Sunday, 17 December 2023

The Difficult Adjustment

by Rose White

The Difficult Adjustment

This article is featured in Bitcoin Magazine’s “The Primary Issue”. Click here to get your Annual Bitcoin Magazine Subscription.

Click here to download a PDF of this article.

Well, here we are. Block 800,000. None of us reading this will ever see another Bitcoin block height starting with a 7. We’re less than a year from another halving, awaiting systemic implications from federal regulation and institutional adoption, standing at the precipice of an American primary election into which Bitcoin has irrevocably inserted itself.

Welcome to the big leagues. Bitcoin is being recognized as the most powerful brand in the world, and everyone wants a piece of that sweet, orange action. The individuals, companies, and leaders that have rallied behind Satoshi’s code have become too influential to ignore any longer. As the new and old worlds collide, the need for serious self-reflection and attention to the heroic efforts expended so far remains more prudent than ever. Our collective work has only just begun and the task at hand will require cooperation and careful consideration among the distributed stakeholders shaping the future Bitcoin economy.

No, Bitcoiners cannot afford to sit idle by the river, waiting for the bodies of their enemies to float by. An adequate raft must be built. One that can accommodate every user in a way that trumps legacy alternatives. With a design “set in stone”, an incorruptible monetary policy does not warrant complacency. Bitcoin may resist change but the way we interact with it will evolve, inspired by the lessons of the last decade. In fact, preserving the integrity of the system requires that we innovate and iterate, not stagnate.

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We Are Antifragility

While Bitcoin has successfully aligned incentives at a scale never before thought possible, it stands to fulfill its aspirations solely on the actions of its stewards. There is no pre-mine. There is no tokenized mechanism to create capital out of nothingness. This is but one of its fundamental differences against market competitors, yet perhaps the most meaningful axiom to consider when sizing up the challenge ahead. There is no marketing team, no foundation; its course will not be dictated by venture capital or corporate interests.

The next wave of Bitcoiners will likely not be pulled, but pushed, when the financial platforms, currencies, and services they currently employ cease to meet their tangible needs. If the banking system of an entire country collapsed overnight, the existing alternative will fall short of the expectations and ideals we set for ourselves. Even with every reason and forcing function in the world to go full-tilt orange pill, they’ll have to compromise on the vaunted sovereign properties we’ve come to enjoy as early adopters.

There is reason to be apprehensive about change, but despite growing pains, Bitcoiners have proven capable of pulling together and defining our fate. We navigated an existential crisis when the odds seemed most stacked against us. We dedicated years of focus, research, and resources towards what seemed like an impossible task: the Lightning Network. In the face of mounting distraction and noise, we didn’t falter and we continued to work on hard problems because the easy way out is not an option. In the middle of the crater left behind by crypto’s latest cycle of largesse and capital destruction, we stand tall, proud, and optimistic. We are antifragility.

With Bitcoin coming of age, we can carry those experiences forward into our journey and leverage them to inspire a new generation of Bitcoiners, our steps guided by a sense of responsibility and maturity. We are still, and should remain, a ragtag group of hackers, cypherpunks, and entrepreneurs, but there is an opportunity to adapt to this evolving market reality so as to elevate the results of our efforts and resources.

Thankfully, half a decade’s worth of research by gritty developers and engineers is finally bearing fruit. Science projects no more, a slew of primitive and versatile technologies are making their way to the market and could open new design space for products and applications. Timely additions that will position us toward better experiences for onboarding and using Bitcoin.

The pressure to change is indeed relentless and will come from all sides. Agents of chaos will leverage this energy and try to turn it against Bitcoin. The only antidote is to focus on building thoughtfully and shipping carefully. The scale of the infrastructure challenge ahead of us is daunting, but necessary. There is, in fact, more juice to squeeze from Bitcoin than what has long been proposed: wallets, contracts, transactions — the entire Bitcoin stack is about to upgrade again in major ways.

The benefits of expanding the scope of our toolkit are self-evident. To achieve this, we can help galvanize those efforts by raising awareness around the exciting innovations knocking on Bitcoin’s door. Therein lies the challenge inherent to a global, decentralized project. How do we synthesize this information and improve discoverability for contributors? How can we make this knowledge accessible to stakeholders?

Bitcoin discourse remains challenging and fragmented, and it has often suffered for it. Though we’ve created an extraordinary amount of content over the last ten years, they remain bits and pieces scattered across the internet and hardly cataloged anywhere. It requires Herculean efforts to maintain Bitcoin reference material and very few people have dared taking on the task.

