Are NFTs Frigid Stars?

Update 25/10/2021: This post has proven very popular and I have followed much of the discussion around it on Twitter with interest. Returning to it a few weeks later, I’ve decided to update and polish it, fleshing out some of the arguments, with a few of the comments and debates in mind.

There’s a thread going round today where someone explains why NFTs are a scam. Frankly, I don’t know a thing about NFTs — although nor does anyone else, it seems, and that hardly stops most people from laying down some steaming takes — but I do know a thing or two about capitalism, it’s development and recent attempts to intervene in how it functions, as well as how capitalist ideology afflicts even those who might declare themselves anti-capitalist. In that regard, I do find the hysteria around NFTs quite telling.

What is striking to me is that NFTs and their markets are constantly framed as devious and evil things, but then people just describe how physical art markets work. What is made to sound like an investigative “gotcha” is just people describing how current injustices and corruption are continuing in a new space. But the point of getting critically involved in this space is surely to stop normal capitalism from replicating itself digitally, as it has tried to do (often impractically and clumsily) for the past two decades.

This suggestion, in itself, is often ridiculed — of course NFTs aren’t some step on the road to capitalist abolition! Maybe that’s true. But at the very least they offer us an opportunity to redress our present value systems, which greatly disadvantage people who make digital content and culture, and which I believe are important in changing how we address future cultural crises.

This is the choice we have given ourselves at present, and I think it is a fallacy — either we embrace anti-capitalism, which we take to mean monk-like poverty outside of any sort of market, or we participate in capitalism and sell-out, raking in the profits of our labours. But this is a false choice, because neither of these things is possible or achievable. There is no “outside” to capitalism anywhere, except in some uncontacted Amazonian tribes, and even then it is infringing upon their space. There is also very little chance that your cultural production will transform you into some sort of capitalist. Online especially, people often assume that social or cultural capital equates to actual capital — as someone relatively well-known online at this point, who is often denounced for running some sort of grift, I can tell you that if I walked away from my day job tomorrow, the total annual income from my various online projects would last me about two months in terms of covering my living costs alone. Cultural production online does not pay.

This is a problem, and it has been a problem for decades. We have completely separated our sense of cultural value from our sense of economic value, thinking that means we’re being good anti-capitalists, when actually all we are doing is limiting our capacity to produce more cultural interventions within a capitalist hegemony. Whereas culture was once a space for important interventions in capitalist space, the very devaluing of digital culture (from music streaming to journalism and beyond) has lessened that impact considerably. We are more at the mercy of capitalist forces, not less, because we are less independent in our cultural production.

Will NFTs solve this crisis? Not on their own, but their associated systems and technologies clearly offer opportunities to redress that balance. That is where discussions around NFTs is most interesting and essential, I think, and though I may not feel capable of talking about the finer technical points of how they work, I am interested in any forward-thinking approach that challenges the utterly broken infrastructure on which we base our digital cultures. When I encounter cynics, all I really see are people who don’t care about redressing that balance or are happy to continue with the shit situation we already have. To put it bluntly, the purity politics of those who should know better feels like nothing more than a reactionary desire to masochistically preserve the drudgery they know and otherwise constantly complain about.

To talk about all this, at first I was just going to write a series of tweets, breaking down this “star registry scam” person’s argument, just for the sake of my own understanding of their position, but it became too longwinded.

Here’s an annotated version of the viral thread instead:

Lets finally talk about how NFTs are a giant scam. (1/) 🧵

First let’s talk about what the NFT market actually is. Unlike buying bonds, equities, real estate, or actual art you’re not buying something with any tangible existence, rights or utility. You’re buying an expensive entry in someone else’s database. (2/)

There is one comparable market to NFTs: The Star Naming Market.

Back in the 90s some entrepreneurs found you could convince the public to buy “rights” to name yet-unnamed stars after their loved ones by selling entries in an unofficial register. (3/)

You’d buy the “rights” to a name the star and they’d send you a piece of paper claiming that you were now the owner of said star. Nothing was actually done in this transaction, you simply paid someone to update a register about a ball of plasma millions of light years away. (4/)

Thing with star registries is they’re not unique and don’t actually convey ownership. The entire grift is in convincing other people that it has meaning. The value of naming is a star is precisely how much bullshit your loved one is willing to buy in this enterprise (5/)

First things first, I’m not sure how this is comparable to selling an NFT at all. The only way I can understand this as an example is that it indirectly affirms the apparent intangibility or immateriality of the token itself. But the problem with that, surely, is that it ignores the agency of the person who made the NFT.

