I was watching a Coffeezilla video recently, one among many already uploaded not just by him regarding the spate of NFTs that have taken over the cryptocurrency space. In the video, Coffeezilla touches on a few very important points about NFTs that I couldn’t help agree with. Not being entirely caught up in the cyptocurrency and de-fi (decentralized finance) space (I’ve been quite too preoccupied lately with the stress of moving between jobs, of actually teaching students and being responsible for whatever shit they carry with them in their future careers), I’ve had very limited headspace to dedicate to the conversation. But Coffeezilla was able to verbalize some of the opinions that have been forming of late in my mind.
For those who still find themselves scratching their heads at the term, The Verge just this year put up a very approachable explainer of NFTs, with a specific focus on the digital art market. But to give a very rough summary, an NFT is essentially a program that’s built on the Etherium blockchain. Yes, Etherium, as in that digital coin that Finance Bros have been raving about all year over Youtube and Tiktok. Etherium isn’t just a digital currency: in fact, the digital currency is sort of a secondary thing, like an added feature if you will. What makes Etherium not just any Bitcoin alternative is that the Etherium network is essentially one big operating system, kind of like a computer on which other developers can write and deploy their own programs. That’s where NFTs come in.
A running gag amongst NFT naysayers is that all these art collectors are purchasing JPEGs that anyone can just screenshot and save on their mobile devices. To some degree, that joke carries truth in it. But in exactly the same way, anyone can just do a quick Google search of the Mona Lisa and save it to their devices, but never in their life will they be so crazy as to declare that they now “own” the Mona Lisa. That’s because the Mona Lisa exists as something else other than the image you just saved: it exists as an actual, physical painting that currently hangs in the Louvre.
This is what NFTs are trying to substitute for. Digital art doesn’t come with a physical precursor. It exists as a file that the artist can copy and paste countless of times, and that other people on the internet can – if it’s uploaded online – can download countless of times. You can’t do that with an NFT. The term “non-fungible” that makes up the name means that it’s minted once, without a likeness. It’s not the same as two guys both having 1 bitcoin: one guy’s bitcoin is completely exchangeable as the other’s. An NFT that’s been transferred to your wallet has no exchangeable likeness anywhere – kind of like an original Mona Lisa. By now, probably countless of people have downloaded copies of the Bored Apes NFT to make a point, but there will always be just the very few people who actually have the NFT, and for them that means something.
But all that is prologue to what I really want to bring up in this blog post. I think it’s really unfortunate that the NFT market has been overtaken by swindlers and idiots. It’s really a promising technology, if used properly. The NFT is, I believe, the first publicly consumable artifact of the Web 3.0 movement. If you haven’t heard of the term yet, experts (computer scientists, developers, social commentators, and what have you) like to divide the history of the Internet era (yes, this ongoing Internet era) into movements. The first movement, Web 1.0, proceeds with the beginning of the World Wide Web as we know it. As computers were starting to be linked together into a massive, publicly available ecosystem, the technologies could only do so much as to serve us static content, curated for us by other people – usually the haphazardly assembled web teams of the few companies who were fashionable enough to become early adopters.
The divisions are murky, as with any attempt to demarcate human progress, but Web 2.0 is widely accepted to be around the age that companies like Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, and Youtube enter the arena: the age of creation. We were no longer reading store catalogues and consuming other people’s media. Finally we were given the power to create our own media. Audience and performer, all rolled into one, as Bo Burnham describes it at the end of his last live comedy special, Make Happy.
Web 3.0 is the next step of this progression of democratizing the internet, or so we are led to believe. Web 3.0, with the advent of decentralized technologies, is pretty much the “New Internet” dreamed by Thomas Middleditch’s neurotic lead character in the HBO Sitcom, Silicon Valley. In this internet, people will finally be allowed to own stuff: their money, the art they create, the products they purchase. It is a vision of finance without banks, art without art dealers. Right now, that latter portion seems to be the popular draw with NFTs. Artists, supposedly, are selling their master works to collectors, and this transaction is protected and legitimized through an NFT. And what great art has been born into the crypto space through this innovation?
I’m not here to pontificate on what is and isn’t art. That’s a Herculean discussion for the critics to have, and I’ll leave it well alone with them. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that far from democratizing art creation on the Internet, NFTs are becoming yet another venue for rich assholes with too much money sitting around the floor of their penthouse apartments to screw over the general public. Not unlike the situation the real world art market is having right now. The only difference is that, rather than being limited to just politicians, mob bosses, and the corporate elite, anybody who’s got a disposable million dollars or two lying around can join in the fun. So maybe it’s wrong to say that NFTs haven’t democratized anything. Last month, Mr. Beast and Logan Paul (again), two of the biggest Youtube influencers active right now, happily admitted on a podcast joining what netizens argue as being equivalently a pump-and-dump scheme. Logan would later expound that it was this very scheme (of course he doesn’t call it as one) that inspired his Crypto Zoo NFT project (of which the elephant image is part).
And again, it’s so unfortunate that this is the image that the general public has right now of the NFT space. Consider this: the biggest issue with digital assets (e.g., ebooks, music, film) is that they are severely walled in to their individual ecosystems. Early this year, Amazon for some still unexplained reason decided to block my Kindle account, effectively cutting off my access to all the books I purchased in there. In the same way, you can’t really take your Google Books outside of their app, or the music you bought on Apple Music anywhere but within the Apple walled garden. It’s a major flaw in the experience of buying and owning digital assets, in that these companies really don’t want and won’t let you own stuff you rightfully purchased with your hard-earned money. This is especially annoying considering that an average Kindle book costs the same as the paperback version, at least here in the Philippines. So what exactly did I pay for, Bezos?
But imagine if every digital asset you purchased came with a signature that guaranteed you had ownership, even outside of the ecosystem you purchased it in. If every book I purchased on the Kindle store came with an NFT that served as proof of my having owned a copy of that book, and I can then use said NFT to transfer that book between my Amazon account to, say, a Kobo account. The same way you might transfer stock certificates between brokers, or your academic transcript between universities. Having that mediation through NFTs, we would finally get much closer to how we own things in real life.
But it looks like we are going to have to go through this stupid infancy stage. While developers are hard at work pushing the envelope of Web 3.0 and the cryptocurrency revolution, we have to watch these “entrepreneur” fratboys sell overpriced JPEGs of bored apes and refrigerator art the kind three-year-olds bring home from kindergarten.