Hard Forks Are Fan Fiction

If the Bitcoin network is a collectively told story, as the philosopher Craig Warmke argued, wouldn't hard forks be fan fiction?

AccessTimeIconJul 16, 2021 at 1:32 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 1:26 p.m. UTC

Bitcoin Cash is fan fiction. Or so I shall argue. So are Bitcoin SV and Ethereum (or maybe Ethereum Classic). According to writer and philosopher Craig Warmke, the Bitcoin network is a story about the movement of a fictional substance – bitcoin – across addresses. If that’s true, we can make sense of what hard forks are: They’re fan fiction of that story. And the same is true of other cryptocurrencies.

Crypto Questioned is a forum to discuss the ideas and philosophies that drive the cryptocurrency industry.Bradley Rettler is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wyoming. He is co-authoring a book on Bitcoin as a tool to resist corporate and state overreach.

Hard forks

A hard fork occurs when there’s a change in the protocol of a blockchain-based currency. But not just any change will create a hard fork. Four things need to happen. First, the changes have to be such that some blocks that are valid according to the new rules are not valid according to the old rules. Second, the new rules have to mark the old blocks as valid in order to continue the chain. Third, there must be such a block; a fork will not occur until the new version of the software adds a block that the old version wouldn’t add because it’s invalid. Fourth, there must be old versions of the software still running. If a protocol changes and expands the rules but literally everyone moves to it, then there’s no fork.

Suppose a Bitcoin hard fork has happened. We are left with two blockchains – let’s call them “A” and “B” – that share a history up to block height n but have different blocks at height n+1. It’s overwhelmingly likely, then, that A and B differ with respect to what they say about how much bitcoin is at some addresses. That is, A is saying of Bitcoin that there is a UTXO of x size at y address and B does not say that. And so, given the fixed supply of bitcoin, what B says is contradictory to what A says; there’s an implicit “That’s all” clause at the end of each blockchain, meaning that there is no bitcoin at any address that isn’t mentioned in the blockchain.

So, after a hard fork, we are almost certainly left with two blockchains that make incompatible claims about where some of the bitcoin is. Supposing that Warmke is right about the nature of Bitcoin, we should say that one of the blockchains is a fan fiction of the other one. 

Fan Fiction

Fan fiction is fiction, written by a fan, about the thing they are a fan of. There’s fan fiction for "Harry Potter," "Star Wars," "My Little Pony" and nearly every other moderately popular work of fiction you can think of. In essence, fan fiction starts from canon and then either adds to it or transforms it. That, of course, requires canon; fan fiction that starts from nothing is just fiction. The existence of a canon, then, requires rules – rules for when something is canon and when it’s not.

The rules may be about the permissible authors or about permissible content, or both. Fan fiction can become part of the canon, perhaps by an authority pronouncing it so (as in Andy Weir’s “Lucero,” a fan fiction of Ernest Cline’s novel "Ready Player One" that Cline declared to be canon). Perhaps more surprisingly, canon can also become fan fiction, as when the "Star Wars Extended Universe" was de-canonized by Disney – something it may also do with aspects of the Marvel canon.

So there must be some rules about what counts as canon. There also must be rules about what can be fan fiction. If you intend to write a "Harry Potter" fan fiction where Harry is not magical but was rather a 30-year-old dentist in America and bears no other resemblance to the stories, you haven’t written fan fiction; you’ve written fiction. It’s impossible to pin down exactly how similar the story has to be to count as fan fiction, but there must be some overlap of properties of some characters, and the fan fiction must add properties to the characters; copying a chapter from the novel verbatim doesn’t count as fan fiction.

Hard forks as fan fiction

Fan fiction comes about as a way of changing or adding to the canon by changing or adding properties that an original character didn’t have. Similarly, Bitcoin hard forks come about as a way of changing or adding to the Bitcoin blockchain by changing or adding properties to the Bitcoin protocol. 

The result in the case of fan fiction is either a story incompatible with the canon (because properties are changed) or a story about which the canon is silent (because properties are added but none are changed or removed). The fan fiction will say different things about the activities and nature of the characters than the canon does. The result in the case of Bitcoin is a blockchain that is incompatible with the canon because properties are changed. The forked blockchain will say different things about the movement of bitcoin across addresses – and thus which addresses have bitcoin and how much – than the canon.

Some fan fiction changes the story: What if Luke had been raised by Obi-Wan? What if Hermione and Luna were lovers? What if Eddard Stark had become king? Some fan fiction adds to the story, by either adding to the backstory or adding to the end: What was James and Lily Potter’s relationship like? What happened after Wade got control of the OASIS? 

Hard forks change the protocol: What if a Bitcoin block could be 2 megabytes instead of 1 megabyte? What would happen if the Bitcoin block size was 2mb AND Bitcoin never adopted SegWit? I wonder what it would be like if we let miners decide how big the blocks they mine could be … What if we tried to make it harder for application-specific integrated circuits to mine and easier for graphics processing units to mine and we pre-mined 100,000 coins?

These thoughts and ideas are incompatible with the Bitcoin canon. And so if someone starts running a protocol that changes them, they are making claims about the movement and location of bitcoin (the fictional substance) that are incompatible with the canon. They are, quite literally, fan fiction.

Some fan fictions are more popular than the originals. That is the case in cryptocurrencies, as well. ETH is a hard fork from ETC that restored stolen ETH to those from whom it was stolen; ETC kept building on the chain that kept the block with the stolen transactions. In this case, at least by market cap, people prefer the hard fork. That is (if I’m right), they prefer the fan fiction. 

But maybe you think that ETH is canon, and ETC is fan fiction. Maybe we need meta-rules about the canon, such that sometimes the canon changes and the fan fiction is what keeps the story the same. In the Sherlock Holmes universe, Watson’s war injury is once described as being in his leg, and later in his arm. This is canon, but it’s inconsistent. A fan fiction that began immediately after the book in which it’s in his leg would be more consistent than the actual Holmes canon. But that wouldn’t by itself make it canon.

Usually the original work is more popular than the fan fiction. The whole reason there is fan fiction of a work is because people like the original work. They see value in it. So it would be surprising for some readers to write a more popular story of the characters than the original author who provided the reason to write fan fiction in the first place. This seems to be what has happened with Bitcoin, and the number of hard forks off Bitcoin and Bitcoin’s hard forks. Each successive hard fork tends to be less popular (by market cap) than the currency off of which it forked.



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