Erik McClure

Blockchain Is The New JavaScript


Over 25 years ago, Brenden Eich created JavaScript, named after Java simply because it was popular. It's prototypical nature and dynamic typing made it unsuitable for anything other than slow interpreters, forcing Google to invent a way to JIT the language just to make it fast. We even built a package manager for JavaScript which managed to create such an absurd dependency hell that one guy's left-pad function managed to break web development for a day.

Now the entire world economy runs on JavaScript.

This is the kind of dumb future that we live in, and it is the kind of dumb future we can look forward to with blockchain. It is why people who insist that blockchain will never work because of various technological reasons are ignoring the simple fact that humanity is incredibly good at standardizing on the worst possible things, then building our entire future on top of them. In fact, there is a disturbing number of direct parallels between the rise of JavaScript and the rise of blockchain technologies, with a few key differences.

JavaScript was originally going to be Scheme, a lisp dialect. Sadly, the management demanded that it look more like Java, so Brenden hid Scheme inside a vaguely Java-esque syntax, which became Mocha, which became LiveScript, which then became JavaScript. This has led to many suffering web developers agonizing over the fact that “We could have had Lisp!". Even worse, CSS originated in DSSSL, which was another dialect of Scheme for constructing style sheets, but it was deemed too complicated (too many parenthesis!), so a much simpler version was created, called CSS. Modern CSS, of course, has simply reinvented everything DSSSL had, except worse.

This is what drives the entire internet, and in turn, Amazon's trillion dollar empire.

In 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto unleashed Bitcoin upon an unsuspecting world. Most people ignored it, for good reason - it was completely impractical for any sort of global transaction system, capable of processing a whopping 7 transaction per second. Then the first bubble happened and Bitcoin skyrocketed to $1000 USD in late 2013. It then promptly crashed to $300 in 2014, after which most people thought it had simply been a passing fad, and ignored it for the next 3 years, until the second bubble of 2017.

But not everyone. After his favorite World of Warcraft spell got nerfed by Blizzard, some maniac Vitalik Buterin argued that the Bitcoin network should support programmable smart contracts, at the peak of the 2013 bubble. Here, we almost had a repeat of JavaScript, nearly bolting on smart contracts to a blockchain algorithm that was never designed for it. However, history thankfully granted us a reprieve, because the Bitcoin developers told Vitalik to take a hike. So, he invented Ethereum, which is like Bitcoin except slightly less stupid. Unfortunately, it still ran on Proof-of-Work, which means burning coal to solve sudokus.

At this point, you may be expecting me to draw a parallel from Google's V8 JavaScript engine to Proof-of-Stake, but that actually isn't correct. Proof-of-Stake doesn't make the network faster, it just lets the network run without wasting astronomical amounts of energy. Proof-of-Stake is more analogous to the introduction of AJAX in 1999, the foundational JavaScript extension that allowed for asynchronous websites, and in turn, the entire modern web. Proof-of-Stake is a change that finally makes Ethereum usable for large scale smart contracts without burning ludicrous amounts of electricity to run the network. This, however, isn't enough, because Ethereum's network is still painfully slow. Granted, at 14 transactions per second, it's at least twice as fast as Bitcoin, but that doesn't really count for much when you need to be several orders of magnitude faster.

So, naturally, just like we did with JavaScript, a bunch of extremely smart people are inventing ways to make Ethereum's horribly slow network go really fast, either by creating Layer 2 Rollups, or via sharding through the proposed Shard Chains. Individually, these optimizations are expected to yield 2000-3000 transactions per second, and if combined, the optimistic estimate is that it will allow hundreds of thousands of transactions per second. We'll have to wait until we see the true results of the speedups, but even the pessimistic estimations expect a 100x increase in transaction speed with existing Layer 2 rollup solutions, which is a pretty big deal.

Of course, if you give an inch, they'll take a mile, and when Web Developers discovered that we could make JavaScript go fast, they started putting entire software solutions on the web. We got Web Apps. We got Electron. Now I've got JavaScript running in my goddamn IDE and there's no end in sight. We've forgotten how to make native apps (and the lack of good UI solutions for anything other than JavaScript hasn't helped, either), so now the Web isn't just inside your Web Browser, it's in all your programs too. We've created a monster, and there's no getting it back in the box.

This, I think, is something we should keep in mind when criticizing “unnecessary” blockchain solutions. Opponents of blockchain correctly point out that there are, in fact, very few things that actually need to be decentralized. Oftentimes, you can achieve decentralization through federation, or a DHT, or some other option instead, without needing an entire decentralized permanent public ledger. In many cases, having a permanent write-only public ledger is objectively worse than existing solutions.

These criticisms are all 100% true and also don't matter. If software actually needed to work well in order for people to use it, nobody would use anything Oracle made. Our future is filled with blockchains that we have spent obscene amounts of time and effort to make fast so we can create centralized decentralized solutions, private public ledgers, and dumb smart contracts. There are good ideas buried underneath this mess, but if we spend our time railing against blockchain instead of implementing them, all we'll get is more left-pad. We only have one chance to make the future suck less, even if we're just proposing less awful blockchain designs.

This is why I have begun learning the basics of blockchain - not because any of this makes sense, or is even a good idea. I simply recognize that the future is coming, and the future is dumb.


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