Despite monthly road shows, we remain burdened with a relative inability to coordinate outside of the conference halls. Developers will sometimes send smoke signals via the mailing list, but who can realistically keep up that is not already well versed into the dark arts of protocol development? Twitter is a cacophony of ideas quickly abandoned in favor of the “new thing”.

Bitcoin has an attention deficit disorder.

Perhaps paradoxically, Lightning has performed better in this context and shown remarkable results in attracting a new class of contributors. Resources abound and the focus emerging of various projects has motivated a new crop of hackers that are empowered to build around them. This energy and commitment should percolate to other areas of Bitcoin. We are turning a corner and application developers should be just as excited about Layer 1 and other off-chain protocols.

Some have already caught on to this tidal change and are actively charging toward the incoming wave. Ten steps ahead of everyone, they have been busy staging the next chapter of programmable money. They are educators and leaders that foster a nascent builder culture and help coordinate everyone involved. Promising pockets of innovation are spreading across the physical and digital space. Their momentum is palpable and deserves more attention.

Champions must continue to emerge and collaborate to amplify this growing signal. Ideas should be distilled into tangible user stories. We have an opportunity to communicate a cohesive picture, shaped by our collective will. We have more talent and resources to achieve this than we’ve ever had. A new guard of industry contributors has manifested itself with refreshing energy and optimism. By casting light on their work and facilitating the conversation, we can provide the exposure necessary for the rest of the ecosystem to rally around them.

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Means, Not Memes

A new frontier is within reach, one where wallet designers can leverage standardized practices to implement spending policies that will empower users to secure their bitcoin through space and time. Harnessing multisignature and timed outputs will become common practice. No longer reserved to power users, every wallet should support various templates that can offer stronger assurances around the management of our assets.

The prospect of smart Bitcoin vaults can unlock a new reactive dimension to wallet security. Lost or compromised keys will no longer be the unmitigated disaster that has plagued us since Bitcoin’s inception. Users will have the opportunity to recover funds at risk, even “in-flight”, enhancing the self-custodial experience for new and even the most hardened users. Meanwhile, innovative signature protocols are laying the groundwork for larger organizations to benefit from Bitcoin’s unique properties in efficient and privacy-preserving ways.

Contextual security frameworks will enable us to safely and reliably involve third parties by bounding their authority to spend or transfer specified balances. Collaborative custody can be achieved without compromising the user’s sovereignty. A new class of services will emerge, allowing Bitcoiners to collaborate with designated entities to improve onboarding and, ultimately, completely redefine the market for custodial services.

Using covenants, we can augment the features above and potentially make them scale for the next billion users. With adequate consideration, covenants might also usher in a new era of innovation for Bitcoin script. Multiparty protocols can open up an entirely new design space for sovereign ownership and private transfers of UTXOs at scale. Nested outputs in Taproot trees will supercharge Lightning, allowing it to scale into the connective tissue for this new infrastructure.

Smart contracts have arrived. Some might rightfully challenge this notion, claiming that Bitcoin operations, especially Lightning, were always a function of smart contracts, but the advent of DLC products presents the strongest case yet. Options, derivatives, and non-custodial trading and lending will serve as the basis for a new generation of Bitcoin-native financial products. Decentralized markets and order books based on Nostr and using novel web-of-trust primitives could allow those to flourish as a viable alternative to the KYC’d fiat offerings.

Bitcoin is facing some of its most formative years to date. It is time we get our act together and grow out of the adolescent quarrels of the past. Most of the elders have left the boat. Satoshi is long gone. Users must step up and accept the responsibilities we’ve been handed. We claim far more in common than apart.

Narratives will continue to stir the pot and divide opinions but we can pull together and find common ground. Work together, not against one another. We are all far too often guilty of navel-gazing. Bitcoin’s history is already riddled enough with disenfranchised gladiators and burnt-out champions. There should be no civil war when the barbarians are at the door.

Bitcoin is no bloodsport; it is a game of extreme personal responsibility. Yet, when applied properly, it benefits all on board. Only by aligning our individual incentives can we manifest the future we want to see. Rough consensus and running code. Means, not memes.

The network must remain practically useful for anyone, or it risks becoming practically useless for everyone. We’ve all earned a responsibility to leave the protocol as permissionless and as serviceable as it was when we found it. Reject apathy, embrace agency. 

This article is featured in Bitcoin Magazine’s “The Primary Issue”. Click here to get your Annual Bitcoin Magazine Subscription.

Click here to download a PDF of this article.