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Why Ethereum’s ProgPoW update is so contentious

Posted: 27 February 2020 1:30 pm
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The main reason ProgPoW is so contentious is because it just is. Here's why.

ProgPoW is a somewhat contentious Ethereum improvement proposal to implement an ASIC-resistant mining algorithm. Now a new petition against ProgPoW is circulating. Dubbed EIP 2538, the petition carries high profile signatories from projects including Uniswap, ConsenSys, Truffle Suite, MakerDAO, Synthetix, Gnosis and many more.

The reason ProgPoW is so contentious is, in short, because it is.

ProgPoW in brief

Ethereum plans to transition from proof of work (PoW) to proof of stake (PoS) in the near-ish future. This has proven to be a very technically complex undertaking. It's also socially complex, with people being worried about miners opposing the transition.

Miners have good reasons to oppose the change, as a shift to proof of stake would destroy their source of income.

But for the fork to go ahead smoothly, miners need to be on board. As the actual operators of the Ethereum network, the success of the fork is dependent on miners willingly making the conversion.

If they split, and some agree to update and others refuse to update, you can get a hard fork like what happened with Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash... or, you know, like Ethereum and Ethereum Classic.

One of the main justifications given for the ProgPoW fork is the argument that if you go into the PoS transition with ASIC-resistance, your mining infrastructure is more decentralised and therefore there's a better chance of it all going smoothly.

Metacontention

ProgPoW was proposed in part because people were worried the shift to PoS would be contentious. But critics of the proposal point out that ProgPoW is itself quite contentious, and there aren't really any solid, provable reasons for it to go ahead.

So the main argument in favour of ProgPoW is that it could help unify the Ethereum community in the face of a contentious update. The main argument against ProgPoW is it's a contentious update.

"Because Ethereum is a global platform with a large and diverse group of stakeholders, it is critical that major changes to the protocol have a clear purpose and broad support. EIP-1057 [ProgPoW] clearly lacks that support, yet activation is still being considered," the petition reads.

"A stated goal of ProgPoW is to avoid contentious forks while transitioning to proof-of-stake, yet it is at odds with its own aims if activation increases the likelihood of that undesired outcome."

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. On the other hand, it wouldn't be contentious if ProgPoW opponents would just get on board with it, so using that contentiousness as a reason to oppose ProgPoW is circular logic at its best.

Of course, there are other, more valid, reasons why ProgPoW is so contentious.

Why ProgPoW is contentious

One factor being named in opposition to the ProgPoW fork is the fact that Ethereum already has measures to help ensure smoother sailing during the transition from proof of work to proof of stake, such as the difficulty bomb.

As the argument goes, ProgPoW is an unnecessary cost and unnecessary risk with no clear benefits, and in that light it is simply an objectively bad decision. Other reasons for opposing ProgPoW veer a little closer to conspiracy theories.

For example, there are allegations (but not much evidence) that NVIDIA funded the team responsible for developing ProgPoW in an effort to make big bucks selling GPUs to Ethereum miners. Of course, these can be equally countered by arguing that existing miners have a financial incentive to try to oppose ProgPoW any way they can, even if that means lying on the Internet.

The most solid argument against ProgPoW is simply that there's little reason to believe it will accomplish anything except replacing one special interest group with another. With no reason to do it, and some reasons not to do it, the smart thing is to not do it.

Opinion: Don't go with your gut, unless it says to

The main reason ProgPoW is so contentious, and will continue to be contentious, is because there is no right answer. There are no clear and obvious answers to all the pros and cons of GPU vs ASIC mining, and trying to look for a rational decision just takes you in circles.

In fact, if you look at the responses to any ProgPoW polls, you will see that about 99% of responses fall into one of two categories:

  1. The respondent personally stands to gain or lose something. For example, they have a garage full of GPUs just itching to mine some ETH.
  2. The respondent's opinion is purely emotional.

The emotional responses are mostly pro-ProgPoW, because people just don't like ASIC miners. There's always going to be that perception that ASIC miners came along and took their jobs ruined everything, so a lot of people will mostly lean towards screwing them when given the chance. ProgPoW is seen as an opportunity to do exactly that, so it will naturally pick up a solid foundation of support.

But what does this mean for the debate?

On the one hand, the emotional nature of the argument means a lot of people aren't going to be changing their minds, so the issue will continue rankling until ProgPoW goes through, regardless of any rational arguments for or against it. As such, it may be best to just rip off the bandage and be done with it.

On the other hand, that doesn't seem like a sound foundation for good decision-making, and most parenting books advise guardians not to reward tantrums.

But most importantly, there's just not a solid level of majority support for ProgPoW. Different polls show different results, but it's looking like maybe 55% to 45%, or 60% to 40%, in favour of ProgPoW.

It doesn't matter that one side has a simple majority. When the numbers are that close, the decision will always be controversial and going through with it will always be inviting trouble.

Going through with ProgPoW might be the only way to finally end the debate. But if the worst consequence of not going through with ProgPoW is that there's too much debate, that's a pretty good outcome.



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Disclosure: The author holds BNB, BTC at the time of writing.

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