Civility (Even when it’s hard): Keeping Scientific Bitcoin Debates Scientific

Bruce Fenton

Spoiler alert: Iron Man and Captain America still worked together as allies despite their Civil War.

Two years ago as Satoshi Roundtable II took shape a few of us had a naive grand vision that with pretty much everyone in the room we’d lock the doors and stay until we hammered out an agreement that all in the Bitcoin capacity discussion would be happy with. This naïveté was a key mistake for that event. For Satoshi Roundtable III, having learned our lesson, the approach was far more relaxed without even a hope of an agreement…just a hope that constructive dialogue continues.

As this current discussion has become more heated, more high stakes and more emotional, bridges have caught fire…but they have not all burned down just yet. It’s true, many of those involved in Bitcoin are moving further apart by the day. Some feel that others have bad intentions or are even outright liars. This is a sad side effect of any complex debate. With enough discussion of a complex and contentious issue even the most well-meaning person can go off the rails with unproductive statements. With sufficiently complex issues it’s increasingly easy to accuse one side of “lying” when statements could be just as easily attributed to differences in opinion combined with wording or even misunderstanding.

The battle lines are so solid now that no one is going to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya with the other side. But we can nevertheless remain civil and scientific. As much as it might sound like a corny self-help seminar, there can be great value in people in varying positions thinking about the good qualities and human side of their opponents. Bitcoiners on polar opposite sides of this discussion have more in common with each other than 99% of the world. The number of people worldwide who can even understand what the debate is about is so small it can’t be statistically represented. There are probably more people globally who believe Bitcoin should be flat out outlawed than everyone on both sides of the capacity debate. Focusing on what we agree on is productive.

I’m lucky to be in a unique position for two reasons: 1) I personally know, like and respect a lot of people of differing opinions about this issue 2) I don’t have a strong technical bias and prefer any solution which mends bridges over a single particular technical stance. These two factors have provided the reward of being able to see both sides as well as to discount most attacks.

Roger Ver is not a villain trying to destroy Bitcoin, he cares deeply about the technology to the point that you can see the emotion in his eyes when he talks about it. He worked very hard for a long time to reach a mutually beneficial agreement and only moved to BU when he felt all other options were exhausted. Roger has a rebel and activist streak and while some debate whether he is doing the right thing, no one should be surprised that if he thinks he’s doing the right thing that he’d fight so fiercely.

Adam Back, likewise, is not a banker shill trying to use Blockstream to control Bitcoin. He’s a highly accomplished computer scientist and cryptographer who also cares deeply about this tech. If he’s a sleeper agent for Big Brother he would have had to invest 30 years into doing so, his extremely long history of support for decentralization and security is unimpeachable. He’s also spent countless hours speaking to dozens if not hundreds of people to explain his views on risk and security.

One could go on like this about many major figures in this discussion. If you think on it, it’s not so hard to see the other side and have some empathy. We have world class coders like Wladimir and Pieter who work magic with code but just don’t like the game of playing politics and having debates in the public eye. They’d rather keep their head down and code. Now this can be a drawback for issues of accountability or discussion but who can blame them? It’s no more fair to criticize devs for lack of public argument than it is to criticize someone who’s great with human relations for not being a world class coder.

We are still in the very early days of this technology. While now big money and Wall Street have begun dabbling, this industry is still in its infancy. We are, all of us, BU supporters, core devs, CEOs, users, holders and VCs, to some degree oddball geek early adopters of a very niche experiment. Our similarities are massive.

My favorite part of not just the Satoshi Roundtable but this industry as a whole is when leading figures in this space from different backgrounds and parts of the world sit for hours and discuss the deep meaning this technology has for them and the thrilling future we all look forward to seeing. It’s also great when the topic drifts from ‘shop talk’ to politics, gaming, VR, drones, hacking, driverless cars, religion or AI. Bitcoin has an inordinate amount of gamers, martial artists and Magic the Gathering players. We’ve got game programmers and world travelers, Burning Man regulars and amateur DJs. The other day I learned that super developer Matt Corallo is also an expert coffee maker. It’s really the most wonderful and fascinating group of people I’ve ever met. The same quirky personality traits which helped bring us to this crazy world of digital geek money also brought us to similar views on philosophy and politics as well as similar tastes in hobbies, books and movies. Part of that beauty is that we are not monolithic: socialist leaning Jeremy Gardner can wade into a sea of rabid anarchists and libertarians and have a vigorous debate characterized by mutual respect and smart people can disagree on anything from Ethereum’s governance to regulations on self driving cars.

The discussion is too serious to for everyone to put aside their differences and have some coffee while discussing martial arts or a video game…but maybe remembering the human side of the others in the discussion can help improve some civility. As with all discussion, avoiding petty personal attacks, unproductive tactics and logical fallacies is a huge plus. It’s hard and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.

Maybe you are Captain America, maybe you are Iron Man. More importantly is that maybe, just maybe, when this whole phase is over everyone will be able to again focus on the common ground that all sides in this discussion share. It’s worth it.