Whatever you think of them, an NFT isn’t a star… Someone made it. This isn’t “buying a pet rock”. This isn’t paying money for something someone just found on the ground “as a grift”. Though people might assume an NFT has no actual value as an object — presumably because it’s digital or has previously circulated for free — it’s still something someone made, designed, coded, etc., often without remuneration. It is a cultural artefact that we have utterly alienated from its source. That source needn’t be an individual, of course — it could be a group or a website or something else — and an NFT is one way of reconnecting that digital object to the person who created it, contrary to capitalism’s mechanisms of alienation. In that sense, it is the opposite of a star registry, plain and simple.

That doesn’t mean that an NFT innately has value in a social or cultural sense, of course. But this idea that we have to be convinced of something’s meaning and that is bad — as if beauty or value should be immediate recognisable and innate — is a very strange way of thinking about culture of any kind. You just end up sounding like someone’s dad whose paid however much it costs to get into the Louvre these days and thinks it is all some scam. Who’s to say anything has meaning, you know? I am very intelligent! But this is the argument that people make. They despair that something supposedly so worthless or unimportant could be worth so much (money or otherwise) to someone else. (Again, welcome to the art world.) And yet, despite how most people frame these transactions, many NFTs sales I’ve witnessed happen within specific communities, where their value is determined by a passionate inner circle. They’re not weird overpriced Banksys bought by rich people with no taste. They’re produced and bought by specific communities that care about this stuff. Most of it isn’t for me, personally, I’ll admit, but who cares? I’m glad they make someone happy and I’m glad there is a culture of collecting and supporting artists online that isn’t based on the flawed and patronizing charity model we’ve taken as a given.

That’s not to say NFT marketplaces are perfect havens from art markets more generally. The biggest problem is that these things replicate what is already bogus elsewhere. So why don’t people take more of a stand against these tendencies offline? Maybe because they know that this small minority of uber-rich painting swappers are not the be-all-and-end-all of our cultural spaces. The same is true online.

The basic reality is that most (sub)cultures are born and grown thanks to people assigning value and meaning to things that society at large doesn’t have much of an interest in. That’s true of any kind of collectible and, yes, admittedly, capital itself. If you think $600,000 for a JPEG is unreal, wait until you hear what some people pay for stamps! But NFTs do something very different. They challenge this notion of ownership that we take for granted and they take out the age-old risk of counterfeiting. This is digital art with a built-in certificate of authenticity, and whilst you can say, “big wup, who cares?” you don’t have to watch too many episodes of Pawn Stars before you find out that providence is everything.

Why is that important? Why should anyone care? I’ll tell you why I care. As someone who has spent half of their life making things online for no money whatsoever, this technology and the thinking surrounding it is beckoning forth a future where people are finally paid for the work they do that is often explicitly outside the value structures of an already anemic popular culture. It is for that reason that this whole argument around stars and scams feels really disingenuous to me. It stinks of the sort of attitudes and assumptions and broken thinking about culture that NFTs are precisely a response to. As such, all it does is highlight our poor and lazy thinking about the value of abstractions, ideas and other things created in digital space.

This is also why it was interesting that the most infamous NFTs have been memes. People who made images like the Nyan Cat, for instance, which have become universally familiar symbols within online culture, are finally getting a slice of the pie. A lot of people hate this on principle, because the web wasn’t about that sort of financial gain to the begin with, but the point is that it is now and though we might hate it — I know I do — I’d still rather not be exploited by it. So much of what we put online — culture, images, personal information — is completely without provable origin, free-floating and uploaded to platforms that can attempt to claim some sort of ownership of it simply for being the host. But when people go off claiming that it’s stupid because you can right-flick-save-as, the point is less that the average person can do that without consequence, but that corporations and capitalists can do that without consequences already as well.

