Hold Tight, Here Come the Blockchain Wars

Prepare for a shakeout of blockchain projects in 2020 and the start of network-on-network conflict.

AccessTimeIconDec 12, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 11:48 a.m. UTC

This post is part of CoinDesk's 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Gavin Wood is the co-founder of Ethereum, Parity Technologies, Polkadot and the Web3 Foundation.

I don’t want to romanticize what, at the end of the day, is only a few of the many pipe-dream promises finally starting to be fulfilled. That said, I will stick a flag in the sand and state that I do believe that a renewed flurry in the world of blockchain is coming. Whether we see any knock-on effects beginning now or in twelve months’ time, there are important developments going on behind the scenes that, when translated into tangible products, will jerk the industry forward one way or another. In short, blockchain 3.0 is well on its way.

I wouldn’t exactly call this a Golden Age. There’s a bit too much baggage for that. The days of money raining from heaven before quickly being irrigated into a swampy Caymans company are, I think, over. There’s still some “dumb” money around, but there’s less of it; natural selection did its job over crypto winter. “Smart” money will undoubtedly do its homework before getting into bed with a new project. The upshot of this is threefold.

The first is that to attract the generous funding of the past, projects will need to look as though they’re actually delivering miracles rather than merely promising them. Since actually delivering stuff is hard, projects will need to start employing a hybrid approach: deliver whatever is actually possible to deliver and then fill the gap with appropriate use of stakeholder engagement, communications and marketing. The latter is hardly new, but as time goes on and projects fall short of promises (or their competitors) this gap increases and projects will need to ramp up their efforts in a kind of public-positioning arms race. Misdirection, FUD, misinformation, exaggeration, bad analogies, partisan “unbiased” reviews and bloated claims that are already prevalent will become more so.

Secondly, the natural instinct of this slightly-less-dumb capital is to pick projects with defendable moats. Monopolies make great returns for their backers. Duopolies are okay too. But an active market saturated with great teams doing awesome things is just not worth the bother. Large and vaguely strategic investors act as catalysts, unfairly popularising their own bets, sometimes against better alternatives. In other words, it’s winner-take-all. This makes the industry-wide “open-source” collaboration and technology sharing, which has characterized blockchain innovation so far, that much less likely to continue.

Consider that Silicon Valley startups are not well known for giving away the engineering secrets to their core products. Sure, Apple “open-sourced” Darwin, but it kept the real jewels of OSX for itself. Ditto Facebook. Ditto Google. Companies share what makes strategic sense to share, but that rarely means sharing the really cool stuff. The game becomes increasingly zero-sum. This is already happening to some degree in our space with numerous well-funded and research-heavy startups like StarkWare and Dfinity refusing to open up the important bits of their technology. Some are even apparently considering patents.

Finally, as the payout from the winning ticket increases and the total winners are fewer, then in a zero-sum game the participants necessarily begin to start looking at each other not as comrades or a valuable resource but as obstacles to victory, to be removed. This, sadly, doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the future.

When there is no omnipotent force of just oversight, ruthless realpolitik rules.

While there is surely some below-the-belt fighting in the corporate world, it is mostly kept in check by national governments and legal systems. Google would never dream of directly attacking Facebook’s servers to drive people to its alternative platform. Mastercard wouldn’t employ a team to find and exploit holes in the Visa protocol. The punishments for such activity would be existential. But blockchains are less like corporate entities and more like nation-states. They share core properties like nationalism (“maximalism”), currency, and sovereignty. And as we know from the news, there is a quiet cyberwar going on between the world’s powers. When there is no omnipotent force of just oversight, ruthless realpolitik rules.

And so it is between the crypto-states where the equivalent of “international law” or, more aptly, lawlessness, exists. Everything is trust-free and the choir sings “code-is-law, bugs-and-all.” If you take the view that an exploitable and obviously unintended bug, such as that used by devops199 to disable hundreds of wallets, must be considered “fair and intended use” of a platform, then it surely becomes morally permissible for one platform to actively support efforts to find—and exploit—those same bugs in competitive platforms.

While we are still in the world of Blockchain 2.0, platforms are still very much “dumb” and either ungovernable and/or governed centrally. Such attacks would need to be sponsored and coordinated by a singular major stakeholder, rich enough to fund them and ruthless enough to carry it through. Thus far, we have likely seen one or two examples of individuals or groups using their existing wealth to attack competitors and threats, but I expect it’s otherwise fairly rare. Chains themselves are unable to use the resources they have at their disposal for lack of effective, decentralised and binding governance.

But Blockchain 3.0 will change that. Platforms will become smart, amoral economic actors in and of themselves. Decisions of multi-billion-dollar platforms will be made, and be autonomously enforced, by the largely anonymous crowd that constitutes its stakeholders. As Bitcoin has demonstrated, crowd-driven decentralized crypto-systems are laws unto themselves. They cannot be imprisoned, forcibly split, fined or shut down. And so, just as full-nodes in the Bitcoin network are unaccountable for the financial service they provide, so the decision-making crowd in smart platforms will be accountable to nobody. Stakeholders will be driven only by the pure desire to see the platform succeed.

The Devcon Shanghai attacks and the EthCC Polkascan denial-of-service attacks figure as a couple of the initial instances of what might be called renegade blockchain terrorism. Yet in both cases, there was little to no real cash at stake. As smart systems operating under their own brutal rules backed by dizzying sums of money wake up and gain a form of self-awareness, existential desire will put those resources to work. Over time, governance-backed, economically-incentivized positive action will turn into outwardly-directed negative action against competitors. Initially, it will be the dumb networks that are eliminated. Blockchain “wars” will follow.

The Brave New World of blockchain is about to become a whole lot braver.


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