The NFT Culture War
A pro-NFT piece. An anti-NFT piece. A call for NFT peace.
Hello, and welcome back to Design Harder, a newsletter about “graphic design”. As omicron tears through our shared reality and the joy of holidays freeze back into winter malaise, I am grateful for this newsletter, and for you reading it. This issue is going to be a bit different than the others and will not be a singular long-form essay, but instead a share of opinions on a topic that is, to put it lightly, driving me nuts.
NFTs (AKA non-fungible tokens) are digital content that people sell for cryptocurrency. The fact that you're reading this probably means you fall into the bubble that knows what NFTs are, and have perhaps even participated in making or purchasing them. If you are blissfully unaware of any of this, I envy you and recommend that you close this tab, walk away, and smell the roses. But if you have already opened Pandora's NFT box and the brain worms have taken hold, then bravely venture forth, as I am here to lend a helping hand as we enter the heart of the NFT culture war.
The discourse around NFTs, like most of the discourse on our woefully centralized internet, is divisive. It’s gossipy. It’s polarized. Jpegs of apes worth millions are being stolen, Jerry Saltz is getting scammed, crappy parties are being thrown with a laughable entry price, and it turns out cute pudgy penguins are actually not your friends. While this is all quite entertaining, it’s exhausting. As someone who spends their days making images out of algorithms, I want nothing more than financial freedom and artistic agency in a society that simply wants me to sell out. On some days, NFTs sound like the answer. On other days, they seem like the ultimate sell-out, a gateway drug to a toxic male cult that wants nothing more than to trade digital beanie babies to pad their bank account as they maximize their carbon footprint until we’re all underwater. It’s a bubble. It’s a scam. It’s a pyramid scheme. It’s the future. Any of these realities could be true, but what is reality other than what you make of it?
In order to try and rewrite the narrative on all this madness, I wanted to cede the reigns and share some pieces created by others that have helped to ground me in the non-fungible whirlwind. I have created an Are.na channel (essentially a collection of bookmarks) that attempts to cull nuanced opinions in writing, audio, and video formats on NFTs that can be found here. I’m keeping the channel open for now, as Are.na is a rare gem on the internet that feels truly collaborative, and if you are a fellow Are.na user I recommend contributing! We will get through this craze together, with knowledge on our side and a healthy understanding of what this all does and does not mean. At the end of this newsletter, I also highlighted some of my favorites from the channel if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
After consuming all this content (and much more that went unlinked, it’s really an all-you-can-eat buffet of thinking on this subject) I also wanted to add some throughlines I found from my NFT content banquet and some observations that may have gone unsaid. This is a mix of facts found from the collected pieces and my own personal observations, so make of them what you will:
The hardest part about making jpegs and mp4s for a living is that it isn’t much of a living at all. The advent of “Net Art” at the turn of the millennium didn’t exactly lead to a windfall of resources to digital artists, and that’s OK! It was about art! And privilege and capitalism all play a big part in all this! But as we live in a society, I want to see digital content creators have the financial freedom to live without debt and be able to do the kind of work they want to do. NFTs could be the answer, but there is so much baggage — primarily with their relationship to cryptocurrency — that I think they have to answer before becoming a long-term solution to this problem.
As someone who has been alive to see the birth of Web 0–3, digital content if anything is transient, impermanent, and fleeting. The fact that all that NFTs are is a string of code that points to a URL (the art itself) hosted by a small number of centralized servers who very well could delete it all in a moment's notice changes nothing in terms of our relationship to digital content. Jpegs can be replicated endlessly, degrade in quality, and change in context, but at the end of the day, they still live on a server outside the metaverse in the real breathing world that could just die at any time.
The environmental impact of all of this is depressing. While there are currently more eco-friendly cryptocurrencies such as Cardano and Tezos being traded and a number of clean marketplaces that exist, they are nowhere near the popularity and have the economic benefits of marketplaces that use Ethereum. When (and if!) Ethereum becomes less energy consuming and moves to proof of stake (allegedly this year) it will be a relief. But for now, the what-about-isms that NFT artists use don’t feel good. Yes, all art-making uses resources but this technology is new and there is no reason for it to be so carelessly wasteful — right now a single Ethereum transaction consumes as much electricity as an average U.S. household uses in a workweek.
