Lightning & the Internet: Choosing the Right Path
Anyone who’s watched sci fi movies about time travel knows that there are certain critical moments when relatively small decisions lock-in momentous future trajectories. Like when Marty McFly almost (but didn’t!) become his own father, or when Kyle Reese and Sarah Conner … uh … made John Connor, when Lou and Kelly … uh … didn’t make Jacob in Hot Tub Time Machine. (There’s a disturbing pattern here, yes, but it’s beside the point.)
Actual history is also full of such critical turning points: Franz Ferdinand almost not getting assassinated, like, a dozen times; the Vikings colonizing the “New World” five hundred years before Columbus, but stalling because of the weather; a mid-level Soviet officer opting not to tell his superiors about a possible incoming ICBM and saving all life as we know it.
Sometimes history happens even when nobody’s looking. And it’s happening now.
The Choice We Face and What’s at Stake
We’re revolutionaries. There’s no reason to be coy about it. Our goal is to replace fiat with bitcoin. “Disruption” is almost a quaint term for a change of the magnitude we’re bringing about. We’re taking power from institutions and transferring it to individuals by giving them control of the value they generate in their lives.
In this revolution, we’re not alone. On the contrary, there are many different parties with different interests and different goals. A lot of the rallying cries, like “P2P!”, “Sovereignty!”, and “Not your keys, not your coin!” are the same, but those unifying ideas can mean different things to different people.
Here’s the relevant difference at our current, crucial moment: some people don’t see Lightning as a payment network, or at least not only as a payment network, and others believe that a payment network is all it ever needs to be.
There are two paths we can take as a network:
- Lightning remains the payment network it was designed to be. We strive to plug it into as many other kinds of digital life and communication as possible, but Lightning remains the Satoshi Superhighway.
- We import the internet onto Lightning because, some argue, it is too valuable to be just a payment network. The idea here is to refound the entire internet as a decentralized, P2P, all-purpose data network that handles messaging, streaming video and audio, data files, and the whole freakin’ internet becomes Lightning traffic.
People who work on Lightning tend to be really smart, so even though we (spoiler alert) disagree with the Lightning expansionists, I respect where they’re coming from.
Expanding Lightning to include all kinds of functions and data sounds great … at first.
The main argument in favor of reinventing the internet seems to be censorship resistance. Lightning’s privacy and distributed network structure has always been attractive to dissidents and even just average citizens of oppressive regimes, and it still is. However, it’s also becoming increasingly obvious just how valuable censorship resistance is even in the “liberal” “democratic” “West”. Just ask OnlyFans.
I sympathize with their motives, but I think the future they’re trying to reach will weaken the Lightning Network. Let me tell you why.
The Satoshi Superhighway
For all the potential merit in expanding Lightning from a payment network to a messaging network to even an all-purpose data network, we remain steadfast for two broad reasons: 1) incentives and 2) leveraging existing platforms.
An Incentivized Network is a Strong Network
Lightning’s growth depends on its incentive structure. Remember that Lightning is still in its infancy. The public channels among the roughly 30,000 nodes on Lightning have a combined capacity of about $200 million. That’s fantastic for about three years of growth, but there is about $40 trillion in easily accessible cash circulating globally among nearly 8 billion people. We still have a lot of onboarding to do.
Bitcoin is awesome enough and fiat is broken enough that people will onboard themselves community by community and country by country. But in order to handle them, the network needs liquidity, and in order to attract liquidity, it needs to provide LSPs and routing nodes with a return. Lightning can remain super fast and cheap, but with volume it needs to become profitable.
Lightning expansionism corrodes the network’s incentive structure. To compete with the existing internet, an all-purpose Lightning data network will have to move traffic for effectively nothing. To contradict that statement, please send me an email and don’t forget to pay by the byte.
