Why Bitcoin Ossification Will Be Necessary
Ossification is a word used very frequently in Bitcoin. “The protocol will ossify.” “Ossification is good.” “Bitcoin doesn’t need to change, ossify it now.” Bitcoiners are a skeptical group of people and as such they are understandably skeptical of change. There’s a very good reason for this: the block wars were actually a combination of some developers (thankfully gone now) and influential figures trying to force and coerce people into adopting harmful changes through threats and of misinformation. After an attack as large as this, it is natural to view each proposed change as a slightly better disguised and subtle mechanism that could be used to undermine the system as a whole.
In theory, Bitcoin is something that can be updated and changed forever; as long as the supermajority of participants chooses to adopt a change, and all voluntarily adopt and implement that change, then Bitcoin can incorporate it. Ultimately, Bitcoin is just a protocol and software used to implement and interact with that protocol. Any arbitrary changes can be made to the protocol as long as people are willing to adopt and enforce it.
The catch is, will people all get on board with a change? If history shows us anything, the default answer is no, not without a very compelling case for adding value and creating no new externalities or negatives.
What does that mean?
Ossification is not culture, it is incentives
Ossification is often considered a cultural phenomenon; i.e. “Bitcoin must have a culture of ossification!” I think this completely misses what the original discussion around the ossification of the protocol pointed out in terms of social dynamics. The discussion around ossification had nothing to do with people intentionally building a “no change” culture or consciously deciding “Bitcoin is good enough!” — these were the basic incentives around the growth of the system. The more participants there are, the more people there are, the less understanding of the trade-offs of potential changes. When someone enters this space, they begin to learn about Bitcoin as it is now and the trade-offs of things as they are now. Pushing their understanding beyond that, analyzing the trade-offs of how things might be, takes time.
Add to that very clear historical examples of people trying to push through changes that would have been very detrimental to the system, and the natural tendency in a growth environment is that asymptotically approached changes are impossible. Why? Not because of a culture that says “change is bad!” Because the natural incentive, if something is working well to maintain or grow your wealth, is not to disturb it unless it stops doing it successfully.
People are not going to accept change until they are convinced that the change being discussed is a net positive for their economic value. It’s not culture, or “Bitcoin maximalism”, it’s just pure economic incentives.
The rock and the anvil
Bitcoin will naturally eventually ossify; if not, the whole system has come to be influenced or controlled by a central group of people who are able to impose changes without any hesitation or skepticism from the larger user base. If this is the future of bitcoin, I would personally consider the whole system a failure.
So eventually, if it doesn’t fail, Bitcoin will cease to be something that can be fundamentally upgraded at the protocol level. There will be a point where the consensus rules no longer change, and everyone will have to settle for what Bitcoin is at that point. What’s wrong with that?
Currently, Bitcoin is not scaling. If we end up finding that Bitcoin is ossified as it is right now the next time we attempt a soft fork, then it won’t even fit a small fraction of the planet if everyone tries to. use independently. So if Bitcoin has become sclerotic today, the whole dream of money that everyone can keep for themselves and be safe from third-party risk is effectively dead for most people on this planet.
Bitcoin will eventually stop changing, but if it reaches that point too soon, there are huge downsides. A bitcoin where only 5% of the world can possibly self-custody could still bring massive changes to the world by being a neutral platform opening up competition for custodial services, but that’s not the real revolution of the sovereignty that many Bitcoiners are here for. It’s one thing so many people consciously choose not to guard themselves; it’s another if most people don’t even have that choice.
Thread the needle
Changes to Bitcoin must undoubtedly be approached with caution and conservatism, but this must be balanced with the dynamics of impending ossification. Bitcoin has many shortcomings, especially when it comes to scalability, and these shortcomings should be addressed as much as possible in a safe manner before it reaches the point of ossification. Discussion and education around proposed changes is the most important and critical aspect of improving protocol change; without even a basic understanding of how a proposed change works and what it does, it is the natural response for people to reject that change. If the system works and guarantees their value correctly, there is no reason for a rational actor to support change unless the perceived benefits for their monetary value outweigh the perceived negative effects.
This presents both challenges and attack vectors for the consensus building process. It is necessary to inform users before any possibility of adopting a change, but this presents the opportunity for malicious actors to spend their time misinforming users in order to prevent a positive change or create support for a change. negative.
Bitcoiners need to thread the needle to be cautious and conservative when it comes to proposed changes to the protocol, but at the same time, we are going to have to change Bitcoin in order to address its scalability shortcomings. The only other alternative is to accept them and close the door to a bitcoin protocol that can actually offer everyone the ability to keep their own money. One day this will stop changing, and at that time there will be a bar set on how many people can interact with the system natively and sovereignly. We shouldn’t rush to set this bar prematurely.
If Bitcoin is to succeed, in my opinion it will eventually ossify, and if that doesn’t happen, I would personally consider Bitcoin a failed experiment. But we should seek to make the system as scalable as possible without damaging or destroying the fundamental properties that make it valuable in the first place. The clock is turning; this does not mean that we should rush into reckless actions without caution or careful thought, but time is always running out.
This is a guest post from Shinobi. The opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.