Why There Won’t Be One Blockchain to Rule Them All
The single chain maximalism of today will give way to interoperability — and that’s a very good thing.
Spend any time around the blockchain and digital currency community and you’ll notice a prevalent trend that underlies much of the discussion: Single chain maximalism. Even though the decentralization movement is entirely premised on dispersing agency more evenly throughout the world, the idea that one blockchain, one currency, or one project will and must triumph at the expense of all others is evident across developers, entrepreneurs, and traders alike. It’s a befuddling contradiction, and yet it underpins much of the emerging tribal landscape of the blockchain world.
Back in 2014, when Bitcoin was pretty much the only show in town, a plucky young developer named Vitalik Buterin rallied against what he called “Bitcoin Maximalism” in an op-ed on the then-nascent Ethereum blog. It was a spirited and prescient account of the problems inherent in Bitcoin’s positioning as the dominant blockchain protocol of the time. Little did he know that very soon the tables would be turned.
Fast forward a few short years (which, as we’re finding, is decades in blockchain), and there are armies of Ethereum loyalists who roundly pan “competitive” blockchains like EOS, NEO, and the scores of other platforms who claim to bring their own twist or unique functionality to the blockchain ecosystem. Bitcoin maximalists have been in for a rough year, as its market dominance continues a downwards trajectory, while Ethereum, once the flagbearer for alternative options, has developed into the protocol most likely to assume a hegemonic role.
Discussion of single chain maximalism is most often centered on the functional pros and cons of such a model — and we’ll get there ourselves — but it’s worth noting that the psychological processes that play into the perspective are deeply held have been around for millennia. “Humans are naturally tribalistic. We haven’t evolved past our early ancestors’ thought patterns,” notes Aaron McDonald, CEO of New Zealand-based blockchain studio Centrality. “We get these idealistic groups forming, and that’s happened since the early days of the internet, in the mobile space, the cloud computing space. When it comes to blockchain, because people are economically invested in these protocols, there’s a natural inclination to have a bias towards supporting one or the other.”
The tech-based argument supporting single chain maximalism is often couched through the value it churns out via network effect. As Vitalik explained in-depth back in 2014, the functions of network effect are ubiquitous and foundational: more nodes means a more secure network, more developers means more robust applications, and more trading volume means more currency liquidity. Driven by a genuine spirit of decentralization, the Ethereum model for fulfilling the benefits of network effect without stifling growth includes everything from ERC-20 standardization to public/private sidechains and scaling solutions like Plasma that aim to create “blockchains on blockchains.”
Although all of the above are entirely remarkable and commendable features that contribute to Ethereum’s ascent in becoming the world’s leading blockchain ecosystem, they do not necessarily invalidate the single chain maximalist perspective that underlies much of Ethereum’s explosive growth. It’s worth remembering that a healthy, competitive market is essential for innovation and growth, and the sheer breadth of approaches to blockchain infrastructure (much of which these days is concerned with scaling) is a sign that there is much to be achieved off of the Ethereum chain, even if we are happy to accept Ethereum as the central current of the blockchain waters.
Taking a different perspective entirely, the emergent movement of interoperability suggests that the way to achieve the benefits of network effect while allowing a flourishing ecosystem of finely-tuned blockchain solutions for all eventualities. Projects like Polkadot, with its ‘heterogeneous multi-chain technology,’ BlockNet’s “internet of blockchains,” and Centrality’s Pl^g modular blockchain framework aim to connect the dots between the disconnected webs of the blockchain world, to create a ‘world wide web’ of specialized networks that can actually exchange information and engage with one another. And although that particular phrase may be taken, its relevance to the current situation is tantamount:
“A lot of our team worked early in our careers in the telecommunications space. We saw how the internet was built: by connecting lots of different networks and protocols together across the different boundaries of the internet,” explains Aaron McDonald, whose Pl^g team is leading the way in interoperability. ”Each protocol was good for the part of the network it was serving. The user still had an end-to-end user experience at either end of the pipe — but in the middle, there were lots of interconnected protocols. We looked at how a decentralized world would evolve, and we figured for it to scale, it would have to work something like that. There are applications and use cases which require different types of protocols, but they might want to talk to applications on different protocols.”
Pl^g achieves this by creating a framework for building blockchains with modular deployment of proofs, data models, and smart contract layers that fit a platform’s particular use case, and can interact with other platforms built on the infrastructure, even if the blockchains themselves are built with varying specification. Further, the Pl^g Net layer is well on its way to having smart contract integration into Ethereum and Bitcoin, suggesting it can play an interstitial role between blockchains. “We see Pl^g Net’s role as a connector of blockchains is kind of like Level 3 on the internet, a higher order settlement layer or transit layer for other chains to connect through,” explains McDonald.
Inherent in the interoperability perspective is a focus on the end user of a mainstream app, even if that user doesn’t exist just yet. “Users want to have a seamless interaction with their application. I don’t go into my phone and choose per app which network I’m going to connect to,” explains McDonald. The preoccupation with one chain over any other is the realm of insiders, traders, up-all-night developers and evangelists. When it comes to the long game — widespread user adoption of blockchain-based applications — most users will likely not care if it is built on one protocol or another, so long as it works. When you pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture, interoperability and the projects that facilitate it are an inevitability.
With the Pl^g mainnet alpha with cross-chain integration fast approaching, and a number of decentralized apps in the Centrality studio built upon the framework, interoperable blockchains will soon have the opportunity to state their case. Looking ahead to a blockchain future a few years down the line, McDonald says, “I think blockchain will evolve like the internet has done, with thousands of blockchains and protocols interoperating around the world, because it’s the only way they can scale to handle the world’s population across all the types of processes that we’d need blockchains for. Part of innovation is the freedom to grow and create without everyone having to be on the same page. It’s a good thing. It allows innovation to take place at the speed of innovation and not a particular network.”
Now, with the release of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance’s business architecture stack under the banner of achieving “global interoperability” alongside project like Pl^g that are preparing to fill the interstitial space between the disparate blockchain protocols of the world, it’s clear that the tribalism of single chain maximalism is an early phase quirk of the movement and, we hope, will not become a defining feature of the blockchain revolution.
by Jemayel Khawaja.