The same barriers designed to siphon our engagement in financial systems to the roles of consumer or debtor, are exponentially limiting as society slowly adapts to a new technology. Access and usage of the Blockchain with its innovations of capital stands at a nexus behind these double barriers to access. Actually investing in these new iterations of capital also seems to require an additional suspension of reasoning. Even as Modern Monetary Theory gains pop-culture notoriety and people assert that money is a social construct as quickly as they adopt Astrology as a world-view, there is an alarming acceleration of both the dissolution of previously-held beliefs and acceptance of a new absurd. While the Blockchain ledger is neoteric, Bitcoin operates on an age-old method of speculation, proving to be the greatest get-rich-quick scheme since Tulip mania. In the last three years, a marketplace for Art has emerged on the Ethereum blockchain that manages to rival the carbon footprint of the Art market on the burning earth. The enthusiastic acceptance and adoption of NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens by artists and entrepreneurs alike can only be attributed to a culture of denial and perhaps the acronym which does provide an (albeit thin) barrier to a speculator encountering the word “fungible,” looking this word up in a dictionary and inferring its opposite.
I will state at the onset, I approached this writing to excavate a paranoia that I was the only one in the room who didn’t get it, and I hope you leave this room with me. Towards a shared understanding of this tenebrous topic, I will define my terms. The tangible world is the planet our bodies experience, with increasing temperatures and proliferating social-unease. The tangible world; where 70% of electricity is generated from non-renewable resources; where the top 10% holds 85% of the world’s wealth; where European models of extraction continue in predictable feedback loops to devastate our ecosystem; where we all know better, but the work of repair is in direct conflict with the desire to escape, a popular pastime of building infrastructures in the digital world where we invest time projecting severed selves. The term artist, when in use in this writing, refers to an economic subject shrouded in the cultural mythologies of genius, clairvoyance, and creative exceptionalism. While many identify with this term, the small percentage I speak of bear striking similarity to the slightly more cringe, entrepreneur. Artists maintain the assumption of innocence even as they thrive in exploitive capitalist systems because they rely on intermediaries to alchemize their cultural capital and produce the original form of speculative asset. These intermediaries make up a shared reality known as the Art World which seems to be in constant inner-turmoil over a glaring dissonance: The radical politics we hold come into direct conflict with the needlessly wasteful economic activity we perform at a reduced rate (subsidized by cultural capital which in Art Word, you can eat). Carbon off-sets are band-aids covering bullet holes. Mythologies are semiological systems to borrow from Roland Barthes in Mythologies (1972), “a social usage that is added to pure matter…it is a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is an historical science: it studies ideas-in-form (112).” Even in digital world where objects invent the context they originate in, objects are designed in the forms of the tangible world where the architects’ body matters. Terms borrowed from past mythologies—even when used in casual reference— operate as predictive forms, attaching tangible world histories to intangible digital objects. Objects exist and are contextualized as sites to assign and derive value, the predicator “Art” states the object is highly consumable, a distraction, a delight. These Art objects are infinite, though concretely include an album by the Kings of Leon.
The information presented in this writing is old news. I will not go into technical detail or explore every application of this emergent technology or entertain nuanced reasoning for rampaging towards an innovation that uses more electricity than most nation states. NFTs are contracts stored on a Blockchain and traded in unique marketplaces with inventive names, such as Nifty Gateway. The contract that can be authenticated and traded can be attached to any object in the tangible or digital worlds, but realizes the classic method of speculative asset creation utilized by Art World by attaching to an infinitely reproducible digital copy, a single commodity which is now scarce and may be valued. In many documented cases, like the sale of this stupid tweet, the contract or NFT itself creates unprecedented value entirely independent of the object it represents because unlike this tweet available for mass consumption, a contract can be owned. NFTs entire appeal for consumers is based on a fetishization of authenticity, and tickles the premise which beats at the heart of our economic system: ownership which appreciates in value. Ironically, that appeal still seems to be in direct conflict with the defining characteristic of this token which is that it is unique to the extent that its value is not a market production but a social construct. It remains to be seen how that NFT Jack Dorsey produced of his first tweet would be valued on a secondary market. Mike Winkelmann or Beeple’s NFT auctioned at Christie’s briefly married the two markets, the artist himself made some inspiring comments to Taylor Locke at CNBC. “Honestly, at the end of the day, if somebody will pay for it, then you can sell it,” said Winkelmann.
So it’s not the desperate asset speculators that one may reason with at the end of the world, but perhaps instead the primary champion of NFTs, a previously defined economic subject who possess the capacity for compassionate reasoning.
