A Cypherpunk Dream: Blockstream Developer Departs to Build Bitcoin Web

“Combined with emerging information markets, cryptoanarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures.” — Timothy C. May, “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto”

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Bitcoin developer Eric Martindale has departed what might might be considered one of the sweetest gigs in the industry to follow his dream of building a decentralized information market where any data can be traded without restriction.

Having left the heavily funded magnet for bitcoin developer talent, Blockstream, earlier this year, the self-identified “cypherpunk” last week kicked off a roadshow to tour his idea for a new way to build applications directly on the bitcoin blockchain, and to raise funds from investors.

In one sense, Martindale’s project, called Fabric, is a decentralized, trustless exchange similar to an increasing number of marketplaces already in the works. What distinguishes the effort, though, is smart contract functionality he believes is superior to ethereum.

Martindale told CoinDesk:

“We’re replacing the World Wide Web with a new type of information exchange. One that is provable, that is guaranteed, and you can verify it. We’re creating a provable version of the World Wide Web and all of the services that exist on top of it.”

Long time coming

Perhaps best known for his work helping build BitPay’s open-source developer kit, Bitcore, Martindale was hired with much fanfare a year ago to serve as Blockstream’s “technology evangelist” helping build out the firm’s open-source strategy.

But as revealed to CoinDesk, Martindale had already been hard at work on Fabric at the time of his hire, going so far as to sign an early version of the white paper into the bitcoin blockchain.

In addition to being a distributed marketplace for information, Martindale described Fabric as the building blocks for a “much larger system of things and how they interact with each other in the real world.”

The Internet of Things-ready platform powered by the bitcoin blockchain is being built with what Martindale describes as an “offline first” philosophy. He says that applications built on a decentralized version of the internet should be able to fully function without an internet connection, then automatically sync up with the blockchain only when desired.

To enable the system of smart contract-powered applications, Martindale said Fabric reduces developer behavior to “verifiable” actions that can then be coded into a smart contract.

“Fabric is an app layer for bitcoin. And it is a protocol for those apps to interact with each other without having to trust each other,” said Martindale. “It’s a protocol for the exchange and manipulation of agreements and contracts and the exchange of data within those contracts.”

The breakthrough

When Martindale left BitPay last year, he said he had already been working on Fabric for about three years, and had considering giving the idea “a serious go” back then, before concluding the technology wasn’t yet ready.

So far, the bootstrapped project has been largely a solo effort, though he says he “bounced ideas off” Blockstream’s co-founder, Peter Wiulle, and its CTO, Greg Maxwell. A representative of Blockstream has confirmed that the company encourages its employees to work on open-source projects and wished Martindale “all the best.”

Since initially starting work on Fabric, Martindale said he’s been keeping the work “close to his chest” and focusing on what he believes are key improvements to the proof-of-work algorithm. Then, three months ago, he had what he called a “breakthrough” in the work.

Though he declined to go into much detail about its nature, he compared his idea to MIT’s Enigma project for off-chain transactions with additional features designed to allow for an infinite series of sidechains. Martindale called this technology “state bubbles”, explaining that they will simplify the enforcement of complicated agreements.

“We’re using proof-of-work to perform valuable calculations in a cryptographically secure way by distributing across the network,” he said.

The cypherpunk dream

Martindale’s vision for a decentralized marketplace for information is not new. The idea lies at the core of the cyberpunk movement as explained in Timothy C Mays’ 1988 “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.

The idea of an information exchange was then popularized in the 1980s by economist Phil Salin, who founded the American Information Exchange, later acquired by Autodesk. Since the advent of blockchain technology, the best known information exchange is the Silk Road, which, before it was shuttered by the FBI in 2014, offered for sale banned books and illicit or illegal services in addition to drugs.

Most recently, the idea has taken form in the likes of OpenBazaar (developed by OB1), a decentralized market place. Bitcoin marketplace Purse.io even went so far as to offer its own full node bitcoin implementation, bcoin, to enable the creation of a wide variety of applications.

But fully functioning stacks for a decentralized internet are still in the earliest stages of development, with venture-backed RSK and Blockstack having just recently released versions of their own attempts to push the technology forward.

To help bridge the gap between Fabric and the creation of fully functioning, smart-contract enabled applications built on the bitcoin blockchain, Martindale also revealed details about Maki: a compiler for Fabric that is already being tested by early adopters working to build websites and mobile applications using the technology.

Now that Martindale has completed the first leg of an international road trip in search of investors and members of what he hopes will be his founding team, he is preparing to publish an updated version of the white paper he signed to the bitcoin blockchain two years ago, including details of what he believes are improvements to proof-of-work.

“Fundamentally, it is an information market in the truest cypherpunk sense,” said Martindale:

“I have some pieces of information I would like to trade for something else.”

Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Blockstack, Blockstream, OB1, Purse and RSK. 

Complex machine image via Shutterstock

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