Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting what to have for dinner, Adam Back, Blockstream’s President, said back in 2016. Raising the question: if public blockchains are not democratic, are they communist?
A question that raises its head as ethereum, which was once seen as an alternative to bitcoin, slowly turns into being not much different than bitcoin, at least for the next three years until sharding.
Back when, ethereans boasted of their network having far more capacity, of the blocksize being adaptable and changeable by miners without requiring a fork, of immutable global programs running as designed.
Reality turned out to be a bit different. Miners stopped increasing capacity and no one said anything about it. Smart contracts usually have a backdoor, or a fail safe mechanism, with one individual or a group able to change it. Soon smart contracts with selfdestruct will be able to transform completely.
While ethereans once could say they are far ahead of bitcoin, now with the Lightning Network – as faulty as it can be at times – bitcoin is actually ahead at a technical level where simple payments are concerned. So what went wrong?
The Communistic Capitalism of Open Source
While capitalism reigns in almost all areas of our life, in a corner of the internet there is a communistic global collaboration of “volunteers” across the world.
They’re working on open source code where ostensibly anyone can contribute and make changes. In practice, there is someone who holds the keys, someone who merges the code.
That someone is usually not quite a volunteer. In bitcoin, Blockstream has an army of devs under their command. What they want, they probably get.
In ethereum, the Ethereum Foundation is very much in charge by any reasonable definition of that word. They lay out the general roadmap, they hire most of the protocol devs, they provide grants and so on.
While it is true that there are some volunteers in bitcoin or ethereum protocol development, it is probably the case that most of them are not doing it for free. Some of them might even hate their job.
The majority of protocol devs are on a salary in ethereum. They get a reasonably cushy position with a relatively high pay and in return are expected to deliver useful work.
What if they are slacking, however. What if they don’t do much work? What if, in fact, it is in the best interest collectively to delay or complicate?
From the outside looking in, you’d think a developer would want to make the best product. That can be true, and in most cases it is, but if a product is so good that little more is needed to improve, wouldn’t that mean those project developers are now out of a job?
The best strategy for a developer might be not to create the best product, but to create a good enough product that relies on them. The incentives in fact sometime can be so that the best strategy is to break the product in some minor way, especially if things are going very well.
This is of course well known in more physical product development where there are laws against it, with just one recent headline showing Apple is making older phones slower to get them to buy new ones.
The same can potentially apply to public blockchains. Instead of improving Bitshares, for example, Dan Larimer went off to launch EOS.
The Dev Competitor
The benefit of an open space is that anyone can participate. The downside of an open space is that anyone can participate.
A developer, for example, might be doing some fine work, but eventually they may want and perhaps they might even get a “feature” that benefits their main project even if perhaps on balance it doesn’t benefit the entire network.
Other developers might not quite care significantly because maintaining relations might be more important to them. They’re still going to get paid anyway through their fixed yearly salary, so why rock the boat?
The need to maintain relations might even supersede the need to serve the network to the point there are no dissenting opinion, with a group think forming, and a developers class that can be completely out of touch.
Smart men or women with their own interests can then easily exploit this agreeableness tendency, especially if it is of a nature that creates more work for devs in general.
That is to plainly say, the interests of developers as a class do sometime conflict with the interests of the network in general. When that conflict gets out in the open, it then becomes obvious to all that devs and the rest might be a bit different.
The Censorship of Critics
It is at that point that it becomes a bit obvious that open space does not quite mean open space for all. Entrance can instead be denied if desirable, especially if it is just one dissenting voice.
We’ve seen in bitcoin that it can so happen even if it is many, with the weak point being control of key communication channels.
R/ethereum, for example, has only developers as moderators. A logs bot has now been removed from there, so you can’t quite see what thread or comment or commenter disappears or why.
You would thus be at the mercy of developers in general if you wished to criticize them in an “open” forum.
A lot more importantly, there is no sense of duty to answer questions. Requests for clarification can be ignored, and if one insists they can be shown the door from their own controlled platforms.
Meaning there can be a lack of professionalism or accountability due to this claim that they are volunteers even though they get a very cushy yearly salary.
If nonetheless accountability is requested, their yielding of mod power can allow them to simply censor with no one in their chain of command disagreeing for it may well serve them better.
So we end up with what in many ways resembles a ruling class which has not yet developed the collective understanding of the need to engage and even promote free and open debate. Making their governance one of a very primitive and of a very dictatorial kind.
The antidote to the abuse of power is competition, or accountability, or preferably both through a checks and balances set-up.
While currently there is significant centralized control usually within one group of any given public blockchain, all of these groups do compete with each other, making it decentralized.
To counteract that decentralization it is the case that brainwashing-like tactics are utilized within any given blockchain to keep them loyal. The most effective such tactic being an us versus them.
This of course is reflected in normal politics through nationalism, which is just a scaled up version of tribalism.
That horizontal us and them has a vertical us v them in the peasants v kings. The “solution” to the peasants in normal politics is to break them up based on color, religion, gender, or any divisive label. The “solution” in the blockchain space is the peasants’ financial interest.
Bitcoin maintained its dominance because for all bitcoiners to move to a different chain, someone has to move first. Whoever does so gets more in purchasing power than whoever does later. The barrier to switching chains, thus, can be very high.
Meaning competition between chains isn’t so liquid due to obvious and non obvious switching barriers. Leading to blockchains sort of repeating history and thus leading to a search for a blockchain that doesn’t quite need protocol developers as it can autonomously operate and at scale.
Whatever chain that is, it will be quite something and it might even be one of the current blockchains in five or ten years time. But if it ever happens, remains to be seen.