Go out wide-eyed and curious about how a deal is made or scarcity manufactured in a digital system created as an antidote for the systems failing in the tangible world. It’s not difficult to draw parallels to the mythologies that fuelled the violent westward expansion of Europeans across the Americas when “Pioneers” of the internet appropriate old and stained terminology to explain their dogged determination to build networks out of reach of old world power. Ironically, those building structures in the digital realm still cling like colonizers to their religion which for the creators of Blockchain was Capital. Blockchains are autonomized ledgers. Tangible ledgers have been used in banking since its inception, around the same time the Medicis proved access to the ledger is critical for accumulating a gross amount of personal wealth. Blockchains are ledgers that log and verify the authenticity (non-duplicity) of information and transactions. Their allure is that their maintenance can be carried out by anonymous cooperators in various locations. They’re decentralized, a description that references the historic catastrophes caused by central banks. Of the many applications that could run on a Blockchain (from storing medical records to personal identity information) the tool was primarily designed to trade currencies through mechanisms that are reminiscent of the Gold rush with a modern appetite for increasingly limited extracted resources. The first blockchains which are still primarily used (where Bitcoin and Ethereum are mined and traded) operate on a security mechanism called, Proof of Work. Without a third party to verify the authenticity of the contract, or oversee transactions, Blockchain systems require people with electricity-guzzling computers to solve complex computational Math problems which verify the transactions made from the currency, essentially checking that a coin is not spent twice. These “miners” as they unironically christened themselves, are incentivized to audit and verify the chain when given the ability to add a block to the chain or receive transaction fees in tokens called cryptocurrency, most famously Bitcoin. It’s not only the creation of a new token that is consumptive, but the energy it takes for Miners to verify these transactions, as Bitcoin, another token or NFT, are traded. Those who argue “the gas” for individual transactions is negligible ignore the fact that an increase in transactions raises the value of the coins on these chains which incentivizes mining. These are complex systems that include direct and indirect gross extraction. The Proof of Work system was designed to be incredibly energy-inefficient as the cost in the tangible world for the inordinate amount of electricity required creates a barrier for Miners. It puts their skin in the game as they create and agree to value these tokens and maintain the ledger that confirms those tokens are unique and thus valuable. There is another Proof system for Blockchains called Proof of Stake which has a lower rate of energy consumption because it relies on arbiters sacrificing the allure of decentralization, though the big coins remain and massive quantities of transactions continue on the initial Proof of Work chains.
Remember that fiat or physical money is simply highly symbolic paper valued by a central bank which we’ve agreed to trade our time on earth for. Read the white paper on Bitcoin, written by the anonymous founder of the Bitcoin, and revered as a revolutionary manifesto heralding an escape from the financial apocalypse of 2009. Inscribed into the raw data of the original block in the first blockchain— the Genesis block, a deft appropriation of another term from a fiendish mythology— was this 2009 article from The Times foretelling of a continued Fall after the initial crash.
In the lore of Blockchains and the social phenomenon they’ve spawned from crypto to NFTs; there exists this kernel of hope; this promise of escape; this assumption of essential goodness. One encounters this opacity in intellectual debate of the Blockchain and its social inventions, where one would hope for a critical reasoning, instead the conversations stumbles uncomfortably into assumptions held through belief and with the conviction that we are all damned.
Artists gravitate to NFTs as the markets built specifically for NFTs allow artists to bypass the intermediaries who gatekeep the markets of Art World. NFTs also revoke the reproducible nature of digital objects which previously wretched the means of valuation from Artists hands, reinforcing their dependency on the intermediaries for financial remittance. Whether artists are finally cashing in on the constructed image or working in reference to this social phenomenon, their status as cultural creators normalizes and accelerates the acceptance of NFTs traded with Proof of Work. If only there was another pressing social phenonmenon as visually capitvating as the intinerate biblical plagues caused by climate change to create art about… I agree that artists should be funded, but let us not take the road through the Nifty Gateway to hell on earth for our living bodies.
The predecessors of the modern Artist suffered exquisitely, prostrating themselves to Kings and Gods’ servants in order to eat and produce the beautiful things which distract and delight us on earth. With the sale of a single NFT, bolstering the value of an artwork digital or tangible in the aftermath of the Bitcoin boom, an Artist could become a multi-millionaire as well as attach their work intrinsically to the cutting edge of cultural innovation; a social phenomenon which will define our world as we know it by rendering our planet swiftly and excruciatingly un-livable. Creating an NFT from an artwork on a Blockchain known to require the energy expenditure rivaling that of most countries where people will begin to suffer exponentially and extraordinarily is to assume the final evolution of artist as entrepreneur, no longer creator of beauty or meaning but of value.
When humans wish to continue doing something out of self-interest which is detrimental to others, we often come up with something called an “excuse.” The culpability of capitalism for climate change has tried to excuse itself many times in the last critical decades, each excuse, itself, so conveniently profitable. No one who has seen a forest on fire would argue for carbon off-setting. Recently, Nifty Gateway marketed an NFT auction to announce the industry’s commitment to “planting trees” to nullify producing 500 tons of carbon in one afternoon. Prominent artists simply had to drop out of what was so obviously an autoerotic exoneration.
Float the acronym “NFT” casually in your next social gathering, perhaps mention a niche meme.
“NFTs are here to stay,” says your friend. Citing a hopeful statistic about Proof of Stake blockchains operating on renewable energy reserves by 2040. This is the same friend who is stashing thousands of dollars in smaller crypto-currencies.
A starving artist not yet an entrepreneur shows you designs to create an NFT of the image of a strawberry poison dart frog; one of the many species getting cooked while we blather on about offsetting plane travel.
“The sale of the NFT would create awareness about mass extinction and the fungible assets could be donated to a wildlife fund,” he says proudly. You wonder if awareness creation is actually inversely proportional to taking action and also if the cultural hype around endangered species could contend with the valuation of the latest meme turned NFT.
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies did not rise from the ashes of the tangible world’s banking systems to revolutionize the economy, as the Genesis block suggests. Far from it, these technologies are accelerating the inequalities present in economic systems based on capital accumulation while burning 22.9 million metric tons of carbon per year.
We are just standing here!
Post-enlightenment and post-modernism, assigning astronomical monetary values to infinitely reproducible simulacra with no sense of irony or even indignant critique!
It’s wildfire season!
Flames devour the wild, tangible world faster than any previous imperial campaign. Where fire can’t reach, in digital world, the cross-breeds of artists and entrepreneurs hoard glittering images of other animals we once shared the earth with. Proof of Stake blockchains run on the windpower of weekly hurricanes. Dogecoin becomes the most stable currency with which to abtain your weekly water ration.