recent months, though which had not been broadly been considered as potential ways to achieve scaling.

However, there was acknowledgement that other factors needed to be refined (such as how the sidechains would be secured). Also notable is that the idea would require the addition of new code to the bitcoin protocol by way of a soft fork, meaning miners would still have to signal support for the upgrade.

Conceptually, however, the idea seemed to have support, and a potentially broad appeal.

One attendee summed up the idea:

“The people who want things to stay the same can keep everything. For people who want large blocks, you don’t have to schedule a hard fork.”

Image via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk

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