Since the Bitcoin explosion in 2017, I have made an effort to selectively tune out the cryptocurrency conversation. Ask me how blockchain technology works or how to buy Bitcoin, and you’ll be met with silence and a blank, thousand-yard stare. It takes a lot to get me to care about “dips,” “bounces” and the various jargon thrown around on “r/CryptoCurrency.”
But alas, the day has arrived in which I am forced to pay attention to the world of crypto. Recently, a bloody free-for-all in the form of “NFT”s has descended upon the internet. “NFT” stands for “non-fungible token.” Take note, because this is more than just a term that Elon Musk uses on Twitter to get his loyal parade of admirers to invest in something.
In regular people’s terms, something that is “non-fungible” is one-of-a-kind. Thus, a “non-fungible token” is a unique, irreplaceable piece of digital media. Authentic NFTs are a derivative of cryptocurrency, stored on the Ethereum blockchain. These can be in the form of images, video clips, music, GIFs — anything that exists digitally can be tokenized as an un-counterfeitable authentic copy.
Now, don’t be mistaken, NFTs have been around for a while.
In March 2017, a meme-trading platform, “Peperium,” was announced on the Ethereum Community Forum, which described it as “a decentralized meme marketplace and trading card game (TCG) that will allow anyone to create memes that live eternally on IPFS and Ethereum.” If NFTs had stopped here, they would be a relatively harmless way to trade and create some dank memes. Unfortunately, crypto-hobbyists with excess (read: fake) cash to spend have started to take advantage of non-fungible tokens.
NFT bandwagoners are not spending their precious Ethereum for the digital media itself: Technically, each NFT has its own blockchain identity that’s impossible to copy, forever sketched in data. With the purchase of one NFT comes its unique set of metadata containing proof of the artist’s signature and the associated transactions. They’re paying for the equivalent of gold foil shrink-wrap on a trading card, i.e., an artificial certificate of authenticity for a product that is not scarce. The crypto-pocalypse took the digital marketplace by storm roughly around Feb. 18 of this year, when the antique meme Nyan Cat, which the creator updated for its tenth anniversary, was auctioned off for 300 Ethereum units, valuing the tokenized GIF at $590,000 USD.
Yes, somebody spent over half a million dollars on a cryptographic hash of possibly the most widely-spread GIF on the internet — a GIF that, like any other, can be copied, pasted, downloaded and altered for free by anyone. I hope the person who purchased Nyan Cat goes to their first post-COVID-19 party and impresses crowds with their $590,000 “for the memes” purchase.
In typical careless fashion, the likes of Mark Cuban, Logan Paul and Grimes are exacerbating the crypto wave, convincing thousands outside of the crypto trading industry to hop on in and jack up the value of digital tokens. In this environment where “hype” controls the market, people are racing to tokenize anything they can, including digital artists who, if they weren’t already struggling to make a living, have to face the threat of art theft. Mentioning @/tokenizedtweets — a now-suspended account — in any tweet, including those containing images of digital art, will tokenize any Twitter post on a first-come-first-serve basis. Essentially, anyone can have anything taken and owned by anyone else. Doesn’t matter if you wrote the funny joke or drew the stunning picture, someone else “owns” it and will profit off your work.
Artists who beat the clock and make their own NFTs might find that their piece was resold for tenfold the money the artist earned initially. After the market shifts to highly-priced NFT collectibles from popular artists, fewer people are inclined to support small artists.
In the real world, a select few collectible paintings tend to skyrocket in value over time, lending to an unproductive cycle where the value of art just keeps increasing. With NFTs, the practices of the art world are repackaged and advertised as avant-garde, and the accessible, “for the people” charm of NFTs is wiped away as independent artists are curb-stomped into the ground.
If the livelihoods of hungry artists (including writers, photographers, comedians and game designers) aren’t already a point of concern, maybe the glacier-melting carbon footprint of NFTs will raise eyebrows. A single NFT gives way to several transactions: minting, bidding, canceling bids, sales and transfer of ownership, which have an average combined footprint of 340 kWh. This is roughly the same quantity of emissions as flying a plane for two hours. It’s more energy than I have used on my laptop in my two years of owning it.
The negative environmental impacts of cryptocurrency have never been a force large enough to overcome its accelerationism. Tech bros who trade NFTs and other crypto aren’t seeing the harm they’re causing — if they are in fact aware of it, who knows if they even feel guilty.
The technology of NFTs is smart and nothing short of revolutionary — but it feels like something incredibly illogical is going on here. The degree of hysteria is creating a market that can get some people rich (and already has), but I wonder where it will all end up. Not to mention, the implications of possibly claiming the rights to anyone’s original content creates a whole new ethical battlefield that I’m not sure we have room for.
If you want to blow your stimulus check Biden-bucks on encrypted bits of nothing, you’re not alone. Hell, it’s exciting to jump on cryptocurrency while it’s hot — just know that NFTs are valued on the fickle nature of the internet. At any moment the bubble could burst, leaving millions of people with useless tokens that are no longer worth anything and can no longer be resold.
So, before you claim your place in line at the digital Supreme store, waiting for the newest NFT to drop, think about how excited you actually are to participate in a post-ironic satire of ownership and value of things on the internet.
Think about how NFTs facilitate art theft. Think about the polar bears, if you have to.
Daily Arts Writer Laine Brotherton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.