Ethereum likes ProgPoW but actually getting things done is hard

Posted: 18 March 2019 1:56 pm

Creating decentralised governance is hard. Actually getting things done with it is also hard.

Although moderately controversial, the ProgPoW proposal is still quite popular in the Ethereum community.

An informal poll in March 2018 found that a bit more than half of the respondents would support some kind of system for bricking Ethereum ASIC miners, which is exactly what the ProgPoW fork is intended to do. Then in January 2019, Ethereum core developers gave a tentative green light to ProgPoW, slating it for June unless something untoward happened.

Today, sentiment is very heavily in favour of ProgPoW, with CarbonVote showing 94% in favour of ProgPoW vs just 6% against.

CarbonVote is a useful tool for contentious debates, because actually lodging a vote requires Ether backing. It naturally weights the vote more strongly in favour of the Eth-rich, but also gets rid of the fake accounts and sentiment astroturfing that tends to accompany contentious decisions.

Other similar voting tools, oriented more directly at miner opinions, showed even more one-sided results in favour of ProgPoW.

Based on this metric, ProgPoW is looking much less controversial.

But regardless of how popular it is, actual implementation is proving to be tricky. The issue highlights some of the organisational challenges that Ethereum's been running into as its community keeps growing, even as funding for extraneous developments slows down.

What's the big hold up?

In a somewhat terse Ethereum developer call on 15 March, ProgPoW was back on the table, which came as something of an annoyance to those who had already agreed that it was a go-ahead.

"Nobody objected. Many agreed. Nobody blocked it. We had a consensus that we're moving forward unless there were technical issues," said Ethereum core developer Greg Colvin. "We're going back to stuff we were tired of talking about months ago. We decided the only issue is whether there are errors in the algorithm [or] back doors in the algorithm."

But a thorough auditing is needed before Ethereum hard forks ProgPoW in, and this is easier said than done.

Security testing and technical auditing is naturally needed, but so are economic audits and assessments of the impacts ProgPoW could have on Ethereum economics, and how effective ProgPoW can actually be. One of the main concerns is that overly-efficient ProgPoW will just turn into ASIC mining by a different name, so it needs to be suitably constrained.

So implementing ProgPoW means carrying out these audits, and carrying these out means describing concrete goals and benchmarks for auditors to look for. This is where things get tough.

"What is the goal? What is the criteria of success? So far, I've not been able to extract this from people who are suggesting ProgPoW," said core developer Alexey Akhunov.

It would have been relatively easy to reach a conclusion on these back when Ethereum was a much smaller and simpler ecosystem, but these days it's a sprawling decentralised behemoth and actually communicating between disparate teams and getting things done is much more difficult. This is exacerbated by the market drops that are drying up Ethereum Foundation funding, are limiting the amount of support for supporting roles such as project managers for Ethereum developers.

The Ethereum Cat Herders, as they've dubbed themselves, sprang up as part of an intended solution to this problem, and in the case of ProgPoW are specifically in charge of finding auditors to help solve this issue. Because at the end of the day, the community can collectively make decisions but actual implementation is still dependent on someone picking up the phone (so to speak) and getting it done.

In this way, ProgPoW is a bit more than just a question of ASIC vs GPU mining. It's also an example of the gulf that exists between blockchain governance systems and the actual implementation of the changes the community wants to see. You can run blockchain polls, but at the end of the day someone has to boil the results down into clear deliverables and follow up until the community gets what it wants.

Decentralisation isn't easy.

Disclosure: The author holds ETH and XLM at the time of writing.

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