Speakers: Cory Fields
Transcript By: Bryan Bishop
MIT Bitcoin Expo 2016 transcript
Welcome everyone to MIT Bitcoin Expo 2016. If you haven’t heard of Bitcoin by now, then I am not sure how you got here. My name is nchinda. I am the reigning Bitcoin club president. I am going to have some fun. The club is hijacking the #mit-dci IRC channel. You can twitter with #mitbitcoinexpo. There’s a link up on our website for livestreaming. You can refer anyone who is not here to the club’s youtube channel.
We are going to begin day 1, the technical day of the expo. We are going to start with Cory Fields, a Bitcoin developer, he works here at the MIT Media Lab. (applause)
Thank you Nchinda. I am a Bitcoin Core developer. I would like to open this morning by talking about what it means to be a Bitcoin Core developer. What is Bitcoin Core? Who here is actively involved in Bitcoin? Who keeps up with current events and drama? Okay. There’s not a lack of that. So I will try to avoid sensitive subjects, so I will have about 10 seconds of material.
Bitcoin Core, I think it’s three things. I want to talk about it because I think it’s worth with all the kind of strife in the community and the perceptions out there, I think it’s worth trying to distill down, when the discussion comes down to different factions or groups or who thinks what, one of the things we hear pretty often is that “Bitcoin Core is this” or “Bitcoin Core is doing X”. And I think we should step back and look at what this means. How has it evolved to the point where Bitcoin Core has meaning?
To me, it’s three things. Bitcoin Core is a software project. That’s all it is at its essence. I am sure that you guys are familiar with what an open source software project. It’s probably not interesting and it’s not fun dinner conversation. But to you especially, it’s the most interesting thing in the world. That’s my entrypoint for Bitcoin. For me, the way that I came into it, is that I read some article about this new money thing that, a virtual currency that is software. You can take the software and run it but it’s also money. That’s a concept that at the time made no sense to me. Reading around, trying to get an explanation, my gut reaction was oh there’s code, I’ll look at the cde, I’;ll clone the repo and try to build and it didn’t build. At that point, it wasn’t building and it wasn’t running, so my entrypoint for working on Bitcoin was helping out with the build system, making it run, making it more accessible.
When the term “Bitcoin Core” is used, it’s also used to mean a group of developers who work on the Bitcoin Core project. It came devolve from there because just like any other project, so, show of hands, who here has contributed to an open source project? Okay, about the same. A herd mentality evolves at some point. There has to be a release. There has to be a roadmap. There has to be some sort of collective idea of what we’re working towards. Bitcoin Core is no different.
Where it’s really different is in the third definition of what Bitcoin Core is and what it is. How many times have I said Bitcoin Core? It’s a reference implementation of the Bitcoin protocol. And that’s where it breaks all the rules of social, or all the social norms for a software project because at that point, it’s in some ways the definition of a principle. Or it even embodies this living breathing system, so it’s a weird overlap there.
What we started to see online is not to say a lack of understanding, but a blur of the lines when we’re trying to make decisions amongst ourselves and you want to purport to have some authority or want to purport to have some stake in the system. So it makes sense to come together and say this is what this enlightened group thinks r what this powerful group thinks or what this rich group thinks. At that point, trying to say we are Bitcoin Core becomes contentious and dangerous because you don’t want to speak for someone else’s principles or morals. That’s a hard thing to do.
So we find ourselves to an extent, unable to speak up for ourselves. That’s a weird spot to be put in. I think it’s worth being conscious of, and aware of, and when we are online discussing different possible solutions to things, it’s worth discussing the context they are in. Am I proposing this solution and also demanding everyone runs it? Because the other very unique engineering challenge of Bitcoin is that it’s a social consensus mechanism. It’s not just a technical consensus mechanism. What matters is that it agrees with itself. I think it’s interesting to take a step back every now and then and look at where maybe how we can work to improve that social layer. Because when, I was hoping to give a little bit of a, what’s changed what’s changed in the last year.
I was at the Bitcoin Foundation before. I work at the MIT Media Lab at the moment. I am privileged to be working on Bitcoin day-to-day here. In 2014, I went to the .. conference… my eyes were so big, I had just joined the foundation, there was a big conference, everything was real, there were financial people there, technical people there, investors, it was this wide range of people. And gavinandresen was there, he gave a State of Bitcoin at the moment, it was technical and it was thriving and it was fun and I think it’s very much the same way now. In the last year or so, one of the big shifts we have seen is that Bitcoin has gotten social. Not only that, but the development process of Bitcoin has gone social in that, you know that you have a beautifully constructed safe system when the designers of the system can’t change it even if they want to. This is not just a Bitcoin concept. Even if you have tested with mining.. it’s fun to try to attack your own system and realize that you can’t beat it. That’s a uniquely Bitcoin thing.
The social element is what’s new, where there’s this influx of people who wish to change and influence and improve the system but end up in gridlock because ultimately it’s a measure of who can agree the best and who can agree the most. So I’d like to take one more minute to give a rundown of how that process works from the Bitcoin Core side and then for Bitcoin as a whole.
The Bitcoin Core developers for the most part, for some of them, the technical and research talent for the Bitcoin ecosystem is tied up in Bitcoin Core as the reference implementation. It’s where people gather and congregate. Naturally, proposals to change and improve come from there. Historically in the past what we have seen is that not really all that much interest. There have been things that need to be done, Bitcoin Core developers say stuff, and then it happens, and it wasn’t hard. As the group has grown and there has been more interest, it gets harder to say this is what is technically correct and this is what we’re doing. We get pushback because it maybe doesn’t fit well with a particular profit model, or a difference of opinion for long-term goals, that kind of thing.
So the big process was put in place, there was the Bitcoin Improvement Proposal process (BIPs). It was modeled after the python improvement process, which is a proposal to improve Bitcoin community-wide. That process has proven to be successful for the most part. It has begun to break down a little bit. As people participate outside of Bitcoin Core and the typical process, they are not necessarily beholden to that same process anymore. It’s really worth thinking about how, and I as I have been thinking about what to try to say, over the last few days, I was hoping to propose a more rational way to come together. I have spoken with many people who have a pipe dream about a non-Core driven, a more community-driven process for changing Bitcoin. And sadly I don’t have an answer for how to fix all of Bitcoin. It would save us a lot of argument and infighting.
We had the scaling events, one in Montreal and one in Hong Kong, thanks to Pindar who is here today. After a lot of reflection, my realization is that Bitcoin healthier than ever in that everything is contentious and hard. It sounds weird, it sounds a little stupid. When you consider that it’s a system that has been designed to resist change, to resist hostile takeover, to resist influence, the fact that it’s doing that so well right now, is a sign of its health. Reddit loves to say “it’s good for Bitcoin”. I think that fighting is good for Bitcoin. The level of discourse, well it’s arguable that the level of discourse has been good… if the fighting stops, if it becomes easy to push through a hard-fork, a difficult change, a major change, then at that point we know we have lost and it’s not an interesting system anymore. If it’s that easy to manipulate, then it’s not worth working on this. I don’t want to say let’s keep fighting, but let’s keep fighting.