Starting with a rant really: I have to confess to the dual sentiments of deep frustration and bleak resignation at finding myself writing about NFTs, no not London’s National Film and Television School (NFTS), but what I would describe as the topical, pernicious fantasy of Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs or ‘Nifties’) as part of the dark-web land-grab of arts and culture. Earlier this month, the first digital-only art auction was held by Christie's auction house and netted $69m for the artist Beeple1. And you know that when the major auction houses are involved, there is money to be made.
I actually fail to understand why, as a species, we yearn to mechanise, automate and transact everything in the ether, and in doing so, obliterate anything which might make us admit our humanity in its gamut, from the heroic to the despicable. It appears to me that humankind’s doomed myopic/narcissistic obsession for airbrushing life is only exceeded by the apparent desire to weaponise everything. I refer not only to more obvious potentials for trafficking illicit goods and people but also include drone swarm warfare, machine learning and AI, communications, energy, pornography, food and water supplies, facial recognition and now carbon belching cryptocurrency production. Yes, folks, crypto is the new, (but largely cloaked), dirty diesel in your home office and that ethereal currency mine a million new coal fired power stations on your doorstep2, only potentially much, much worse. I apologise if I sound like a Luddite here, but I am starting to feel like I’m living in Winston Smith’s attic3.
So why, you may ask, am I getting so exercised by the latest in a long line of capitalistic BS masquerading as ‘collecting’? And what the heck are NFT’s anyway and why should I care? Good questions both. NFT’s are essentially hitting the news as digital tokens that lend provenance and authenticity to a digital or potentially analogue asset, even one that can be infinitely replicated without degradation. However, I argue here that this brain-melting Pandora’s Box that is NFT’s, may deal a catastrophic blow to our ability to value artifacts as indicators/outputs of civilisation (as opposed to their potential to be celebrity-owned or profitably transacted).
If you think of NFT’s like trading cards, (think Pokemon, YuGiOh, Baseball, soccer etc.) that are swapped or auctioned, then that’s a start, but NFTs, like cryptocurrencies and blockchain4 ledgers, are essentially data, stored in a digital wallet. Now imagine that you had a unique paper Pokemon card, (let’s say a signed holographic Pikachu Illustrator), and you wanted to swap it for a different card, then you transact this. You could still retain a picture or memory of the card you had swapped, but you, and everybody else who’s interested, will know don’t really have it any more. Binary. Once you accept the principle, it’s then a small step for someone to swap/buy an ‘original’ tweet5 with all its digital blockchain provenance/watermark. The popular press has picked up on this because buying an infinitely replicable dataset or digital image seems so blatantly daft, who would fall for it? But people are invested in this, and whilst this has hit the headlines primarily in relation to digital art, NFT’s make it frighteningly possible to own (tokenistically) the provenance for almost anything – with all the attendant legal labyrinth that entails (IP lawyers are going to have a field day of course). So, for example, Nike is starting to authenticate their trainers with NFT’s, one can buy moving image and animated characters NFT’s, but frankly, the uses and abuses of NFT’s as content controllers has not even scratched the surface yet. The idea of counterfeiting and branding also becomes a lot more complicated.
To clarify, NFT’s are different from ‘plain’ cryptocurrencies because they facilitate the additional digital wallet information required to describe, define or depict that crypto-asset beyond simple dimensions of a transacted currency. It really then boils down to how the NFT asset can be used in terms of its nature and reproducibility. NFT ownership bestows digital braggadocio rights in terms of a dollar number and proof of blockchain ownership of the original, unique token – even if this is essentially indistinguishable from any copy future or past copy. In the eye of the casual beholder there the copy and the original are the same, but in the view of the owner, it’s reminiscent of the difference between owning an original Rembrandt self-portrait, and a print reproduction copy from a thrift store.
History teaches that villains, despots and monarchs6 have stolen, looted and stashed treasures to enjoy in secret, amass wealth, or simply to remove contentious or heretical items from public circulation and the public consciousness. Here, dear reader, with NFT’s, is where the unholy nexus of ownership, censorship and control meet, where financial, intellectual and political clout coincide. This coincidence potentially plays out with both benign and hostile actors of course; alongside those lovely digital kitty images, think ransomware, extortion, digital obsolescence (aka ‘bit rot’) and denial of service in relation to an unlimited scope of what can be owned, monopolised, monetised or hijacked.
We have seen the early adopters already spending big bucks on some fairly innocuous digital art assets, but the repercussions, transferability and principles of NFT’s mean that potentially, nothing is safe from private ownership or associated litigants. We are talking token ownership of everything here from a typeface, an artifact, an idea, a portion of a movie or novel, your hairstyle, teeth, your style… quite simply, anything you can think of. At this juncture I’m sure I hear you yawn as I conclude this episode with a passing mention that money launderers/dark web/state sponsored terrorism and organised crime are really quite interested in this as a non-fungible currency, never mind NFT, what about WTF.
1 Beeple - real name Mike Winkelmann - creates a new piece of digital art every day, and was selling the first 5,000 days (13 years) of his work. "This is a watershed moment and proof of concept for digital art, which has been dogged by questions of commercial value, authenticity, ownership and scarcity," said Rob Anders, boss of Israel-based digital art platform Niio.
2 Electricity needed to mine bitcoin is more than used by 'entire countries'.
3 Orwell, George. 1984. London: Secker and Warburg, 1949. Print.
4 The blockchain is a ledger that keeps track of who owns what. Instead of a central entity, decentralized nodes keep track of transactions. The nodes are called “miners”. Miners perform computing work to secure the system. Blockchain is not just about currency, it brings together different elements of society. Example domains: economics, computer science, law, technology, art.
5 Twitter founder Jack Dorsey's first ever tweet has been sold for the equivalent of $2.9m (£2.1m) to a Malaysia-based businessman. The tweet, which reads "just setting up my twttr," was first published on March 21, 2006, and was auctioned by Mr. Dorsey for charity. The Malaysia-based buyer Sina Estavi compared the purchase to buying a Mona Lisa painting. The tweet was bought using the ether cryptocurrency, a rival to bitcoin.
6 Revealed: police barred from searching Queen's estates for looted artefacts.