Fifteen months into his tenure as a core developer at the world’s second largest cryptocurrency project by market cap, and Lane Rettig is already emerging as one of Ethereum’s leading lights. That’s not least of all because of his firm grip on the fundamentals of blockchain code. Rettig possesses that rare quality among Ethereum developers: a readiness to engage with lesser mortals—including the media—for which the wider non-crypto world, and us, is grateful.
When we sat down with Rettig in New York recently, he laid out some of the measures currently on the Ethereum roadmap and what they might mean.
Scalability is high on the priority list for the decentralized groups of developers working at the Ethereum Foundation. At the top of that list, Rettig says, is a transition away from the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)—a virtual environment where smart contracts interact with each other—to a newer, more powerful standard for web development, Web Assembly, one of the building blocks of web 3.0, known as "wasm." Rettig’s team is in charge of Ethereum’s version (which is known as "ewasm") and it has Rettig very excited.
“It allows you to create a single computer program, a piece of code that runs anywhere,” he explains. “It can run on my phone, on my desktop, my laptop, on a powerful server, in the cloud, on a toaster oven, in a spaceship or on Ethereum. We’re only just beginning to understand the implications of it. We are tethering Ethereum to this crazy rocket ship that I think is going to take over the world.”
Although Ethereum is a big deal, Rettig wants to point out that, in many ways, wasm is bigger than Ethereum: “It’s already in every web browser in the world. The traditional view is that Ethereum’s like this big thing and wasm is like this little module; like we’re opening up the hood, taking out EVM and putting in ewasm instead.”
In fact, according to Rettig, it’s more like the opposite.
Certainly, wasm has more users than Ethereum today and it offers a host of advantages. “You can run it on local chains and fire it up and move it to another chain, that’s part of the appeal,” says Rettig. Ewasm is not ready yet, but when it is, he believes the impact will be enormous: “I think the implications for Ethereum could be huge and, in theory, it could actually be the thing that leads to mass adoption. I can’t tell you how, but it could be.”
The Herculean task of transferring the code from a million smart contracts (and growing) written on the EVM is a big black mark against its introduction, according to ewasm detractors. But Rettig is adamant that—for the time being, at least—EVM can continue to exist alongside its replacement. Although there are several possible solutions to the problem, one answer may involve another Ethereum scalability measure, sharding.
“I think the most likely scenario is that you’re going to have this mainchain that continues on as EVM and all these new shards, which have ewasm,” says Rettig. “Each of these shards is like an independent universe. There’s nothing in it, there’s no baggage, no data. And that actually makes the transition from EVM to ewasm very simple because there’s no need to convert anything; there’s no need for EVM to talk to ewasm or vice versa, which is one of the harder parts.”
This still leaves the question about what happens in the longer term, but Rettig has a solution for this too: “We can take all of EVM and put it inside a single smart contract running on an ewasm chain.” And, apparently, the opposite is possible too, with ewasm—theoretically—running inside the EVM.
Down the rabbit hole
Rettig grew up in rural New Jersey, the son of a psychology professor and a homemaker. Loneliness drew the young Rettig to coding and he started his first Internet company at the age of 14. He quickly became “obsessed with technology” and went on to study computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated at the top of his class. He followed up with a job on Wall Street during the heady years before the 2008 crash.
Keen to understand the business side of the technology world, Rettig veered briefly away from technology to pursue an MBA at Wharton. He then founded a healthcare technology startup, but sold it three years later, disillusioned with a sector which he perceived to be “inefficient, bureaucratic, full of vested interests and risk-averse.” It was, he says, the antitheses of the innovation he was looking for.
Intending to take a year off to “travel, meditate and do a lot of yoga,” Rettig’s plans were cut short when, at a conference in May 2017, he discovered Ethereum. “When I heard of this concept of the smart contract, it was like this a-ha moment,” he recollects. “I had to stare at a wall for like 20 minutes and just let all the connections form and figure out what this all means.”
A swift descent down the proverbial rabbit-hole followed. Six months later, Rettig attended his very first Ethereum gig: DevCon3 (in October 2017 in Cancun, Mexico). There he met members of the Ethereum Foundation, as well as eWASM luminaries Casey Detrio and Ethereum's godfather, Vitalik Buterin. He came away from the event with a job, as one of the 50 contractors employed by the Ethereum Foundation.
Although such a swift turnaround—from blockchain virgin to fully-fledged Ethereum core developer—may even pass for normal in the crypto world, Rettig’s multidisciplinary (computer science-business-economics-math) background has, without doubt, been advantageous. While appreciating Ethereum's decentralized character, and those who created it that way, he also recognizes its predicament.
