Gavin Andresen on the Block Size: “It’s Hard to Find a Signal above All the Noise”

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Bitcoin XT Developer and Bitcoin Foundation Chief Scientist Gavin Andresen was interviewed on Epicenter Bitcoin earlier this week, with the conversation mainly revolving around concepts related to Bitcoin governance. Development of Bitcoin Core has somewhat slowed recently due to the lack of a clear process for reaching development decisions, which is at least part of the reason Andresen joined Mike Hearn’s Bitcoin XT project.

Reaching consensus is a terribly difficult task when there are so many different individuals involved in a distributed system, such as Bitcoin, which is why Epicenter Bitcoin co-host Brian Fabian Crain asked Andresen about who should have a say in changes made to the protocol.

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Everybody Should Have a Say

Andresen believes that everyone should be able to have their say through the various communication channels available to them. During the interview, he noted:

“I think everybody should have a say. It’s hard to balance letting everybody speak and not just being drowned out by the noise. If you look on Reddit, anybody can speak there and talk about whatever issue about Bitcoin they care about. It’s hard to find a signal above all the noise. I don’t think it’s impossible, and I think it is fairly clear what the consensus on Reddit is about the blocksize issue. But it’s hard to find more than a high-level, ‘We think something should be done about this issue.’ When it gets down into the details of exactly what should be done, I think then it gets even harder.”

While allowing everyone to participate in the debate is nice in theory, it becomes difficult to find a solution on a social media platform that is well-known for jumping to conclusions and quickly pulling out pitchforks. In reality, there is a smaller subset of Bitcoin companies, miners and developers who have more pull in the Bitcoin network than the average user. As Andresen explained:

“Who should have the influence? It really comes down to what code are people running and how influential are the people running the code?”

Some Bitcoin Users are More Equal Than Others

After explaining that some Bitcoin users are more influential than others, Andresen began to describe the roles those users play in the Bitcoin ecosystem. He started with exchanges:

“Exchanges are incredibly influential at this stage of Bitcoin’s life. Exchanges are a place where a lot of trading is done. Right now, there’s a lot of speculation; exchanges are where that speculation happens. So what the exchanges want to do matters a lot.”

Speculative trading is still one of the main use cases for bitcoin right now, and anyone who uses an exchange, such as Bitfinex or Coinbase, is subject to the code that the exchange chooses to run on their own servers (as long as the user keeps his or her coin on the trading platform). Of course, users still have the ability to switch to another provider if they don’t agree with the codebase chosen by a particular exchange, but many users of bitcoin banks are also not overly interested in the code running on the server.

Andresen also pointed to the importance of mining pools:

“Miners are also very influential — and more than miners, the mining pools that pool together miners are very influential. So I think they have a big influence and a big voice in what happens.”

Miners control the security of the network, but they’ll also want to run the code that will be the most profitable option for them. If a hypothetical hard fork were to take place and split Bitcoin into two different networks, miners would be incentivized to mine on the blockchain with the more valuable coin. This is one of the reasons that the Satoshi Nakamoto Institute’s Daniel Krawisz believes investors are ultimately in charge of Bitcoin.

When it comes to the average user, Andresen conceded, “It’s harder for them to have a huge influence.”

Who Does Andresen Listen To?

Gavin Andresen also described his own thinking process when it comes to figuring out what he should work on next. The Bitcoin Foundation chief scientist explained that he tries to keep the desires of all bitcoin stakeholders in mind before deciding on his next move:

“The people who have the biggest voices right now are the developers, the exchanges and the mining pools. Those are the three biggest players. I like to think that, as a developer, I try to listen to all the stakeholders. I try to listen to what long-term bitcoin holders want, what people who are actually transacting with Bitcoin want, [and] what the companies like BitPay who are supporting merchants want. And try to balance all those things when I think about what am I personally going to be working on as I write code, as I submit pull requests, [or] as I decide what pull requests I’m going to review? I try to channel everybody to prioritize what I work on, and I think all of the other developers do that, too. We probably have different opinions on what’s important to work on next.”

Andresen is on the technical advisory board of a few exchanges and merchant processors, so that’s how he keeps in touch with the concerns at those companies. He also mentioned bitcointalk.org and Reddit as the two best channels for discussion on changes to Bitcoin by ordinary users — at least for now.

Photo Mikael Altemark / Flickr (CC)

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