On Consensus: The Good, Bad & Ugly of ‘Consensus Maximalism’ for Open-Source Blockchains

When first introduced to bitcoin I experienced an epiphany of sorts in realizing I didn’t understand what money was. One of my first assignments was to educate myself on what makes money money. This gave me a new understanding and appreciation for bitcoin and blockchain technology as a whole.

I believe the Bitcoin, Ethereum, and open-source blockchain communities are collectively suffering from a similar ignorance revolving around the idea of consensus. I call this affliction ‘consensus maximalism’ and hope this post can help shed light on this issue and share a different perspective on this concept.

Beating-Corruption-by-Building-Consensus-459x240

Only known photo of the world’s earliest blockchain.


 

Defining the Term

Merriam-Webster provides 2 variations of the primary definition for the term consensus. They are as follows:

consensus:

a :  general agreement

b :  the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned

Most notable about these definitions is neither includes any reference to absolute agreement. In lieu of absolute, total, or complete the definitions contain the terms general and most. This is a common oversight. I’ve observed this misunderstanding frequently in the Bitcoin and Ethereum space … I call it ‘consensus maximalism’.

Consensus Maximalism vs. Consensus in the Real World

I would define ‘consensus maximalism’ as the belief that to reach consensus there must be absolute agreement by all parties as to the best path forward. The fallacy is this level of rigidity would make any real-world consensus relatively impossible. Real progress requires a real-world definition of consensus.

Dr. John Toussaint, a former doctor & CEO, leadership guru and author famous for his contributions to organizational transformation work in the healthcare space was the first to bring to my attention that consensus is most often never about reaching full agreement. It is best described by the following excerpt:

…synthesizing the wisdom of all the participants into the best decision possible at the time. When you consent to a decision, you are giving your permission to the group to go ahead with the decision. You may disagree with the decision, but based on listening to everyone else’s input, all the individuals agree to let the decision go forward, because the decision is the best one the entire group can achieve at the current time.

After all, the term is rooted by the word ‘consent’. Very few systems, organizations, or communities have ever reached unanimous agreement on any decision. They always require a minority to ‘consent’ to moving forward in spite of their views for the benefit of the majority. Participants often have the option to ‘exit’ should their convictions be strong enough.

The Irony of Consensus Algorithms

The reality is that even in distributed systems consensus is never 100% at any time. This is displayed by orphaned blocks, alternatives cryptocurrencies, and of course hard forks. It is the great irony of this space that the communities supporting these systems struggle so greatly to achieve consensus in their effort to innovate upon consensus-mechanisms (blockchains).

The Good

In my view, as with many things in life, there is likely a smaller minority of ‘consensus maximalists’ who act as the squeaky wheels. This is not to say that this is all bad. In fact I believe it has some great benefits including:

  1. Increasing the difficulty to change highly distributed protocols with larger consensus pools (Bitcoin Core’s relative conservatism as an example)
  2. Encouraging outliers & dissenters with great conviction to ‘exit’ or support minority forks for communities & protocols. This drives creativity & innovation. (Every alt-coin ever)

The Bad

It stagnates progress to the limits of acceptance encouraging participants to ‘exit’. Nothing is more painful then being in the deadlocked state of consensus failure. Be it the decision as to where to go to dinner…

You: “I want to eat out … where would you like to go?”

Partner: “I don’t know, nothing sounds good.”

You: “Ugh… I don’t even want to bother.”

…or the debate on how to scale the world’s most promising blockchain.

The Ugly

The failure to reach consensus often blinds the minority participants from the shared purpose/goal of the entire population. Gun controls a good example of this. Nobody wants mass shootings but many people have strongly held opinions as to how to impact the problem… The ugly reality is as a result many of these camps end up fighting one another rather than focussing on actual experiments/solutions.

This unfortunate reality has reared its ugly head several times in recent years … examples including the bitcoin blocksize debate and the DAO / Ethereum hard fork.

The Good News

One benefit that blockchains have is the almost instant ability for those that do not consent with the path forward to fork. Ultimately anyone supporting or interacting with the longest chain should have nothing to complain about… by doing so they are ‘consenting‘ to the decisions of the majority of hashpower.

