Comparing Two Revolutionary Networks: Lightning and the Internet
Virtually every epistemologist from Aristotle (4th century BCE) to Kant (18th century CE) agrees that we learn by categorizing and comparing the things in the world. Want to compare apples and oranges? Go ahead. The question is not whether they can be compared, but what we can learn from a comparison.
Even though the Lightning Network is a human invention, we still know surprisingly little about it. How does the number of LSPs required vary with the number of users? How does the graph’s complexity relate to the network’s throughput? When will mass adoption happen? What does a bitcoin-based Lightning economy look like? How will this technology transform the markets and societies we know?
We’re fortunate that another network has been using technology to transform societies around the world, bringing people together, making us more efficient, and giving us all opportunities we’d never had before. That network, of course, is the mother of them all: the internet.
Maybe the features and development of the internet can help us learn about where the Lightning Network is going, what it needs, and what we can do.
It all started with an idea…
Both the internet and Lightning were first described conceptually before they were ever built. We have JCR Licklider to thank for the first articulation of the Internet, which he dubbed the “Intergalactic Computer Network” in 1962 (who do I talk to about bringing that awesome name back?). He foresaw “a globally interconnected set of computers through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site.”
The Lightning equivalent would be, perhaps counterintuitively, the original bitcoin whitepaper. This is the best comparison because Licklider was talking about infrastructure — a technicians’ network — rather than a tool for mass utility. He described it in terms of compilers, sublanguages, and time-sharing protocols, connecting “at least four large computers,” i.e. hubs. He was describing the network infrastructure, not the user-oriented internet as we know it.
Similarly, even though Nakamoto explicitly described Bitcoin as “a purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [to] allow online payments…”, things haven’t turned out that way. Instead, due to the constraints of the blockchain, Bitcoin has so far served more as digital gold, a store of value, than the P2P cash it was supposed to become. But without Bitcoin as a solid foundation, there would be no Lightning.
…then came the cognoscenti.
For the next couple of decades after Licklider’s first paper, many people and institutions were working hard to convert his idea into technology. The first wide-area network went live in 1965, with the first host-to-host message four years later. Crucially, TCP/IP — the internet’s underlying transmission protocol — was tested in 1975 and was adopted as the DARPA standard in 1980.
The infrastructure of the internet was growing as well. It was rapidly spreading to college campuses in Europe and North America, the network of subsea cables was growing, and national standards agencies were conferring and converging with each other.
Still, hardly anyone was actually using the internet. It was effectively restricted to developers, researchers, techies, experts. There were two reasons for this:
- Most communication among these cognoscenti proceeded via RFCs — memos generally relating to the operation of the network itself — shared via FTP. This is a far cry from dragging and dropping any kind of media on a touchscreen.
- The quality and quantity of available hardware was lacking. In terms of quality, “when desktop computers first appeared, it was thought by some that TCP was too big and complex to run on a personal computer.” (Sound familiar? Like the problem with mobile full nodes?) And in terms of quantity, fewer than 10% of American households had a PC in the mid-80s. Forget the rest of the world.
This is roughly equivalent to the state of Lightning today. Think about it. While smartphones are much more common than PCs were in the early 1980s, they’re still not able to run full Lightning nodes. However, PCs overcame the TCP/IP obstacle within a few years, so why shouldn’t full nodes go mobile soon?
Similarly, we’re still a “Lightning community” about the size of a small town. Many of us know each other, and we discuss Lightning among ourselves over expert channels like GitHub, which is effectively a reincarnation of the RFC message boards. Most people have never heard of Lightning, let alone ever used it. We have a functioning network and a solid fundamental protocol, but the revolution has yet to come.
Tech Gaps and a Killer Use Case
The first step in making the internet into a mass phenomenon came in the early 1990s, when Tim Berners-Lee developed and released HTML. This transformed the internet from a text-based medium into an open-media medium. HTML was (and largely remains) the experiential DNA of the WWW.
Along with HTML, Berners-Lee and Nicola Pellow simultaneously pioneered the internet’s killer app: the web browser. The web browser obliterated the barriers to entry. It was a point-and-click interface that let users take part in the technology without having to worry about its underlying protocols. Instead of experts transferring data sets and draft protocols via FTP, people could suddenly order pizza from a clickable interface on their PCs.
