MIT’s Cory Fields: Contentiousness in Bitcoin is Sign of Good Health

MIT’s Cory Fields: Contentiousness in Bitcoin is Sign of Good Health

By Kyle Torpey - min read
Updated 20 August 2020

Although recent media reports have claimed Bitcoin is in a crisis that could lead to the eventual demise of the technology, MIT Digital Currency Initiative member and Bitcoin Core contributor Cory Fields thinks the theoretically-immutable ledger system has never been healthier. In a recent presentation at the 2016 MIT Bitcoin Expo, Fields explained his view that the difficulties associated with making changes to Bitcoin’s consensus rules should be viewed in a positive light.

The New Social Element in the Development Process

Near the end of his presentation, Cory Fields discussed the new social element of the Bitcoin development process. He noted, “In the last year or so, a big change is that Bitcoin has gone social. Not only that, but the development process of Bitcoin has gone social.”

Fields then explained how the development process has worked in the past and contrasted it with what’s going on today. He described how the contributors to Bitcoin Core were able to operate with more autonomy in the past:

“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.”

This part of Fields’s talk is a clear reference to the pushback Bitcoin Core has received on their scalability roadmap from some entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses in the Bitcoin industry. For example, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, Blockchain CEO Peter Smith, and Bitcoin angel investor Roger Ver have all declared their support of Bitcoin Classic, which intends to change Bitcoin’s consensus rules via a hard fork in order to increase the block size limit to 2 megabytes

The BIP Process is Somewhat Breaking Down

Cory Fields also explained how the traditional system for making changes to Bitcoin is breaking down. In the past, developers could draft a Bitcoin Improvement Proposal (BIP) if they wanted to make an improvement or add a new feature to Bitcoin. Fields noted:

“[The BIP] 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.”

Essentially, parties who have been unable to gain consensus on changes from the group of developers behind Bitcoin Core are ignoring the BIP process in order to make changes to Bitcoin’s consensus rules. Instead of gaining consensus via the traditional process, proponents of a 2 MB block size limit have decided to write their own software and hope miners start using it. Once the code is run by roughly 75 percent of miners, a hard-fork-inducing change is activated on the Bitcoin network 28 days later.

Coin Dance currently estimates Bitcoin Classic’s support at roughly 6 percent of the network hashrate.

Contentiousness is Healthy

One of the last points Cory Fields made during his talk at the recent MIT Bitcoin Expo is that the difficulties associated with making changes to Bitcoin are a positive sign of the system’s overall health. He stated, “You know you have a beautifully constructed and safe system when the designers of the system can’t change it if they want to.”

Fields went on to talk about how Bitcoin is a system that was designed to resist change and influence by default. In that regard, he claimed Bitcoin has never been healthier. Taking that concept to another level, Fields said:

“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.”

Of course, there are some others, such as Bitcoin Classic developer Gavin Andresen, who say Bitcoin is too resistant to change. In the past, Andresen essentially acted as the benevolent dictator of Bitcoin. After Andresen handed the title of lead maintainer to Wladimir J. van der Laan in April 2014, the development process for Bitcoin Core has taken a more consensus-based approach.

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