Building Bitcoin to Last for Centuries
It is imperative to ensure that the foundation of Bitcoin is built with great care and diligence. Any changes should be made with extreme caution.
The Great Pyramid of Egypt has held the record for the tallest man-made structure for at least 3,800 years, and its 2.3 million blocks weigh 6 million tons. The massive granite blocks forming chambers in its center weigh up to 80 tons each and are located more than 40 meters above ground level. It’s at least 4,500 years old, and even that barely conceivable age is based on surprisingly thin evidence: the realistic possibility exists that it’s much older (do your own research, Bitcoiner – don’t trust, verify).
Whatever the builders and when, the physical realization of the pyramid is undeniable. Yet the people who designed and built it are long dead. The civilization in which these individuals lived all their lives ended millennia ago. It was even ancient for Herodotus, the Greek historian, when he wrote that he had visited it in 500 BC. Countless empires of man have risen and fallen on Earth during the silent reign of this colossal proof of work. However, it holds.
The Great Pyramid is an artificial mountain and everything about its technical design is geared towards resilience. The tapered shape of a wide base, large block size and overall solid construction are a recipe for providing ultimate stability, allowing great height to be reached – and remain the tallest structure in the world. humanity for so long. Other buildings have failed in tiny fractions of time. Wind, sand and rain bounce harmlessly off its sides. Even thousands of years of earthquakes have at worst dislodged only a few stones from the outer shell, which themselves had already been plundered for building materials in more modern times. Interior rooms and passageways – the key functional elements, the purpose of the whole structure – were kept intact.
With Bitcoin, we are also building something that we hope will outlive us all, to withstand the countless onslaughts of man and nature. We understand the goal of providing a new global monetary system, open to all. The scope of the project and its ramifications are even more important than the pyramid. Instead of stone, we have code and consensus. We build in cyberspace rather than the physical world. Our monument is everywhere and nowhere, providing unique protections but also different types of vulnerabilities for which we must be vigilant and reinforce if possible. Technical design is both incredibly open (anyone can contribute code) and incredibly private (no one can force a change on someone else). This deliberately messy and entirely voluntary system both supports and demands a social layer above to coordinate any change on a global scale away from the status quo. If internal functionality is to survive the harsh tests ahead, we need to orient both the code layer and the social layer for unprecedented resilience. Everything else is likely to fail.
The recent controversy surrounding Jeremy Rubin’s BIP119 (CTV) should alarm everyone. In principle, it’s pretty innocuous: a new operation within the Bitcoin protocol, allowing users to set strict conditions on how their own coins can be spent, potentially allowing greater security for some users and flexibility for others. As a soft fork, this is theoretically an opt-in, which only affects users who choose to use the new feature. The code itself raised no eyebrows among the developers. The objections come from the social layer – and that’s just as important as the code layer. Although Rubin’s intentions are most likely honorable, as Bitcoin should be built to last, we must think of all suggestions for change as if they were attacks.
CTV is just one proposal among many that add similar functionality, and the technical discussion is far from over as to which is the best candidate to embed in code. The market hasn’t expressed strong demand for features that could be enabled by something like CTV. There are no critical security vulnerabilities that CTV addresses. Despite this, his supporters lobbied for his activation, arguing that – if there are no technical objections – he should go ahead, trying to imbue a sense of urgency, that the way correct way to achieve social consensus is unclear and that some people are acting as gatekeepers. Most dubious of all, a suggestion to use miner flagging to activate the soft fork puts more control in the hands of a part of the ecosystem that is almost irrelevant to the debate.
A real attacker could use a very similar strategy to infiltrate a vulnerability in Bitcoin. Going forward, they will look at how BIP119 was received and learn from it. For this reason, we must act as if it were a covert attack, regardless of the reality. Bitcoin’s strength to date is due to the prevalence of the adversarial mindset. You have to anticipate the moves of a future opponent even before he has played his first piece. The price of security is constant vigilance.
Bitcoin as it exists today works, and there is always room for improvement. The construction of this monument is not yet finished, but if we want it to last – as long as we hope – we cannot afford to compromise. Proposals for change come and go. There will be good and bad proposals. There will be bad actors behind the proposals as well as good ones. Change should be taken as seriously as medical surgery. A severe evaluation must be made of each proposal on the real need to run the risk, the advantages brought by the success, the relative urgency, the details of the execution. Anything less than an extremely strong reason in favor is insufficient. Thorough debate is good and healthy, but questions, uncertainty and dissatisfaction in any area should be cause for concern – and a sign of backing down. We must consider this system with the possibility that it will exist for centuries, if not longer. Each change threatens the precarious balance and leads to new maintenance costs; we must bear in mind that these costs will have to be paid in perpetuity by those who come after us.
One day, inevitably, a malevolent actor will be seek to undermine Bitcoin from within through social engineering. This could take many forms, such as creating a code change with obscure and unexpected effects, or a purely social effort to slyly turn the community against its own interests. Code is easier to audit, though those with the skills need to stay vigilant and those with the ability to learn should. The social layer is the immune system, and the choices made by node operators about the consensus rules they enforce represent the very last line of defense.
The system is functional today, securing and processing billions of dollars in value for millions of participants. Meanwhile, the fiat world is accelerating towards the edge of the cliff. Bitcoin is the lifeline, for us and for the rest of the world that doesn’t realize it yet. The risk of making changes to the lifeboat should only be taken when the change is nearly essential, the proposition nearly bulletproof and receiving near universal support. The stakes are so high. We may not get a second chance.
The Egyptians did not build their monument while their civilization collapsed. We don’t have the same luxury.
This is a guest post by Owen Kemeys. The opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.