The biggest joke in the industry.
My great-great-grandfather worked framing and varnishing art pieces in 1870s Shanghai, China. He also had a terrible opium addiction. He was this highly skilled madman that many well-known artists (of which there were many in Shanghai) would go to varnish their paintings. What they didn’t know was that, at the step in the process that involved peeling back a layer of resin, the resin would take a thin layer of paint wiht it, leaving a ghost of the underlying painting on the resin. My great-great-grandfather was skilled enough to peel the resin off in a single layer. Then, he could back the resin on a different canvas, paint over it himself, and sell it as a counterfeit.
I tell you about the black sheep in our family to show that even physical art, although it can rely more heavily on the craft and skill of the individual artist, is still at the end of the day, a concept. All art can be copied. Even NFTs.
— IF THE ETHOS of blockchain is democratization and decentralization, NFTs are the exact opposite of what blockchain was build for.
Remember that software is a lot of people telling you they work on these magical, ethereal, “programs” that are in reality built on top of the same carbon-guzzling infrastructure that you use daily to buy groceries and drive to work. I can think of no worse use of energy units that get us 0.0002 seconds closer to the climate catastrophe than an NFT.
(Reminder that this publication frequently makes harsh hot takes that are intended to be humorous and rag on an entire industry and tech culture, so if you work on NFTs, please remain seated and calm.)
Let’s backpedal for a moment.
To understand NFTs, you first have to understand blockchain.
Bitcoin - The Religion : The Indicator from Planet Money
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Though I am not a follower of the Bitcoin religion, I do think blockchain is a good idea, although it suffers from difficulty of adoption. I think it’s important to assess why some people believe fervently in blockchain as a philosophy as much as a technology, in contrast NFTs.
Hopefully, by now you know the deal. Instead of a bank writing down how much each person has in their bank account, blockchain is every person writing down how much they and everyone else has in their bank account. Blockchain started as an attempt to radically distribute and decentralize real resources, such as financial systems and currency. Many people thought this good, radical idea would change the world. In fact, because “developing countries” are though of as the world’s test lab, without as many entrenched ideas and systems as richer Western countries, a lot of people started evangelizing blockchain through the idea that it would help with the development of the global south, giving them a financial system that would enable individuals to have full control of their own resources.
Ironically, the lessons learned by blockchain companies that tried to take this good idea to the global south are intuitive to hardware engineers: physical infrastructure is queen. Lack of connectivity and electricity are still fundamental problems that need solving, though they are far less sexy than LibraCoin. Soft-ware companies, as scrappy and creative as they might get to wiggle around these issues, are not exempt from needing to confront them head-on. Some tried to get around this by using mobile phones and with slightly different applications — Sela, a company an MIT classmate of mine joined, had a novel concept for using blockchain for project management, so that both contractors and clients could mutually guarantee payment and progress. In Sela’s case, running into regulatory roadblocks are primarily what made adoption difficult.
We can follow that train of thought to fintech companies like Nigeria’s Paystack and technology like Zimbabwe’s EcoCash. These companies do not use blockchain, but similarly, the priority is digitizing financial information systems that are fairly low tech and rely on phone numbers and absolutely ancient USSD technology. This enables people with simple, mobile “dumbphones” to make financial transactions without any cash or cards. The West is still stuck with physical cards for the most part, where the global south, including surprising locations like Zimbabwe, is actually more economically innovative and technology-friendly — and they do it all with worse, outdated infrastructure in comparison to the West, even if blockchain isn’t yet realistic.
The point of this tangent is that blockchain is at its best when trying to manage real resources and real systems. Blockchain creates a ‘digital twin’ so to speak of real currency, or can help track the management of a real project like Sela attempted to. Blockchain assists in removing the need for an authority, so that everyone can be their own authority and verify agreements with each other. The philosophy of blockchain is the opposite of exclusivity, rather it is radical inclusivity of everyone to manage their own data and agreements.
So what about NFTs?
People are spending millions on NFTs. What? Why?
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, have been A Thing for a while now, but what's the meaning of "NFT"? A couple of…
NFTs are an attempt to use one facet of blockchain — the fact that blockchain typically relies on little, immutable components such as individual bitcoins — to try and do the exact opposite of what blockchain was made for. Rather than taking something exclusive and turning it into something inclusive, it takes something already inclusive and tries to turn it into something exclusive. Millions of copies of different memes and digital artworks exist online, and NFTs are an attempt to provide just one person or entity ownership of them. I’m surprised that more blockchain purists aren’t speaking against it!
“But ownership for digital art! A new way to pay artists!”
Sure, it’s possible that NFTs can become a way to support your favorite digital artist. I’d be delighted if that’s how NFTs ultimately were used, like this:
But so far the NFTs that have been sold at significant prices are mostly produced by people who are already successful artists or celebrities. Unlike blockchain, bitcoin, and the internet in general, which gives power to people who typically have none, NFTs seem to amplify the influence people already have because their work is already seen as valuable.
Finally, NFTs feel meaningless to me. Think back to the story of my great-great-grandfather that I used to catch your interest. What is stopping a person from making an NFT from a copy of a meme, on a different blockchain backbone than the original? NFTs have started out as part of Ethereum, but TRON also supports them. The copy of the meme is unique and the NFT is still unique, not violating the built-in protocol. So perhaps a centralized body is needed to decide which blockchains of tokens are legitimate and which others, because they are tokens of copies, are illegitimate, refuting the core philosophy. No one decided that Bitcoin was superior to Dogecoin other than the people who decided to buy or adopt them (though admittedly huge corporations etc. have a lot more buying and adoption power). What is different in the value of the copy of the meme and the so-called “original”, when they are conceptually the same, just because a single attribute attaching them to a blockchain backbone is different?
NFTs and the future?
Let me make clear here that by calling NFTs the “biggest joke in the industry”, I am not making any business predictions or assumptions about the financial success or adoption of NFTs. A few months ago some people got rich from Dogecoin, so I fully and wholeheartedly believe that technology I think is dumb can make lots of money (and I myself bought 2 overpriced shares of GameStop just to stick it to Wall Street). But I think we should start disconnecting the concepts of “ideas that will make money” and “ideas that are good”. A bunch of bankers pre-2008 thought investing in subprime mortgages was going to make a lot of money — and they were right. That does not mean it was a good idea.
“Ideas that are good” do not have to be particularly altruistic, and for-profit companies are not UNICEF. But to me, they need to be something of substance, something that, after stripping away hype and celebrity investors and smokescreens, still feel like a bit of humanity’s progress into the future.
(P.S. I promise my next blog post in this publication will be constructive and about actual hardware rather than making fun of software people again, but y’know, they deserve it. Also, I hope you still felt this was a hardwarish ‘perspective’.)
(P.P.S reach out if you’d like to help me make an NFT of this blog post and then make an NFT of a copy of the blog post on a different blockchain backbone just to prove a point lmao) (I have heard they cost ~$75 each to make so don’t hold your breath, but…👀)