“Ethereum governance has failed,” Ethereum core developer and project manager Lane Rettig tweeted on Saturday. “We are a de facto technocracy, where a small group of technocrats, the core devs, have final say over what goes into the protocol.”
Ethereum governance may sound dull and boring but—beyond the technology—it’s arguably the most crucial aspect of development for the second largest blockchain by market cap. This was recently underscored when consensus to go ahead was tentatively agreed for ProgPoW in January. ProgPow, as you of course know, is a controversial upgrade proposal that would minimize the advantage enjoyed by so-called ASICs—chips optimized for faster mining and employed by large mining farms— and tilt the balance in favor of GPU miners.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Ethereum platform is that has no centralized decision-making process. Like other improvement proposals, ProgPoW was debated both online and via biweekly core developer calls until a consensus is deemed to be reached. How that happened, and whether community members were given enough of a voice, has been the subject of much debate. Now that this is subsiding, the absence of established mechanisms for dealing with this sort of thing is taking its place.
Rettig, who is part of the project management group known as the Ethereum Cat Herders, has been at the center of the governance row. He had clearly reached breaking point when he posted his weekend tweet, followed by a stream of others to explain his reasoning.
Essentially, developers are not keen to make decisions on non-technical issues, which are political in nature and the Ethereum Foundation, will not step up to the plate for decision making, for fear of taking sides. It is, in fact, trying to move further into the shadows.
As a result, Rettig complained that the options that were open to Ethereum were unattractive, ranging from giving up on the project altogether to: “Admit that decentralized governance does not work—yet—but that we might someday figure it out. Fall back on centralized governance for the time being.”
It was this last option that garnered the most community support and ignited a huge debate:
“The blockchain was born out of governance crisis, and is destined to grow up in governance crisis,” tweeted developer Vlad Zamfir, prosaically.
“It's not failing, it was never set up to deal with changes that are driven by non-technical considerations, and people have regrettably been trying to use a system for tech changes to make non-technically motivated decisions,” he added later.
He then urged working through the legal and political challenges and in his latest pronouncement, today, determined that a new lobby group be formed “to put direct pressure on the relevant actors to virtually guarantee that desirable changes to the Ethereum protocol will be implemented, deployed and adopted ASAP.” Not everyone was convinced that it was an April Fools.
Others came out in favor of the mixed approach, with centralized elements to the decision making. “The best economies are mixed economies,” tweeted computer programmer and writer, Steve Randy Waldman. “The decentralized elements check the centralized elements, make it difficult for them to act in arbitrary and harmful ways.”
Kristy Leigh Minehan, the spokesperson for the developers responsible for ProgPow, also chimed in. She highlighted problems that the community was experiencing in communicating with the Ethereum Foundation, in particular. She warned that the community was living in a bubble, and that “real businesses” were looking at Ethereum and its governance processes in complete bewilderment.
Minehan also warned that dire consequences would come from not listening to the community. “Miners control the network—they will just fork.” she tweeted. “They're sick of being told they do not matter, that they are scum, that they should rot, after years of investing in your network with the hardware YOU ADVERTISED ON THE WEBSITE.”
ProgPoW, meanwhile, isn't going away. Because it appears that promised audits of the controversial update are not in hand. The community had predetermined that these were necessary for the update to go ahead. But, during his tweetstorm, Rettig said that not enough money has been raised to date to fund the audits “for lack of a clear signal from some authority blessing them.”
Crypto lawyer and cynic Preston Byrne marked the occasion with a 562-tweet-long storm (at least he promised 562, we take him at his word.) “Marmotcoin has governance problems. Serious ones. And we need to fix them. 1/562….” By number 103 he was tweeting that the Wu-Tang Clan's involvement had replaced proof-of-stake with “a post-quantum ‘Liquid Swords’ algo, developed by scientists on Marmota Prime, the marmot home planet.”
If you’re still in the mood for more, the debate continues—live! Check out pscp.tv, where Rettig and TruStory founder, Preethi Kasireddy are still thrashing it out.