Non-Fungible Tokens: The Literal Challenge with Cryptoasset Metaphors

Dec 6, 2018 · 5 min read

Metaphors are powerful. When used thoughtlessly, they limit our most creative endeavors.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) sit at the intersection of creativity and cryptoassets, and there are many wonderful things that we as designers and developers can potentially build using them — but I say “potentially” for a reason. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to address a metaphor problem that’s hindering our industry.

As it stands today, our domain is being defined by what it is not (i.e. an NFT is something that is “non-interchangeable;” a metaphor-rooted term from the financial industry). The result is that the words we use to talk about NFTs are limiting our collective imagination, instead of empowering us to build new, higher-order creations.

What’s the Meta For?

In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson introduce the concept of metaphors as thought anchors and concept binders. One of the points they make is that metaphors directly affect our thinking by shaping how we speak about everyday life. In fact, metaphors are so powerful that they can limit our potential to create — if we’re unaware of what we’ve anchored to.

Let’s explore a few examples adapted from Lakoff and Johnson’s book.

Metaphors as Anchors


Simply put, we consider time in terms of money. Just look at how we talk about it:

  • Don’t waste your time.

This unspoken metaphor pervades our culture, influencing how we think, speak, and even act with regards to time. In fact, it is challenging to communicate with anyone in our culture about time without understanding this metaphor because it is a fundamental anchor.


We consider arguments in terms of war:

  • Your argument is indefensible.

This metaphor has many casualties (see what I did there?) in terms of how we interact with people during a disagreement. But these feelings are completely understandable. After all, this is war we’re talking about; there has to be a winner and a loser — and no one wants to lose a war.

But the ways we approach arguing are not due to some inherent property of argument—they are the direct result of a metaphor we’ve chosen to use, consciously or not. For example, what would happen if we played with the argument metaphor? What if we came to understand argument in terms of music? I’m guessing that people would experience arguments quite differently. Maybe they would be more collaborative. Maybe they would feel more like orchestrations. Perhaps, instead of winners and losers, we would arrive at some sort of shared composition.

Now let’s turn our lens back to NFTs and the metaphors that are currently limiting their creative potential.

NFTs ≠ Finance

Here’s some NFT language pulled from the web:

  • Access it through supported wallets.

It’s clear that we are already adopting language, ideas, and behaviors from the financial world. This is a problem because NFTs are not inherently financial; they are a far more creative medium that requires a metaphor with less baggage.

The Financial Metaphor Problem

The world of finance comes with transactional relationships and zero-sum games — both in the ways that people interact with one another and the system itself. As a result of its zero-sum context, it also has well-defined behavioral norms that fail to prioritize sharing; because in this context, information yields asymmetric leverage.

But what if there was a more suitable metaphor for our young domain?

As a straw man for our purposes, what if we considered NFTs using art-based metaphors? Go ahead and actually give this a shot. Take a moment with the NFT language above and attempt to imagine those statements with art as their central metaphor.

Challenging right? It’s tough to think outside of an anchoring concept. It requires searching for other concepts and reorganizing sentence structure. It requires thoughtful work, so most of us don’t do it. The result is that we quietly acquiesce to a set of language-based limitations.

Rewriting NFTs

So, what is the right metaphor? I don’t know yet, but I invite everyone to start imagining it together.

The requirements to imagine new things are strikingly simple:

  1. Bring awareness to the language you use when writing and speaking about NFTs.

Within a short period of time, I’d wager that you’ll continually notice a small set of frustratingly limited concepts. Perhaps, you will become so frustrated in your observations, that you will be forced to reimagine something that is truly worth reimagining — and find a metaphor fitting of the potential.

In part two of this series, I explore how we can expand our thinking to reach higher-order creations in the world of creative cryptoassets.

Got insights, thoughts, questions, inklings, or just want to share an idea? Tweet us at @ideocolab.


A collaborative network focused on accelerating the…

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store