Virtually every epistemologist from Aristotle (4th century BCE) to Kant (18th century CE) agrees that we learn by categorizing and comparing the things in the world. Want to compare apples and oranges? Go ahead. The question is not whether they can be compared, but what we can learn from a comparison.
Even though the Lightning Network is a human invention, we still know surprisingly little about it. How does the number of LSPs required vary with the number of users? How does the graph’s complexity relate to the network’s throughput? When will mass adoption happen? What does a bitcoin-based Lightning economy look like? How will this technology transform the markets and societies we know?
We’re fortunate that another network has been using technology to transform societies around the world, bringing people together, making us more efficient, and giving us all opportunities we’d never had before. That network, of course, is the mother of them all: the internet.
Maybe the features and development of the internet can help us learn about where the Lightning Network is going, what it needs, and what we can do.
Both the internet and Lightning were first described conceptually before they were ever built. We have JCR Licklider to thank for the first articulation of the Internet, which he dubbed the “Intergalactic Computer Network” in 1962 (who do I talk to about bringing that awesome name back?). He foresaw “a globally interconnected set of computers through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site.”
The Lightning equivalent would be, perhaps counterintuitively, the original bitcoin whitepaper. This is the best comparison because Licklider was talking about infrastructure — a technicians’ network — rather than a tool for mass utility. He described it in terms of compilers, sublanguages, and time-sharing protocols, connecting “at least four large computers,” i.e. hubs. He was describing the network infrastructure, not the user-oriented internet as we know it.
Similarly, even though Nakamoto explicitly described Bitcoin as “a purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [to] allow online payments…”, things haven’t turned out that way. Instead, due to the constraints of the blockchain, Bitcoin has so far served more as digital gold, a store of value, than the P2P cash it was supposed to become. But without Bitcoin as a solid foundation, there would be no Lightning.
For the next couple of decades after Licklider’s first paper, many people and institutions were working hard to convert his idea into technology. The first wide-area network went live in 1965, with the first host-to-host message four years later. Crucially, TCP/IP — the internet’s underlying transmission protocol — was tested in 1975 and was adopted as the DARPA standard in 1980.
The infrastructure of the internet was growing as well. It was rapidly spreading to college campuses in Europe and North America, the network of subsea cables was growing, and national standards agencies were conferring and converging with each other.
Still, hardly anyone was actually using the internet. It was effectively restricted to developers, researchers, techies, experts. There were two reasons for this:
- Most communication among these cognoscenti proceeded via RFCs — memos generally relating to the operation of the network itself — shared via FTP. This is a far cry from dragging and dropping any kind of media on a touchscreen.
- The quality and quantity of available hardware was lacking. In terms of quality, “when desktop computers first appeared, it was thought by some that TCP was too big and complex to run on a personal computer.” (Sound familiar? Like the problem with mobile full nodes?) And in terms of quantity, fewer than 10% of American households had a PC in the mid-80s. Forget the rest of the world.
This is roughly equivalent to the state of Lightning today. Think about it. While smartphones are much more common than PCs were in the early 1980s, they’re still not able to run full Lightning nodes. However, PCs overcame the TCP/IP obstacle within a few years, so why shouldn’t full nodes go mobile soon?
Similarly, we’re still a “Lightning community” about the size of a small town. Many of us know each other, and we discuss Lightning among ourselves over expert channels like GitHub, which is effectively a reincarnation of the RFC message boards. Most people have never heard of Lightning, let alone ever used it. We have a functioning network and a solid fundamental protocol, but the revolution has yet to come.
The first step in making the internet into a mass phenomenon came in the early 1990s, when Tim Berners-Lee developed and released HTML. This transformed the internet from a text-based medium into an open-media medium. HTML was (and largely remains) the experiential DNA of the WWW.
Along with HTML, Berners-Lee and Nicola Pellow simultaneously pioneered the internet’s killer app: the web browser. The web browser obliterated the barriers to entry. It was a point-and-click interface that let users take part in the technology without having to worry about its underlying protocols. Instead of experts transferring data sets and draft protocols via FTP, people could suddenly order pizza from a clickable interface on their PCs.
Internet use exploded. Unsurprisingly, it spread first in high-income countries, later throughout the world. If you build it to be easy and useful, they will come.
So what’s Lightning’s killer app? Lightning is a payment network based on Bitcoin. So the killer app would have to take Bitcoin further by making it cheaper, easier, faster, and more intuitive to use without compromising its technological integrity. That means a seamless UX and a private, peer-to-peer, secure, decentralized, true-to-Bitcoin foundation. We’ve already taken some huge steps down that very long road.