It would be difficult to miss the turmoil surrounding non-spongy tokens (NFTs). Non-spongy tokens are initially purchased digital items found on a blockchain. At this time, NFTs exist on the Ethereum blockchain, but there is no reason why they could not be implemented on others; it seems reasonably likely that specialized blockchains will be built for NFTs.
What kind of value do NFTs create? It has certainly been claimed that they are creating a market for digital art, that digital artists can now get “paid” for their work. Wikipedia points to a number of other possible uses: they can also be used to represent other collectibles (a digital equivalent of baseball trading cards) or to represent assets in online games or even to represent shares in a real-world athlete contract – Or one share in an athlete’s body. Of course, there is a secondary market for trading NFTs, just as a collector might sell a work of art from a collection.
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All of these transactions depend on the idea that an NFT establishes the “origin” of a digital object. Who owns it? Who owned it before? Who created it? Which of the many, many copies is the “original”? These are important issues for many valuable and unique physical objects: works of art, historical documents, antiques and even real estate. NFTs present the possibility of bringing “ownership” to the virtual world: Who owns a tweet? Who owns a jpeg, gif or png file?
Whether or not you think ownership of virtual objects is important, keep in mind that digital objects are close to meaningless if they are not copied. If you can’t see a png or jpg in your browser, it might as well hang on the wall of a museum. And it is worth talking about, because the language “origin” comes directly from the museum world. If I have a painting – e.g. A Rembrandt – its origin is the story of its ownership, and it is ideal to trace it back to its original source.
The origin of a work of art serves two purposes: academic and commercial. Origin is important academically because it allows you to believe that you are studying the right thing: a real Rembrandt, not a copy (copying famous paintings is an honored part of a painting education, in addition to a possibility of forgery), or something who happens to look like Rembrandt, but is not (“hey, dark, depressing paintings of Dutch people are a little cool; maybe I can do one”).
Commercially, descent works of art allow to become extremely expensive. It allows them to become fetishized objects of enormous value, at least for collectors. Especially to collectors: “Hey, my Rembrandt, is worth more than your Vermeer.” It is much harder to bid the price of a painting in the millions if you are unsure of its origin.
NFTs enable the commercial function of descent; they allow @Jack’s first tweet to become a fetishized item worth millions, at least until people decide there’s something else they’d rather pay for. They establish a playground for the ultra-wealthy; If you have so much money that you do not care how you spend it, why not buy Jack’s first tweet? You do not even have to put it on the wall and look at the old Dutch guys or worry about burglar alarms. (You have a good password, right?)
But I do not think it is worth very much. What about the academic function? There is some value in studying the early history of Twitter, possibly including @Jack’s first tweet. But what does NFT really show me? That it really is Jack’s pieces? Certainly not; who knows (and who cares) what became of the 0s and 1s that originally lived on Jack’s laptop and Twitter servers? Even if the original bits still existed, they would not be meaningful – lots of people have or have had the same set of bits on their computers. As any programmer knows, equality and identity are not the same thing. In this case, equality is important (is that what @jack wrote?); identity not.
However, an NFT does not confirm that the tweet is what @Jack actually said. An NFT is only about a lot of bits, not about what the creator (or anyone else) claims about the bits. @Jack can easily make mistakes or be dishonest (in literature, we are constantly dealing with writers who want to change what they have “said” or what they meant by what they said). Our belief in the content of @Jack’s first tweet has everything to do with our belief in @jack and Twitter (where you can still find it), and nothing to do with NFT.
A tweet is a thing; how about a digital work of art? Does an NFT establish the origin of a digital work of art? It depends on what is meant by “the origin of a digital work of art.” A copy of a Rembrandt is still a copy, meaning it is not the artifact Rembrandt created. There are all sorts of techniques, from very low to very high-tech, to establish the connection between artist and artwork. These techniques are pointless in the digital world, which eliminates noise, eliminates copying errors. So why would I not care if my copy of the pieces is not the artist’s original? The artist’s bits are not the “original” either. That kind of originality is meaningless in the digital world: has the artist ever recovered from backup? Was the artwork never exchanged for disk and exchanged back?
What “originality” really means is “this is the unique product of my mind.” We can ask any number of questions about what that might mean, but let’s keep it simple. Whatever this statement means, it is not a statement that an NFT or a blockchain matters to. We have already seen cases of people creating NFTs for the work of others and thus “owning” it. Is this theft of intellectual property or a form of meta-art of its own? (One of my favorite avant-garde piano compositions contains the instructions “The performer must prepare any composition and then perform it as best he can.”)
So what kind of declaration of originality, uniqueness or authorship of a work of art could be established by an NFT? Beeple, which sold an NFT titled “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” for over $ 69 million, says NFT is not about copyright ownership: “You can show the token and show that you own the token, but you do does not own the copyright. ”I suppose Beeple still owns the copyright to his work – does that mean he can sell it again? The NFT typically does not contain the bits that make up the work of art (I think this is possible , but only for very small objects); as @jonty points out, what NFT actually contains is not the work, but a URL, a link. This URL points to a resource (a JSON metadata file or an IPFS hash) that is likely to be on a startup server. And that resource points to the work. If this link becomes invalid (eg if the startup breaks), everything you “own” is an invalid link. A 404.
Some of these problems can be addressed; some are not. The conclusion, however, is that the connection between a creator and a work of art cannot be established by cryptographic checksums.
So are NFTs creating a market for works of art that did not exist before? Maybe – even if what is bought and sold is not the actual work (which remains infinite and perfectly reproducible), or even the right to reproduce the work (copyright), it is not clear to me how it really benefits artists, or even how it changes the picture a lot. I suppose this is some kind of 21st century patronage where a rich man gives an artist a pile of money to be an artist (or gives Jack Dorsey money to be @jack). As a protectorate, it looks more like Prince Esterhazy than Patreon. A few artists want to make money, maybe even more money than they would otherwise, because I see no reason why you can not sell the work itself beyond NFT. Or sell multiple NFTs that refer to the same work. But most will not. The irreducible problem with being an artist – whether it’s a musician, a painter or a sculptor, whether the medium is digital or physical – is that there are more people who want the job than people are willing to pay.
What ultimately creates NFTs? A kind of digital fetishism around possession of bits, but maybe not much else. An NFT shows that you are able to spend money on something – without involving the “something” itself. As Beeple says, “you can show the token.” This is conspicuous consumption in perhaps its purest form. It’s like buying jewelry and framing the receipt. That an explosion in conspicuous consumption should occur at this point in history is not surprising. The technology society is full of wealth: wealth from unicorns that will never earn a cent of profits, wealth from cryptocurrencies that are very difficult to use to buy or sell anything. What is the value of being rich if you can not show it? How do you show something during a socially distant pandemic? And if all you care about is showing off your wealth, NFT, where the real value lies, is not in the artwork. You can buy, sell or exchange them, just like baseball cards. Just do not mistake an NFT for “ownership” in anything other than the NFT itself.
Banksy’s self-destructive artwork was much more to that point. Unlike Banksy’s many public murals, which everyone can enjoy for free, this painting shredded itself as soon as it was bought at auction. By buying it ruined it.