How Far Are We Going to Go?

If you’ve had even only a brief awareness of blockchain culture in the past few months or so, you’ve probably heard of an NFT; or, a non-fungible token.

They were around as early as 2014, and can comprise works of digital art, film, music, digital assets within video games, sports contracts, and, naturally, pornography. Arguably, there is nothing inherently sinister about this. All an NFT technically is is metadata along a blockchain assigned to a digital product; everybody owns a digital commodity, an album, a movie, an ebook. In fact, it’s a remedy to the catastrophes in the creative sector over the past year, particularly for the music industry, who in lieu of the money made from touring had to sustain themselves on the third-to-half a penny streaming service Spotify pays per stream. It negates the bureaucracy of record labels, cutting royalties and controlling distribution — in short, it can provide freedom to creators.

However, this article is not an advocacy for NFTs, despite apparent benefits. Nor are NFTs the primary focus. I start by writing of them as they are the perfect example of capitalism continually producing newer, uglier limbs to its body, which simultaneously grows in size and decays in integrity.

NFTs are a way to ensure that, in a world where copies of digital art of all mediums are easy to replicate to no benefit of the creator, there is a qualifiable original work, even if it only exists in a blockchain entry. While in and of itself this is fair to the artist, what about consumers that may be left out of the experience due to lacking, say, $62,000? The event that prompted this piece was the recent news that the ‘Charlie bit my finger’ video is to be taken off of YouTube, where upwards of 800 million people have enjoyed it over the years, due to its being auctioned as an NFT for $760,999. While this is a mere one example of a piece of media being taken out of popular circulation because of this new craze, who is to say that people won’t be excluded over wealth, and vast amounts of it, from enjoying videos, albums, and works of art digitally as they already are in the real world? It would be remiss to assume that there won’t be more of this exclusionary, ‘gatekeeping’ behaviour over this new tool of making capital.

What is disturbing above all about the mentality surrounding this NFT trend (though I fear it will mutate beyond a trend, and become a cornerstone of societal division, both technologically and fiscally) is the vast amounts of money willing to be thrown around, whilst proprietors and supporters of this phenom consider themselves to be ‘[bucking] the system’ and ‘anti-establishment’. In theory, it could be those things, but all it has become is yet another status symbol, enigmatic to many, and ultimately (at the time of writing, at least) a crevice of our culture reserved for those who have the know-how to procure bitcoin, and the money to purchase something that differs only from the very same pictures of Kurt Cobain I had saved to my phone for free for many years because it has a ‘certificate of authenticity’. To be truly anti-establishmentarian would be to keep art and knowledge within a decentralised, creative commons; NFTs have only taken things in an abruptly different direction.

The main problem with NFTs though is not what they represent in a late-stage capitalistic society, not really. It’s their impact on the environment. Digiconimist (via Earth.Org) estimates that a single NFT transaction leaves a carbon footprint of 33.4kg of CO2; Memo Akten, artist and programmer, puts this figure at 48kg. Earth.Org reports that to mail an art print requires 14 times less carbon, at 2.3kg. What is more anti-establishment, a bigger buck to the system, at the moment than choosing not to put the environment under unnecessary jeopardy, to challenge the epidemic of systemic pollution incubated by big businesses, politicians in the pockets of oil companies? Crypto-bros might need to revaluate what the establishment really is, and what it means to go against it. They might find that they need to rebrand the NFT, and find its correct market; though it would be more suitable if this abject greed could be nipped in the bud entirely.

So, how far are we willing to go? Are we ready to let go of this broken capitalist ‘democracy’, or are we going to let the wave of commodification sweep us along to the depths of our inhumanity?