‘Scam’ or Iteration — in Berlin, Bitcoin Diehards Still Believe in Lightning

“There’s actually this class of trolls on Twitter that loves to troll me, and they love to say this thing about ‘18 months,’ where supposedly Lightning was supposed to be ready in 18 months,” Elizabeth Stark jokingly explained. “At one point I may have commented that a beta was gonna be out … and we actually did ship, by the way.”

Closing the first day of presentations, the Lightning Labs CEO shared her thoughts on the main stage with venture capitalist Jim Patterson. Seated in front of a large black banner reading “The Lightning Conference,” one of the pioneers of Bitcoin’s protocol layer for fast and cheap transactions addressed some of the concerns that critics like to tout on social media and internet forums. The Lightning Network isn’t being developed fast enough, the naysayers claim. Or perhaps it will never succeed in alleviating Bitcoin’s scaling challenges at all.

“Here, my philosophy is, well, we’re really in the beginning of this marathon,” Stark told an attentive audience in the central conference area. “We know about the challenges, and if anything, I think they are exciting problems to solve.”

Jeff Gallas and Elizabeth Stark (Photo credit: Anastasya Stolyarov)

Hackday History

It was February 2015 when Thaddeus (Tadge) Dryja and Joseph Poon published their white paper, “The Bitcoin Lightning Network: Scalable Off-Chain Instant Payments.” Seemingly out of nothing (and topping the authors’ own expectations), the proposal became a cornerstone in Bitcoin’s first big scaling war. Proponents saw it as one of the key solutions to enable more transactions without compromising Bitcoin’s decentralization and security. Opponents, in contrast, didn’t believe it would be ready in time — if ever.

Within a year of the white paper’s publication, three different — though small — development teams had started implementing the software to realize the scaling layer: Blockstream (spearheading the c-lightning implementation), Lightning Labs (spearheading lnd) and ACINQ (spearheading eclair). 

But, as some predictions of Lightning’s timeframe proved too optimistic, skeptics took it as proof that they had been right all along. “Vaporware,” some commented. Or, even if working software should become available, the network would surely evolve into a hub-and-spoke model, which the fat cats of Blockstream (so some critics would warn) could leverage to make money off of relay fees.

It didn’t deter the builders. While usually working from across the globe, developers occasionally started gathering in person as well. The 2016 Scaling Bitcoin conference in Milan, for example, gave an opportunity to hold the first “Lightning Summit,” where about a dozen contributors discussed protocol standards. The second summit followed last year in Australia. And, since early 2018, the Fulmo team has been organizing several Lightning Hackdays — most of which have been in Berlin, probably the unofficial world capital of the hacker scene.

Lightning Challenges

Now, the time had come to scale the hackday format up. A combined effort between volunteers from Fulmo, Lightning Labs and the broader Lightning community organized the first-ever Lightning Conference in an old army bakery building in the heart of Berlin.

Sticking to its hackday roots, the upper event floor — reachable through a gated staircase — featured big, dark wooden tables scattered with laptops, cables and Club Mate (a popular energy drink in Berliner hacker culture). Developers joined and left the tables throughout the weekend, learning to tinker with the Layer 2 technology from peers. Across the same hall, a row of desks stationed along the wall hosted an extravagant collection of Lightning-enabled toys, vending machines and other techy contraptions.

Hackers working diligently on the second-floor hacking table (photo credit: Enid Valu @warmdefeat)

Between the main conference area and a secondary hall, two stages offered platforms to Lightning developers and enthusiasts who have come from all over the world to present and discuss their vision, their software implementations and Lightning applications (“LApps”) for this growing technology. Counting around 500 attendees, all areas were well attended at practically any point in the weekend.

Yet, despite a lot of buzzing enthusiasm, the focus of many of the talks wasn’t on how great the Lightning Network is. The focus is on what isn’t great about the Lightning Network — yet. The presenters spoke about what needs to be improved. Path finding (so payments can reach their destination) is still an issue. Channel liquidity is still an issue as well, as are channel management (including security challenges and reliable backups) and — more generally — user experience.

The ‘Scam’ Label

The challenges ahead are gladly embraced by some of Lightning’s critics, who typically favor alternative approaches…

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