My balanced(ish) view on the Bitcoin block size debate

There has been an uneasy tension simmering in the Bitcoin community over the blocksize – the limit on how many transactions can take place every 10 minutes, which is increasingly being reached.

Initially I was attracted to the idea of increasing Bitcoin block sizes. My frustration at the core team was palpable; it seemed such an obvious thing to do, Moore’s law superficially makes 1MB blocks in 2015 sound pathetically small.

Then I took the time to wrap my head around the technological arguments against increasing the block size (centralisation, scalability) and my view was transformed.

I am now completely on board with the core team vision: elegant solutions such as segregated witness (SW) and lightning network (LN). I realise ingenuity and innovation is going to save the day versus the comparatively clumsy solution of a block size increase.

I use an SSD in my laptop and haven’t run a node on it for over a year, since space is at a premium and in order to continue participating I’d have to pay for an upgrade. This exact same scenario is about to play out for Bitcoin transactions.

I have concerns… on one hand I have been convinced of the technical argument for avoiding increasing block sizes, and am incredibly excited about LN. I am prepared to patiently wait for these solutions to be implemented and solve Bitcoin’s long term challenges.

On the other hand, we are heading into unchartered territory. Bitcoin is being advanced on two fronts, we are building a revolutionary technology, and we are building a public vision of what that technology can do.

These two battles require very different skills, and triumph in both is essential for Bitcoin to succeed. If you have the technology but fail on persuading the public, you’ve got yourself a Betamax.

Bitcoin has a problem in that the community hasn’t been persuaded, let alone the public.

The core team state that anybody who disagrees with them is free to build their own competing solution. While technically true, this is disingenuous. The barriers to and reasons against a split are vast, the momentum and status quo is with core. However, even more importantly, the core team HAS WON the technological debate. Their solutions aren’t just the best for Bitcoin, they are a necessity for Bitcoin to succeed and scale.

I’ve been evangelising Bitcoin for the last 4 years. Our winning line is that you can send money very quickly and very cheaply. In a recent discussion with someone who works in ‘the city’ and had clearly done some Bitcoin homework, the technology was dismissed and I was told “Last week it took around 6-10 hours for a 40c fee or $2 for something quicker”. The fact this is incorrect is irrelevant, in the battleground of ideas, people switch off easily.

In Bitcoin we need to switch on as many people as possible. A fee market can create the very real possibility of slower transactions and higher fees. Anyone with an anti-Bitcoin agenda can use it as a stick to beat Bitcoin with for long after the issue has been resolved. Once someone has seen a headline and been turned off to an idea, it’s a lot more difficult to re-engage them.

So, what’s the solution?

Increasing the block size is not an option. Even if the code was released today, it would still require a lengthy wait before the increase could be activated to give as many nodes as possible the opportunity to upgrade – a hard fork should never be undertaken lightly. By that time, we should already be seeing the benefit from other the solutions the core team are pursuing and block size issues should be solved.

In the short term, like it or not, we’re about to enter a period where the utility of Bitcoin is going to be negatively affected. As a community we need to shape the public narrative, we need to sell the exciting developments that are around the corner. This should be easy… truly revolutionary developments really are coming. Let’s get behind and give our support to the core developers, they are going to deliver on their vision, now all we can do is rally behind them.
I feel bad for the core developers. These are technology people who have undoubtedly have Bitcoin’s best interests at heart. They have also had politics thrust upon them when they are not politicians.

They can also learn from this experience though. I recently saw a comment from a core dev which said he didn’t care about Bitcoin in the short term. If you believe the long term of health of something depends on the short term, as I do, this language is troubling no matter which side of the debate you are on.
The community and developers need to understand each other better. The community has been worrying about block limits creating a fee market for years. A fee market also requires a political/economic consideration, not just a technical one.

Perhaps the current dynamic, ‘developers’ and ‘users’, cannot be sustained in its current form. I think we need a level of mediation, a political layer which can represent the interests of all Bitcoin stakeholders and articulate to both sides why their approach and opinions are important and stand a better chance of reaching consensus and sooner.

In the current climate, I feel a compromise of 2MB blocks to keep the metaphorical wolves from the fee market door while SW and LN are introduced would bring the community together – the problem is, the time we would have needed to reach that consensus in order to get the wheels in motion, the community was suggesting wild block size increases and would never have compromised on 2MB, but will now also feel they are having a fee market imposed upon them.

Let’s embrace what we’ve got. Yes, we’re going to have a fee market and no doubt other bumps along the way, but we also have a core team whose hard work and ingenuity are laying the foundations for Bitcoin to become truly scalable and world changing. On our two battlefronts we can be certain we are winning on the technology side. We just need to make sure the whole community is singing from the same hymn sheet so that together we can generate a tidal wave of positivity and surf our way to the… future (and moon).

 

This is my first article on Bitcoin, I’m probably going to start talking a lot more about it and attempting to explain some of the basics. Tips welcome: 1H2zNWjxkaVeeE3yX6uVqng5Qoi6gGvYTE

John Hardy
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John Hardy

Software developer living in UK.
Longtime Bitcoin advocate.
Email [email protected].com
Donations welcome: 1H2zNWjxkaVeeE3yX6uVqng5Qoi6gGvYTE
John Hardy
Follow me

Author: John Hardy

Software developer living in UK. Longtime Bitcoin advocate. Email [email protected] Donations welcome: 1H2zNWjxkaVeeE3yX6uVqng5Qoi6gGvYTE

  • Tom Mornini

    Fantastic article that is a near parallel of my journey through the blocksize debate.

    Both sides need to be reasonable. The core team held fast against the potential negative outcome of large blocks, but they need to stand down and allow a reasonable increase to bridge the gap.

    @ChangeTip, send £1!

  • Matthew Light

    One side engages in rational debate, the other side bans discussions about blocksize on the fora they control. That should tell you a lot about whose arguments are better.

  • vatten

    Statistics showing that most of the users are not attracted by bitcoin’s low fee. So the prerequisite is wrong, and every conclusion is wrong

    • John Hardy

      To which statistics are you referring? Bitcoin has many feathers to its bow and is at an early stage.

      People don’t invest in early startups to make a profit right away, they invest to make a profit in the future.

      People are interested in Bitcoin because of its promise. If each Bitcoin transaction was going to cost $5, now and forever, it would never have got off the ground.

      • vatten

        There are plenty of statistics, just search for it. I’m a bitcoin broker, I know what kind of transaction my clients are doing. no more than 5% come to bitcoin for making cheap and fast transactions, and they typically buy at least 0.5 bitcoin from me at 5% over market price, which means they don’t even care about a 5% fee, not even mention $5 for transaction

  • Jamie Cansdale

    Are you saying that you’d support an increase to 2MB, but you don’t think there would be time to prepare for a hard-fork before SW and LN would be rolled out anyway? What if 99% of the hash-power could be brought on board in a matter of weeks. Do you think it would be feasible then?