The Great Pyramid of Egypt kept the record for the tallest man-made structure for at least 3,800 years, and its 2.3 million blocks weigh 6 million tons. The huge granite blocks that form chambers in its core weigh up to 80 tons each and are located more than 40 meters above ground level. It’s at least 4,500 years old, and even that barely conceivable age is based on surprisingly scant evidence: there’s a realistic chance it’s significantly older (do your own research, Bitcoiner, don’t trust, check).
Whoever and whenever the builders were, the physical achievement of the pyramid is undeniable. Still, the people who designed and built it are long dead. The civilization in which those individuals lived their entire lives ended millennia ago. It was ancient even to Herodotus, the Greek historian, when wrote about visiting it in 500 BC.. Countless empires of man have risen and fallen on Earth during the silent reign of this colossal proof of work. Still, it holds.
The Great Pyramid is an artificial mountain and everything in its engineering design is geared towards resilience. The conical shape of a wide base, large block size and solid construction throughout is a recipe for providing maximum stability, allowing it to reach great height and maintain it as the tallest structure in mankind for so long. Other buildings have failed in small fractions of their time frame. Wind, sand, and rain bounce harmlessly off its flanks. Even thousands of years of earthquakes at worst they have only dislodged some of the outer shell stones, which had already been looted for building materials in more modern times. The interior rooms and corridors, the key functional elements, the purpose of the entire structure, have been preserved intact.
With Bitcoin, we are also building something that we hope will outlive us all, to withstand countless attacks from man and nature. We understand the goal of providing a new global monetary system, open to all. The scope of the project and its ramifications are even more momentous than the pyramid. Instead of stone, we have code and consensus. We build in cyberspace instead of the physical world. Our monument is everywhere and nowhere, providing unique protections but also different types of vulnerabilities for which we must be vigilant and shore up where possible. Engineering design is simultaneously incredibly open (anyone can contribute to the code) and incredibly private (nobody can force a change on anyone else). This deliberately messy and entirely voluntary system supports and demands a social layer at the top to coordinate any change on a global scale away from the status quo. For the internal functionality to survive the ordeals ahead, we must target both the code layer Y the social layer for unprecedented resilience. Anything else runs the risk of failing.
The recent controversy surrounding Jeremy Rubin’s BIP119 (CTV) should alarm everyone. In principle, it’s fairly innocuous: a new operation within the Bitcoin protocol, allowing users to define strict conditions on how their own coins can be spent, potentially allowing for greater security for some users and flexibility for others. Like a soft fork, it is theoretically optional and only affects users who choose to use the new functionality. The code itself has not caught the attention of the developers. The objections come from the social layer, and it’s just as important as the code layer. Although Rubin’s intentions are probably honorable, because Bitcoin must be built to last, we must think of all suggestions for change as if they were attacks.
CTV is one proposal among many adding similar functionality, and the technical discussion is far from over as to which is the best candidate to build into the code. The market has not expressed strong demand for features that could be enabled by something like CTV. There is no critical security flaw that CTV will solve. Despite this, its defenders have pushed hard for it to be activated, arguing that – if there are no technical objections – it should go ahead, trying to imbue a sense of urgency, that the correct way to achieve social consensus is not clear and that certain people are acting as gatekeepers. Most dubious of all, the suggestion of using miner signaling to trigger the soft fork puts more control in the hands of a part of the ecosystem that has almost no relevance to the debate.
A genuine attacker could use a very similar strategy to infiltrate a vulnerability in Bitcoin. In the future, they will review how BIP119 was received and learn from it. Therefore, we must act as if it were a covert attack, regardless of reality. The strength of Bitcoin to date is due to the prevalence of the contradictory mindset. We must anticipate the moves of a future opponent before he has played his first piece. The price of security is permanent vigilance.
Bitcoin as it exists today works, and there is always room for further improvement. The construction of this monument is not yet finished, but if we want it to last, as long as we hope it will, we cannot afford to compromise. Proposals for change come and go. There will be good and bad proposals. Behind the proposals there will be bad actors and also good ones. Change should be taken as seriously as medical surgery. Each proposal must be harshly evaluated on the real need to take the risk, the benefits that success brings, the relative urgency, the details of execution. Anything less than an extremely strong reason in favor is insufficient. An extensive debate is good and healthy, but questions, uncertainties and dissatisfaction in any area should be a cause for alarm and a signal to take a step back. We must consider this system with the possibility that it will exist for centuries, if not longer. Each change threatens the unstable equilibrium and brings new maintenance costs; we must bear in mind that these costs must be paid in perpetuity by those who come after us.
One day, inevitably, a malicious actor Will they seek to undermine Bitcoin from the inside through social engineering. This could take many forms, such as creating a code change with dark and unexpected effects, or a purely social effort to turn the community against their own interests. Code is easier to audit, though those with the necessary skills must remain vigilant and those with the ability to learn must do so. The social layer is the immune system, and the choices made by node operators about the consensus rules they impose represent the last line of defense.
The system today is functional, secures and carries out transactions of billions of dollars for millions of participants. Meanwhile, the fiat world is accelerating towards the edge of the precipice. Bitcoin is the lifeboat, for us and for the rest of the world that doesn’t realize it yet. The risk of making modifications to the lifeboat should only be taken when the change is almost essential, the proposal is almost bulletproof, and receives almost universal support. The stakes are so big. We may not get a second chance.
The Egyptians did not build their monument. weather their civilization collapsed. We don’t have that same luxury.
This is a guest post by Owen Kemeys. The opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.