Ordinal inscriptions are all the rage. They obsoleted the concept of NFTs by offering artists a permanent way to display their finest works… on the Bitcoin blockchain. Casey Rodarmor, the self-proclaimed “disgraced Bitcoin Core developer” who previously worked at Chaincode Labs and also created a way to monetize file storage via Lightning (see the Agora project), is now in the spotlight for bringing a lot of action to Bitcoin.
Ordinals are essentially colored coins with an attached file that gets stored by every Bitcoin node. They’re a modern day adaptation and refinement of a concept that was first proposed on Bitcoin Talk in October 2012 by an user named jl2012. But the way in which Ordinals use Taproot and SegWit in order to insert files into the Bitcoin blockchain is truly unique. And while NFTs are mere tokens whose representation exists on a third party centralized server (as is the case with Counterparty assets), Ordinal inscriptions are hardcore and costly.
The brilliance of Casey Rodarmor’s design can be seen in the way that he designed the inscriptions: all transactions use Taproot and take advantage of the 75% SegWit discount. In order for users to start issuing Ordinals, they need to download and sync a Bitcoin Core node (only versions newer than 24 will work), use the command line Ord wallet, and also type in a series of inputs to instruct your node to send a certain type of transaction.
This might sound complicated, but lots of Bitcoin users seem to be inscribing memes, messages, trolling attempts, and all sorts of digital artefacts which turn Bitcoin into a time capsule for our times. When I set up the interview with Casey Rodarmor, there were fewer than 1000 inscriptions and the phenomenon was still small. By the time we livestreamed our chat, the number jumped to about 9000. And in only 6 days, we’re past the 58200 inscriptions mark. During my experimentation with Ordinals, I’ve managed to inscribe VLADHEAD (number 13494) and RODARMORHEAD (number 13284) – it wasn’t easy, but it was educational.
What’s really interesting about these Ordinals is that they attracted people who otherwise aren’t interested in Bitcoin. Plenty of Ethereum NFT folks decided to synchronize full nodes and pay high fees to the Bitcoin miners in order to immortalize their art on the network that will most likely outlive them. Consequently, miners started making more profits and the hashrate (as well as the difficulty) went up to record highs. It would be pretty ironic if this unpopular invention ended up providing a large chunk of Bitcoin’s security budget over the long term. Because, as the block subsidy gets halved every 210.000 blocks (~4 years), the BTC price needs to either double or else the fees need to get higher to compensate for the miners’ loss.
The Rust code for Ordinals, which took Casey Rodarmor about a year to write, was refined with a mindset of elegant minimalism. The instructions to build and run the Ord wallet can fit on a T-shirt. Ordinals make use of Bitcoin OP codes such as OP_PUSHNUM and OP_PUSHBYTES. And the so-called “files” or “jpegs” get stored as code which requires the proper software to decipher. The first such example is Casey’s own Ordinals.com website, which plays the role of both a blockchain explorer for Ordinal inscriptions and a guide for people who want to understand how everything works.
Naturally, in the context of a global permissionless computer network, this freedom to encode larger files via OP_RETURN has been abused by people who want to shock the world with their content. Some folks paid hundreds of dollars in transaction fees to make sure that everyone’s Bitcoin node is going to store some questionable adult content – which Casey promptly removed from his Ordinals explorer, to deter this type of behavior and also keep the image of the project clean.
But if you scroll through the almost 60.000 inscriptions registered at the time of this article, you’re going to notice that most images, audio files and text messages depict art collections, political satire, moments from history (Tiananmen Square, for example) and other types of items that Bitcoin wanted to stare in the eternal time capsule. For now, Ordinal inscriptions are controversial to the point of division between bitcoiners. Some developers created filters which prevent these particular transactions from entering the mempool of nodes, in hopes that they will be censored and stopped from entering blocks – though inscribers rely one full nodes to broadcast their transactions, so the attempt is futile. However, one can imagine how in a few decades there will be historians who search through these inscriptions to learn more about our culture.
Are Ordinal inscriptions just a fad that will go away as soon as transaction fees increase, or will they change the fate of Bitcoin? Is there room for artistic expression on the Bitcoin blockchain? Will Justin Wales’ vision of a Bitcoin network that’s protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment come to fruition? Will regulators get confused about what Bitcoin is, now that monetary transactions are complemented to a large extent by art and speech? Will third world country node operators get phased out by the increasing storage costs and higher data requirements that come with larger blocks? And will all the angry Bitcoin developers (most of them associated with Blockstream, to some extent) come to terms that Bitcoin is so much more than a money network?
Well, there is only one way to find out. But if you’d like to learn more about Ordinal inscriptions to understand all sides of this debate, then you should definitely listen to S13 E3 of the Bitcoin Takeover podcast, a 3-hour marathon featuring Ordinals creator and Hell Money co-host Casey Rodarmor.
Listen to Casey Rodarmor on Apple Podcasts, Spotify & YouTube!
Originally, this episode was recorded during a YouTube livestream. So if you’d love to enjoy the raw and ad-free experience, then YouTube is the best way to go. On every other platform, you’re going to hear ads – but the audio quality has been improved with levelling, equalization and compression.
For the best audio experience and the highest amount of privacy, I recommend you to not use big tech platforms and go for this free player instead. But if you do use Spotify or Apple Podcasts, then please subscribe and leave ratings/feedback. Your contribution only takes a few seconds, but makes a huge difference in terms of discoverability. People searching for good Bitcoin content will get a suggestion to listen to Bitcoin Takeover podcast much sooner.
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