For some of you, what you’re about to read may as well have been written in 1980s-style DOS mode and saved on a floppy disc. It will seem that unsophisticated. For anyone on my side, let’s call it “Team Luddite”, my perspective will feel like a nice cup of Earl Grey — comforting, easy to understand, and, most importantly, real. Yup, this month I’m talking about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the metaverse, and their equally perplexing Web 3.0 and blockchain-related brethren. Or rather, I think I am.
I’m trying hard to get a handle on this new-fangled, non-fungible world that we’re supposed to be embracing to make money or, in the case of the metaverse, exist in. Hours of reading later, and I’m still mostly confused. What I do get fills me with huge anxiety.
Now, it’s not so much the idea of the new and the unknown that has triggered this wave of existential dread. I like it that some guys (digital artist Kevin McCoy and tech entrepreneur Anil Dash, apparently) came up with the NFT idea in 2014. That they made the mental leap to register a non-interchangeable unit of data in a blockchain — in this case, one of McCoy’s wife Jennifer’s videos — is something they must get props for.
Had you even heard of blockchain back then? Comprehending that a unique bit of data or token might be traded at all, renders my brain frazzled. Especially given that these are non-tangible widgets. Then attaching them to a fully digital artwork or a song that people are willing to pay millions and millions for? Go figure. It’s not just auction houses and crafty digital-artwork minters that are NFTing it up. Everyone from Gucci to surprising crypto evangelist Paris Hilton are in on the action.
A smart friend of mine says it’s the grift of the century. He reckons that the NFT system is tantamount to an eco-unfriendly Ponzi scheme where no one knows how anything works, but everyone is in on it to make a quick, big buck. I don’t even understand enough to know if he’s right, but I can say I’m no fan of the cult-like behaviour of the NFT extollers. Especially the big brands that are chasing the next billion. They are not starving artists using the tokens to take back autonomy in the capitalist system, they are the capitalist system.
Anyhow, I can probably live with this digital-art mania. Well done, random 38-year-old artist called Robness for selling an NFT image of a dustbin for $252 000. You saw a crazy rich person coming.
But the metaverse, now that’s another dystopian trip entirely. The term is a catch-all phrase for an ever-evolving world of virtual reality. It includes platforms such as Decentraland, where “inhabitants” buy plots of land and live and mix in a VR cyber realm. This is SimCity on steroids, and you can use crypto currency and NFTs to buy tat that ranges from clothes for your avatar to the house “next door” to Snoop Dogg (for $450 000).
Frankly, it sounds a strange alternative to real life in all the worst ways. The most pleasurable bit of being human is the stuff we taste, feel, and smell. Hugging your dad, eating homemade pasta, lying in the sun, standing in front of Matisse’s The Snail at the Tate and realising how big it actually is — this is the rich, real tapestry of existence.
You may end up a billionaire because you bought an NFT of an ape in a Breton-striped shirt that’s now hanging in your metaverse pad. I will remain poor and perplexed, but at least I’ll be toasting my failure with real whisky.
• From the March edition of Wanted, 2022.