The Great Pyramid of Egypt held the record for tallest man-made structure for at least 3,800 years, and its 2.3 million blocks weigh 6 million tons. The massive blocks of granite, forming chambers at their core, each weigh up to 80 tons and are over 40 meters above the ground. It’s at least 4,500 years old, and even that scarcely imaginable age is based on surprisingly thin evidence: there’s a realistic possibility it’s significantly older (do your own research, bitcoiners – don’t trust, verify).
Whoever and whenever the builders were, the physical feat of the pyramid is undeniable. But the people who designed and built it are long dead. The civilization in which these individuals spent their entire lives ended thousands of years ago. It was ancient even for Herodotus, the Greek historian, when he spoke of his visit in 500 BC. wrote. Countless empires of humanity have risen and fallen during the silent reign of this colossal demonstration of labor on Earth. Nevertheless it stands.
The Great Pyramid is an artificial mountain and everything about its technical design is geared towards resilience. The tapered shape from a broad base, large block size, and solid construction throughout is a recipe to provide ultimate stability that enables it to reach the great heights – and to hold it as long as mankind’s tallest structure. Other buildings have failed in tiny fractions of their timeframe. Wind, sand and rain bounce harmlessly off its flanks. Even millennia-old earthquakes have, at worst, only displaced a few outer shell stones, which in turn have been plundered as building material in more recent times. The interiors and corridors – the main functional elements, the purpose of the whole structure – have remained intact.
With Bitcoin, we are also building something that we hope will outlive us all, to withstand countless onslaughts from both man and nature. We understand the goal of providing a new global monetary system that is open to all. The scope of the project and its impact are even more significant than the pyramid. Instead of stone, we have code and consensus. We build in cyberspace rather than the physical world. Our memorial is everywhere and nowhere, bringing unique protections but also different types of vulnerabilities for which we must be vigilant and secure whenever possible. The technical design is simultaneously incredibly open (anyone can contribute to the code) and incredibly private (no one can force a change on anyone else). This intentionally chaotic and entirely voluntary system supports and requires a social stratum at the top to coordinate any changes on a global scale that move away from the status quo. If the inner functionality is to survive the tough tests to come, we need to orient ourselves to both the code layer and the social level for unprecedented resilience. Anything else risks failure.
The recent Jeremy Rubin’s BIP119 (CTV) controversy should alarm everyone. Pretty harmless in principle: a new operation within the Bitcoin protocol that allows users to define strict conditions for using their own coins, potentially allowing more security for some users and flexibility for others. As a soft fork, it is theoretically an opt-in and only affects users who choose to use the new functionality. The code itself didn’t raise eyebrows from the developers. The objections come from the social layer – and it’s just as important as the code layer. Although Rubin’s intentions are most likely honorable given Bitcoin must be built to last, we must treat all proposed amendments as if they were attacks.
CTV is one of many proposals adding similar functionality, and the technical debate over which is the best candidate for inclusion in the code is far from over. The market hasn’t expressed strong demand for features that could be enabled by something like CTV. There is no critical vulnerability that CTV fixes. Despite this, its proponents have pushed hard for its activation, arguing that if there are no technical objections it should go ahead, trying to instill a sense of urgency that the right way to reach social consensus is unclear and that certain People are there to act as gatekeepers. Most dubious is that a suggestion to use miner signals to activate the soft fork puts more control in the hands of a part of the ecosystem that is almost irrelevant to the debate.
A real attacker could use a very similar strategy to infiltrate a vulnerability in Bitcoin. In the future, they will look back at how BIP119 was received and learn from it. Therefore, regardless of reality, we must pretend it is a covert attack. Bitcoin’s strength to date has been due to the dominance of the opposing mindset. We have to anticipate a future opponent’s moves before he’s even played his first piece. The price of security is constant vigilance.
Bitcoin as it exists today works and there is always room for further improvement. The construction of this monument is not yet complete, but if we want it to last – for as long as we hope – we cannot afford to compromise. Proposed changes come and go. There will be good and bad suggestions. Behind the proposals will be both bad and good actors. Change should be taken just as seriously as medical intervention. Each proposal must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny in terms of the actual need to take the risk, the benefits of success, the relative urgency, and the details of execution. Anything other than an extremely strong reason for this is insufficient. Extensive debates are all well and good, but questions, uncertainties and dissatisfaction in any area should be a cause for concern – and a signal to step back. We must look at this system with the possibility that it will last for centuries, if not longer. Each change threatens the unsteady balance and brings new maintenance costs; We should remember that these costs will eventually have to be paid by those who come after us.
Inevitably a malicious actor one day will attempt to undermine bitcoin from within through social engineering. This can take many forms, such as B. creating a code change with obscure, unexpected implications, or a purely social effort to sneakily turn the community against their own best interests. The code is easier to audit, although those with the necessary skills must stay alert and those with the ability to learn should do so. The social layer is the immune system, and node operators’ decisions about the consensus rules they enforce represent the very last line of defense.
The system is operational today, securing and processing billions of dollars worth of millions of participants. Meanwhile, the fiat world is accelerating towards the edge of the cliff. Bitcoin is the lifeboat, for us and for the rest of the world that doesn’t yet realize it. The risk of making changes to the lifeboat should only be taken if the change is nearly necessary, the proposal is nearly bulletproof, and has near-universal support. The stakes are so big. Maybe we won’t get a second chance.
The Egyptians did not build their monument while Their civilization collapsed. We don’t have the same luxury.
This is a guest post by Owen Kemeys. The opinions expressed are solely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.