This month’s installment of Inkstick’s monthly culture column, The Mixed-up Files of Inkstick Media (inspired by From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), where we link pop culture to national security and foreign policy, is all about NFTs. Still not sure what to think about the NFT frenzy? You’re not alone.
“What do you think of nonfungible tokens? You know, NFTs?”
The person who asked me this question had a probing tone, ready to judge depending on what I would say. I’ve encountered this kind of inquiry before, applied to other divisive issues today: What do you think of nuclear energy? What do you think of critical race theory? Are you for or against virtual learning? These seem to be a litmus test to determine my character, whether I belong to a certain tribe deserving of respect or disdain. In the end, my most enlightened answer about NFTs came to mind: “I’m not sure.”
My uncertainty doesn’t come from a place of total ignorance. The talk of NFTs is inescapable these days. In fact, one popular dictionary selected it as the word of the year in 2021. The exponential surge of entrepreneurial interest around NFTs generated $41 billion dollars in market value worldwide in 2021, urging big companies and countries to explore its associated risks and opportunities, particularly its influence on an already fragile global economy. The Biden Administration is even reportedly considering an executive order for the US government to research and regulate the impact of technology such as NFTs on financial systems as a “matter of national security.” For something intangible and accessed online, NFTs seem to have made an indelible impression, either of pure enthusiasm or contempt depending on how one believes they will shape the future.
UNDERSTANDING THE APPEAL OF NFTS
NFTs are unique digital assets that, when purchased online with cryptocurrency, bestow the buyer a verifiable, immutable record of ownership. NFTs can range from art, music — even a copy of technical papers for a Nobel Prize-winning invention — most of which can be viewed online for free, but once bought, they become the exclusive property of the buyer, and can increase in monetary value over time. The seller can also gain royalties.
Are technological breakthroughs steering humanity toward a particular direction, or are they just following where humans already want to go?
NFTs rely on blockchain to track and verify the history of ownership, a technology that I’ve researched for its potential use to improve nuclear material accounting and transport security. So the principles of provenance and authentication associated with blockchain is a familiar concept that I’ve explored with equal parts excitement and skepticism. While blockchain has been around for decades, I assumed that its mainstream acceptance would be a humble journey, making the most impact on critical but invisible industrial processes that power supply chains or organize and decentralize opaque, hierarchic information flows like medical records. I imagined it as a technological revolution that would go over people’s heads because it would remain under-the-hood of most infrastructures.
Instead, the promise of blockchain ballooned and exploded into a multi-million-dollar collectible frenzy in NFT form: Bored-looking apes smoking slim cigarettes, googly-eyed ducks, even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet in March 2006. As an NFT, this tweet sold for about $2.9 million last year.
Most pundits and culture-makers are gridlocked on the perceived worth of NFTs. Some denounce NFTs as a pyramid scheme or say that they’ve spurred unsustainable speculative investing, while others think they are too ugly or obnoxious to be considered of real value. Beyond the squabbles around hyper-commodification and changing aesthetics, the debate also points to a larger question about what the popularity of NFTs says about us and our modern world that created them.
In his book, Paper: Paging Through History, writer Mark Kurlansky reminds us of Martin Heiddeger’s wisdom that “technology is a way of revealing,” and that human invention is a response to current conditions and needs. Paper did not pave the way for literacy and knowledge sharing; rather, already literate societies around the world at different points in time developed it as a form of easier and cheaper writing material for the purpose of expanding commerce. Unfair as it may be to compare the experimental stages of NFTs to the time-tested invention of paper, it raises an intriguing question about whether technology determines or merely channels social trajectory. Are technological breakthroughs steering humanity toward a particular direction, or are they just following where humans already want to go?
THE UNCHARTERED TERRITORY OF DIGITAL COMMONS
For those thrilled by NFTs, the most radical, and by extension, the most attractive, proposition of the technology is to shift the notion of digital ownership. Today, people have come to accept that an interconnected, online existence entails surrendering data — from personal information to creative content — both voluntarily and unwittingly as a precondition to participate in the great digital commons. What were once considered banal user-generated content such as videos, blog posts, and tweets become powerful cultural levers that can facilitate soft power diplomacy by connecting diaspora communities and empowering them as transnational identities, and disrupt political systems through knowledge-sharing and protesting via social media. But this swirl of information is predominantly facilitated through intermediaries like Meta, Google, Spotify, or Twitter that profit from such content. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2019, more than 80 percent of US adults feel they have very little or no control over their data collected by the government and companies.
The lack of ownership and control in an increasingly essential part of life, the digital plane where we interact during most of our waking hours, has many people yearning for an alternative. NFTs are a nascent manifestation of a new approach: A digital stake that proves ownership, even among multiple groups, without inhibiting the free flow of information. It can also open new ways of community-building and wealth-sharing. Independent artists and social impact organizations such as Women Rise NFT, ARTXV, and Humanium Metal are creating and selling NFTs as a way to fundraise so that proceeds and royalties are given or invested directly to partnering communities with no middleman involved. Some organizations are also now accepting NFT donations, such that once a donated NFT increases in value, those organizations linked to it receive a portion of the financial gains as it is traded or resold. Perhaps the allure of NFTs, and blockchain more broadly, reveals a desire for certainty, agency, and control in our virtual interactions.
This does not mean new technologies can’t get warped along the way. One of the most thoughtful critiques of NFT, from Anil Dash who created a prototype of an NFT for digital artworks in 2014, thinks that the technology is still imperfect, and worries that companies are hyping the promise of wealth on a system that requires a lot more fine-tuning. Money as the main motivator and guiding compass can also lead good ideas and intentions astray. When the Associated Press announced they will “drop” Pulitzer-prize winning photography as NFTs for sale, it is hard not to think about the subjects of news reporting photography — real humans frozen in their intimate moments of joy, suffering, or brutality — and the absence of their agency in a digital marketplace. While one could argue that this is merely an expansion of existing art auctions, a step towards this direction further solidifies a social trajectory towards a transactional approach to culture. Handling this type of photography in this way feels like hubris. The tenor of the work changes. It is no longer about just “seeing” or “truth-telling” through art, but also about consuming and owning.
MAINTAINING A HEALTHY SKEPTICISM
Weighing all these thoughts, I admit that I am floating noncommittally in the middle. But multiple perspectives and cautious observation are what we need in such a fast-reacting, polarized world with politics and culture constantly tugging in opposite directions. Dash worries that the charged atmosphere that hangs heavy over public discussion of NFTs will only increase vehemence and bias, pushing people to defend their unexamined preconceptions.
In theory, NFTs are a way of decoupling from the web of authorities and intermediary services that made the Internet we know today possible, which became domineering and confining over time. Yet, I am not sure if we’ve arrived at the best iteration of this technology that will help us transcend existing systems. As Kurlansky points out, “Not all technology is the future. Some technology succeeds in changing society and some fail. And even when an idea is right, the machine that introduces it to the society may not be.” I remain fascinated and open, but equally mindful of jumping too far ahead, creating new problems for the sake of resolving old ones.
Lovely Umayam is a writer and nuclear nonproliferation expert. She is the founder of the Bombshelltoe Policy x Arts Collective, which convenes policy experts, artists, and community members to explore how nuclear issues relate to today’s cultural trends and social movements.