The myth of The Right Stuff

[Note: opinions expressed below are solely my own and do not represent the views of my employer or any company I advise.]

This past week Joi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab, weighed in on the block size debate, stating:

The future of Bitcoin, decentralized ledgers and other Blockchain-like projects depends on this community. Many people call them “Bitcoin Core” as if they are some sort of company you can fire or a random set of developers with skills that you can just train others to acquire. They’re not. They’re more like artists, scientists and precision engineers who have built a shared culture and language. To look for another group of people to do what they do would be like asking web designers to launch a space shuttle. You can’t FIRE a community and, statistically speaking, the people working on the Bitcoin ARE the community.

The crux of his comment is that there is only a handful of people in the world who have the skills or as Tom Wolfe might call it, The Right Stuff.

the right stuff

Source: IMDB

Yet it’s unclear how many real blockchain engineers there are in the world.  Who are those capable of building from scratch a network with the features and characteristics of Ethereum, Zcash, Bitcoin or Ripple (among others)?

After all, there is no PhD in Blockchainology (yet) or Distributeledgerology (god help us) so how does one qualify?  By random lines of code in a github repo or hours spent in IRC chat rooms?

Maybe none of the above.

By all accounts, it is a hobbyist field in still — it is sufficiently esoteric that it’s not very accessible unless you have the time to decipher it on your own.  But there doesn’t appear to be anything magical about this technology either.

For instance, as a personal anecdote, last year I traveled as a guest lecturer with Blockchain University (which is on semi-permanent hiatus) to both India and Japan and gave several other guest presentations with BU throughout the year.  The primary goal of BU was to help educate developers — and some entrepreneurs — in the burgeoning artisan skill of block making.

While the learning curve was somewhat difficult (since Satoshi apparently uses every number format in the history of number formats), like all other technology, eventually developers got the hang of it.1

Similarly, many working groups at financial institutions exploring this technology are basically self-taught, autodidacts just like the rest of the community largely is.2

In other words, the problem with Ito’s comment is that it assumes that only the few dozen rocket scientists working in Peenemünde could possibly ever build rockets.  Whereas empirically, knowledge transfer occurred (via Operation Paperclip and Operation Osoaviakhim) and the ability to build rockets was disseminated worldwide, including the infamous shuttle he cites.

So too has the knowledge of building magic internet ledgers.

Groups such as Bitcoin Core may have some bright developers, but it certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on talent, especially when it comes to building and shipping commercial products for regulated financial institutions.  But the key take away is there are now tools and venues for IT team both small and large to learn and get up to speed on how this tech actual works, it is no longer siloed off in random IRC rooms or obscure crypto mailing lists.

  1. I would like to thank Ryan X. Charles for pointing that out; as an aside, I believe Ryan holds the distinction to have the first formal title of “blockchain engineer” at a non-Bitcoin company. []
  2. Actually there are quite a few financial engineers who have formal backgrounds involving elements of this technology as well as many bank architects who need to build and maintain stable, secure networks.  There are also various professors and cypherpunks who formally studied distributed computing/consensus in college involved too. []

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