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In the blockchain industry, “scalability” can mean a lot of things. In one debate, you may hear about a technology’s lack of scalability in terms of blockchain’s size over time, conflating the ability to on-board new network participants cheaply with the technology’s ability to survive the test of time. In another discussion, you may hear comparisons to legacy technologies like traditional payment processors and the transaction volume they have on certain holidays as a worthy definition of what is required of a scalable technology.
Yet another heated conversation may attempt to persuade the listener that there is a fundamental trade-off between scalability and decentralization, and that one or the other is a sacred quality of blockchains.
Indeed, there is no consensus (pun intended) on what a scalable blockchain is — or should be. What is clear however, is that the mass market has not yet arrived at the promise of blockchain; when that day comes, we will need scalable solutions for every problem that blockchains address.
To underscore the point that scalability is a gating factor for mass market adoption, I offer a simple and generic definition of scalability: Scalability refers to a blockchain’s ability to provide a rich experience for users independent of how many users have this experience. Whether the user’s experience is joining a blockchain’s network, interacting with a decentralized application (DApp) during a prime-time rush, or breaking out from a centralized walled garden, the experience must be excellent to achieve mass market adoption. So, scalability is a key consideration if a technology seeks mainstream adoption, but is mass adoption itself important?
Is mass adoption itself important?
I think it is. Let me explain by using an everyday example. Think about the experience of attending a major sporting event — like the World Cup rather than a regular league match. The dimensions of the field are the same, the rules of the game are the same, the players are the same… you get the idea.
Yes, the stakes are higher for the teams and therefore the fans, but in isolation, that has a limited effect. Where events like this come alive for fans and players alike is when you reach a critical mass of people in the stadium, moving, chanting, screaming, crying and celebrating together. There is, quite literally, exponential experiential value in the crowd sizes that these events draw, which is impossible to replicate. These kinds of user experiences are only achievable with a critical mass of users. And this, I contend, is the true value of mass market adoption: It is itself a gate — or a ceiling — on the level of user experiences achievable that require a critical mass.
Furthermore, scalability is not only a gate, whose value would drop sharply once it crosses some imagined line for critical mass; it is also a means to more fair and open access of experiences. When a technology can scale in excess of its baseline need for critical mass, it becomes cheaper to operate. This, in turn, lowers the barriers of participation for users. If an experience lacks scalability but has achieved critical mass, it becomes an exclusive experience. The technology itself may constantly oust “lesser” participants in favor of those with higher perceived value.
We have avoided many dogmatic arguments around blockchain so far, but this situation seems clearly to be the opposite of what many of us want blockchain to be. This means that a lack of open-access can be considered an existential threat to blockchain technology outright. As a result, scalability of blockchain technology is more than a lofty goal — it is a requirement for future blockchain technology.
Scalability is critical in order to achieve the experiences and goals of the blockchain industry. One of the most approachable ways to improve scalability in the industry is to consider a decentralized application not as a resident on a single blockchain technology, but an experience that is provided by coordinating many independent platforms and protocols. Consider how the internet has developed into a fundamental part of our daily lives: collaborative standards, competitive technology providers working together in a stack, a focus on the end-users, and a tide that lifts many boats. Ultimately, I believe it would serve the blockchain industry well to recognize that solving scalability for blockchains is a team sport.
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