31 March 2014

About trust

In my last post, I used the term "trusted ownership" to describe the "thing" managed by the Bitcoin protocol. Following this post, Oleg Andrev pointed out that trust is no more a required concept.

I guess that what Oleg means is that for the first time, a protocol allows to manage ownership without requiring trust in a human third party (like a bank...). The protocol replaces this need of trust in a human third party by a mathematical proof. I agree that it's a very important message. For many people, bitcoin is still just "weird money" over internet and not so different from a system like paypal. Of course it's wrong. The "beauty" of the protocol is really in its distributed aspect and in the fact that it disrupts an old model based on trust in a human third party.

I've been lucky to attend a presentation by Oleg a few weeks ago. He's undoubtely a very smart guy with a great knowledge of the Bitcoin protocol. On my side, I'm a noob in this domain. Thus, I try to always think twice about what the experts say. The thing is that I don't believe we can get rid of the concept of trust so easily. My take is that we trust in the proof of ownership managed by the protocol because we trust in the maths behind the protocol.

About the maths
I can hear the cries of mathematicians. Trust has nothing to do with mathematical proofs. A proof is demonstrated or it isn't. Trust has no role in this. Yes. Sure. You're right. The problem is that I don't believe in platonic idealism and the existence of a pure world of ideas.

Let me state it differently. You can do 2 things with crypto:
- you can use it to secure data, communications...
- you can crack it (some examples here, here, here)

Of course the latter is much more difficult and requires some serious resources (big brains, big computers) but it's not impossible. Don't get me wrong, I don't say that bitcoin crypto is not secure. I truely believe it is very secure and I hope it will be for a long time. But I don't believe in a "natural law" saying that it's secure till the end times because it's something of a different kind, coming from the non corruptible word of ideas described by Plato. Thus, it's because I trust in the security of the crypto behind the system that I trust in the proof of ownership provided by the system. Trust has not disappeared. It's trust in something different, may be more more secure and less corruptible than human nature, but it's still trust.

Why does it matter ?
Cryptocurrencies gain more and more visibility. I'm convinced it's a good thing and I hope more and more people start to use them. But let's be honest. How many people in the world have the mathematical background to check by themselves the security of the crypto behind the system, taking into account the last researchs in crypto ? I guess not a lot. All we can expect is that people (like me) will use cryptocurrencies because they trust professionals (mathematicians, cryptologists...) saying that the crypto behind the system is still secure. Of course, there's a huge improvement: trust relies now on a open system which can be checked by independent teams. But trust in human people is still there (just replace bankers by mathematicians and cryptologists).

The "marketing problem"
[ConservativeModeStarted] We live in a world in which everything must go faster and faster. If you want to promote something it's better that you come with the right message. Few people are ready to spend time to dive deep in the understanding of a protocol.[ConservativeModeCompleted]

The problem with short messages and analogies is that they have their limits and trust is always challenged when these limits are reached. This is why finding the right message is so difficult. In my previous post I wrote about an analogy with a system made of tubes and valves. To be honest, I think this analogy is too complicated to be really usefull. This is what I liked in the land analogy presented by Richard G. Brown. It's very concrete and simple to understand. My "concern" is that I fear people could infer some wrong properties of the bitcoin system from this analogy. 

For sure, finding the right message is a difficult task and I still don't know the best answer except that bitcoin is bitcoin and that if you really want to understand it, you must invest time (a very bad marketing message :)

For example, let's consider the concept of ownership. I totally agree that bitcoin is a protocol of ownership and that it's an important message explaining why bitcoin matters. The problem is that if you explain that to somebody without any background in the domain, her first understanding will be that the protocol associates ownership of some coins to a person. But it's wrong. There's nothing in Bitcoin stating "these coins are owned by Mr X". Bitcoin doesn't care about the identity of the owner. The protocol does not deal with the fact that private keys can be stolen and used by a thieft. It's out of its scope. This is why I really like the often repeated message: "If you're not the only one to control / own the private key, you don't control / own the coins". It's a very simple message but you can infer very important things about the ecosystem from this message (importance of secured and cold wallets, risks associated to exchanges, mixers, black markets...).

Just a few random thoughts... Comments and criticisms are welcome !

Note : Trust can also be found in many others places in Bitcoins if you consider the "larger" picture englobing the periphery which interfaces the system with our physical world. I won't discuss them in this post. May be in another one.

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