Ethereum Is Throwing Out the Crypto Governance Playbook

An ethereum event provided evidence that when it comes to a path forward on governance, the world's second-largest blockchain is going its own way.

AccessTimeIconMar 14, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:41 a.m. UTC

“Can’t we just solve scaling? Can’t we just solve privacy? Can’t we just say ‘done’ and get to feature-complete?”

That was the question Bob Summerwill asked the audience at the ethereum conference EthCC in Paris on Thursday, the comments coming as part of a broader talk that called for an end to "tribalism" in the community supporting the world's second-largest blockchain.

Community manager at ethereum and an ambassador for blockchain alliance Sweetbridge, Summerwill opened the conference on a note that would reverberate throughout the next three days; that while the development of the ethereum "world computer" is a technical pursuit, it cannot escape social entanglements.

More recently, debates concerning the return of lost funds have demonstrated cracks in the platform's existing governance, which relies on a process borrowed from bitcoin and internet development, the request for proposal (RFP) process.

But while contentious changes tend to be avoided in bitcoin, ethereum developers have long warned that being too cautionary with code could lead to stagnation. “Otherwise we’ll be a sitting duck like bitcoin and be overtaken,” an audience member warned.

Still, lacking a forum to resolve debates, development platform GitHub has become somewhat of a battleground, with the ethereum codebase ruffled with political pull requests urging developers to “make ethereum immutable” or to increase the transparency of the Ethereum Foundation, the non-profit that oversees development.

As the conference showcased, ethereum developers are now faced with the problem of how to keep development fresh and adaptive in new ways without sacrificing technical scrutiny. Indeed, that fact was acknowledged in many of the week's panels and sessions.

“We recently had a huge amount of conflict,” Greg Colvin, developer of ethereum’s virtual machine, said at the first meeting of a new governance group that convened on Friday.

There, Colvin laid out his pitch for the Fellowship of Ethereum Magicians, a council that will aim to succeed in developing a unique governance model for ethereum.

According to Colvin, technical debates have been obscured by politics. However, with his new group, he hopes to cut through this issue by advocating for software changes driven by developers.

“It’s the developers who ultimately decide what goes into a hard fork,” Colvin said:

“For political issues, pass it on.”

Governance, abstract and applied

But as some struggled with more practical questions, one of ethereum's more well-known coders, Vlad Zamfir, sought to provide a theory that could be put to use.

In his speech, Zamfir described governance as a "coordination problem," one in which arriving at a decision requires a shared knowledge that a set of decision-making processes is the norm.

“In bitcoin, we have a strong norm against contentious hard forks, and that norm really, really heavily structures the coordination that people do around [the software],” Zamfir continued.

However, when it comes to software changes, he said that blockchain design can provide natural checks and balances. In the case of bitcoin, he explained, those running nodes, or computers with full copies of the blockchain, can resist change.

Speaking at the fellowship meeting, Nick Johnson echoed this finding, stating that the decision that ultimately changes a blockchain's code is generally the final step in a long process of technical scrutiny.

Having followed the various steps of the EIP process, in which software is proposed, accepted, coded into clients and finally released, the upgrade is then subject to political analysis.

“Clients are released, people informed about what’s contained and they have the choice to run the hard fork client and agree or not run and continue with the legacy chain,” Johnson said in the meeting.

By pushing political decisions until later in the process, Johnson explained, developers have ample time to technically analyze a decision, something that has been denied in the persistent attacks on GitHub recently.

If the community rejects the change, it can always refuse to adopt it, something that Johnson described as “extreme and hopefully uncommon, but also a safety value.”

According to Johnson, contentious forks can help preserve the liberty of oppositional groups, explaining “you get two communities each of which is unanimous on one side of the debate

Following a blockchain split of this type, ethereum developer Jeff Coleman added, the “market decides” which version of the software is more valuable.

Money complicates

Johnson concluded by reminding the group that the EIP process is a tool, one that can also be changed with sufficient consensus.

“There’s nothing in ethereum that needs EIPs,” Johnson said. “If the process becomes sufficiently broken, people will just standardize these things elsewhere."

However, it’s difficult to keep such a process technically pure, especially when there’s real money involved.

“The challenge for this community is that economic interest is not just something that motivates people to prefer something or to not want something. It’s also a technical characteristic of the network,” Coleman, a developer of scaling startup L4, observed.

Because of this, Coleman continued, “it is in some cases impossible to just look at neutral technical terms.”

Johnson agreed to this, stating that economic questions can be like “gravity within a technical discussion,” leading to unexpected deviations away from an objective argument.

And as noted by Johnson, the question of whether funds should be returned is a clear example where the boundaries between technical and economic concerns begin to blur. Plus, it’s hard to arrive at a technical proficiency if there’s a lack of clarity as to the direction of ethereum.

“It’s not enough to say that we want to be as technically good as possible, we need to say about what,” Johnson concluded.

Debate IRL

Going forward, the fellowship at least intends to provide a platform for in-person discussions, with the next panel due to occur in Berlin in July, hosted by the Web3 foundation.

Speaking in his lecture, Summerwill said the solution to many conflicts is to meet your enemies face to face, as the majority of debate today tends to occur online, where vitriol and anger spread easily.

Running through slides of selfies he’d taken alongside some of the platform’s more controversial figures, Summerwill stressed the importance of social processes, stating: "In a quest to build the perfect machine we forgot to be human."

Notes in Zamfir’s lecture also echoed this point.

While perhaps abstracted from the messiness of in-person debate, Zamfir acknowledged that governance is about more than simply making up mathematically sound rules.

He concluded:

“If you can come up with decision making rules by solving a maths problem, and you might have a really elegant rule, but if you can’t get people to agree to use it, then I don’t really think you’ve accomplished the goal of governance.”

Fellowship of Ethereum Magicians meeting via Lane Rettig


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