blockchain, cryptocurrency

Bitcoin + Lightning = P2P Commerce

In the beginning, there was barter. Everyone had something to buy or sell. Transactions happened freely between regular folks. No middlemen were needed. Presumably, everyone pretty much got what they required (it could be assumed that needs were simpler back then). Then came currencies in lieu of barter and the people who issued the currencies. Currencies began to acquire power. Fiat currencies came much more recently, one could say they were created out of thin air, not backed by a physical commodity. Some people had more, some had less or even none. Income disparities were born and gradually grew. These gaps between the haves and have nots spiraled to the stupendous levels of today where the top 1% control nearly 40% of America’s wealth. It can be argued that the system of currencies helped build up these inequalities between countries and between individuals.

All through the power of the Exchange Rate Regime.

Bitcoin and other digital currencies hold out the tantalizing promise of someday going back to a level playing field. One common currency (or set of currencies) for the entire planet. No more national currencies, no more exchange rate driven schisms. Anyone can transact in digital currencies, anytime. But it is still a somewhat distant promise. Some of the things coming in the way are scale and cost of transactions. Then there is politics. But that is another discussion. Coming to scale, Bitcoin is still too slow today. Just about 3-4 transactions per second. Whereas Visa does about 2,000 transactions per second. At over 7,000 dollars and rising, Bitcoin is becoming more and more expensive. And transaction fees are simply out of whack. A few dollars per transaction depending on how fast you want it to go through, ruling out smaller transactions.

Enter the Lightning Network, a truly pathbreaking solution. It can dramatically expand the scale to millions to billions of transactions per second. Forget Visa. It will blow away pretty much everyone by a wide, wide stretch. It performs its uncanny magic by moving transactions off the Blockchain using payment channels. More importantly, it assumes that intermediaries cannot be trusted. So, no hanky-panky possible. Channels can be opened, funded, used to route transactions, and closed at any time. A channel is a 2-of-2 multi-signature address, which means that both parties to the transaction need to sign off to complete a transaction. Half-signed signatures can be freely sent around in both directions. The moment both parties sign off on a 2-of-2 transaction, it gets broadcast to the Blockchain and the channel closes.

Checks and balances are instituted through cryptography and lock-in times, with the Blockchain available as an impartial arbitrator at any time. Lock times prevent a channel from closing too soon or out of turn. Exchanging private keys used to sign transactions prevents broadcasting of invalid transactions as the counter party can use the private key to sweep all the funds of the offending party. Posting transactions to the Blockchain closes the channel and locks in the funds distribution. An entire web of nodes can be constructed to route multi-hop payments anonymously. Consider it an Internet of Money. Transaction fees are expected to be near zero. This opens the spigot on microtransactions.

But the most important benefit is probably the opening of the entire globe as a market, all the 7.6 billion humans, through a common currency. The Internet brought about global connectivity. But the prevalence of national barriers and exchange rate differentials means that barriers remain. And then there are the banks and other financial institutions who control the creation and flow of funds.

The blockchain provides a foundational layer for transactions to flow across the globe. As a layer two solution atop the blockchain, the Lightning Network hugely accelerates the movement of transactions and helps realize the original vision behind Bitcoin. Any citizen of the world can access a payment channel to transact in bitcoin or other digital currency, without having to deal with nation states and financial institutions in the middle. Possibilities are breathtaking.  Transactions can flow seamlessly, unencumbered, across borders. Frictionless.

Global trade should start to rise with everyone having the opportunity to participate in it. Not just the privileged few. Wealth equalization and growth should follow as more and more people are provided an avenue to generate wealth, with the world as their oyster. Ushering in the world of Person-to-Person (P2P) Commerce, a rising tide that will lift all boats. Let the fun begin.

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