Someone called Beeple just sold $2.5m of NFT art in a weekend. Someone else spent over $11m for some 3LAU NFTs. I had to find out what NFTs were and for a minute I thought this might be something profound.
OK, lets start at the beginning…
One of the great advantages of digital content is that it can be duplicated infinitely without any loss of fidelity (with apologies for the use of the word digital). This can turn into a disadvantage if you’re a creator who wants to be able to control how your work is distributed, or how much you can charge for it. Digital distribution has changed music, TV and film forever. Publishers, record labels and specialist shops are disintermediated as platforms like Amazon and Soundcloud push empowered creators straight to their audience
(but OMG they must never be considered publishers, because Section 230, because their alogorithms don’t determine what gets promoted to the audience, errr…because they don’t exercise any quality control, err…help, why again? Platform Pravileges)
This shift doesn’t just effect who gets how much money (if any at all) but also what kind of content is made — if you want your music to go big it better work better as a 30 second TikTok friendly loop than a 60 minute prog rock LP.
So far, so familiar. Where do NFTs or ‘nifties’ come in?
Non Fungible Tokens are smart contracts certified on the Ethereum blockchain, that record ownership and creative rights for digital content.
This means you can add to a piece of digital art the concepts of Fundamental (since it is the source of all copies there may be), and Acquired (because ownership is recorded irrevocably).
What about copies?
If someone has a copy of your NFT, they have a jpg downloaded from image search while the Real Thing hangs in your cryptowallet. There will only be 1 (or 10, or however many have been programmed) nifties, which can be bought and sold on platforms like Nifty Gateway, Makers Place and SuperRare. In fact, so the argument goes, the more people like the nifty, and the more copies are made, the more valuable the Fundamental Acquired Real Thing will become. Online distribution of Mona Lisa images makes the original painting more valuable rather than less.
However, where the original painting looks very different from the jpg, the NFT copy is identical to the original — in look, feel, sound, resolution…The NFT owner does not buy a better thing to enjoy, except that it is invested with other peoples’ desire for it. Thought of this way, nifty value is a function of mimetic desire.
But you can’t print it out?
My GF immediately asked why someone would want digital art if they couldn’t “print it out”. It turns out this reaction is so common that there’s an entire page dedicated to 8 reasons it’s stupid, well at least according to nifty salespeople. They say you can hang it on the wall, but why would you when you spend more time looking at your screen, and NFTs have better liquidity the traditional art, and and and, if that doesn’t convince, then *ignores*.
Why are people excited?
Evangelists think of nifties as a Schelling Point to get “lots of different people — developers, artists, merchants, influencers, whoever — to a common gathering place”, and they say, “that, in and of itself, is very cool.” Others, more grandiose, think nifties can “invert how we think about creating and capturing value on the internet, and provides the foundation for a sovereign internet owned by everyone.” This sounds really great if you’re disenchanted by this age of surveillance capitalism AND if you want to accelerate to its inevitable apocalypse. Of course it also sounds really great that creators can be protected and rewarded for their creativity.
More important to the excitement, though, is the cryptoboom. If cryptocurrencies have suddenly made you stupendously wealthy, why not buy some plaything shining with distributed ledger allure? Why not buy some nifty FARTs? (Fundamental Acquired Real Things, ok I know you got that already. Please forgive me once for being puerile, and again for spelling it out). The Ponzi hordes might even make your ‘investment’ worth something. NFT titles like The Bitcoin Angel, Last Stand of the Nation State, and Who is Satoshi Nakamoto suggest artists know their market well.
So digital art is bought and sold, and the market is booming, and many thousands of dollars change hands every day, and articles get written in the mainstream press, and it all seems so clever and exotic, and there’s a crypto mystique, and well done innovators, and down with boomers, and is this the future of art? For a minute it is possible to get excited about this brand new thing.
A minute later, though, and the backlash forms in my gut and I can’t help but loathe* the nifty “movement”.
I loathe it for its hype — this is just packaging, it’s no revolution for a sovereign internet, it just one step up removed from selling clipart on Etsy or paying for a sword on World of Warcraft.
I loathe the energy wasted and the carbon produced — it takes a lot to ‘mint’ an NFT.
I loathe it for being so very online — do we need to become even more invested in our virtual life?
I loathe it for its aesthetic — it all seems like low concept, sci-fantasy, teenage dream pastiche to me (that 3LAU music is unlistenable). At best it makes me think “ok that’s cool” and amuses me for 30 seconds. I loathe it for its cryptobro chumminess and injokiness and meme awareness, and I loathe it for its high-gloss well-rendered slickness.
I loathe it for its venality — it appears to be inspired only by making a buck, by flipping another type of tulip bulb, rather than by any kind of philosophy or craft or heartfelt aspiration beyond something you might learn on an overpriced digital marketing course. Lets face it, we’re only talking about it because some real money is starting to change hands.
I loathe its language — for being ‘nifty’ (the word is too cute, too neat, too conspiratorial), and for referring to newly released art as a ‘drop’, like its a pair of trainers or some other product where the price is massively disproportionate to the inherent value.
I loathe it most of all, though, because it makes me feel old and cynical.
*loathe, it should be obvious, is an exaggeration.
See also: Thefty NFTs.