What I Learned at the Satoshi Roundtable

I commented on Twitter that the Satoshi Roundtable was a very productive waste of time.

This weekend I thought I’d take a little time to expand on that. I’d also like to thank Bruce Fenton for hosting it. He did a great job and it will be interesting to see what he does with this event in the future.

The Satoshi Roundtable was a great opportunity for me to have a conversation with people and better understand their points of view. I did not come away from any of those conversations thinking that people were being irrational. It was quite the opposite actually. If people have strongly held views on these topics, the community deserves to hear them. But we must remain intellectually honest and not allow our points of view to be skewed by emotion. I was once an advocate of BIP101, but I’ve since come to believe it would have been a bad idea. I chose not to allow my advocacy of BIP101 to define me. By not conflating my identity with my advocacy of BIP101, I did not take offense when people criticized BIP101. It also made it easier to consider and ultimately accept the arguments against it.

Is 1mb Already Too Much?

I learned that some people believe that the Bitcoin network is already over capacity at 1mb. I’d like to see more concrete evidence that this is the case, but it’s an honest concern. Satoshi certainly didn’t do much (if any) analysis of the scaling limitations of Bitcoin. If Bitcoin is over capacity it would not be unreasonable to hold the view that the limit should be lowered, not raised. Some of our own nodes have exhibited strain when the network becomes congested. Nodes struggling to keep up might lead some people to the conclusion that it’s too soon to just allow 2mb blocks.

The Governance Question

One of the most important concerns I heard was with the decision making process itself. What does it say about Bitcoin if a relatively small number of people are able to influence miners into adopting significant protocol changes? The people I talked to are afraid that it sets a dangerous precedent. They fear that that it would provide a template for those that might wish to do harm to Bitcoin or that there would be a corporate takeover of Bitcoin. These are real concerns, but I think there is a fallacy that it only applies to a hard fork. Soft forks of the consensus rules are just as capable of damaging Bitcoin and deserve similar consideration. While the influence of a relatively small number of poeple over the process is a concern, if the proposed change was something very clearly detrimental to the users (i.e. increasing the supply of bitcoins), I don’t think even the most influential and persuasive group of people could push such a change through the mining majority.

There were proposals to employ some sort of user voting mechanism to determine whether a given change in consensus rules is desirable by the majority. I think it’s important that we not view such voting mechansisms as any sort of consensus mechanism. Barring some new breakthrough in computer science, proof of work is the best available consensus mechanism. Instead, we should view voting as a market research mechanism that allows miners to be better informed about how their user base views specific changes.

Give an Inch and They’ll Take a Mile

I learned that many people are concerned that raising the block size limit wouldn’t actually solve anything. They believe that at best it buys some time, but very soon there would again be pressure to simply raise the limit to alleviate congestion on the network. It’s important to remember that raising the block size limit does nothing to actually improve the throughput of Bitcoin. Segregated witness, the use of Shnorr signatures, lightning network, and thin blocks are real scaling enhancements. These are all important projects that need to keep progressing forward.

[Edit for clarity: Raising the block size limit would allow more transactions on the network, however it does not do anything to ensure the network can actually process the increased volume.]

Final Thought

The most important thing I learned at the event was that a lot of people care a lot about Bitcoin and these people are what make Bitcoin work, not lines of code or software. A few years ago I made the observation to someone that just about nothing short of the inability to verify a cryptographic signature could destroy Bitcoin. The major credit card networks used to have massive outages on a rather regular basis, and yet they are still with us. The Bitcoin network could become congested or go down entirely for a period of time, but Bitcoin will survive. No decision, or lack thereof, regarding short term scaling matters is going to destroy Bitcoin. I am certain of that.

P.S. I also learned that these guys are really funny (but should maybe give Bruce a break).

If your transactions are taking a long time to confirm, you should upgrade to Copay. It uses dynamic fee calculation for faster confirmation times. In fact, most Copay users didn’t even notice the recent network congestion.

Stephen Pair is CEO at BitPay, a service enabling merchants to accept bitcoin. BitPay also leads development of the Bitcore and Copay open source projects. You can get in touch with @spair and @BitPay on Twitter.