 

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OneName: The Bridge Between Physical & Digital Identity

distributedidentity

Someday this service may be the most important form of identification you posses —  with the potential to combine and exceed the utility of your driver’s license, passport and social security card. It has the potential to be the disruptive bridge between physical identity and a truly secure & private digital identity — all thanks to the blockchain.

The service I am referring to is OneName — a blockchain-dependent business in its infancy that I believe is currently one of the most underrated startups in the space. You may find regard for a small startup bold — especially one launching amongst a class of rocket ships like Coinbase, BitPay, Blockchain and Ethereum. Maybe it is — but here’s why I believe recognizing such potential is just common sense.


So, What is OneName Again?

onenameSelf-described as your “digital passport around the web” OneName is an identity service that utilizes verification of multiple social-media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Github, etc.) to establish compounded trust in identity. Furthermore, established accounts provide integration with bitcoin wallets so that you can use this account in lieu of complex and seemingly unverified bitcoin wallet addresses — it makes sending bitcoins easier and seemingly less risky. Here’s a link to my account: (note the verification of multiple social media accounts, twitter-like profile page, and “Send Bitcoins” button)

https://onename.com/ryanwalker

On the back end, Onename utilizes the NameCoin blockchain. Namecoin is a fork of the bitcoin blockchain that has is its own alt coin — it is the first to have implemented merged mining and a promising decentralized DNS. Namecoin_Logo(It is worth noting here that OneName is a Y-Combinator graduate that has received over $1.5 million in venture funding.)


Why Should I Care?

OK Ryan — I get it. It’s a blockchain-based identity registry. Why should I care and how is this any different than the other accounts I register on the web?

Like all blossoming blockchain-related innovations the magic is in decentralization and the benefits associated with it. By utilizing blockchain technology OneName gives users the ability to establish their digital identity independently — that is without the required trust of a second party to safely manage their account information. While the Googles, Facebooks, Twitters, and LinkedIns of the world battle to be the primary login authorization for websites — OneName will quietly establish themselves as the most viable option for users to own secure and private authorization identities without the trust of big-social media. It is an option that empowers every user of the internet with the ability to operate as themselves while maintaining privacy and control of their data — users FTW!


Oh – Cool. What are the Implications?

This is where things get interesting — and where I will indulge myself a little and in the spirit of Conan O’Brian look ahead to what things will be like “In the Year 2000”.

First – I’d like to address the concern of having a ‘single point of failure’. Utilizing one single log-in to manage a host of personal information and accounts (an entire digital identity if you will) seems risky — that’s because traditionally IT IS risky. That being said – one immediate risk that is voided by using OneName is that of a trusted second-party. By owning your account information you immediately mitigate a large portion of risk and take accountability for your own information and access. Furthermore – authorization technologies and multi-signature technologies are advancing quickly. It will not be long before decentralized account access and login could be dependent on a variety of signatures. By multi-signature I mean the requirement of multiple access keys (like with nuclear bombs in old movies). Imagine a future where your login is not only dependent upon the weak password you’ve been using for all accounts since you were 12 years old (i.g. MadNugs1984) but a host of unique identifiers such as; 2-Factor Authentication, voice recognition, biological ID & markers, fingerprints, heartbeat, geotagged coordinates, etc. I’m a believer that the problem of compromised accounts will soon be solved. With that addressed… let’s move on….

The future implications of decentralized blockchain-based identity are significant as it will allow users heightened degrees of security and privacy while navigating the digital landscape. Complementary innovations abound (examples being cryptocurrencies, the internet of things, decentralized autonomous organizations, advanced reputation systems, etc.) that foreshadow synergies likely to emerge in which decentralized blockchain-based identity services (distributed identity services such as OneName) hold even greater utility.

