Rocket ships and the parable of the desert island

published Jan 31, 2016

An allegory by my coideary Erik Voorhees. I'm preserving it here for archival purposes, and you should read it for edification purposes.

This morning I awoke to a post from /u/nullc describing how Bitcoin is dissimilar to a centralized payment network (he's right about that). Bitcoin is not Visa, even with 1GB blocks.

The analogy is made to a rocket ship with multiple stages, or layers. Each layer is important, and not all features or functions can be squished down into one layer. I am not an engineer, but I understand and respect this principle. I don't believe the base Bitcoin protocol can (or should try) to handle Visa throughput. Bitcoin is built to be the foundation of a decentralized financial system, not a high-capacity payment network. /u/nullc is correct about this.

And sure, Bitcoin can be appropriately thought of as a rocket, bound for the moon. We need brilliant engineers to build it. It takes a long time, the stakes are high, and design shouldn't be left to the crowd. Multiple stages and layers are needed, absolutely.

I'd like to consider another analogy, not of Bitcoin as a machine/rocket, but of the community which supports and builds it...

Let's imagine a desert island, with a crowd of survivors from some shipwreck or airplane crash (think of the opening scene from Lost). We, the Bitcoin community, are perhaps like that crowd. To get off the island, to succeed, we'll need to build a boat (or a rocket?). We'll need to work together. We have different skills, perspectives, and certainly different temperaments. Few of us knew each other before we arrived here, yet we find ourselves in close quarters, all with the shared vision of escape and all slightly terrified of failing.

And there is so much work to be done.

Consider that, even to survive for a while while we build our escape vessel, some prerequisite activities must be pursued. Food must be found. Water. Shelter. We must tend to the wounded. We'll need to seek out and collect raw resources, and form teams for construction. We disavow monarchs, so we must nurture social consensus and decentralized judgement.

Now, consider in the early days of this scenario, there might be significant controversy. Perhaps there is heavy disagreement on whether we should secure a source of clean water, or build shelter first. Maybe a violent storm is coming. A well can be dug, but only with the majority helping. A shelter can be built, but again only with the majority's effort.

At first, those who believe water is most important (call them TeamWater) and those who believe shelter is most important (call them TeamShelter) debate over the merits of each. They engage in civil debate, they are polite. They try to convince the other of the preeminence of their project. Unfortunately, neither is able to convince the other. Soon, bickering, squabbling, distrust of one another takes over from the previously rational conversation. Each team thinks the other must have bad motives, for how could they be so blind? Obviously, water is needed first. Obviously, shelter before the storm is paramount. Who sent these guys? Who do they work for? Why are they trying to sabotage us? They must be either idiots, or intentionally trying to destroy our chances of survival. They are not like us. They are the enemy. We are so vastly different, we must fight and diminish them.

Factions form, and become entrenched. Soon, the groups aren't even talking with each other. Meanwhile, thirst grows, while the storm draws nearer.

TeamWater, knowing itself to be correct, proceeds to dig the well. But they keep getting distracted. Shouts from TeamShelter are incessant. Several of TeamWater's best engineers spend half their time trying to keep TeamShelter from interfering with them. Whenever TeamShelter brings up their concern, which has been repeated so often, they are told, "Look, water is essential for life. If we don't have water, we will all die, and the storm won't matter. Let us dig this well." TeamShelter accuses them of elitism, of not paying attention to the looming storm. "Look how many people think shelter is important! The storm is almost here!"

Then, one of TeamShelter freaks out, writes a blog post, dismissing the entire effort, saying it has failed, and runs into the ocean never to be seen again.

Things turn darker. The incident frightens some from TeamShelter. They genuinely worry that if TeamWater maintains its stubborn hold on the group, everyone may indeed be doomed. Several people huddle together, and decide they're going to go off and find shelter on their own. They are going to split the group. It's contentious.

"You fools!" says TeamWater, "Don't you know how dangerous that is? Who knows what is out in that forest, there could be monsters. We would all need to go together, and it needs careful planning."

"Okay, then." TeamShelter says, "Will you promise to come with us to gather materials for shelter after the well is done?"


"Will you guys help us build the shelter after the water is finished?"



"This is not a democracy," TeamWater says, "We will not be swayed by public opinion. We are engineers, and we think the well is important, so we will continue building it. Gathering materials for shelter is very risky."

"Well okay, but we WILL build shelter, right?" TeamShelter asks.

"We've calculated that water is most important, so that's what we're doing." TeamWater counters.

"Okay, and then after that, shelter?"

"Getting the shelter will be risky. Right now, we need water." TeamWater reminds them. Insults fly. Tempers flare.

"Guys, we're talking past each other and it isn't very productive. We just need to know that, after the well, we can expect to go get some shelter. We know the shelter won't be permanent. We know it won't solve all our problems. We know it won't make us as efficient as Visa. We know there are risks out to there in obtaining it. We know water is important, too, but when the $%*# are we getting shelter?"

"Water is most important, please stop bothering us. We are engineers."

And both groups huddle down in their sandy trenches. Thirsty, cold, and angry with each other. The well proceeds slowly, subject to constant heckling and distraction.

TeamWater, while correct in its assessment of the importance of water, has been myopic. Focused on building the well, and confident in its engineering acumen, it has ignored, to the peril of everyone, the importance of simple social cohesion. "We shouldn't have to be babysitters. We are not a PR company. It's not our fault if the masses can't understand the importance of the well," they say.

It is, as so common with human enterprise, an instance of missing the forest for the trees. Such benefit could be had, at such minimal cost, by simply looking up, recognizing the genuine worry and desire of the group for shelter, and waylaying their concerns.

"Yes, we know shelter is important," TeamWater could so easily say, "Your fear of the impending storm is valid. Help us with this well, and we'll then join you in the search for shelter. It's dangerous, so we need to be thoughtful, but we want shelter too and we'll get to it once this well is ready. Let's help each other."

Yes, let's help each other. Is that such an alien request? Is that so far out of the scope of an engineer's plans?

All that is required is a little humility, a little empathy, and indeed something that all engineers should have natively, a little reason... for a rocket ship is unlikely to ever be built if its team sits in disarray, unwilling to seize such considerable social benefit at such mere cost.

Erik Voorhees

Source: Reddit.