I’ve heard blockchains described a million different ways: “An immutable ledger,” “A shared system for recording data,” “A growing list of records secured by cryptography.” All of this is fine. But for the average person these explanations are confusing. The simplest answer is: A blockchain is a forever database.
Maybe you’re a total beginner, and you can’t picture a database? No problem. A database is basically a fancy Excel spreadsheet. And a forever database is one in which when you write data — that data is stored, forever, bullet-proof, a record of truth for thousands of generations to come.
Since Bitcoin went live on Jan. 3rd, 2009, the network has never gone down, been hacked, or stopped storing new data. Bitcoin is a currency that can’t be inflated. The bookkeeping is never wrong. Now imagine uploading important data to a forever database. That’s powerful.
Imagine being able to trust that in one-thousand years from now your data will still be accessible. Not only that, but that people living many generations into the future could verifiably trust that this data is true.
Novel use cases of the blockchain as a forever database are on the rise: Mike Bodge’s crypto-art project 0xinfinity allows you to publish love letters the site claims will last “forever or as long as the Ethereum network is running.” Arweave is a file storage service that claims to “to store documents and applications forever.” And Starling Labs is a project has uploaded 56,000 Holocaust surivor testimonials to a forever database as a way to preserve evidence of human rights abuses, and protect against future disinformation.
A forever database ensures the integrity of our collective memories in a way that previous databases could not. And yet, consistency is the key ingredient. As long as Ethereum, Solana and other cryptocurrencies continue to upgrade their codebase, they can’t compete on consistency. In early 2022, the Solana blockchain, known for its “move fast and break things” mentality, suffered two outages, each of which took down the network for several hours. The key superpower that makes a blockchain a forever database is resilient to outages. A forever database should never go down, if it does let’s just call it “database.”
Although, for Bitcoin to survive users can’t just hold their money. Bitcoin needs to become productive. The opportunity for Biticoiners to harness the power of their forever database through the use of additional layers (e.g. Lightning or Stacks) so that they can build applications that interface with our day to day lives.
The Race to Embrace Layers
We now need a new layer, one that can access Bitcoin.
Stacks is an example of a layer that adds programmability to Bitcoin. With Stack’s smart contracts, you can create applications (social networks, photo-sharing apps, chat apps) where the underlying transactions are secured by Bitcoin.
On Ethereum, similarly, Polygon is a popular layer developers use to scale the Ethereum network. The Black Swan event for Polygon — considering Ethereum’s big upgrade this year — is that it Etheruem were to fall, Polygon and all the additional layer would follow, falling like a house of cards.
That’s why we need a forever database —it can be our foundational layer upon which we build the future.
In 2010, Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s founder, first encouraged the idea of building layers on Bitcoin, “I think it would be possible for [a blockchain] to be a completely separate network and separate block chain, yet share CPU power with Bitcoin.” What Satoshi saw back then, was the opportunity for Bitcoin to be more than just money.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
If we wish to create a forever database, we must celebrate Bitcoin’s approach to long-term stability. This is what Vitalik was doing when he Tweeted, “[I have a] contradiction between my desire to see Ethereum become a more Bitcoin-like system emphasizing long-term stability.”
Both Bitcoin and Ethereum will do great things for humanity. I’m excited to see them each take their own approach to building the future. As Ethereum evolves swiftly I believe it will maintain its narrative as the world’s most innovative blockchain. But until Ethereum settles down, it will lose its standing in the race to become a forever database. This is Bitcoin’s moment. Bitcoin needs to embrace building layers. Bitcoin should not remain as money, it must learn how to be productive. Ultimately I believe slow and steady is the secret to winning the race — because while fast may get all our attention, it’s slow that has all the power.
Originally published in CoinDesk