Internet use exploded. Unsurprisingly, it spread first in high-income countries, later throughout the world. If you build it to be easy and useful, they will come.
So what’s Lightning’s killer app? Lightning is a payment network based on Bitcoin. So the killer app would have to take Bitcoin further by making it cheaper, easier, faster, and more intuitive to use without compromising its technological integrity. That means a seamless UX and a private, peer-to-peer, secure, decentralized, true-to-Bitcoin foundation. We’ve already taken some huge steps down that very long road.
Another similarity at this stage is the rise of service providers. From the 1980s to the 1990s, ISPs evolved from basically email interchanges to access platforms offering a range of services, like dial-up connections, branded chatrooms and publications, and help getting set up. We’re also seeing the rise of Lightning Service Providers now, like Bitrefill, Sparkswap, Olympus, and Breez, among others. They provide a range of services to help users get connected and to make the most of the technology.
So where’s the mass adoption?
Perhaps what’s missing is the killer use case to induce network effects on a geometric scale. I mean, of course everyone already has to make and receive payments, and good, user-friendly apps are in place. But Lightning is easy to avoid. Journalists write self-experimentation columns on the experience of living on Lightning/bitcoin in various places. It’s still exotic. It’s news.
The killer use case could come from a currently adjunct function of Lightning evolving to become a primary use case with broad appeal, like private messaging. It could come from a micro-economic decision of a global retailer, or it could come from a macro-economic shock that increases the salience of Bitcoin’s superiority. Bitcoin will irrevocably replace, or at least join, fiat as the world’s preferred medium of exchange. We just can’t really predict which snowflake will start the avalanche and when.
Empowering the People, Altering Reality
The next great leap can be dated to about 2006. That was the year when Google bought YouTube, making it a regular web appliance, Facebook opened its membership to all the world’s adults and teenagers, and Time Magazine declared “you” to be the person of the year. The Web had officially entered its adolescence or, as we called it back then, the era of Web 2.0.
Lightning could also promote an economy focused on individuals. Within our lifetimes, all payments in the economy could go P2P. Crowdfunding could replace investment banking. There would be no more inflation to evaporate public debt and private savings. Individuals would vary in the quantity of bitcoin at their disposal, but they would no longer vary in the quality of their participation in the economy. Everybody on a level playing field, and everybody playing with the same equipment.
No less important than Web 2.0, smartphones also went mainstream in 2006 with ubiquitous Blackberrys, popular Nokias, and impending iPhones. Until 2006, we experienced the internet in a box on the desk that we left behind and returned to consciously. Since 2006, the internet has been with us everywhere, and we’ve been part of it. Instead of just a utility, it has become part of the fabric of reality.
Lightning is a long way away from being taken for granted, and it’s hard to imagine what that would look like. An analogy might help. Here’s what a Canadian dollar bill looked like in 1954:
And here’s what the last two versions of the $20 bill look like:
Yes, that’s the same woman, Her Majesty Liz II, on all three bills, spanning 65 years. And it’s the same in much of the rest of the Commonwealth. In other words, nearly a third of the world’s population can’t remember what money looks like without her face on it. For 2.25 billion people and for three generations, Queen Elizabeth has been the face of money, and the thought of not having her face in their wallets is … weird.
To achieve something comparable, Lightning would have to be more than just the preferred payment method, but also the natural form of money. Using anything else would seem … weird. That’s two steps beyond mass adoption and one step beyond mass acceptance. It’s mass identification, when billions of people integrate Lightning into the furniture of their reality, like traffic lights and comfort foods.
So what have we learned from comparing the development of Lightning with the history of the internet? Quite a bit actually. For example:
- Lightning has already come a long way in realizing Nakamoto’s vision for Bitcoin.
- The necessary shift of focus from mere technical possibility to UX optimization is well underway.
- We’re still waiting for the killer app or killer use case to induce geometric network effects. Both positive and negative shocks are plausible catalysts.
- Mass adoption might just be an intermediate goal, not the final one. Perhaps Lightning’s true destination (and destiny) is a world in which we have to explain to our kids what banks and inflation were, and how we ever moved money without Lightning.