No. 31 • 2021-03-26

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NFTs: Not the Future of Techno-Art

Let me start with a disclaimer… I am not an art connoisseur. Nor am I a cryptocurrency expert. And I admit that I really don’t get Banksy.

There’s been an irrational amount of hype surrounding NFTs, “Non Fungible Tokens”, which are a way of uniquely authenticating individual pieces of digital content. They are based on the blockchain, the same mechanism underlying cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, etc.). NFTs are generating a wave of interest in “CryptoArt”, promising the ability to create unique or limited editions of digital artworks. Recent examples include auctions reaching $600,000 for a digital painting created by a humanoid robot and (insanely) $69M for a digital work by the artist Beeple (see above and judge for yourself).

So you might think that I, a self-proclaimed “creative technologist” who believes in the symbiotic nature of art and technology, would be a proponent for NFTs.

But as it stands now, I think it’s baloney. BS. A bubble that is going to burst, badly.

In this newsletter and elsewhere, I’ve stressed that blindly translating something from the in-person / physical world into a digital / remote setting usually leads to bad results. A stage play and a TV show are two very different things. Similarly, presenting your traditional classroom lecture over Zoom doesn’t work, it requires changes to be as effective.  Different affordances and concessions are needed for content to feel authentic to the medium. Yet, the NFT craze is the result of applying the physical standards and conventions of high art (particularly paintings, sculptures, and installations) to the digital world. It’s going to go badly.

An original painting by an artist (of any period) is truly unique. Even good copies or prints of it will differ substantively from the original. The original is then a scarce item, which endows its value: some are willing to pay (at times ridiculous sums) to lay claim to that uniqueness.  NFTs attempt to impose that uniqueness onto digital artworks: one digital copy can be authenticated as the “original” and thus someone could be the sole “owner” of a digital painting. But the nature of digital is that everything is *exactly* copyable, and it is trivial and nearly cost-free to replicate the bits of a digital file (this is the driving force behind the Information Age). NFTs try to graft an artificial scarcity on top of something that’s fundamentally abundant, digital bits. Thus, you may be the owner of an “original” digital painting, but I could have an *exact* copy of it. No difference. None. Nada. The only difference is that you have the bragging rights provided by the “certificate of ownership”. Well good for you. If it’s a good piece of art, I think I’ll enjoy my exact copy just as much as you enjoy your original.

NFTs also try to impose the values of a select few upon a medium (the Internet) that is designed for the many. When a small group of people tries to declare what’s “good” and “high value” by themselves and thrust that upon the world, well… that rarely goes well. Such an approach drives elitism and inequity. We’ve tolerated it in the world of high art because, well, really only a small number of people truly care (sorry). That NFTs try to create such distinctions in direct opposition to objective reality is the height of elitist hypocrisy (again, the digital art files are *the same*). So, it’s a hype primarily driven by those who want to be known as elitist tastemakers.

But artists need to be paid, right? First off, there aren’t many artists being paid adequately in the old system, so I can’t believe that sliding the values of the old system into the digital world will change anything. Secondly, the fundamentals of digital creation introduce new paths to monetization. Successful YouTubers (creators, gamers, and yes, educators) have taken advantage of the infinite replicability of digital content to build large audiences and make a (good) living. I want artists to be paid, but I want many more of them to earn a living wage. I don’t want a system where a select few get to make millions for their works. If this was the 17th Century, perhaps that’s the best way to do it, but there are far more artists than patrons, and very few will find a wealthy NFT benefactor. Creating a fake scarcity bubble with NFTs further encourages the cult of the “superstar” artist. 

Finally, NFTs impose a hidden cost to all of us: they are bad for the environment. Seriously. They require enormous amounts of superfluous computation, which requires power, which takes natural resources. I’m not talking about your laptop, rather massive data centers run by corporations, where much computation is devoted to the number crunching required for crypto-currencies and crypto-art. A large data center can match the power requirements of a small-mid size city (100 MW). At least Bitcoin serves a purpose: it really can make digital financial transactions far more efficient and secure, which has real value. The only value of NFTs is imparted by human vanity: the small cabal of those who wish to decree something valuable and those who want credit for grabbing it “first!”

Historically, systems based upon artificial scarcity haven’t lasted long, and this one won’t either. Instead, I simply propose this: pay for art. Purchase works that you enjoy. Buy subscriptions to content. Support digital creators via platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon. And when it’s safe, attend performances and events. Art should be an investment, but not one seeking a financial return… the return comes through a better understanding of both the human condition and oneself. And that is always worth investing in.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • 30 Musicians Jam to the Mii Channel Theme [Alex Moukala] The well-known composer and producer asked musician friends around the world to jam over this funky version of the Nintendo Wii’s Mii Channel music, resulting in this awesome jam session!
  • 74 Seconds to Judgement [Arden Theater] Originally mounted as a stage production in 2019, this work has been reimagined as a streaming radio play. The play’s title references the killing of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop just 74 seconds after being pulled over (through March 28).
  • The Island We Made [Opera Philadelphia] I am simply astounded by the work produced for the Opera Philadelphia Channel this season. This unique art-opera film combines the ethereal electronic music of composer Angélica Negrón and narration by drag superstar (and fellow Uni High alum!) Sasha Velour to explore familial relationships and a multi-generational depiction of “Mother” (available through May).
  • A Symphony for Saint-Georges [Curio Theater] Joseph Bologne de Chevalier Saint-Georges was a composer, violinist, conductor, champion fencer, and colonel in Europe’s first all-Black regiment. born to an enslaved mother in the 1700s. This production is a physically distanced play/installation that combines video footage with sculpture, video, music, set design, and projections (through April 25).
  • Love I’m Given [Wolfgang A Cappella, NC State] The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella competition (depicted in the movie Pitch Perfect) is all-virtual this year, and there are some amazing videos being created by college groups everywhere. I randomly came across this one, which takes the medium to new heights. And here’s another great video from the Villanova Supernovas.

What I’m creating…

We recently released our ExCITe 2020 Annual Report, capturing amazing work of our Center’s students, staff, and faculty throughout a year of unprecedented challenges. I believe we adapted creatively and found hope in our ability to continue with our work, albeit in different ways. The long overdue societal focus on racial injustice and equity validated our ongoing initiatives.

You can read the 2020 Annual Report here, and all of our annual reports (since 2015) are available online.