Point being, there is a power dynamic in how online culture operates, and that most people aren’t even aware of it doesn’t mean it goes away. Though we like to think of the internet as this great flattening of cultural hierarchies, the truth is that your gleeful right-clicking is also done by others in a far more exploitative way.

Consider the “you wouldn’t download a car” anti-piracy campaigns of our youth — of course you’d download a car if you could. But the funny thing about those ads is that it’s just big corporations getting upset about a slice being taken out of their profits. What about those who barely have any profits to begin with? Who corporations already reference and steal from with impunity because they don’t already have capital on their side? This has had an enormous impact on DIY or smaller cultures over the decades and it is those cultures that I care about and see using these technologies in interesting ways, and it’s those cultures that I’m glad to see reaping the benefits of this. That’s my own personal policy. When some fucked-up academic publishing house wants to charge £80 for a book made for libraries and basically no one else, you know I’m just gonna go on Lib.Gen and download it. But when a smaller press or recrod label puts something out, I’d like to support it as much as I can.

To give an anecdotal example of how this sort of broken cultural attitude plays out: I have a lot of friends who managed to build photography careers off the back of their Flickr and Tumblr profiles back in the 2000s. Maisie Cousins is perhaps the most famous person to emerge from that generation, and at that time my partner knew a lot of people who ran in her online circles. (My partner explicitly grew up with and contribute to that scene online.) These were generally teenage girls who had real talent and their work would often be downloaded and spread about around the internet on different blogs. Sometimes that could be annoying, because their work wasn’t always posted with credit and there were instances of outright plagiarism, but it was all fairly light-hearted because it was teenage girls ripping off teenage girls. No one really expected to get paid for any of it, it was just about credit where due. But later, things got really complicated. Big fashion brands like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters became notorious for right-click-save-as-ing the work of young women and printing them on their t-shirts. It happened all the time, and as a photographer myself, though I wasn’t part of those circles, it was so deeply disenfranchising how devalued your work can be. Exploitation, even within cultural industries, was and remains rife. But the point was more than people who could pay for it were exploiting the unspoken rules of online culture and making money off the back of teenagers just trying to express themselves.

Today, we are caught in the catch-22 that resulted from this kind of cultural disconnection. I’m reminded, for example, of Urbanomic, which was in hot water recently because Robin put out a request for ad hoc interning that unfortunately wasn’t paid, but was instead work in exchange for books and a reference. And that can be hard for some people to hear. I understand why. Unpaid interns are rightly a scourge in a lot of industries, and I certainly wouldn’t do it somewhere that I knew could afford to pay me. But as someone who has seen how much blood, sweat and tears Robin puts into Urbanomic, where the return certainly doesn’t reflect just how much Robin puts into it, and as someone who has also seen the gloating people do online about pirating his material, there is a sense that our culture often reaps what is sows. “How dare you ask for free labour!” immediately loses its impact when people online frequently ask for free books online. But that’s not to say it’s the fault of readers. It just shows where we are. We’re left with a culture where no one can afford to hire anyone and no one can afford to buy anything, and we think it’ll just sort itself out if we’re principled enough.

Now, I say all this and often get quite angry about it not in spite of but because I believe in principles of free access. I have generally been told throughout my online life that I am devaluing my own work because I don’t put it behind paywalls. But I’m happy to provoke and contribute to conversations free of charge and I actually find a lot of the platforms available for remuneration really off-putting. I have a Patreon, for instance, which brings in a modest amount that generally covers my web hosting costs and other infrastructural stuff. I’d love it if more people would voluntarily subscribe and become Patreons, but the general assumption is you get something there that you can’t get for free and very few people go in for it as a way of supporting the material you are already consuming. I could move all my stuff to patreon, of course, but also Patreon is so ugly ? I kinda hate the idea of hiding myself away on such an aesthetically unappealing platform. It doesn’t feel good. But why is that the only viable solution? Why isn’t it possible to be paid for something that isn’t cushioned in fetishised principles of private ownership? Isn’t it actually pretty cool to have both? An image or piece of work that anyone can see but one (or a limited number of people) can actually own? Why is the only viable solution we have for funding online culture completely closing off access to it and paywalling your entire output? I hate that much more, personally. What I find interesting about NFTs is that it opens up a new paradigm for engaging with and sustaining online culture and the people who contribute to it beyond the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t culture we have presently.

