Bitcoin Lightning Network with Jameson Lopp

Big blocks or small blocks: this is the fundamental question of Bitcoin scalability.

The argument for big blocks is also known as “on-chain scalability.” Under this strategy, each block in the append-only chain of Bitcoin transaction blocks would grow in size to be able to support lower transaction fees and higher on-chain throughput. A set of Bitcoin users who supported this idea forked Bitcoin to create Bitcoin Cash, a version of Bitcoin that has a larger block size.

The argument for small blocks asserts that scaling Bitcoin does not require a larger block size. Under this model, the scaling demands of the Bitcoin blockchain would be handled by a lightning network. A lightning network is a network of person-to-person payment channels that only reconcile with the Bitcoin blockchain to checkpoint batches of transactions. These payment channels can be connected together to form the “lightning network.”

Lightning network is hard to implement. Implementing a lightning network requires solving real-world distributed systems problems that are unprecedented. It’s much more complicated than deploying a blockchain with larger block size.

In addition, opponents of lightning networks suggest that this will lead to a centralized banking system being constructed on top of Bitcoin.

Opponents of lightning networks fear that instead of a decentralized payments network, the world with lightning network will be a lower cost version of the present financial system, in which JP Morgan and Blockstream partner up to battle Coinbase in a centralized war for control of the unbanked.

These big blockers argue that the new banks on the lightning network will be just like the old banks–censorious of transactions and held in the domineering palms of the global financial kleptocracy.

So why bother with the lightning network approach? Why are we building this inelegant, kludgey system of off-chain, potentially centralized banking 2.0 complexity? Why not just increase the block size indefinitely and keep things simple? And even if we increased the block size today, couldn’t we still deploy lightning network in the future while appeasing the transaction volume of today?

One major reason is that growing the block size does have a cost. The bigger the block size, the more demands it places on any node that wants to maintain a record of those blocks. And if you grow the block size today, you forego the experiment of seeing whether a small block size plus lightning network could in itself handle the transaction volume of a global financial system.

The framing of “big blockers versus small blockers” is a conveniently polarized reduction of a much more granular reality. To believe that there is no subtlety between the two sides of this debate is to underestimate the number of dimensions to this argument. It’s an unfortunate side effect of rigidly programmed Twitter bots, and a political atmosphere in which your lines in the sand are demarcated by which subreddit you choose to affiliate with.

That said–my impression is that the more experienced engineers are overwhelmingly on the side of small blocks plus lightning network as the most promising approach to scaling Bitcoin. Take whatever side of the debate you want. A single line of Bitcoin core code speaks much louder than an avalanche of tweets.

In today’s episode, Jameson Lopp joins the show to explain why lightning network is an appealing engineering construct. We play the devil’s advocate and contrast lightning network with a big block approach, as well as a big block plus lightning network approach. Jameson also describes his experience working within the Ethereum ecosystem and gives a sober explanation of some of the issues that Ethereum scalers may themselves encounter.

Errata: a previous version of this post used an incorrect definition of “sidechain.” Sidechains are not directly related to lightning network.


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