In our age of rotating tulipmanias, this month Nonfungible Tokens (NFTs) are driving investors and the art world into frenzy. WTF are NFTs? They are digital representations of assets, “either physical or digital,” that verify its “ownership and authenticity,” writes Connor Goodwin in the Wall Street Journal. “NFTs are unique digital tokens, which can include digital artworks . . . as well as domain names, memes, digital trading cards and even tweets.” Goodwin explains, “Essentially, NFTs make it possible to own a piece of the internet.” Whereas every bitcoin is interchangeable and fungible, each NFT is unique.
The obvious joke is that NFTs sound a lot like those certificates that let you “buy” and “name” a star. But really NFTs are just the latest way to capitalize on the ever-evolving need to display affluence—the need to find identity in status. At the Verge, Mitchell Clark puts it simply: NFTs are a way to flex. This latest bit of human depravity just happens to be intangible and part of the internet ether. But at heart, it’s no different than clothing lines, ice, links, leather, or minks.
Despite the recent media blitz caused by last week’s sale of Beeple’s opus—a $69 million dollar piece of digital art—NFTs are not new. The origins of NFTs go as far back as 2012 (at least) and are rooted in meme culture—see the phenomenon of blockchain Rare Pepes. There has apparently long been a demand for novelty crypto assets and the Pepe example “drives the point home that people want unique digital items,” writes Andrew Steinwold.
So why are they suddenly everywhere? It has been pointed out it would make sense after a year of locking people inside with nothing but screens to amuse themselves—especially when the most popular game was one where you paid your debts with turnips and the only goal of the game is to create a miniature online island of collectibles and a home for an avatar.
For all the fear-mongering that videogames spur violence, as a society, we have missed the more present danger of addiction to these escapist fantasies and their slow encroachment into real life. NFTs, our definitely benevolent tech overlords tell us, are a natural progression of the idea that we are living more and more of our lives online. A gold cage is still a cage.
Originally these tokens were just part of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. It’s telling that while crypto has long been regarded as a destabilizing threat to traditional banking, Big Art has jumped headfirst into NFTs. Sotheby’s has announced a forthcoming collaboration with digital artist Pak. The irony of the decentralized and democratizing forces of the internet and blockchain being used to recreate the same ancient structures and dynamics of power in the art world would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
Others are trying to cash in, too. For instance, there’s a guy now selling recordings of his own farts for $85 as NFTs. And Procter & Gamble’s Charmin brand has partnered with digital artists to make little glitchy gifs of toilet paper, the proceeds from which will go to Direct Relief. “Each roll comes with a physical display, so you can hang your NFTP in your bathroom alongside your IRL rolls,” reads the completely non-ironic description on a totally serious corporate webpage that sells these things.
I’m not going to lie: I really thought the raging, post-pandemic Gatsby party era would be sexier than Extremely Online memelords showing pieces of blockchain art to each other on their phones while the rest of the semi-online masses continue to toggle among 3 or 4 sites that all look more and more alike. That is until the big EMP hits and wipes out these digital ecosystems freeing us all to go outside, finally, and enjoy the sun.
*Correction, March 22, 2021: The article originally and incorrectly stated a guy–Alex Mallis–is selling a year’s worth of recordings of his own farts for $85. He informs us he sold the year-length recording for $400 and the $85 price point is for individual recordings, of which he has sold six. We de-stinkly regret the air-ror.