Should I make this Juncture Review into an NFT?


Beeple's EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS

NFTs have been a product of great discussion for a concept (or item) that did not exist in popular consciousness 3 years ago. In this Juncture Review, I shall look at what NFTs are, what makes them unique and valuable, and why people are so interested in them. I shall explore whether NFTs are a trend, a bubble that will burst, and will only be remembered as ‘that time lots of celebrities posted animated monkeys on their Instagram pages’ or whether NFTs represent something greater and more permanent in the world of the Internet.


Defined as ‘tokens stored on a blockchain’ (Pinto-Gutiérrez et al., 2022, p.1), non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are used to represent ownership over digital assets. Touted as bringing ‘greater certainty to questions of ownership and authenticity’ (Mackenzie and Bērziņa, 2021, p.1) to collectible items from art pieces, photographs, recording, virtual real estate and so on. NFTs represent a development in the world of cryptocurrency wherein, like physical objects and money, cryptocurrency tokens function as fungible goods. Each token, for example a Bitcoin, could be traded for another with no difference between the value of one (literal) Bitcoin token to another (Mackenzie and Bērziņa, 2021, p.2). The value of Bitcoin can, and does, fluctuate, but no one Bitcoin is different to another. NFTs, in contrast, are unique and original, with each NFT tied to a specific good. No NFT is like another. This distinctive, non-interchangeable quality presents a break with an Internet that has been characterised by abundance, imbuing the non-physical items that make up the online landscape with the scarcity that is so synonymous with ascribing value to an object in the physical world (Roose, 2022). Sold on specialised marketplaces, NFTs are unique in their ability to be set up in a way that allows for the original owner of the NFT, to ‘earn a percentage of all subsequent sales’ (Pinto-Gutiérrez et al., 2022, p.1). Comparable to a certificate of authenticity, NFTs, unalterable in their nature, allow for original ownership to be proved. Therefore, even if an NFT art-piece takes the form of a copyable, screenshottable JPEG, like the one atop this article, the uncopyable digital asset linked to the work proves which art piece is real among a potentially infinite number that are not (Roose, 2002).


Described as ‘one of the most notable public successes of blockchain technology’ (Dowling, 2022, p.1), NFTs represent endless possibility because almost anything digital can be an NFT. Much of the hype and conversation around NFTs centre on the world of art where NFTs came to be seen as a response to the ‘art world’s need for authentication and provenance in an increasingly digital world’ (Thaddeus-Johns, 2021). The first time I ever heard of NFTs was from the sale of Beeple’s ‘Everdays – The First 500 days’, a digital artwork that sold for a record $69.3 million in March of 2021 (Reyburn, 2021). A collage of images created daily from 2007 to 2021, and notably published online every day in that time period, the sale was the first time that the luxury auction house Christie’s accepted, here Ether, accepted cryptocurrency as a form of payment (Reyburn, 2021). This sale from a two-centuries old institution was widely interpreted as bolstering the legitimacy of cryptocurrency (Reyburn, 2021). As a result, an ‘NFT gold rush’ followed wherein around $44 billion was spent on around 6 million NFTs in the year that followed (Gopnik, 2022).


When I first read about Beeple’s revolutionary sale, I was confused. The same JPEG I could download right now from the Christie’s website is presumably the same thing that the buyer, MetaKovan, described as a steal when he paid almost $70 million for it (Reyburn, 2021). So, what is so attractive about NFTs? NFTs provide monetary value to what has, up until now, been, monetarily speaking, value-less goods. Kevin McCoy, the co-creator of the first NFT, described the creation as arising from a desire to ‘assert authorship, and to transfer ownership’ (Gobnik, 2022) of digital creations that can, by virtue of existing online, be copied and replicated endlessly and without corruption. McCoy argues that the NFT gives digital artists the ability to sell their work in a similar way, and with similar ease, to artists working with physical objects (Gobnik, 2022). This, coupled with the original artist’s ability to earn money from resales, makes McCoy’s goal, to allow artists ‘survive and thrive’ (Gobnik, 2022), not only plausible but seemingly a reality. And yet, in reality, much like many trends that consume pop culture, those that benefit most are a publicised few. Most NFTs sell for less than $400, a value that does not even cover the cost of the blockchain, and most never get resold, making the resell feature almost redundant (Gobnik, 2022). Instead, the hype around NFTs can be seen as an extension of capitalistic greed that makes the ‘cryptorich richer’ (Gobnik, 2022).