The viral thread — remember that? — continues:

NFTs impart no legal ownership, give no rights to the artwork, are non-unique, and provide nothing of intrinsic value except the sign value of owning bragging rights to announce to other crypto bros about a shared collective delusion about database entries. (12/)

Literally how do you think the digital music industry has been run for the past decade? Why do you think people place such importance on gigs and vinyl records? If only it was because they valued the cultural experience. You chat to teenagers with disposable income and ticket stubs and vinyl records tend to signify bragging rights that your crumby MP3s or Spotify playlists just don’t have. Fetishism around physical objects in the music industry is a nightmare — and I say that as someone who spent all his disposable income (and even money I needed for rent) on records growing up, and as someone who is now trying to unburden himself with a overloaded Discogs store.

That’s not to shame people who like material things or physical mementos of experiences. I’m one of them. But this critique does demonstrate a very one-dimensional view of why people buy things, and how little people value digital content more generally.

To bring this a little closer to home: within the blogosphere, I feel like the idea of blog merch or “crit drip”, etc., started out as a joke, as an ironic side hustle. I used to find the idea of a blog having merch hilarious, and made some stuff for that reason alone — I wanted to do Xenogothic beach towels. But as is the reality for so many artists online, it is also an acknowledgement that people just don’t value digital stuff, and if you don’t want to lessen the experience of interacting with your stuff by making it wholly dependent on a specific paywalled platform or making sure it is riddled with ads, creating some sort of additional physical merchandise is the only way you’re going to see some sort of return on your work.

(Of course, people’s opinions on this are also extreme, as if you shouldn’t make art for money, but personally, I’d love to be able to live off the blog if that were possible — not for greed, but so I could afford to spend even more time on it.)

That’s the irony of a site like the Quietus joining in the NFT hysteria:

Just waiting for the pro-NFT lobby to come back with a retort that manages to be both ultra-patronising and incomprehensible while managing to avoid answering any of the fundamental charges. And the “forest burning” aspect. *looks at watch*

Originally tweeted by The Quietus (@theQuietus) on October 7, 2021.

Maybe I’m just part of a pro-NFT lobby too — although I wouldn’t say so — but for someone interested in music and the blogosphere and their surrounding cultures, this just sounds pigheaded to me (especially considering the Quietus has repeatedly done fundraising drives because, as is universally the experience, writing online doesn’t pay).

But what if it did? What if you didn’t have to rely on physical merchandise or the pittance of ad revenue to secure some sort of income? What if people didn’t only assign value to physical objects but saw online content — which they arguably spend more time engaging with these days anyway — as being just as valuable?

This is especially important for music since an increasing number of people are becoming cynical about vinyl fetishism, with production turn-arounds hemorrhaging the industry and being a major pollutant as well (an argument that is massively overblown). Most NFTs — at least the ones that grab headlines — are probably the digital equivalent of the million-dollar Wu Tang Clan album, but that stunt surely epitomizes a wider cultural fetishism around boxsets and limited editions. NFTs needn’t be represented by the most extravagant splurgings on the market. We needn’t frame them as “Most Expensive Discogs Sales for October”, as we do the other physical cultural clutter we pass around and exploit demand for. But we do, because we get off on denouncing examples of our own desires and value structures taken to extremes by those who possess extreme wealth.

We would do well to remember that these things are not representative of culture at large, where money is exchanged for digital art and files every day but somehow remains unsustainable. Thinking like that is how we ended up with our physical art markets (and value systems more generally) being in such a mess as it is.

And there’s the rub. The irony is that people seem to really misunderstand where digital market innovations come from. You can complain about digital markets all you want, but what they are replicating are the systems you’re already implicated in. It’s as if the denouncement of NFTs represents some sort of commitment to conspicuous consumption for some people, but if that’s an illusion IRL you can rest assured it’s an illusion online as well. I wonder how many of those people who are militantly anti-NFT are vegan, for example. People can, of course, pick their battles, but it does make me wonder why this garners so much attention at the expense of other more harmful things that are more pervasive and could be more readily boycotted, rather than simply denouncing something that most people don’t actually have any involvement in anyway. I bet most of y’all don’t even buy an album on Bandcamp when the website prompts you to.