To keep the network functioning, data traffic will have to incentivize third-party routing nodes. Expansionists give lip service to this possibility sometimes, but they also talk about facilitating data transfers back and forth over a P2P VPN by “pushing the same sat back and forth.” Treating routing node operators worse than Uber drivers is not the way to grow Lightning and onboard the world.
How much unprofitable traffic can the network bear before the routing nodes quit and go home? But as long as Lightning is used to transfer bitcoin, the incentives are built in. From the routing nodes’ perspective, Lightning as a payment network can’t not work.
Leveraging the Actual, Existing Internet
The second reason to preserve Lightning as the Satoshi Superhighway is that it’s often better to leverage existing platforms. For example, I slice my bread with a knife, not a laser. I boil water with an old electric kettle rather than the microwave because the old tech is far more efficient. Just because Lightning is shiny and new doesn’t mean that the old tech is obsolete. We don’t need to build a new internet.
Whatever function someone wants to add to Lightning probably already exists in a better form somewhere on the internet, so why not use those superior tools and just add Lightning to them? What makes more sense: reinventing Twitter and trying to convert over 300,000,000 active Twitter users, or just adding a Lightning button to the existing Twitter?
The same rationale of building on strong existing foundations can be extended to the internet as a whole. The world has already spent billions upon billions in cell towers, subsea cables, fiber-optic lines, satellites, and compatible devices to transmit data. That’s the internet. And it works beautifully almost all the time. We collectively spend about $726 billion every year to keep it running. It would be a shame to neglect that investment and all the existing technology just because we want to reinvent that wheel over Lightning.
Keeping the internet’s hardware, however, doesn’t mean that we have to keep its centralization. Lightning can still help musicians, videographers, bloggers, models, and anyone else to distribute their content by transmitting P2P payments. Anyone worried about Apple Podcasts can (and should) use The Podcast Index, anyone worried about Twitter can use Mastodon, and anyone worried about WhatsApp can use Matrix (and soon will be in Breez).
And it works. The Breez podcast player is an excellent, live proof of concept. Podcast content streams over the internet from the creator to the listener, and the sats stream back over Lightning. This little gadget has increased our user base by around 10x, and listeners have paid creators dozens of bitcoins over an incentivized, open network.
Now let’s extrapolate from here. Imagine letting musicians profit directly on a per-stream basis over something like SoundCloud. Letting videographers stream content for sats directly on a video platform. Letting vendors sell online via a Lightning-enabled Shopify. Letting feline enthusiasts sell high-quality cat photos on OnlyFans (that’s what it’s for, right?).
Indeed, the expansionists often invoke OnlyFans as the paradigmatic case for why we need to move the internet onto Lightning. But recall that the obstacle OnlyFans faced wasn’t the internet; it was the credit card companies. So fix that. And the way to fix it is to let the internet do what it does best (move lots of data everywhere) and to let Lightning do what it does best (move bitcoin quickly and cheaply from one peer to another).
The best way to grow Lightning is to let it be what it is, not bloating it with extraneous functions.
In those time travel movies, the characters going back in time always have an advantage over their predecessors who are stuck in their own time: the time travelers know where the crucial turning points in history are, but the people moving forward in time don’t.
We’re lucky. We know that we’re revolutionizing money, and we can see the different future trajectories extend out before us. We have the choice. Lightning expansionists have a plan to reinvent the internet on Lightning, but the plan would eliminate the incentives that grow the network. Those paths would curtail Lightning’s growth and potentially sacrifice this awesome thing we’ve already developed so far.
The alternative is to push Lightning out into the world and expand its utility by combining it with the best existing technologies that already perform those other functions beautifully. This strategy is efficient, it preserves the incentive structure that has fueled and will continue to fuel Lightning’s growth, and it leverages the progress achieved by decades of specialization.
Granted, we still need to do a lot of work in order to allow mainstream internet services to integrate Lightning payments. Twitter with Strike integration is a great start, but we need to enable true P2P payments without the intermediates. We’re not there yet, but when our descendants come back in time, they are going to be so proud of us.