Criticised as reducing art to ‘a frictionless commodity’ (Gobnik, 2022), the process of buying NFT art seems to be more popular than the actual piece purchased, the value derived from the idea of the NFT rather than the unique thing the NFT was designed to capture in the first place. This can be seen through the strange trend earlier this year of celebrities, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Eminem, buying six-figure anthropomorphic monkeys that they proudly displayed on their Instagrams, urging individuals to not miss out on the NFT hype from everywhere to SuperBowl ads to Saturday Night Live skits (Mull, 2022; Swant, 2022; SNL, 2021).


Furthermore, recent speculation suggests that the NFT craze may be reaching its end, a bubble ready to burst, with sales slowing after the market’s ‘meteoric growth’ (Howcroft, 2022). A volatile market by design where the ‘value of an asset depends on its social status’ (Howcroft, 2022), the entry of NFTs into popular consciousness and the tentative embrace they have received from legacy art institutions suggests a shift of the art world ‘toward a Silicon Valley libertarian ideal…[where] everybody becomes an investor’ (Price and Kuo, 2021). Therefore, the embrace of NFTs can be seen as a rejection of the previous internet ethos of giving undisputed sole ownership of content produced by individuals to platforms. The democratisation (or disenfranchisement) increasingly monopolised by Silicon Valley tech companies such as Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) is rejected in favour of reclaiming ownership (Price and Kuo, 2021).


By focusing on the world of art, where NFTs have been most prolific and visible, the implications of monetising and commodifying what previously could not have been monetised and commodified can be explored. NFTs both represent welcomed regulation and artist control in an industry that has lacked proportionate regulation, even as millions of dollars and questions of money laundering flowed (Roose, 2022). The art world is largely standardised and opaque, representing legacy and tradition that is in direct contrast with crypto’s promise of decentralisation and transparency (Price and Kuo, 2021). Examples of repatriation projects such as a project by Nigerian artists to digitally represent Benin Bronze statues that were looted from modern-day Nigeria by the British Empire and remain under private or museum ownership suggests that the democratisation that was central to the utopic vision of the Internet in its inception may still ring true (Williams, 2022). Further, it is difficult to wholeheartedly reject challenging Silicon Valley tech giants’ indiscriminate ownership of everyone’s data and creative output online. NFTs provide the ability for individuals to gain and maintain ownership over the content (a loaded term) they produce.

And yet, some have raised the legitimate concern that NFTs signify the ‘total conversion of art into a speculative financial instrument’ (Price and Kuo, 2021), breaking down the relationship between the material and the immaterial. Described as a ‘contract with no oversight’ (Price and Kuo, 2021), the NFT is a contract encoded into the product that is being valued, programming into the internet a ‘perverse’ scarcity (Price and Kuo, 2021). Further, although NFTs exist online, that is not to say they do not have material, real-world effects. The ‘proof of work’ process behind keeping cryptocurrency transactions financially secure is costly and energy inefficient. Therefore, NFTs have been criticised as an environmental threat, contributing to the climate crisis (Calma, 2021). This problem is not limited to NFTs but characteristic of all cryptocurrency systems. For example, the digital infrastructure that powers Bitcoin uses as much energy as all of Thailand, the majority of which comes from burning fossil fuels (Howson and de Vries, 2022, p.1). Criticised for ‘threatening global commitments for mitigating carbon emissions’ (Howson and de Vries, 2022, p.1), as cryptocurrency grows more popular and embedded in the digital landscape, the environmental impact will only magnify, disproportionately impacting developing communities globally (Howson and de Vries, 2022, p.2).


NFT art distils, captures, or miniaturises the larger debate around the trajectory of the internet, the nature of Web 3.0, the horizon that we are reaching. Web 3.0, less of a real thing and more of an ethos designed to guide the future of internet ventures, is built around cryptocurrencies and blockchains (Kafka, 2022). Web 3.0 represents a rejection of Web 2.0 and much of the last two decades of the Internet, which was motivated by a desire to monetise and transform the time spent and content produced online into profitable businesses that came to be consolidated into competition-destroying super-companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon (Kafka, 2022). A rejection of centralised control and management, every crypto transaction is public, although there remains no consumer protection (Kafka, 2022). Further, unlike the title of this Juncture Review suggests, I actually do not know how to go about making this Juncture Review into an NFT because the process is either purposefully obtuse or so new that it has yet to become user friendly (Kafka, 2022).