The truth is, if you think you can denounce NFTs on Twitter and consider your soul saved, I’m sorry to say that the behaviours you’re highlighting haven’t emerged from thin air. They reflect how markets already run. And so denouncing NFTs for how they resemble already existing structures is only to indulge in your own self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason why some people and artists are interested in them is because they offer up an opportunity to do things differently, diversifying the market behaviours of artists and patrons in a way that arguably hasn’t been possible since the invention of the printing press upturned patronage and artists’ living standards in the Middle Ages.

This is particularly important when we actually rub two brain cells together and consider the impact of this on the climate crisis. Okay, the production of NFTs may not be super efficient right now. Chances are, as with most new technologies, they’ll get less expensive to make and run as time goes on. But considering how much of a mess the production (and reproduction) of physical culture already is, it is likely far more viable to make digital art carbon neutral (or even carbon negative) than it is the production of vinyl records or mass-produced band tees.

I’m reminded here of xin’s Melts Into Love EP, for instance, which was “released as a ‘biodigital’ LP — meaning the music is released digitally, but with a living consequence woven in. All proceeds from sales will be donated to Eden Reforestation Projects, with each purchase of the LP funding the planting of at least 40 trees.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if we re-evaluated our sense of worth in the digital space and put some of the earning towards funding the rehabilitation of our natural environment? Sure, blockchain technology might be polluting, but I bet we’d be damaging the planet much less if we focused on developing improvements to the digital Bandcamp model and got all the centrist dads to chill the fuck out over vinyl records. At least an NFT isn’t accompanied by a load of plastic waste and industry burn-out.

Already, in this regard, there is a community of artists online who are really pushing the boat out as far as challenging our complacent cultural value system goes. But, returning to the Twitter thread, the idea that other people getting involved is all part of the problem with this seductive pyramid scheme is question-begging.

In addition to the ‘International Star Registry’ several other ‘registrar chains’ popped up claiming to offer the same service. NameAStar, StarNamingGifts, Star Name Registry etc. All claiming to offer the same service with an equally alleged authoritative registrar. (6/)

NFTs are the evolution of this grift in a more convoluted form. Instead of allegedly buying a star, you’re allegedly buying a JPEG from an artist. Except you’re not buying the image, you’re buying a digitally signed URL to the image. (7/)

Again, sorry, but how is this different to being a photographer and selling prints of your work? (Or buying land / a house? I mean, it’s different from private property in the sense that the purchasing of a cultural artefact like an NFT needn’t be used to exploit the labour of another — you can’t rent an NFT (yet) — but as Rhea Myers repeatedly points out, we handle title deeds and symbolic agreements all the time — in fact, that’s arguably what paper money already is. But photography seems a better example here…) Every print proper comes with a signed certificate and some unnecessary commitment to artificial scarcity to drive the price up — that is, increase its value, and culturally speaking, this value doesn’t have to be monetary alone. Scarcity can also influence behaviours; the rarer something is, the more careful people are about preserving it, for instance — an important point to make culturally, since the apparent abundance of the internet actually makes it very poorly archived, with many early cybercultures already lost to data death. But by simply replicating our thinking about physical objects in a digital space — both actively and critically — all we’re really doing here is describing already existing art markets.

That doesn’t make these behaviours okay. The familiar ways that some NFT markets operate is something to be challenged, as if there’s a Robinson Crusoe fallacy at work — we have arrived in a new land and set about rebuilding the world we’ve just come from, rather than affirming the new potentials on offer to us here, which we probably can’t see because confirmation bias. In fact, the really stupid thing is when we recreate old conditions in a new space and then pretend like they’re at all new and special. This is what this thread does with NFTs, making it even more disingenuous.

If we’re not honest about where people are getting their ideas from — already existing and material socioeconomic conditions — choosing to make up some weirdly inappropriate allegories about stars instead, we only further fulfill our own doom-laden prophecy. Because developments run both ways. In reshaping the landscape of patronage and cultural value, by precisely exiting art markets and coming up with a new model, the whole landscape of contemporary art could change for the better, if we actually use our critical faculties and resist our bone-headed tendency to reactively denounce things based on hearsay or inaccurate second-hand information.

