The early months of 2017 have been a very interesting time for Bitcoin. On January 2nd, Bitcoin maintained a value of $1,000 USD for the first time and only 5 months later it set its current record value of over $3,000. For a cryptocurrency that was worth only 25 cents per coin in 2010, this radical rate of growth has kept investors on the edge of their seats.
Soaring values can have their downsides though. Bitcoin is embroiled in a civil war caused by its scaling problem. Both sides know that a “fork” (an update to the code which runs the Bitcoin blockchain) is required for the currency to survive in the long-term, but the debate centers on whether a “hard” or “soft” fork is the optimal solution. A hard fork would split the code to effectively create a new blockchain with an increased block size, which would solve the scaling problem but make the “new” Bitcoin incompatible with the old. The alternative, a “soft fork”, known as Segregated Witness or SegWit, has been proposed as a way to increase the block capacity without splitting the code.
Opponents of SegWit have two concerns. The practical opposition is that the soft fork would not increase transaction speeds significantly enough to maintain Bitcoin’s lead in the cryptocurrency landscape. The philosophical opposition is that SegWit would undermine Bitcoin’s purpose: to be a decentralized alternative to fiat currencies, immune to political influence.
SegWit developer Peter Wuille addressed Bitcoin’s scaling problem by devising a method to “segregate” the transaction signature from the input data: the signatures used to validate transactions can be stored separately from the blockchain, increasing the chain’s capacity to store more data and process transactions more rapidly. The trouble is that this requires the signatures to be overseen by the Bitcoin Foundation, which some see as effectively “centralizing” control of the currency. To many, this stands in diametric opposition to the ideals Bitcoin was founded on – but is that really true?
In 2008, a mysterious figure known as Satoshi Nakamoto released a paper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”. In the 9-page whitepaper, the pseudonymous author (or authors) defines the technologies which make the blockchain possible, using an innovative proof-of-work scheme which solved the double spending problem by timestamping transactions into a public ledger on a peer-to-peer network. This allowed, for the first time, a fully automated and decentralized currency and laid the technological foundation for all cryptocurrencies today.
In the introduction to the whitepaper, Nakamoto writes:
“Commerce on the Internet has come to rely almost exclusively on financial institutions serving as trusted third parties to process electronic payments. While the system works well enough for most transactions, it still suffers from the inherent weaknesses of the trust based model. (…) What is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party. Transactions that are computationally impractical to reverse would protect sellers from fraud, and routine escrow mechanisms could easily be implemented to protect buyers.”
That is about as political as the paper gets. Nakamoto describes Bitcoin as a technological innovation which simplifies e-commerce transactions and security, without contextualizing it within an anarchic political frame. While in 2008 a lack of faith in fiat currencies was definitely part of the conversation among the early adopters of Bitcoin, the developer(s) of the blockchain chose not to define it in those terms.
If Bitcoin was not intended to stand in explicit opposite to fiat currencies, but was simply envisioned as a more modern and robust payment technology, is SegWit incompatible with its original intention? Technically, SegWit would change the fundamental design of the blockchain by separating the transaction data from the proof-of-work, which means the possessors of the proof-of-work would take on the role of a “trusted third party” – which is exactly what Nakamoto set out to eliminate in the development of Bitcoin.
On the other hand, if SegWit could be implemented in such a way that the proof-of-work is also a fully automated chain, operating in parallel to the blockchain and communicating with it, this would theoretically achieve the same results as the whitepaper envision, but with an updated design.
A Hard Fork
The alternative, the “hard fork”, would retain the fundamental design as laid out in the 2008 paper, with the only difference being to increase the capacity of the individual blocks in the chain. Currently, these 10-minute blocks are limited to a maximum size of 1MB, but Bitcoin has become so popular that it can no longer process all the transactions made within any given 10-minute period, creating a backlog.
The existence of this problem suggests that Nakamoto never dreamed Bitcoin would become so popular, but many investors believe this is still only the beginning. So far this year, the price of 1 BTC has already tripled and some analysts have gone so far as to make value estimates as high as $55,000 USD per coin by 2022. On paper, Bitcoin’s technology is ingenious, but can a truly decentralized currency really handle this level of popularity?
The debate over the hard or soft fork has made Bitcoin highly volatile in recent months, with optimistic investors doubling down on their stock and the more wary exchanging their Bitcoin for other altcoins such as Ether. And it’s no secret that when the inevitable fork happens the coin’s value will drop significantly in the short term as the new chain is tested and the old is abandoned, which raises a different perspective on whether Bitcoin has lived up to its promise. Bitcoin’s popularity is often credited to its position as an alternative to fiat currencies, which have lost trust due to the high level of geopolitical turmoil during the last decade. But if Bitcoin after almost 10 years still shows no sign of stability comparable to fiat currencies, can it really be considered more secure?
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