While males in their 20s and 30s make up the bulk of NFT culture, it’s interesting to see who is pushing back hardest against it. I’ve observed a number of members of the illustration community speak loudest in this fight, and the fact that K-Pop stans are vehemently opposed is telling. The youngest generation online both has the most to lose from the environmental impact but also likely has the lack of resources to participate.
While a number of artists are experiencing the euphoria from the shedding of the weight of oppressive capitalist structures with newfound financial freedom, they are not making the lion's share of the wealth. The hundreds of dollars of gas fees required to mint an NFT with Ethereum falls on the artist to pay, a steep entry fee that disenfranchises many. I wouldn’t go as far as to call the whole thing a pyramid scheme, but the people who are really getting rich are the ones who are invested in crypto culture. The most basic example I found of this was the hugely financially successful NFT collection Bored Ape Yacht Club which paid its illustrators who drew the collection … forty thousand US dollars upfront. Recently, sales of the apes have passed a whopping–and-James-Bond-Villain-esque amount of one billion dollars. Despite whatever I think of the quality of said simian artwork, I feel bad for the artists!
In order to be a “successful” NFT artist, the game of online popularity as built by Web2 does not feel like it has been disrupted. Leveraging social media followers or contributing to Discord communities which often have a high financial toll to enter tends to be the golden ticket to success. It’s interesting to see how Twitter — in all of its 15-year-old toxic glory — seems to be the main public route for promoting NFTs.
Selling jpegs for cash is not a new concept, and the only thing relatively “new” about this cryptocurrency. The biggest NFT sale to date of Beeple’s Everydays for $69 million was of course purchased by a major crypto investor and if the tech world wanted to actually meaningfully support digital artists they could have done so years ago. One of the major problems with crypto is that you can’t really buy much of anything with it, so NFTs above all else just feel like a solution to that problem instead of some great artistic renaissance. As we close our eyes to the real world and jump into the metaverse and embrace our new unreality, just know that it doesn’t matter if you can right-click and duplicate that jpg. What is being created is a universe built on digital scarcity. The ethos is actually derived from a new social status cobbled from digital receipts instead of a poorly conceived technology meant to support the arts. This is all to say that the NFTs don’t feel like they are about the art at all, but simply about investment opportunities. Or as Gary Vaynerchuk — arguably NFT culture’s biggest celebrity — said during his keynote discussion at NFT.NYC 2021: “90% of the people currently in our space are in the business of day trading NFTs to make a bag.”
Many have already said the NFT trend is already over as sales slumped late last year before rising up again in December. But as the NFT culture war rages on into 2022 it seems as though the tokens have successfully non-funged their way into the art world and are here to stay. NFTs aren’t perfect and they aren’t immortal as one of the most exciting parts about the Web3 world is how fast it moves. The perceived inevitability of capitalism does not mean we're not powerless against its most craven tendencies to degrade aesthetics and turn beauty into coin. NFTs can still change, and so can you. Until next time: design harder.
Here are some pieces from the Are.na channel that I especially enjoyed if you want to dive deep:
Brooke Gladstone’s long-running radio show On The Media’s piece on the subject titled Cha-ching!. In this show, she talks to Anil Dash, one of the first people to help conceptualize NFTs who also wrote the excellent NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This.
Artist and critic Brad Troemel’s 42 minute “wacky ass long form video” The NFT Report.
This thread by esteemed designer Jessica Hische offers a positive counterpoint to all the skepticism.
Developer and founder of Signal Moxie Marlinspike’s breakdown of the flaws of NFT technology in My first impressions of web3.
Popular Things, Dean Kissick’s musings on the aesthetics of NFTs from his excellent column The Downward Spiral.
Mat Dryhurst and Daniel Keller’s NFTs for n00bs, a two-hour considered analysis from the venerable Interdependence podcast on the history of NFTs.
New York Times tech writer Shira Ovide’s zoom-out NFTs Are Neither Miracles nor Scams.
CleanNFT, a community-led effort to track the environmental impact of NFTs.