What NFTs Teach Us about Humans, Art and Capitalism

NFT Blockchain Art
NFTs: Culture going digital, or is it? (Pic by Karthik GL)

1) Before I start, let me tell you a quick personal story. Some years ago, when I just finished my PhD project and wasn’t sure where to go next, I decided to try myself as a community manager for a medium-sized company. The offer they made wasn’t very well-paying, but I was short of money, and also curious to learn how the media environment I had studied as an undergrad has changed in the meantime. And so I said yes.

It turned out, that I had to catch up quite a bit. Mobile communication and web 2.0 were not the kind of species I knew how to deal with. This meant that I needed to learn quickly, and that was the moment when I came across Gary Vaynerchuk (aka garyvee). I read a couple of his books and watched his Youtube videos to get steeped in the new digital lingo. It worked quite well: from what I can tell, my bosses were satisfied with my performance, and when I left back for academia two years later, I was much more knowledgeable about the disruptive digital world.

2) Why am I telling you this? Reason number one: Gary Vaynerchuk is one of few people in the social media circus who reminds you constantly that a significant part of his success stems from studying history. Reason number two: recently, he has moved heavily into NFTs. And while no-one knows if and how this technology will change our way to live on this planet, it seems to be an interesting case of study to understand how lifestyles, production, and consumption evolve over time.

Just in case you don’t know what NFTs are: the acronym stands for “non-fungible token,” which is basically an (almost) unhackable computer code you can attach to a piece of art, music, film, or any other item that exists in the digital world. By connecting an NFT to a digital product, you create a proof of its authenticity and uniqueness. This is great news for all digital artists out there. Now it doesn’t matter how often people copy the meme or the video game you created. If you own the corresponding NFTs, you’re considered as their author and can sell the rights for your idea to whoever you want.

This is copyright’s Second Coming, but NFTs are actually much more than that. They create a new contractual infrastructure, which can be used for any kind of agreements between people and organizations. Since our today’s lives are already extremely connected to digital experiences, it is very likely that digital technologies like NFTs will be in high demand in the future.

3) In other words, it looks like the rules of the game are about to be rewritten again. In the first quarter of 2021, NFTs accounted for about 10 percent of worldwide art market revenue. If you think that most of the digital items sold are worth nothing, you’re probably right. But this might also be true for 99 percent of the art purchased at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, no matter if conventional or digital. After all, the value of a piece of art lies, more than anything else, in the eye of the beholder – and the community he or she belongs to.

This is by the way nothing new. Back in the 1930s, few years before he lost his life while fleeing from the Nazis, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay about The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. One of his key ideas was that in modern times art is not what it used to be in the Ancient world or in the Middle Ages. Back then it was all about uniqueness, restricted access, and physical experience, which created a special aura and cult value.

The invention of photography and cinema made technological reproduction of a work of art easy and inexpensive. Cult and aura vanished, and instead of them the exhibition value became the main criterion to establish the significance of a piece of art. The number of people who watch a movie is an indicator of its cultural importance, even though it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a high-quality product.

4) In the digital age, the effects of low-cost mass reproduction have become even more pervasive. Copying, remixing, sampling – you name it – are so simple that anyone can do it at almost zero cost. Moreover, you have the opportunity to spread your creations easily among the people, even though large-scale distribution is more difficult to pull off and still requires considerable resources.

For the last decade, we’ve been flooded with other people’s creative output on the internet: funny and sad, subtle and tasteless, but most frequently trivial and irrelevant. Here’s where NFTs come in. By re-establishing the notion of uniqueness they allow us to bring some order into the chaotic world of digital interactions. And if there’s something we’ve learned from history, than it’s the idea that humans need order to get things done.

It’s all about social agreements. Sure, you can copy a JPEG, print it out in high quality, and enjoy looking at it at home. But if there are enough people who think that only the JPEG with an NFT attached is the real thing, then your JPEG doesn’t carry the same meaning, which is to say: you won’t get from your JPEG what you’d get from the NFT-connected JPEG.

Since NFTs can be owned collectively, people who hold a share on an NFT become something like an exclusive club. If it sounds too stuck-up for you, think of urban tribes of rockers, skaters, punks – they are exclusive, too. No matter if upper-class or subcultural, communities are about belonging and shared experiences that are inaccessible for outsiders.

5) In a way, NFTs bring us back to the pre-modern world of artistic experience Walter Benjamin was talking about. The mystical aura might have gone forever, but the restricted access to, and the physical experience of, something unique still matter. At the same time, NFTs reinforce the tendency of considering culture as an economic asset.

In many respects, this is a consequence of us living in a largely capitalistic society. Societies that value co-operation over competition are less prone to think about protecting intellectual property (aka great ideas) and creating artificial scarcity.

The financialization of culture, which is what NFTs could possibly be doing over the next thirty years, is just another piece of human existence in the age of surveillance capitalism. Don’t be misguided: big corporations will have big say in how NFTs will evolve. But you might have an opportunity, too.

It would be a mistake to forget that humans haven’t changed much in the last couple of hundred years. Technologically, we’re in the skies with diamonds, but deep inside we still seem to think in terms of the Stone Age. No matter how abundant our world has become recently for many, it’s hard to believe that it won’t go away some day. And so, NFTs make perfect sense for the time being.

However, as Walter Benjamin remarked, human perception is “determined not only by Nature, but by historical circumstances, as well,” which is to say: it’s up to us to decide where we go from here. Just make your bets, and let them be long-term.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *