NFTs and Open Access:
Power in the Age of Digital Individualism

fundamentally if you are into NFTs, we are not in community together. my community celebrates how digital abundance has connected and equalized us. NFTs enforce artificial scarcity at the cost of collapsing power grids. it’s distilled capitalism and it’s fucking gross

Originally tweeted by milf twink (@SamAllenX) on January 22, 2022.

In recent weeks, I’ve been getting more and more pingbacks to an essay I wrote about an NFT controversy on Twitter last year, when the whole thing was compared to a star registry system. I still think this understanding of NFTs is flawed but, in all honesty, my desire to defend NFTs has been tempered by the accelerating bleakness of its most “popular” iteration — its “popularity”, that is, with an extravagant, headline-grabbing few, if not the broader online many. Their usage at present and the myopic hype around bored apes and the rest of it is mind-numbing in the extreme.

But still, there seems to be a crisis of understanding on both sides here, and I think the tweet above is a good demonstration of this. The beginnings of Web3 are far from attractive, on the whole, but few seem to realize how dead their vision of another internet truly is.

Of course, on the surface, I’m inclined to agree with this tweet. As a blogger who has been sharing things online for free for almost 15 years — that’s half my life at this point — I firmly believe in the joys of digital abundance and its ability to connect people. It’s about cultural production, pure and simple — that is, producing cultures to inhabit when you might feel there is little else around you. That was my experience as a teenager and it is a commitment I’ve never really lost.

Unfortunately, this sense of community has been steadily eroded. The mid-Noughties ideal I still hold in my head, like a mental imago of what this scene should look like, has aged out. Looking in the digital mirror, it produces a kind of communal dysmorphia. I see the shape of something I know and love, but it is twisted. There is a clear disparity between mental image and reality, and how to rectify that disconnection is a very important question for anyone who cares about online cultures today.

The problem itself is not new, however. It is one widely written about. Marshall McLuhan called it a kind of media “narcosis”:

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image.

I fear that those who hold onto a Noughties ideal of online cultural production fall into this same trap. Our commitments to perpetuating a certain kind of community only strengthen the demands of platform capitalism, rather than help ourselves.

To understand this disparity we need only consider the rise of social media. These large-scale platforms that supposedly assist in the proliferation of digital abundance nonetheless mine the communities we, as its users, produce for their own profit. Though we may not think of our conversations and our blogposts and our images as “content”, our skin crawling at the very suggestion that the inputs and outputs of the cultures we hope to build can be reduced to some new managerial business speak, it is all content to someone and it is often treated as such. The sad reality is that the online world we live in today is a kind of digital feudalism, implemented through stealth. As our communities thrive and share and support one another, we focus less and less on the fact that the land we’ve developed through a kind of digital agriculture is not ours and never has been. As online life becomes increasingly dystopian, it is about time we updated our vision of what this place can be.

Unfortunately, when others reach out to us, suggesting there are other ways of doing things, we hear nothing. McLuhan:

The nymph Echo tried to win [Narcissus’] love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.

We might think the original tweet has a point in this regard, but “scarcity” and “closed system” are not synonyms. The problem with Web 2.0 is that our digital abundance does not serve us. It is not necessarily to introduce “scarcity” for all, but rather to carve out a space for cultural production that is not under the all-seeing eye of platform capitalism by default. We’ve seen this become increasingly popular in recent years. Indeed, I know more and more people who are forsaking the cursed landscapes of social media for quieter and more close-knit Discord communities. But this isn’t to produce a kind of gated community to keep out the online plebs. It is to keep out online power. Discord is by no means a pure platform, of course, but that kind of online experience is driving the emergence of DAOs and other online community structures. In the end, what is “closed” about an anti-Web3 defiance is that it offers no alternatives to our present and very real capture. What other way out is there from Web 2.0 drudgery, where cultures proliferate in abundance for “free” but are nonetheless mined for profit by somebody? (Of course, nothing about this is really free, especially if you’re trying to facilitate cultural space online; I have annual running costs for all my websites, even though I don’t make money from them directly — they face many of the same problems as IRL community spaces, if not to the same level of precarity or the same scale.)

But I get it. Web3 is a big change. It’s scary, opaque if you’re not that technically minded — that’s the biggest obstacle for me. It signifies unknown territory. But this is as true for the optimists and it is for the pessimists. The former are excited and invigorated by the fact they don’t have all the answers; the latter don’t want to get into bed with anyone who doesn’t. It’s unfortunate, because it is clear that those actively working in this space are onto something. The fact that the giants of platform capitalism are now jumping on the Web3 hype is to be expected in this regard. It hasn’t deterred many. It should make more of us want to fight over it. Because all it signals is how this area of technoligical development is precisely in tension. It has to be seized by someone — no surprises that contemporary power wants to seize it for itself.

But of course, what is to be done in response is far from obvious…

It is worth reminding ourselves that the initial dream of crypto was a vision of a newly open system. It sought to cut out the middleman. Centralised finance put all the power with the banks. To this day, everything is debt. You’re never really spending “your” money. Every transaction and purchase is visible to somebody. Encrypted currency was one way of taking back control of our own financial activities. It facilitates a process of hiding or restricting, but the question remains: hiding from who? For many years, the answer was always power, and its popularity on the dark web, for better or worse, gave many people online a sense of power they didn’t have previously. (I appreciate I’m not exactly defining “power” here, which makes it a nebulous, even promiscuous term, but it would require a whole other blogpost to do so — so, for the sake of shorthand, cf. Foucault.) More than that, crypto functioned, as James Bridle writes, as a way to “disempower governments”.

The blockchain, then, was a powerful new technology that was far from pure, but precisely because it was being actively fought over by governments and individuals. Like 3D printing technology, it had the potential to revolutionize industrial production as it did independent production of goods. But as we’ve seen in recent years, particularly during the Covid pandemic, libertarian tendencies can be easily corrupted. One person’s demand for power doesn’t necessary allow those who truly possess it to transfer it to some sort of power account. Much like money itself, power often takes on the form of debt. As has been the case since the popularisation of individual rights around the time of the Renaissance, to demand individual autonomy can also give those with all the power the permission to simply relinquish responsibility for the sake of profit.

In this sense, what we are witnessing is arguably a replay of individualism’s initial emergence. For the last few decades, we have been living through the turbulent new age of digital individualism. Though “individualism” is a term that generates a predictable scorn today, as a core pillar of neoliberal capitalism, the early years of its development were then, and are now still, far from straightforward.

The Bruckhardt theory of the individual’s development, for example, argues that individualism is an inadvertent by-product of despotism. The divine sovereignty of a given ruler rubs off on those around them. Proximity to power gives oneself power. This is first visible in the arts, which starts to produce images of the liberal self about a century before it was formulated by Descartes, Locke, et al. But this understanding of the self trickled down all the way to the bottom. Soon we had Protestantism, and before long, those on the bottom rungs of the social ladder began to develop senses of self that were set apart from their servitude to higher powers, culminating, most explosively, in the German Peasants’ War.

Individualism and Protestantism, etc., are far from societal goods in and of themselves. Protestantism, for example, asserted that a person’s fate before God was down to them alone, and could not be bought through fealty to a corrupt institution like the Catholic church, which at that time was offering “cash for absolution” deals to the wealthiest in society. This assertion may have fractured the power of Catholicism — in Germany especially at that time — but it also encouraged a new selfishness among the powerful, who could suddenly get away with taking less responsibility for their serfs or workers — something that persists in our contemporary understanding of a “Protestant work ethic”.

Still, this new sense of individual consciousness also produced a new sense of class consciousness as society began to transition out of feudalism. Friedrich Engels would later argue that this war was the first spark of communist sentiment in Europe, later echoed in the French and Russian revolutions but never fully actualised. It was a legacy Marx also traced through the German Ideology and later developed in Capital, noting how the emergence of “private property” had to be curtailed by capitalism at large — “the negation of negation” — unless individual ownership was universalized and gave way to a new kind of social ownership.

Technologically speaking, the new innovations that accelerated this societal shift were the development of frontal perspective in painting and the printing press. The press in particular introduced a new compromise. It brought about a new era of cultural abundance, but it also put more pressure on the individual. The success of a particular printing, for example — whether of a book or artwork, etc. — became wholly dependent on the fame of the individual who produced it. It was no longer the case that a talented unknown could sell a one-off to a rich patron and live off the proceeds. Abundance intensified the role of the individual in cultural production — something we’re continuing to live with today.

I see these same dynamics at play in the battle over Web3 and the idea of NFTs, albeit unfurling much less dramatically in space. (Note to self: sci-fi story about the NFT Wars of the 2040s?) Yes, it arguably challenges the notion of digital abundance, but it also challenges the individual, with more emphasis being put on the object than who made it. NFTs and Web3 stir the pot, putting more emphasis on the community than we currently have done for — arguably — centuries! But there’s also a sense that we’re re-inscribing the individual and the politics of the digital press. It isn’t certain if we’re leaving Web 2.0 by politically and ideologically pushing forwards or moving backwards or by engaging in some twisted combination of the two.

Many contemporary theorists have argued we are living in an age of neo-feudalism, for example, but Web3 suggests this phase will be short-lived. Indeed, technologically speaking, Web3 contains all the same tensions of individual sovereignty and symbolic vulnerability as the printing press introduced into society, and NFTs start to reflect concurrent changes in subjectivity in much the same way the reproducible work of art did. Consider someone like Albrecht Dürer, who embraced the new image of the self as a prolific producer of self-portraits, embracing the printing press also as a way to fund his activities and travels, providing him with the time and resources to radically influence the pool of human knowledge. He too would become disillusioned by the squandered potential of the instruments and perspectives he had used to revolutionize the European art world, but that squandering does not undo the fact that these technologies had — at least partially — given individual artists an unprecedented sense of autonomy, no longer dependent on the patronage of powerful institutions and the aristocracy, providing them with an unprecedented economic stability and a way to bring art and knowledge of the natural world to the masses in a new way. Still, these technologies also introduced new forms of co-option, ensuring their newfound freedom was ever more dependent on an emergent set of capitalist ideals. Nothing was clear cut. Capitalism was then a parasitic mite that attached itself to these advances. It continues to.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can denounce such artists for not seeing the writing that was actively being scribbled on the wall, to distracted by the good things these technologies did for them, but we should remember how much hope was attached to that moment, as an older and far more explicitly oppressive form of socio-economic system was made steadily redundant. That is also what lies in store for us now, I think. Though an embrace of this new technological landscape seems like reneging on prior principles of communal abundance, we should be aware that this digital world has connected us but it has not equalized us. On the contrary, we are more unequal and exploited than ever before, to the extent that we’re basically all engaged in digital labour 24/7 — doing things that generate profit for other companies — and seem wholly incapable of recognising it as such.

See, for example, this recent article by Caleb Sharf which, as one Twitter uses put it, argues “a species creating virtual worth by energy consumption hasn’t got a lot of survival potential.” But I fail to see how this is any different to how Web 2.0 is being used to extract value from our predilection for constantly sharing? This is a real issue — don’t get me wrong. But it was already an issue, and will remain so even if NFTs are beaten back into the worthless underground where they supposedly belong. There is no inherent value in all these images of cats, for instance, but we nonetheless expend energy circulating them to bring a little joy here and there but mostly to generate ad revenue for platform giants.

The most basic thing an NFT does to interrupt this process is make that image a far more explicit commodity, rather than dishonestly and implicitly suggesting it is digital ephemera with no value. (If that were true, memes and virality wouldn’t be such a big concern for corporate marketing departments.) Rather than letting that cultural object be exploited by opportunistic platforms, in principle it makes its digital objecthood explicit. Because that’s the other thing a lot of people misunderstand about our contemporary cybercultures. We think NFTs are allowing the market to capture cultural non-objects. On the contrary, they are insisting on the objecthood of images that circulate around a space that platform giants don’t want you to recognise as a market. Revealing their digital objectivity illuminates the market that stalks them. The going-mainstream of crypto has forced all other manipulations hiding in plain sight into the clear light of day.

All this is to say that main problem with critiques of NFTs (and, indeed, with a lot of NFT culture in itself) is that, more often than not, it amounts to little more a commentary on all that is wrong with the non-crypto present. As a result, the worst thing anyone can say about how some people use NFTs is that they do explicitly, and for the benefit of certain individuals or “content creators”, what platform capitalism has been doing to all of us for years. But all this does is illustrate our complacency with regards to how things have been for a long time, that we only kick off when the worst of our Web 2.0 or late-capitalist tendencies are transplanted into a new space. Most of those with a real (cultural) investment in these spaces aren’t interested in that kind of thing, precisely because it is nothing more than a graft of our hegemonic political imaginary onto a novel new piece of technology.

All that aside, it remains true that the increased accessibility of Web3 technologies does have the potential to facilitate new ways for us to carve out new political communities in cyberspace. It doesn’t — shouldn’t; mustn’t — all look like Bored Ape bullshit.

Still, at the moment, as I’ve said, it is hard to retain optimism for this technology. The communities that dominate the headlines could not be less culturally interesting. But that isn’t down to the technology in itself. To turn again to James Bridle:

The problem created by blockchain, and dramatised by Bitcoin, is fundamentally inseparable from the political situation it emerged from: the eternal battle between power structures and individual rights. The solution to this problem is not to be found in the technology alone, but in radically different political imaginaries.

The person who wrote the tweet above clearly understands this, and remains beholden to the kinds of radically different political imaginary that found a home on the early internet. The point now is that we need new ones. The world is changing, both on- and offline, but our imaginations are slow to catch up. Without an insistence upon it proceeding otherwise, Web3 will be (and is being) used to replicate the pre-existing cultural hegemony of Funko-Populist finance bros. (My day job has had me proofreading lots of internal documents at some big banks about the independence implications of investing in crypto and it is clear it’s being adopted as an extension of their own closed system over there.) But there are a number of alternative visions out there — the latest issue of Spike Art magazine contains advocates for a bunch of them, who are both optimistic and pessimism about the current state of things. The worry I have, and that many others have, is that it may already be too late. What depresses me isn’t so much how NFTs are being used by the internet’s most naïve denizens, but that their idiocy atrophies the political imagination of the rest of us.

In that sense, the responsibility for our unabating digital dystopia lies as much with the mindless naysayers as it does mindless enthusiasts. The narcosis of an old digital radicalism is developing necrosis. Something has got to give, but we need to realize that this needn’t be the communities we hold so dear. There is space for them to well and truly thrive in this new space, without generating profit for big corporations whilst struggling to survive for themselves. But to secure that sort of space we have to actively demand and carve it out, just as we did when the internet first became available to us.

Granted, there was a lot less resistance to our imaginative users of the internet back then. But that there is resistance ahead of us doesn’t mean the politically correct thing to do is stay put. In that regard, it is our complacency, not Web3, that will be the death of us.

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