In this person’s comparison, for example, shaping the development of NFTs as a way of revolutionizing the star-buying market dangerously downplays the significance of these new technologies. The logic is twisted. “Here’s why you should be angry about NFTs — they perfectly replicate a market that everyone knows is dumb and purely symbolic, and therefore doesn’t really gives a shit about.” So why should I be angry? Just so you can have some clicks? Bad faith reactionary posting is very web 2.0. But that’s not to say I have problem with someone being critical of NFTs and digital currencies — I have no skin in the game whatsoever. It’s just, if we’re supposed to be concerned about these things, and we want to convince people to be vigilant of them, the last thing I’d compare them to would be something as innocuous as “adopting a dolphin”.

Such is the flaw of the familiar Quietus tweet, and most of the engagement with the thread: if we’re meant to tackle the charges made, the charges here amount to a cold-caller stealing your granny’s pension through some capitalist gimmick. It’s not something anyone who is technologically astute should worry about, whilst at the same time also apparently being an absolute scourge on society. That whole framing is bogus, if you ask me, not because it’s critical but because it’s a terrible critique. It’s a bad argument, no matter what is being argued against. Personally, I think these things warrant better thinking than that — especially from people (and platforms) that we otherwise hold up as our chief critical voices. (Stick to the music reviews, I guess, Quietus?)

Because what this does is literally transform something with very real material implications into yelling at stars/clouds. Either we should be concerned and intervene, or we are embracing the performative denouncement of something that we don’t think is very important. And what’s the point of that other than stifling technological progress? Personally, I hope things change online sooner rather than later. There is a huge imbalance in how much time we spend online and how much we value what is produced here. And that’s not an inequality invented by NFTs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t listen to the concerns of anyone who isn’t directly involved, but it does make we wonder why they think we should care so much about this one supposedly inflated and unimportant issue at the expense of general financial inequality and injustice. “Magical voluntarism” is no response to capitalist inequality, because generally speaking there is no way for people to intervene, but there are people active online who are showing artists how to enter this space and play around in and shape it. Surely that, above everything else, is worthy of note?

There’s not much else to say beyond this. Once the foundation of the argument has been revealed to be flawed, and painfully rooted in, whilst simultaneously somehow ignorant of — as if it were pure ideology — the machinations of already existing markets, then the rest of the charges made collapse along with it. We see the familiar machinations of shitty market dynamics reframed as digitised sensationalism, which doesn’t help anyone. They continue:

Except now instead of buying your digital star with dollars there’s a second leg to the scam. You have to purchase the star by exchanging your dollars for some weird token whose value fluctuates on some secondary market. (8/)

Breaking: digital currency embroiled in “money is made-up and structurally unbalanced” controversy.

And listing digital stars on the register is a pay-to-play game that requires you to purchase these weird tokens at whatever the available exchange price is, thus creating synthetic demand for the token and driving the price up. Which is convenient for those who own token. (9/)

Again, this is a very paranoid way of describing how the world already works. You go to some countries, you’ll find US dollars are more valuable within certain markets than a country’s actual currency. But again, that doesn’t make it right. The idea of critical engagement here is surely that there is an opportunity to do things differently. Of course, digital currency spaces are going to perfectly replicate markets IRL if these technologies are left to bros from the City looking for something to do with their extra cash. (And let me tell you, having recently dome some proofing and editing work for some big corporate bank’s internal policy documents — such is the impure existence of someone who can’t make a living off their digital cultural production — investing in crypto is already as normal as investing in anything else in these places.)

But when we treat what is normal for the upper economic class — indeed, their bread and butter — as some sort of new magic trick for the rest of us, we neglect how democratizing these things can potentially be. Take this further point:

The core of the NFT grift is outsourcing the marketing for this artificially scar[c]e registrar to artists who are forced to pay large sums of money upfront to list URLs to their artwork in the hopes of recovering their lost costs. (10/)

Artists are like hamsters in a wheel that powers a giant casino for crypto bros to gamble on these signed URLs in the hopes that they can flip their purchase around to greater and greater fools for a profit. (11/)

Again, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is already how things work offline. This is why I gave up on photography — it was a pay-to-win endeavor, and I couldn’t afford the cost of entry. It’s the same in the art world more generally. Those who succeed in the market can generally already afford to take part. Even if this person recognised how they’re just re-describing a wheel turned into a JPEG, online spaces perfectly replicating offline dynamics isn’t actually the given a lot of these useful idiots think it is. In fact, that’s why digital cultures are struggling — they don’t work like physical cultures do.

