A funny thing happened in the second half of 2018. At some moment, all the people active in crypto looked around and realized there weren’t very many of us. The friends we’d convinced during the last holiday season were no longer speaking to us. They had stopped checking their Coinbase accounts. The tide had gone out from the beach. Tokens and blockchains were supposed to change the world; how come nobody was using them?
In most cases, still, nobody is using them. In this respect, many crypto projects have succeeded admirably. Cryptocurrency’s appeal is understood by many as freedom from human fallibility. There is no central banker, playing politics with the money supply. There is no lawyer, overseeing the contract. Sometimes it feels like crypto developers adopted the defense mechanism of the skunk. It’s working: they are succeeding at keeping people away.
Some now acknowledge the need for human users, the so-called “social layer,” of Bitcoin and other crypto networks. That human component is still regarded as its weakest link. I’m writing to propose that crypto’s human component is its strongest link. For the builders of crypto networks, how to attract the right users is a question that should come before how to defend against attackers (aka, the wrong users). Contrary to what you might hear on Twitter, when evaluating a crypto network, the demographics and ideologies of its users do matter. They are the ultimate line of defense, and the ultimate decision-maker on direction and narrative.
What Ethereum got right
Since the collapse of The DAO, no one in crypto should be allowed to say “code is law” with a straight face. The DAO was a decentralized venture fund that boldly claimed pure governance through code, then imploded when someone found a loophole. Ethereum, a crypto protocol on which The DAO was built, erased this fiasco with a hard fork, walking back the ledger of transactions to the moment before disaster struck. Dissenters from this social-layer intervention kept going on Ethereum’s original, unforked protocol, calling it Ethereum Classic. To so-called “Bitcoin maximalists,” the DAO fork is emblematic of Ethereum’s trust-dependency, and therefore its weakness.
There’s irony, then, in maximalists’ current enthusiasm for narratives describing Bitcoin’s social-layer resiliency. The story goes: in the event of a security failure, Bitcoin’s community of developers, investors, miners and users are an ultimate layer of defense. We, Bitcoin’s community, have the option to fork the protocol—to port our investment of time, capital and computing power onto a new version of Bitcoin. It’s our collective commitment to a trust-minimized monetary system that makes Bitcoin strong. (Disclosure: I hold bitcoin and ether.)
Even this narrative implies trust—in the people who make up that crowd. Historically, Bitcoin Core developers, who maintain the Bitcoin network’s dominant client software, have also exerted influence, shaping Bitcoin’s road map and the story of its use cases. Ethereum’s flavor of minimal trust is different, having a public-facing leadership group whose word is widely imbibed. In either model, the social layer abides. When they forked away The DAO, Ethereum’s leaders had to convince a community to come along.
You can’t believe in the wisdom of the crowd and discount its ability to see through an illegitimate power grab, orchestrated from the outside. When people criticize Ethereum or Bitcoin, they are really criticizing this crowd, accusing it of a propensity to fall for false narratives.
How do you protect Bitcoin’s codebase?
In September, Bitcoin Core developers patched and disclosed a vulnerability that would have enabled an attacker to crash the Bitcoin network. That vulnerability originated in March, 2017, with Bitcoin Core 0.14. It sat there for 18 months until it was discovered.
There’s no doubt Bitcoin Core attracts some of the best and brightest developers in the world, but they are fallible and, importantly, some of them are pseudonymous. Could a state actor, working pseudonymously, produce code good enough to be accepted into Bitcoin’s protocol? Could he or she slip in another vulnerability, undetected, for later exploitation? The answer is undoubtedly yes, it is possible, and it would be naïve to believe otherwise. (I doubt Bitcoin Core developers themselves are so naïve.)
Why is it that no government has yet attempted to take down Bitcoin by exploiting such a weakness? Could it be that governments and other powerful potential attackers are, if not friendly, at least tolerant towards Bitcoin’s continued growth? There’s a strong narrative in Bitcoin culture of crypto persisting against hostility. Is that narrative even real?
The social layer is key to crypto success
Some argue that sexism and racism don’t matter to Bitcoin. They do. Bitcoin’s hodlers should think carefully about the books we recommend and the words we write and speak. If your social layer is full of assholes, your network is vulnerable. Not all hacks are technical. Societies can be hacked, too, with bad or unsecure ideas. (There are more and more numerous examples of this, outside of crypto.)
Not all white papers are as elegant as Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin white paper. Many run over 50 pages, dedicating lengthy sections to imagining various potential attacks and how the network’s internal “crypto-economic” system of incentives and penalties would render them bootless. They remind me of the vast digital fortresses my eight-year-old son constructs in Minecraft, bristling with trap doors and turrets.
I love my son (and his Minecraft creations), but the question both he and crypto developers may be forgetting to ask is, why would anyone want to enter this forbidding fortress—let alone attack it? Who will enter, bearing talents, ETH or gold? Focusing on the user isn’t yak shaving, when the user is the ultimate security defense. I’m not suggesting security should be an afterthought, but perhaps a network should be built to bring people in, rather than shut them out.
The author thanks Tadge Dryja and Emin Gün Sirer, who provided feedback that helped hone some of the ideas in this article.