The Problem with Anthropomorphism and Personification

I used the word vote in the Bitcoin white paper three times. I used the notion of anthropomorphism in explaining the concept of proof-of-work. In noting that proof-of-work was “essentially one-CPU-one-vote”, I was attempting to make the point that any system running the “honest” version of the software presented, in consequence, a vote for a non-criminal or non-attacker version of Bitcoin.

In an attempt to describe Bitcoin as naturally as possible, I used the rhetorical technique referred to as personification, classically known as prosopopoeia. Personification is a technique where an author applies human traits to objects and technologies. It can be used to represent abstract concepts in a more readily comprehensible form. One example of the regular use of personification is the expression Justice is blind.

In one paragraph of the Bitcoin white paper, I noted that nodes would express their acceptance of valid blocks by signalling—using the results of proof-of-work:

They vote with their CPU power, expressing their acceptance of valid blocks by working on extending them and rejecting invalid blocks by refusing to work on them.

The word “they” refers to nodes. In using the word “they”, computer systems or nodes are treated as if they had agency. The use of the word “they” personifies nodes, treating them as if they were people—with the ability to make an independent decision. The truth is more nuanced. Nodes do not vote in the sense of how people vote. The reference in the quote above is made to voting as if it was conducted interactively by the node operator. Node operators can either run a valid version of the Bitcoin client and enforce the rules, or they can act to attack the network. Such are the only things that are voted for in Bitcoin. The node operator does not choose anything beyond running the software and enforcing the rules, or acting to attack the network.

The particular use of the term vote relates to decisions made by honest operators compared to ones made by those who are attacking the system using invalid computers known, in computer science terms, as ‘Sybils’.

Some alternative blockchain structures, such as in the form of proof of stake, are effectively based on a technical scheme that is equivalent to one of bearer shares. In a system such as one of bearer shares, or proof of stake, it is possible to obscure the identity of the node operator, easily. By holding multiple shares or stakes, an attacker can split their operations across numerous virtual operators, in a manner that would allow an operator to pretend to act as an alternative system, or to be made up of multiple entities when they are one. Doing so would allow an attacker to hide their attacks.

If you think about the system explained in the Bitcoin white paper and consider what would make an excellent democratic system, you will start to understand that Bitcoin is not about democratising finance and decentralising society as some people claim. The last thing you want in a democratic society is to have voting based on the level of investment made by each node. In considering the paragraph below, you start to see that proof-of-work is about displaying investment capital. Importantly, if you gave societal control and power to Bitcoin operators, you would not be giving either to the people, but instead take it away from them and give it to a small number of wealthy investors.

Proof-of-work is essentially one-CPU-one-vote. The majority decision is represented by the longest chain, which has the greatest proof-of-work effort invested in it. If a majority of CPU power is controlled by honest nodes, the honest chain will grow the fastest and outpace any competing chains. To modify a past block, an attacker would have to redo the proof-of-work of the block and all blocks after it and then catch up with and surpass the work of the honest nodes.

As explained in the paragraph, Bitcoin is not itself about “one-CPU-one-vote”. Bitcoin and proof-of-work are not about ‘one-person-one-vote’. In fact, no blockchain is about democratic voting. Information can be securely recorded on the blockchain, which is not the same as saying that nodes vote democratically. The voting by nodes is a form of plutocracy. What keeps the system honest is that there are only two choices: follow the rules or become an attacker. Voting by wealthy individuals or corporations only would be problematic if it were not for the fact that Bitcoin publishes all the evidence associated with an attack for use by any individual. As a result, if a system attacks the network, the operator forfeits the capital they have invested in their nodes. So, the idea is not to allow any level of voting on the protocol. Nodes act to confirm and enforce the original protocol. Some people will tell you otherwise; they seek to change the scenario, because they can gain power and wealth in doing so. In understanding that Bitcoin does not allow such a change, and that they are trying to replace Bitcoin with something else, you can start to see their tactics.

Once you are running a Bitcoin node, the entire process is automated. There are no further decisions about which blocks you will accept. The node software automates the process based on the rules I created when I launched Bitcoin. There is no voting process associated with changing the rules. The separation of systems, into commercial nodes or miners and clients, is a part of how the entire system works. The rules are set in stone, that is, they do not change. Bitcoin is defined by a standardised protocol that is designed to be stable. Nodes and clients support the design of the network and the protocol. Bitcoin miners are the central nodes, acting within the Bitcoin system. They are the only nodes that have any say on the order of transactions. The other entities, acting from peer to peer, or user to user, are simplified payment verification (SPV) clients.

SPV lightweight clients do not make any decisions on how the network operates. At the same time, widespread deployment of SPV locks in the protocol. Users only need to validate their own transactions. The network nodes or miners ensure that no double-spending frauds occur. Client systems can confirm such activity on the network. Evidence of any such attempt alone would be legally admissible in a court of law, and presents a criminal fraud in common law countries such as the USA and the UK.

If the majority were based on one-IP-address-one-vote, it could be subverted by anyone able to allocate many IPs.

A protocol can also be viewed or perceived as a contract. When I released Bitcoin, I could have kept some of the bitcoin that I issued for myself. I decided to form a system where I gave all the bitcoin I created up as payment to the nodes. There is no reason for me to do so other than it being my personal choice. Other nodes, in other protocols, could be created and act differently than they would within Bitcoin. If I were to change the protocol, if any developer sought to modify the protocol, we would be changing the contract in doing so. Altering the agreement or commitment, the foundational contract, which began with the white paper, would be legal had it been announced before the launch of the system. With Bitcoin, I created a contract that said that the agreement was fixed. The contract and protocol in Bitcoin are binding not only nodes and users; they are binding the creator of Bitcoin: me.

[Image: Personification of autumn Vatican Museum; Dix-tuin, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons]

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