Oct 28, 2021

what's a computer?

Robin Sloan, in The slab and the permacomputer, puts a finger on what makes deploying a contract to the Ethereum blockchain feel so…different.

Even so, I can’t deny that Ethereum’s “world computer” is interesting and, even more than that, evocative. The Ethereum blockchain is one entity, shared globally, agreed upon by all its participants: that’s what makes it useful as a ledger. The Ethereum Virtual Machine, a kind of computer — simultaneously sophisticated and primitive — is likewise one logical entity, even if it’s distributed in space and time.

As with a lot of things in crypto, the feeling is as much mystical as it is technical. I understand why people get excited when they deploy an Ethereum contract: it feels like you are programming not just a computer, but THE computer. That feeling is technically wrong; it is definitely just a computer; but since when did the technical wrongness of feelings prevent them from being motivating?

One of the “mystical” Web3 things that is delightfully breaking my brain is that the EVM is forcing us ask the question (again): What’s a computer?