Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin published a blog post this week reflecting on the possible directions his creation could have taken. The piece, titled, "The roads not taken," is technical in places, but the main conclusions are easy to grasp.
Ethereum today has resulted from previous choices, decisions that were constrained by resources and “brain cycles” and implementations where sometimes it was worth waiting for perfect and other times when good enough sufficed.
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Ethereum could have been less complex, Buterin writes. Its virtual machine could have used existing code rather than a bespoke solution. Its developers could have gone with a crude version of proof-of-stake (the consensus algorithm that will eventually secure Ethereum) that existed in 2013. Ethereum could have been “more Bitcoin-like,” Buterin said, referencing that first blockchain, which aims to do one thing well – serve as a global, peer-to-peer settlements layer denominated in a secure, digital bearer-asset, BTC.
“In general, it sometimes feels to me like Ethereum's biggest challenges come from balancing between two visions – a pure and simple blockchain that values safety and simplicity, and a highly performant and functional platform for building advanced applications,” Buterin wrote.
Ethereum initially wanted to become the “world computer,” or a decentralized platform, powered by cryptocurrency to execute any conceivable application. Today, Ethereum supports a multibillion-dollar economy, attracts some of the world’s smartest computer scientists and is the wellspring from which a number of novel computer “primitives” surface.
This balancing act between elegant design and complexity is complicated by Ethereum’s being an open network. It exists so anyone with an idea and sufficient capital can build their dream applications or chase a quick buck.
Ethereum is often criticized within the crypto industry, especially by bitcoiners, for its hierarchy of developers. There are certainly people and organizations with sway over Ethereum, but the network is arguably democratic. Or, at the very least, its oligopoly exists in the open.
When Buterin speaks, people listen. Earlier this month, Time magazine ran a cover story about Buterin, where he suggested he would take a more defined leadership role going forward. “One of the decisions I made in 2022 is to try to be more risk-taking and less neutral,” Buterin said. “I would rather Ethereum offend some people than turn into something that stands for nothing.”
He’s long been critical of the many ways people abuse his machine. In 2017, he asked if the network had earned its $1 billion valuation (largely propelled by the speculative initial coin offering boom).
He is likewise skeptical now of the many decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), in which the presence of venture capitalists and self-interested actors has become the “de facto standard,” and where token-voting becomes a stand-in for plutocracy.
Some of this is the natural outcome of Ethereum “premine,” which Buterin fairly categorized as “not credibly neutral” in his recent blog. About 12 million ETH (about 10% of the total supply today) was distributed to the Ethereum Foundation and about “~100 early [protocol] contributors,'' he wrote, adding that “a few recipient addresses were hand-picked through a closed process,” and that “the premine over-rewarded very early contributors, and left too little for later contributors.”
Although the Ethereum Foundation was quickly forced to sell the majority of its stake to pay for early, continued development, the process has colored all of Ethereum’s history to date.
A revisionist view may have preferred that the ETH distribution event was managed by a DAO or kept more to pay for later development. Buterin considers both but is comfortable accepting history as it unfolded. There are some that may never accept Ethereum because of its checkered history and because of what it used for today.
All too often in the world of software, losing sight of a machine (even a virtual one’s) material circumstances is easy. But these systems, world changing as they may be, still exist.