The Transaction Costs of Tokenizing Everything

I wonder if Al Gore ever looks down at us peons, crawling around the internet like eight-legged leeches:

I invented that. I took the initiative in creating the Internet. Now all these freeloaders are using MY internet protocol to drive billions of dollars worth of value. For FREE.

Damn, I should have done an ICO.

Even though Al Gore neglected to tokenize his internet protocol*, someone else came along with the next-best thing.

In 1999, a clever company called Enron invented something called a bandwidth contract.

The internet is just a bunch of routers and cables, sending and receiving data all day long. Most internet providers have peering agreements, where they carry each other’s traffic for free. Sharing is mutually beneficial, and their customers pay a fixed monthly rate regardless of use.

That’s all well and good when capacity is plentiful, but what happens if half the country wants to stream Sunday Night Football while I’m trying to sync my Bitcoin node? Whose data gets to go first?

Enron’s bandwidth contracts were designed to solve this potential queueing problem. By forcing internet users to bid for bandwidth by the minute, the free market would decide the optimal allocation of resources [1].

Sadly, Enron imploded before it could fully realize its bandwidth trading dream. Still, the idea of turning every network into a market was pretty hot in the dot-com days [2]. To see how things might have turned out, we can look at a company called Mojo Nation.

A MASSIVE AMOUNT OF STORAGE SITS UNUSED IN DATA CENTERS AND HARD DRIVES AROUND THE WORLD. Let your hard drive shit out money by fulfilling storage requests on the open market!

Such is the marketing pitch of services like Filecoin, Sia, Storj, MaidSafe, and all those other decentralized file storage tokens. Seventeen years ago, their founders were still in diapers when Mojo Nation launched to address the problem of Pareto-inefficient data storage.

Mojo Nation created a digital payment system to buy and sell computational resources. Participants could earn Mojo tokens by contributing things like disk space, bandwidth, CPU cycles. Those who wanted resources offered bids in outgoing requests. Mojo tokens relied on a centralized mint because blockchains weren’t around yet, but centralization was the least of its problems: Tokens were a huge distraction from what users really wanted to do, which was share files [3].

A bidding market is an awfully complicated thing. Take Bitcoin, for instance. Each block has a finite capacity, so participants submit transaction fees to incentivize miners to include their transactions. It’s a simple concept, but transaction fees are the most aggravating part of Bitcoin. There are people like Roger Ver who have been using Bitcoin since 2011 and STILL can’t figure out how transaction fees work.

I’m not trying to pick on Roger here; this is not a user-friendly experience. Those who want to tokenize all the protocols are effectively shoehorning the same shitty experience into every aspect of the internet. My mother can’t even update her Facebook picture without backup assist; how on earth will she manage five-dozen protocol tokens to navigate the web?

Many dot-com era platforms tried to create bandwidth exchanges, but none found willing participants. Enron and Blockbuster temporarily joined forces to create on-demand streaming video, in hopes that they could clog up so much bandwidth that internet providers would start a bandwidth bidding war. No such luck. As it turns out, bandwidth — and most computational resources — are simply too cheap to meter.

After Mojo Nation’s demise, a former employee stripped the token incentives out of the protocol and created a simple tit-for-tat filesharing system. The software client uploads files to peers that provide downloads [4]. Users can’t accumulate credits, and sometimes freeloaders go unpunished, but people don’t care about perfect resource allocation — they just want convenient file access. By 2004, BitTorrent was responsible for a quarter of all the traffic on the internet.

And everyone lived Pareto sub-Optimally ever after.

* Kidding. The Internet Protocol was created by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. The only thing Al Gore invented was global warming.

1. Enron’s Bandwidth Trading patent, 2001.

2. Mark Miller and K. Eric Drexler. The Agoric Papers, 2000.

3. A conversation about Mojo Nation on Unenumerated, ca. 2007.

4. Bram Cohen. Incentives Build Robustness in BitTorrent, 2003.

5. Bryce Wilcox-O’Hearn, who now goes by Zooko, CEO of ZCash. Mojo Nation: Experiences Deploying a Large-Scale Emergent Network, IPTPS 2002.

6. Mojo Nation website from 2000.

88 thoughts on “The Transaction Costs of Tokenizing Everything

    1. If he doesn’t understand why it costs $78 to send a 400-input transaction, then he doesn’t know how tx fees work

      1. There are multiple levels of “why”. Do you really think he doesn’t understand that having lots of inputs in his transaction makes it larger and that larger transactions will be more expensive when transaction space is limited?

        A more charitable reading of his tweet is “fees are getting too high, and even though my tx had 400 inputs, it would still be a lot cheaper if we picked a more sensible point on the throughput/[cost of running a node/propagation latency] tradeoff. And we should pick such a point because .”

        1. I don’t know if he understands or not. If his tx only had one input, it would have cost about 20 cents. The transaction also would have been about 33% cheaper if he had used segwit. His BitcoinCash project removed segwit even though they claim to be lowering tx fees, which makes me think he is genuinely confused about how tx fees work.

        2. Roger has given us 6 years of evidence that he does not understand Bitcoin. It’s impossible to read that tweet charitably. He’s using an (inefficiently put together) multi-input transaction to deceivingly make a political point about a blocksize increase. Most transactions do not have fees of $78. He knows this – he wants to play on the common misunderstanding about transaction fees.

  1. I think Roger’s point was that BTC fees are out of hand. When it costs $6 to send $70, and take almost 2 hours, consumers can find better options. What is BTC if not an electronic peer-to-peer cash system? Fees must be nominal. They are not. Legacy systems do it better atm. A new crypto will rise for transfer of value.

  2. What a great read. I recall some of this from the 90’s. Met Enron rep in Redmond circa 2000, couldn’t grasp what they did or how they made money. Don’t think he did either.

    “Information wants to be free” hence our trouble securing those pesky yet precious bitstrings called private keys.

  3. I had the dubious privilege of taking a meeting to listen to Enron’s bandwidth arbitrage proposal back in the day whey they were trying to roll it out. That was while they were spiking electricity prices in California. One of my colleagues asked the Enronald doing the pitch, “what about dark fiber?” Blank look. We said, “interesting, thanks” and headed to the airport.

    1. cool. I asked my well-esteemed college professor (MIS, UT-Austin) back in the day about dark fiber. gave a blank look. Was the only time I ever remember that he was not able to give an answer. proud day for me. circa 93

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