On The Many Deaths of Bitcoin | Vol. 3 / No. 12.3

Dead again | Photo: Jo Naylor (original), CC BY 2.0
Dead again | Photo: Jo Naylor (original), CC BY 2.0

In which I discuss the present goings-on in Bitcoin.


It’s a little hard to explain to people what goes on in the Bitcoin world. Maybe it’s because, as a good friend once told me (paraphrasing Sayre), the reason everyone’s so upset is because so little is at stake.

When you really get into it, in the online forums and the billion-dollar industry, Bitcoin can seem like the future of the world hangs on the life (or “death”) of the still fledgling currency. Bitcoin has “died” 89 times now, and even if number 90 really is “death” for the currency — if everyone abandons it, throws in the towel, the exchanges all close, and nobody ever uses it again; if the price tanks from the current $350-$450US range to mere pennies — the world will not substantially change. The technologies that proved cryptocurrencies were feasible have been proven to work: cryptographically-signed shared ledgers, proof-of-work algorithms, and a host of other useful, ephemeral ideas are all loose in the world and transforming things behind the scenes, with or without Bitcoin. And if Bitcoin collapses for some reason or other, another cryptocurrency will be designed to replace it — hell, there are already others in the marketplace that might boom in Bitcoin’s hypothetical bust. Some people will lose money, some people will gain, but in general, if Bitcoin “dies” it won’t change much in the grand scheme of things.

Right now in the Bitcoin world, there are a few groups of people that are very angry with one another. That’s because they all want Bitcoin to succeed (very badly, in fact) and they disagree with what changes should be made as it grows. These are mostly programmers, giving their free time to a project they love. For them, what’s at stake is their pride.

You see, the direction Bitcoin goes in is subject to vote — and not quite democratically, either. The bigger players — the miners and the Bitcoin services industry (companies like Coinbase and Circle, for instance) — have more “pull,” and where they go, the Blockchain follows. One potential (and now potentially defunct) proposal, dubbed Bitcoin XT, popped up a few months ago and garnered around ten percent support (if you judge by hash power, anyway). The group of programmers who had been contributing the most code to the Bitcoin software, dubbed the Bitcoin core developers (and later the Bitcoin Core developers) saw this as a kind of thankless mutiny and some even went to great lengths to prevent discussion about it on some of the more popular online forums. But maybe they needn’t have bothered. Other solutions were offered from within and without the Core community — some were lauded, some derided — but even now nothing’s been actually done.

Right now, there’s another potential offering in the works that seems to have, by some indications, a whole lot of support. Over 70% by one estimate. It’s not a big change, 2MB blocks instead of 1MB, but it’s not being done the way the Bitcoin Core folks like (it’s a hard fork) and that’s made some of them quite upset. One, Mark Friedenbach (/u/maaku), has said he’ll quit contributing if the change is made this way. Another, Mike Hearn, one of the voices behind XT, quit back in December. Tensions are high, because they care. A lot.

The constant infighting has dampened people’s spirits, but I don’t think it’ll kill the community, and I don’t think it’ll kill Bitcoin. Over a hundred thousand people are subscribed to /r/Bitcoin, and thousands of others are subscribed to different forums. At this point, I can’t imagine any change to Bitcoin scaring off that many people.

But maybe it will. If it does, then we’ll say goodbye to Bitcoin, thank it for its service — and thank all the contributors for theirs — and work on something new. Bitcoin or not, cryptocurrencies and their associated technologies are here to stay.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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