That is why there is a problem with my own responses here, and this further problematises the critic’s very foundation. That a response from someone as rudimentarily informed as myself falls back on, “But how is this different to what we have?” also frustrates the argument. It’s an uninteresting and toothless response to an uninteresting and toothless accusation. It’s the problem with not knowing, more broadly, how these things work.

That’s precisely why these innovations are interesting to me, even as someone who is broadly technophobic. Digital artists and writers and musicians, et al., are struggling because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to artistic patronage and funding. Digital currencies offer up new avenues for patronage, not so we can all get loaded investing in digital Damien Hirsts but so that we can better finance the production of our own culture. Because making stuff online definitely costs money, even if it doesn’t often bring much of a return.

But because this person clearly can’t differentiate between what is new about NFTs and what is a continuation of meatspace inequalities, the responses to their critique are immediately limited to retorts of “you’re not saying anything that specifically applies to NFTs here, you’re just describing capitalism”. So the questions themselves need to change — what is new about NFTs? What new challenges do they bring that aren’t simply the further digitalisation of capitalism as we already know it? What is it about these technologies that actually escape our understanding of how the world currently works (not counting the average critic’s general ignorance of the world more generally)?

Those are questions that critics and adherents alike need to ask themselves. Until they do, their arguments have about as much value as they perceive the average NFT to have.

Update: Great thread from Mat Dryhurst here on this same series of tweets:

Ok so as clearly as I can make it, the star registry analogy doesn’t work because in the case of an NFT you are talking about agreements between an artist who owns the rights to something and a collector. Nobody owns the rights to sell the star.

it is quite obviously different to have a public registry of agreements between verified artists and their collector base, and a registry of selling ownership to something you don’t have the rights to (i.e a star)

Ownership with NFTs is unintuitive, as what is being transferred is a title to own and resell that artwork on web 3. An artist could indeed sell that same work to someone else, but nobody does, because that would be nuking your trust and any future market for your work.

We don’t fully own a lot of things we pay for. Digital music files being one example. You can’t go and resell those later. You can do so with an NFT, which is why they are priced higher.

NFTs have found a way to avoid wholesale scarcity by emphasising some elements of scarcity. If artists traded copyright to a few ppl (see Wu Tang/Shkreli) you run the risk of limiting access. NFTs are happy for everyone to access the art, and trade the title to it. It’s clever.

the stuff about NFTs being a means to onboard people to crypto is true, but not in the way the OP intended. A great amount of the value of Ethereum is based on the bet that immutable digital ownership on decentralised registries is a big deal, and NFTs are a foundational element

I believe this is also a big deal, although I can see tradeoffs in adopting these approaches. The pitfalls however are not “it’s all a scam” or “it’s destroying the planet”. With love, these are unsophisticated arguments that prey on poor understanding. click, RT, click.

The forest burning stuff regarding NFTs is, for the purposes of brevity, largely made up. There is no marginal energy cost to minting an NFT on Ethereum.

Engraving and shipping individual oil discs around the world is still an accepted standard in music.

The truth is that there is no simple way to explain the complicated blockchain energy scenario without someone wanting to get into a very long conversation about hash rate, energy mix and the relative merits of how to secure decentralised networks, and if we need them at all

but if you don’t have time or stomach for that long conversation, my earnest suggestion is to not take the bait into believing NFTs are boiling the ocean for a lark. It is not a moral act to pass moralising judgment on something you do not understand. Quite the opposite.

to set terms of engagement, I will not respond to any comment that posts articles with made up figures about NFT energy costs (they are completely made up), and will only respond to people being civil and displaying curiosity. No tribe war nonsense pls.

Originally tweeted by Mat Dryhurst (@matdryhurst) on October 7, 2021.

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