Lesson 18

Move slowly and don't break things

So the boat wound slowly along, beneath the bright summer-day, with its merry crew and its music of voices and laughter...
Read by Guy Swann.

It might be a dead mantra, but “move fast and break things” is still how much of the tech world operates. The idea that it doesn’t matter if you get things right the first time is a basic pillar of the fail early, fail often mentality. Success is measured in growth, so as long as you are growing everything is fine. If something doesn’t work at first you simply pivot and iterate. In other words: throw enough shit against the wall and see what sticks.

Bitcoin is very different. It is different by design. It is different out of necessity. As Satoshi pointed out, e-currency has been tried many times before, and all previous attempts have failed because there was a head which could be cut off. The novelty of Bitcoin is that it is a beast without heads.

“A lot of people automatically dismiss e-currency as a lost cause because of all the companies that failed since the 1990’s. I hope it’s obvious it was only the centrally controlled nature of those systems that doomed them.” Satoshi Nakamoto

One consequence of this radical decentralization is an inherent resistance to change. “Move fast and break things” does not and will never work on the Bitcoin base layer. Even if it would be desirable, it wouldn’t be possible without convincing everyone to change their ways. That’s distributed consensus. That’s the nature of Bitcoin.

“The nature of Bitcoin is such that once version 0.1 was released, the core design was set in stone for the rest of its lifetime.” Satoshi Nakamoto

This is one of the many paradoxical properties of Bitcoin. We all came to believe that anything which is software can be changed easily. But the nature of the beast makes changing it bloody hard.

As Hasu beautifully shows in Unpacking Bitcoin’s Social Contract, changing the rules of Bitcoin is only possible by proposing a change, and consequently convincing all users of Bitcoin to adopt this change. This makes Bitcoin very resilient to change, even though it is software.

This resilience is one of the most important properties of Bitcoin. Critical software systems have to be antifragile, which is what the interplay of Bitcoin’s social layer and its technical layer guarantees. Monetary systems are adversarial by nature, and as we have known for thousands of years solid foundations are essential in an adversarial environment.

“The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock.” [Matthew 7:25]

Arguably, in this parable of the wise and the foolish builders Bitcoin isn’t the house. It is the rock. Unchangeable, unmoving, providing the foundation for a new financial system.

Just like geologists, who know that rock formations are always moving and evolving, one can see that Bitcoin is always moving and evolving as well. You just have to know where to look and how to look at it.

The introduction of pay to script hash and segregated witness are proof that Bitcoin’s rules can be changed if enough users are convinced that adopting said change is to the benefit of the network. The latter enabled the development of the lightning network, which is one of the houses being built on Bitcoin’s solid foundation. Future upgrades like Schnorr signatures will enhance efficiency and privacy, as well as scripts (read: smart contracts) which will be indistinguishable from regular transactions thanks to Taproot. Wise builders do indeed build on solid foundations.

Satoshi wasn’t only a wise builder technologically. He also understood that it would be necessary to make wise decisions ideologically.

“Being open source means anyone can independently review the code. If it was closed source, nobody could verify the security. I think it’s essential for a program of this nature to be open source.” Satoshi Nakamoto

Openness is paramount to security and inherent in open source and the free software movement. As Satoshi pointed out, secure protocols and the code which implements them have to be open — there is no security through obscurity. Another benefit is again related to decentralization: code which can be run, studied, modified, copied, and distributed freely ensures that it is spread far and wide.

The radically decentralized nature of Bitcoin is what makes it move slowly and deliberately. A network of nodes, each run by a sovereign individual, is inherently resistant to change — malicious or not. With no way to force updates upon users the only way to introduce changes is by slowly convincing each and every one of those individuals to adopt a change. This non-central process of introducing and deploying changes is what makes the network incredibly resilient to malicious changes. It is also what makes fixing broken things more difficult than in a centralized environment, which is why everyone tries not to break things in the first place.

Bitcoin taught me that moving slowly is one of its features, not a bug.

    Down the Rabbit Hole