Another week. Another conference. Another dose of “wow – Bitcoin sure is cool.” The end of this past week was dominated by CoinDesk’s Consensus Festival, where around 17,000 people descended on Austin, the world’s hottest city (as far as I’m concerned), to learn more about crypto.
But I came early to check out a far-less-attended Bitcoin developer conference hosted by Base58 called “bitcoin++” (a clever dedication to the purist computer scientist’s favorite computer language, C++). If you didn’t already know, I quite like developers. I wrote about them twice (here and here); here goes thrice.
This week, I want to lay out what I thought were the three most important things from the conference since I’m fairly certain you – dear reader – weren’t there. Based on the scheduled talks and ad hoc conversations I had during downtime, those important things were: 1) Lightning, 2) design and 3) education.
That (and maybe more) below …
– George Kaloudis
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I’d be remiss if I didn’t first give proper praise to the Base58 team for putting bitcoin++ together. Base58 is a Bitcoin education company headed up by Nifty Nei and Stakamoto. Their connections throughout the Bitcoin community, broad expertise and just plain, pure hustle allowed a non-developer like me to enjoy the conference. All said, I hope it happens again next year.
Anyway, so about those three things.
Lightning Network: Bitcoin can be peer-to-peer digital cash
I partially self-selected into these particular presentations, given where my interests lie, but many of the scheduled talks were about the Lightning Network. There were discussions about splicing (by @dusty_daemon), Amboss’ network explorer (by Thomas Jestopher), Lightning node implementation/development kits (by John Cantrell) and managing liquidity (by Nifty Nei, who so happens to be a Lightning developer by day for Blockstream). But at the periphery of these talks, I had conversations with conference attendees and they were all generally excited about Lightning.
I think there are two main reasons for that excitement. First, Lightning is trying to scale Bitcoin and Bitcoin’s inability to scale is a common (and viable) rallying cry against it. And second, it’s a fun technical problem for developers to work on in a world more willing to “move fast and break things,” a meaningful divergence from Bitcoin development, which moves at an intentionally and mind-numbingly slow pace.
Bitcoin design: Bitcoin literally has an image problem
Besides meeting Lightning developers at the conference, I also got to know an unexpected number of people who were there “exploring.” Also unexpectedly, many of them had marketing backgrounds. Expectedly, these were unexpected because I wasn’t thinking. Bitcoiners (like me) have long said that Bitcoin has a “marketing problem” because of its unapproachable user interface. The visual design of Bitcoin is generally not great.
Yes – purists love the idea of downloading beautiful code in a not-so-beautiful wrapper but, as Jarol Rodriguez called out in his aptly titled “Dark Mode” presentation at bitcoin++, uglier things are generally perceived as lower quality. Rodriguez drove that point home with screenshots of Bitcoin Core, the main software that connects machines to Bitcoin. While the code is (allegedly) beautiful, the interface is (decidedly) not.
Rodriguez thinks poor design hurts adoption, and has called for “designer-driven design, rather than developer-driven design.” While bad visual design doesn’t annoy the committed bitcoiner, it bothers the tangentially interested bitcoiner. I tend to agree. I have a sticker on my laptop that reads: “Design bitcoin for everyone” from Bitcoin Design, a free open-source community.
I tell you this not so that you think I’m cool, but rather because it’s important. If Bitcoin is supposed to be for everyone – for the 1.7 billion unbanked adults, for the 1.2 billion people living in countries with double-digit inflation, for the13% of Americans who are underbanked – it should be designed for everyone.
Bitcoin education: The more you know, the more you don’t know
Last, and most obviously, education was an important theme at bitcoin++ (it is run by an education company, after all). Many people mentioned to me that their desire “to learn” was their main reason for attending. What’s more, a well-seasoned anonymous (only because I forgot his name – it wasn’t Socrates or Plato, though) attendee told me that “the more I learn, the more I learn that I don’t know.”
There is a lot of good and bad information about Bitcoin out there. While there are 100 million bitcoiners, only a subset of that 100 million understands Bitcoin. No, not everyone needs to understand the code behind Bitcoin (I know I don’t), but understanding what the technology is trying to achieve and how it’s working to achieve it is important. Finding good information is not yet easy. That’s why there is such an aggressive (sometimes too aggressive) push by bitcoiners to educate (and shill) anyone they can about Bitcoin.
Punctuating that, two developers in attendance mentioned they were writing books about Bitcoin. Nifty is penning one about transacting with bitcoin, and Alyssa Hertig (Voltage, and frequent CoinDesk contributor) is writing one about Bitcoin governance.
Is Bitcoin Southern?
But if you’re going to take something ideological away from the newsletter, I submit this: “Bitcoin is Southern.” Like American Southern. Nifty said this to me and it felt rather profound once I peeled back some of its unsavory layers (which I will do here, because words matter).
“Bitcoin is Southern” isn’t a literal statement. Yes, there are lots of Bitcoin companies in Texas, but it’s not that. Bitcoin is rebellious. No, not rebellious in an ugly, bad way, but rebellious in a good way. Rebellious in the way that more-sparsely populated regions prefer a smaller, less overreaching government structure. The ideal where “the government is going to ruin your money, and so you buy gold” feels Southern. I grew up in the American South, and so this tracks anecdotally. And Bitcoin fits that ideal.
So, yeah, Bitcoin is for all, but it feels Southern to me.