14 years later, Bitcoin has shown its strengths — and that it still has a long way to go to achieve its original goals.
This is an opinion editorial by Archie Chaudhury, a blockchain enthusiast and previous winner of top prize at the 2021 MIT Bitcoin Expo.
When Satoshi Nakamoto first published the Bitcoin white paper in October of 2008, the world was reeling from a financial crisis caused by the irresponsibility and negligence of the institutions that controlled our financial system. Hedge funds, central banks and other powerful agents had been all too happy to place over-leveraged bets on the economy, and to profit from the economic losses incurred by the working class when these bets collapsed.
Governments, in a desperate attempt to keep these institutions alive, spent hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and other monetary injections instead of ensuring the well-being of the average citizen. Bitcoin was Satoshi Nakamoto’s answer to state-backed money; it was a vision for a decentralized digital currency that could provide the efficiency of online banking, the relative pseudonymity of physical cash, and the scarcity of gold.
Unlike previous attempts at creating digital cash, Bitcoin was not backed by or controlled by a singular entity or party, but rather by an anonymous developer (developers?), a set of faceless forum visitors and a small online community that believed in using cryptographic software for privacy and independence from authoritarian powers. Nakamoto’s ultimate goal was to create an asset that was autonomous, decentralized and was not susceptible to the greed or will of any one individual. October 31, the day Satoshi Nakamoto formally announced their white paper to the Cypherpunks Mailing List, has come to be known as “Bitcoin White Paper Day” and is celebrated as an informal declaration of independence from corrupt state-backed money, heard across the world. The purpose of this article is to reflect on how far we have come since then, and how much work remains to be done in order to accomplish Nakamoto’s goals.
The Bitcoin that we use today is vastly different from the Bitcoin that Satoshi Nakamoto and his fellow contributors created in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Beyond the numerous technical upgrades and hard forks, the network itself has grown significantly, with more and more people taking the proverbial “orange pill” and deciding to use bitcoin in some capacity.
There is another way in which Bitcoin has changed: the core network, and asset (BTC), is thought of more as a store of value rather than a platform for micropayments. Indeed, there was a significant cultural schism within the Bitcoin community that led to this change: the famous, and aptly titled, “Blocksize Wars” approximately five years ago led to this change, with forks such as Bitcoin Cash and later Bitcoin SV being created by community members who believed in scalability over all else, and the core Bitcoin chain being upheld by members who sought to preserve decentralization and to look at alternative methods such as Layer 2 payment channels to support scalability. The Lightning Network, which is the most popular payment channel, has slowly gained popularity, recently reaching a capacity of 5000 bitcoin.
Despite these changes, the core technological tenets espoused by Nakamoto in 2008 (Nakamoto Consensus with proof-of-work mining and a static maximum supply of 21 million) remain constant. This is not solely because of a technological or economic reason; in fact, it has been argued that changing Bitcoin’s underlying consensus mechanism or supply cap could lead to increased performance and adoption respectively. Rather, Bitcoin’s consistency in these areas can be attributed to the philosophy of its underlying community, who believe strongly in scarcity, security and decentralization over all else.
Meanwhile, bitcoin is being used by people around the world to stave off unruly economic conditions. Bitcoin’s natural scarcity makes it attractive for citizens where corruption has led to unrestricted inflation. This adoption has even led some governments, such as El Salvador, to declare bitcoin a national currency, a move that would have been unfathomable to Nakamoto and Bitcoin’s original contributors.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to take from Bitcoin’s progress over the past couple of years is that it has happened without a central leader: unlike alternative assets that are more akin to decentralized software platforms, bitcoin functions purely as money, with key “policy” decisions being made by a community. There is no Bitcoin organization or representative solely responsible for promoting adoption, nor is there a central “chief scientist” that has a significant impact on key protocol-level decisions. While there are certainly major influences within the community, the protocol as a whole does not have an organizational structure to lead either adoption or development. In fact, Bitcoin’s lack of hierarchy should be a goal for other distributed ledger projects who, while perhaps decentralized to a certain degree, are still largely influenced by a singular entity or individual.
While Bitcoin has certainly grown from its humble beginnings as a white paper and a couple hundred lines of scrappy code, it still has a long way to go if it is to achieve the ambitious goals discussed by Nakamoto and other early adopters in their email chains and forum posts. From a technical standpoint, the Bitcoin community needs to continue building technology that not only enables further scalability and security, but perhaps more importantly, also helps make the network more decentralized. One of the most staunch mottos that Bitcoin community members have adopted is the term “Don’t trust, verify.” This is, of course, in reference to running a full Bitcoin node and not relying on data from external third parties, such as node providers. Network optimization, rollups, and other scalability research has been proposed by various individuals in the Bitcoin community as a way for the network to simultaneously scale while decreasing the cost it takes to run a full node. A recent report, published by John Light through research funded by the Human Rights Foundation, Starkware and CMS Holdings, provides more detail about rollups-related scalability research.
Despite its roots in technology, Bitcoin has evolved over the years to become something more: it is now a community, a network, if you will, of like minded-individuals who all have some varying degrees of belief in a singular idea. Bitcoin is no longer a software, privy to only developers, coders or those with a highly technical background, and this marked shift should also signal additional non-technical priorities for the Bitcoin community to address over the next decade.
More effort needs to be spent on educating the general public and making them aware of not only Bitcoin’s technology, but also the failures of the legacy financial systems that they use today. More effort needs to be spent not only on touting bitcoin’s economics and technology, but also drawing on distinctions between bitcoin and other cryptocurrency platforms. Finally, more effort needs to be made among the cryptocurrency community as a whole to come together when the fundamental principles that Satoshi Nakamoto and his fellow cypherpunks believed in are threatened by authoritarian governments, regardless of the platform that is being attacked.
While discussions around varying blockchain networks have always been tribalistic to a degree, the recent trend has been to promote the success of your platform over all else, and even chide or insult platforms who face potential regulatory scrutiny. While believing that bitcoin is the most sound digital asset in terms of economics/construction, and getting into arguments about said belief is okay, and should even be encouraged, celebrating when an alternative platform is threatened with regulatory action or censorship goes against what Bitcoin is fundamentally all about.
The cypherpunks, Satoshi Nakamoto and a majority of Bitcoin’s community all believe in the idea that one day, there can be a digital peer-to-peer currency completely independent of any government, intermediary or biased party. While we certainly have various disagreements about the pros and cons of our respective technology, belong to different “maximalist” groups, and in general have varying beliefs, we all ultimately belong to a space that was motivated by the idea of a censorship-resistant and non-partisan digital asset/network. We would do well to remember that fundamental principle as we continue to work on Bitcoin over the next 14 years.
This is a guest post by Archie Chaudhury. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.