Making Something Different

Free and open source projects like bitcoin and lightning start off full of idealism. We look forward to “being our own bank” and direct peer-to-peer transactions virtually free of charge.

As the technology develops, it becomes easier for those with less imagination to see some of the potential, and they get involved. People who are only interested in business look at the systems and start to produce their “solutions”. Their products are not free and open, they don”t share the aims of the original inventors. The users they are aiming at are running businesses, and they will think nothing of paying 20 dollars a month and upwards for the smallest service they provide. They’re not interested in helping everyone “be your own bank”, only those able to pay a monthly fee. And that’s fair enough, but it’s no use to us.

When an end user comes along, they see these services and to them it’s perfect. Almost no work required, and really cheap to implement. Their primary income is via a standard store software designed by the same kind of business people as the lightning payment system they are looking at. They don’t intend to use bitcoin exclusively to make things less expensive for their users because the banker system is something they’re already tied up in. Bitcoin and lightning payments are just an additional option for them.

Having already become invested in the existing system, they have no disadvantage in keeping it and simply slotting in their new payment without changing their system at all. The new services are all designed primarily to suit these customers. Why wouldn’t they be? These are the only customers who are making enough money to be able to pay a worthwhile fee.

Hence, all the options that are easy for us to implement are too expensive to fulfil the needs of a human-scaled, peer-to-peer and distributed charity system. We could (I could) easily pay these fees and build a system that uses them, but it would be of little use to someone who cannot pay for it.

You want fries with that?

This is not just in the use of bitcoin and lightning, it’s in the payment system itself. Any payment system, even a simple one, is a lot of work to code. All the systems that were available to us were designed primarily for an online store. They have all the bloat that’s needed to accept and process banker money. Our system doesn’t need any of that complexity. So if we want to offer users a simple interface we need to design it ourselves. Otherwise we may feel the need to offer free shipping with our sponsorships!

Fortunately, one developer was so disgusted at one bitcoin payment processor charging really high fees that he wrote his own version of it and made it open source. This is called BTCpay. It was made with ordinary people in mind, not just businesses. Instead of slotting neatly into the online store systems, the bloat needed for that is relegated to plug-ins. We can just use it as it is.

The downside is that we’re pretty much on our own when it comes to all the other implementations. There is no “easy to use” click-and-play set-up for our users to be able to have their own instances.

This is what we need to develop. All the ease-of-use of a commercial product but in a non-commercial system that doesn’t need an office, government parasitism, expense accounts, consultants and so on. It needs to be free to acquire and so cheap to use that a normal person living somewhere like Nairobi could put together a project and easily fund the start of it by getting a small number of people to help them set it up.

Following the crowd with our system design will not achieve that aim. If it could, such systems would already exist. It’s easy to adopt already existing templates and subsystems, cobbling them together to achieve something like what you want. I did so originally with WordPress, adding plug-in after plug-in to provide all the features. It ended up so bloated that even the kind of hosting account that relatively big sites use was not good enough. I tried out accounts costing 25 dollars a month and it was still slow as molasses.

If you’re hiking and you only follow paths, you’ll only ever go where someone else has already been. That’s fine unless you want to go somewhere different.