Therefore, to conclude, the world of NFTs and cryptocurrency is much like everything new and exciting, there is the potential for everything to go right and everything to go wrong. Those that buy into crypto, those that look down upon sceptics and see themselves at the forefront of the new status quo represent a compelling desire to build something new (Price and Kuo, 2021). Most likely though, the trajectory of the NFT and crypto suggests that the problems of our present are being carried into our future.


References

Pinto-Gutiérrez, C., Gaitán, S., Jaramillo, D. and Velasquez, S. (2022). ‘The NFT Hype: What Draws Attention to Non-Fungible Tokens?’, Mathematics, 10(3), pp.1-13.

Mackenzie, S. and Bērziņa, M. (2021). ‘NFTs: Digital things and their criminal lives’, Crime Media Culture, 00(0), pp.1-16.

Roose, K. (2022). ‘What are NFTs?’, The New York Times, n.d., p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/03/18/technology/nft-guide.html?searchResultPosition=2 (Accessed 18/04/2022).

Dowling, M. (2022). ‘Fertile LAND: Pricing non-fungible tokens’, Financial Research Letters, 44, pp.1-5.

Thaddeus-Johns, J. (2021). ‘Beeple Brings Crypto to Christie’s’, The New York Times, February 24, p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/arts/design/christies-beeple-nft.html?searchResultPosition=3 (Accessed 20/04/2022).

Reyburn, S. (2021). ‘The $69 Million Beeple NFT Was Bought With Cryptocurrency’, The New York Times, March 12, p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/arts/beeple-nft-buyer-ether.html?searchResultPosition=5 (Accessed 20/04/2022).

Gobnik, B. (2022). ‘One Year After Beeple, the NFT Has Changed Artists. Has It Changed Art?’, The New York Times, March 3, p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/03/arts/design/nft-art-beeple.html?searchResultPosition=9 (Accessed 20/04/2022).

Price, S. and Kuo, M. (2021). ‘What NFTs Mean for Contemporary Art’, The MoMa Magazine, April 29, p.1. Available at: https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/547 (Accessed 20/04/2022).

Howcroft, E. (2022). ‘Cryptoverse: NFT bubble gets that shrinking feeling’, Reuters, April 13, p.1. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/technology/cryptoverse-nft-bubble-gets-that-shrinking-feeling-2022-04-05/ (Accessed 20/04/2022).

Mull, A. (2022). ‘Celebrities and NFTs are a match made in hell’, The Atlantic, February 4, p.1. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/02/nft-jimmy-fallon-paris-hilton-millionaire/621486/ (Accessed 27/04/2022).

Swant, M. (2022). ‘From Crypto And VR To EVs To NFTs, Super Bowl LVI Advertisers Pitch The Future’, Forbes, February 13, p.1. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/martyswant/2022/02/13/from-crypto-and-vr-to-evs-to-nfts-super-bowl-lvi-advertisers-pitch-the-future/?sh=4d8622945b05 (Accessed 27/04/2022).

Saturday Night Live (2022). NFTs – SNL [YouTube]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrNOYudaMAc (Accessed 27/04/2022).

Williams, A. (2022). ‘How NFT technology can be 'a tool for decolonization', Deutsche Welle, March 17, p.1. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/how-nft-technology-can-be-a-tool-for-decolonization/a-61151904 (Accessed 20/04/2022).

Calma, J. (2021). ‘The climate controversy swirling around NFTs’, The Verge, March 15, p.1. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/15/22328203/nft-cryptoart-ethereum-blockchain-climate-change (Accessed 20/04/2022).

Howson, P. and de Vries, A. (2022). ‘Preying on the poor? Opportunities and challenges for tackling the social and environmental threats of cryptocurrencies for vulnerable and low-income communities’, Energy Research & Social Science, 84, pp.1-9.

Kafka, P. (2022). ‘Web3 is the future, or a scam, or both’, Vox, February 1, p.1. Available at: https://www.vox.com/recode/22907072/web3-crypto-nft-bitcoin-metaverse (Accessed 28/04/2022).


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