“I was trained around management, organization. That part of me understands that it’s absurd that in an ecosystem that has this many people and as much money as ours does, there isn’t any centralized type of leadership.”
This wasn’t always the case. Two years ago, Buterin and a very small number of those close to him were driving the Ethereum roadmap. Now, says Rettig, Buterin has stepped back from being the single point of failure to a more general researcher role.
“Vitalik is very conflict avoidant, he doesn’t like being in the light; he doesn’t like the press or attention,” offers Rettig. “So many people in this space are like that. Communities reflect their founder.”
But while Rettig has a great appreciation of Ethereum’s roots, his instincts also tell him that “you somehow lose control of the narrative and scare people away if you don’t talk to the press.”
These views and his skillset have led Rettig to hone in on Ethereum’s marketing operations and finance. And, together with long-term Ethereum developers Hudson Jameson and Casey Detrio, he’s taken on the onerous task of communicating what the Ethereum devs are up to and encouraging more dialogue on social media and the Fellowship of the Ethereum Magicians forum. “I recognised the fact, early on, that we’re not very friendly to the outside world,” he says.
But he’s also careful to point out that no one appointed him spokesman. “That would be unheard of, right? For me or anyone else to do that would be quite dangerous politically—people would be quite upset.” But even his softly-softly approach has not precluded Rettig from ruffling a few feathers among Ethereum’s more sensitive developers.
Shasper, Vlasper & Vitasper
At time of writing investors were getting rather excited over the upcoming Constantinople fork, ushering in some improvements to the platform due on January 16. Rettig, however, referred to it as a “non-event,” meaning that this would be—in actual fact—the best case scenario, with everything working just as it should and no nasty surprises.
The fork, says Rettig, doesn’t introduce any especially exciting new functionality, and is unlikely to produce anything that end users or dapp developers will even notice, at least not at “the higher levels.” It’s more like under the hood type tinkering.
But one thing to keep an eye out for, he says, is something called CREATE2. This could potentially allow for the creation of smart contracts off-chain and dispense with the need to store funds in keys. One effect could be better usability, opening the door to decentralization for a more diverse range of users.
However, according to Rettig, the more interesting topics: state rent; (the controversial measure of charging people to store data on the blockchain); stateless clients (a type of ethereum software that does not need to process the complete history of the platform); ASIC-blocking code ProgPow and Ethereum 2.0, or Serenity, are further down the line. (A tentative consensus was reached to go ahead with ProgPow during the developers call subsequent to our interview).
The Serenity upgrade (with no due date attached) famously includes scalability solutions sharding and Casper, a hybrid consensus mechanism involving a combination of Proof of Work (PoW) and Proof of Stake (PoS). Together the two solutions have been dubbed “Shasper.”
Casper itself has two work streams attached to it. It’s “complicated,” says Rettig. The two approaches have jokingly been called Vlasper and Vitasper, which neatly corresponds with the differing visions belonging to Vlad Zamfir, developer of the Casper protocol upgrade and Buterin. “They sort of inspire one another,” says Rettig. “There are some common points but they’re two different approaches to PoS basically.”
Buterin’s Casper, dubbed Casper FFG is included in the the roadmap for Serenity. But Vlad’s Casper, Casper CBC—which is “more like pure PoS,” says Rettig—is so far down the road that there isn’t yet a map.
Also further down the road, but not as far as Serenity or Vlasper, is Rettig’s own personal goal, his book, with the working title: “Cryptopia.” It has a somewhat cataclysmic thesis: that the effect of cryptocurrencies will cause the nation state to fall apart. “I don’t have the answers yet,” he says, although decentralization is part of the solution but “right now it’s a bunch of questions.”
It’s clear to see that Rettig relishes the intellectual challenges thrown up by the crypto universe. But, to play devil’s advocate, what if it mass adoption never happens because the fledgling decentralized world is devoured by Facebook, say?
Being a pragmatist, Rettig can envisage this. It’s not hard, he says, since all Ethereum’s software is open source, and so not difficult to replicate. “But if the services provided become tokenized, I think there’s still a lot of value for consumers in that world,” he says hopefully. “We call that recentralization.”
And, then there is always the long term future to fall back on. Referencing Martin Luther King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” Rettig is of the view that there’s ample historic evidence to support a slightly differing rendition: “the arc of history is long but it bends towards decentralization.” He attributes the latter—or at least a version of it—to Buterin. But when Decrypt looked on the web we found that it’s actually from @bitcoinmom. Still a cool quote though.