While OneNames humble beginnings are tied to social media accounts – there is no reason a more mature platform couldn’t use more concrete credentials to establish identity. Here are some examples of these use-cases:

  • OneName linked to Social Security Number: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted social security information to a OneName account could eventually use their OneName account to verifiably vote on a blockchain-based election platform. Imagine voting in 2020 via the “blockchain option”.
  • OneName linked to Insurance Information: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted smart-insurance policy (maybe stored on the future Ethereum blockchain) could arrive for treatment at a hospital and automatically have all charges and costs verified against their policy before treatment in a single second — all by just swiping their phone and logging in.
  • OneName linked to Passport: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted passport information could be recognized as less of a risk than other travelers. They might received ‘fast-lane’ treatment as their physical passport would no longer need to be verified. Just confirm that you retina signature for your passport is in fact your with an eye-scan and move along please sir or madame.
  • OneName linked to Driver’s License: A user who voluntarily linked their secure & encrypted drivers license to their account could ensure that their car doesn’t start unless their OneName key is present in the car. No more stealing my car – unless you can pick it up.

Of course – this is just me riffing on some examples — and I’m more than 100% certain these aren’t even the best of what folks out there are already coming up with and experimenting with. Beyond the individual – OneName could also serve as the identifier for the Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (or devices) of the future — providing a verifiable and trusted reputation layer. I won’t even go into this here…

In conclusion — I foresee OneName or an equivalent becoming the single bridge between physical and digital identify. A host of trends in technology and society point towards civilization expanding further into the digital landscape, a place where secure, trusted and private identity will be essential. With that said — you might consider heading over to http://www.onename.com and claiming your name now — especially if your a Jonathan Smith or Sarah Johnson.

Mega Bit-Billions (my original DAO idea)

When I first became enthralled with bitcoin and decentralization one of my immediate (and likely not 100% original) ideas was the creation of a decentralized Mega-Millions Powerball. OK, OK, gambling isn’t the killer app bitcoins been waiting for, I get it. That being said, what bitcoin has the potential to do in many cases is completely co-opt the obviously immoral elements of society we all accept on a daily basis… enter predatory state promoted gambling rackets… and re-align their benefactors to worthy recipients.

UPDATE: After receiving some feedback on the post I think it is worth noting a more clear description of what a decentralized autonomous lottery would look like. This would be a completely decentralized application that could run autonomous of any specific owner. There would be no individual or company that actually collects funds or has the ability to redistribute them. The program would be open-source, would sell the “tickets” itself, generate randomized winning numbers and distribute the winnings completely on it’s own.

When I was a teenager landscaping in New England we had a fun game that added a little “spice” into the monotony of mowing lawns for 12 hours a day (May through September). We called it “SCRATCH TICKET FEVER!!!!!!” – feel the burn… My landscaping buddies and I salivated for gas-up stops to refill the mowers because it meant we had yet another opportunity to hit it big and win $50 to spend towards next weekends (or evenings) beer money. Practical. Reasonable. Human.

A reality for any privileged New England kid making money to have some fun. The sad reality – in full retrospection – is the very premise of state-backed gambling is immoral and ludicrous. Yes – it’s a free world and we are all responsible for our own decisions. That being said, we’ve likely all been sitting at a gas station waiting for our tank to fill while watching some poor desperate soul sitting in a shitty brokedown Chrysler Lebaron fidgeting at a small paper card with a small coin – a far cry from the “SCRATCH TICKET FEVER” that elevated my summer weekdays in high school.

So how do we justify this predatory practice – the targeting of our societies most needy and desperate citizens for a “one-in-a-million” circus of irresponsibility? Taxes of course. In 2010 state coffers benefited from the lottery to the tune of $17 billion. (source).

Welp – lets do away with that quick and easy. Please – someone…. anyone… design the following:

  • Decentralized Autonomous Open-Source Mega-Bit-Millions
  • Give 99% of revenues to the winner (or some relatively equivalent %)
  • Give 1% (or some relatively equivalent %) to a charity
  • The benefiting charity is decided by a decentralized “reddit style” up-voting pool portal where verified charities can enter their hand for a chance at the percentage. (maybe we promote specific charities that promote the poor / less-foruntate / disparaged and actually discourage gambling)

I would be the first to roll the dice every single week if I knew that I was gambling on a platform that actually fought the evil our states justify on a daily basis for the purpose of taxes. Imagine a decentralized autonomous organization that actually functioned for the sole purpose of eventually destroying itself. (a gambling platform awarding proceeds to anti-gambling / impoverished charities)

Big Money! Big Money! Big Money! No Whammies!!!!!