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6 min read - Thursday 20th May 2021 
Collectible Digital Objects: why they suck and why they shouldn’t by Joe Moss 

Recently, I’ve heard a certain disdain for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and blockchain technology. With hundreds of thousands of crap editions and differently coloured 3D-modelled objects, it’s easy to see why. We are faced with an overwhelming amount of collectibles, far more expensive than Pogs or Pokemon cards, and without the respective crisps or charm. There is nothing inherently wrong with those artists and designers who have finally found a vehicle for digital works, but as it trickles down from the top we are faced with a gigantic atmosphere of hype, money-grabbing and insincerity. To traditional artists, the scene seems incomprehensible, and no-one is sure where the value actually resides.

So, what are non-fungible tokens? The common understanding of an NFT is a ‘collectible digital object’. However, more accurately, they are just little tokens that hold unique data on a network. On the Ethereum network (the location of art NFTs), they hold the address of the creator of the token, the address of the current owner of the token, and the potential to add a royalty to transactions. The royalty redirects part of every sale to the address of the creator. In the art space, the NFTs function as a certificate that directs you to some media. This media is always hosted on the web server, not in the NFT or as part of the NFT. Although you cannot copy the NFT certificate, you can copy the media. In this way NFTs actually resemble digital consignment agreements, not digital-objects.

In the physical world, we still use consignment agreements to legitimise artworks. For example, ‘Ego’ by Mark Wallinger could be replicated indistinguishably from the original by anyone with a printer. However, it needs to be legitimised by a consignment agreement to hold any value in the contemporary art marketplace. This is how NFTs work: the actual media can be copied, but the value comes from the associated NFT. However, NFTs are not really legally binding. In order to truly own the media associated with the NFT, you still need the ownership rights in writing from the author. Once you have this, there is really nothing stopping you from selling those rights without the NFT.

The question then turns to the benefit of this technology, beyond arbitrarily legitimising the hundreds of thousands of animated Ethereum logos and Pepe le frogs. These are merely the depressing results of a base-level interaction with new technology. Worse, they are the results that are leading to massive distrust amongst a more discerning potential user-base.

Essentially the value of NFTs is beyond what is being presented to us. Non-fungible tokens rely on blockchain technology, which is very, very, exciting. In the UK, we tend to lazily think of blockchain technology as the foundation of Bitcoin, where you could risk your birthday twenty from your perpetually confused Auntie and try to make a profit on its volatility. But this is not what it’s about. Bitcoin and associated cryptocurrencies already have real world use cases. In Venezuela, which is experiencing hyperinflation, peer-to-peer transfers from expats to family at home can be made quickly and without huge fees to secure value in the form of an inflation-proof asset.Similarly, Bitcoin is already being used by Nigerian businesses to negate the weakness of the Naira against the dollar when importing merchandise and is furthering access to digital identity, meaning more of their population will be able to access resources like hospitals and welfare.

The fundamental argument of these blockchain currencies is that you remove the power from a centralised source. In these new decentralised systems, the value of the money you earn is not dependent on a Government (who may change inflation rates tomorrow). Your identity is not verified by a group of people with vested interests. Ultimately you do not have to trust these central sources to verify your agency in the world. The trust is built into an architecture that does not allow for intervention. It is just there, reliable, disseminated amongst a community, no central point of weakness, no decision maker at the top.

Let’s speculate and think of the possibilities for NFTs’ function as certificates, not currencies. There is potential here for interesting art projects to run without patrons. Blockchain presents unmoderated collaborative opportunities, such as the potential to orchestrate self-sustaining research threads shared by hundreds of people across the globe. The technology replaces ‘author’ with content, so perhaps not for works, but for research and aesthetic development, the opportunity for small generative economies is unparalleled.

So, how would this work in practise? I created a project using the architecture that removed me as an author. I worked hard to create a breadcrumb trail of anonymous email addresses to sufficiently distance myself from the project, allowing the project to simply ‘exist’ as a digital artefact. The project was a system in which anyone could develop a 3D character. It was possible to 3D print to develop IRL or digitally through animation and modelling softwares. The system also allowed participants to document all renditions of this character as it changed, becoming a mythical character with no set definition. The circulation of NFTs granted access to this system, with no profit gained between the participants.

Sadly, my experience of setting this up was infuriating, the fundamental character of the NFT scene right now is a cynical marketplace. There is no space for anything other than the ‘digital object’. As an example, most curated NFT programs organise ‘drops’, language taken straight from limited edition trainers to further characterise the environment as one which serves up niche commodities. I ventured into Clubhouse, one of the social media platforms that drives the NFT world forward and found that any utopian sentiment was always combined with a sales pitch. Despite the potential of NFTs, the feeling of the scene is that of a gold rush.

There are true believers in the marketplace and it is connecting people with similar interests, but the economy is overwhelmed by one thing- the ‘Digital Art Object’. There is no space beyond the hype to innovate, or to be honest, there is no audience for anything interesting. In a way, the landscape as it stands merely reinforces the worst aspects of emerging art scenes.

However, we stay in the arts because truly inspiring things happen, and they happen regularly. Within the saturation of any inner city UK art scene we can look towards our friends and our friends of friends for truly inspiring things. This is all the more impressive given that, over the last ten years, the cost of living skyrocketed in London and cheap space disappeared.

The only way in which non-commercial art survived was through self-organisation and the building of small, niche-but-related economies throughout the city. Decentralised technology can really serve these economies, with the ability to archive cultural movements and represent the spaces that do not get the opportunity to write history. Some of the larger emerging art syndicates south of the river could find really incredible things with blockchain that align with their communal and romantic agendas.

So, this is the real point of this writing- don’t write the technology off. Nothing has to happen now, and it really shouldn’t, Eth2 is scheduled to be released over the next year and will drastically reduce the current carbon footprint of the network, which is necessary before anyone can responsibly vouch for the technology. However, assuming that happens, and it works, it would be a shame to neglect the possibilities. Amazing things could still be possible when artists interrogate the potentials of decentralised technology. Yes, it is crap now, but once the hype dies down the technology will still be there, and you could do something with it.

Gatekeeper Magazine© 2021