Are NFTs Nonsense for Digital Cultural Heritage Collections?

The idea of a Rare and Antiquarian eBook Shop made for a solid McSweeney’s article in 2012. “Why, hello there!—I was just appraising some rare PDFs in the back room when I heard you come in.” Rare PDFs sound a bit funny. However, the idea of rare “born digital” materials has become an important and serious thing for cultural heritage orgs. Authors and playwrights drafts are now files on computers and not handwritten or typewritten documents, so if you’re in the business of working with records of the creative process you have to get into digital files. Similarly, if you care about books at this point, for the most part, a print book you hold in your hand is effectively a print surrogate of an original or source digital file. Doug Reside’s 2014 article File Not Found: Rarity in an Age of Digital Plenty, published in the RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, is a great introduction to many of the issues at hand for thinking about the idea of rare PDFs.

Reside makes a powerful case for how and why collecting institutions that work with rare book and manuscript materials need to start taking acquiring and preserving digital content seriously. Rarity doesn’t totally make sense in the digital context in the way it does with an analog context, but there is a continuity at play. In an analog context, you can have one of a kind objects or artifacts. But the very premiss of working with a digital object involves making copies of it. So if you have a rare PDF and you email it to someone their copy is identical. Even just loading the PDF on your computer involves creating copies of it within your local environment. As your computer optimizes storage space it overwrites the original location on a disk that your file was located on and makes a copy. It’s functionally the case that something is authentically itself and equivalent to being original if contains the same sequence of bits.

As NFTs come on the scene a range  of discussions have emerged about if NFTs could be a way to do something like rare ebooks. These pieces on NFTs for ebooks have come up in conversations with a range of colleagues. I work on supporting folks to collect, preserve, and ensure future access to digital content. I’ve also written award winning work about how to approach preserving digital content. It is from that context that I’ve been following things about the hype about NFTs.

My sense that NFTs look to be a non-solution to a non-problem, at least in the context of collecting digital objects. But there is enough interest in this that it seems like we need to work through it and I am also totally open to the idea that I might be wrong about this.

In what follows I attempt to do the following;

  • Provide some links to good essays on NFTs with some key pull quotes for background
  • Share my own summary of takeaways from those essays
  • Give an overview of varied and different ways one can own or collect analog and digital things as context for assessing NFTs
  • Offer a preliminary assessment of NFTs in relation to their utility for organizations that collect and preserve cultural records and works.

Some background on NFTs

I’m not going to write a general explainer about NFTs or write broadly about their problems. That work has already been done, so I’m sharing links to a few articles for background. I encourage everyone who hasn’t read these articles to go read them and then come back to this. That noted, I’ve gone ahead and pulled some block quotes out that I think are particularly relevant to understand what NFTS are and aren’t and what if anything they have to do with collecting digital stuff. 

The One Redeeming Quality of NFTs Might Not Even Exist, Kal Raustiala and Christopher Jon Sprigman, Anil Dash, Slate

NFTs are “nonfungible” in the sense that each is unique. It is this feature that people point to when they say that an NFT can be used as a token to identify an “authentic” digital artwork. Let’s turn back to Everydays and see if that argument holds up. The Christie’s description of the auction states that Beeple will deliver a copy of Everydays—a 500-megapixel image with a file size of about 300 megabytes—to the buyer. That feature makes this transaction resemble a typical art sale—buyer pays money; artist delivers “authentic” artwork. But unlike a painting or a sculpture or even a traditional photograph that has been created by the hand of the artist, there are countless perfect copies of Everydays floating around on the internet, copies that are indistinguishable from the one Beeple delivered to the buyer.” So, NFTs don’t help resolve the question of authenticity, and in fact, they might make things more complicated. How? Because anyone can make an NFT of any digital artwork. Making an NFT doesn’t involve copying, distributing, or displaying the artwork itself, and so copyright law is not implicated. And in fact, many people have made NFTs of others’ artwork, and each one is owned by a different person. Which means that not only are NFTs useless at distinguishing the authentic copy, they also can add a lot of spurious and potentially confusing information about ownership—at least if you take NFTs seriously as stating some sort of ownership claim to a particular piece of art.

People Are Stealing Art and Turning It Into NFTs, Ben Munster, Motherboard 

“NFTs are not JPEGs, or tweets, or anything like that; they are cryptographic signatures (an alphanumeric code) that buyers and sellers merely believe is somehow connected to the work in question. Where and how the actual work itself is stored or hosted online is incidental to this cryptographic proof.”

NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This. Anil Dash,The Atlantic 

“when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?

All common NFT platforms today share some of these weaknesses. They still depend on one company staying in business to verify your art. They still depend on the old-fashioned pre-blockchain internet, where an artwork would suddenly vanish if someone forgot to renew a domain name. “Right now NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them,” the software engineer Jonty Wareing recently wrote on Twitter.

Parsing those stories and quotes you can pull out a set of points for considering if they might have anything to do with digital collecting.

NFTs…

  1. Do not directly involve owning copies of a work
  2. Do involve creating an entry in a ledger that says you own something related to a set of characters in a hash value
  3. Do not involve a buyer getting any kind of unique copy of a thing. In most cases all sorts of folks out there can have actual copies of the thing you ostensibly bought
  4. Do not come with any kind of assurance that your purchase of the thing that you don’t have is actually a legit sale
  5. Do come with a serious environmental impact because of the really strange nature of blockchain being something that requires huge amounts of energy to run computer systems to “mine” it. 

So far, I will admit, I don’t really get the appeal of NFTs.

With that noted, a lot of things about how we have and own digital things are strange. So it’s good to think through a bit about the various ways you can own a thing, either digital or analog, and iron out if there is some root problem in owning digital things that NFTs, even notionally, could help solve. 

Some ways you can own a thing (digital or otherwise)

With the context and background from those points above, we can think through a few ways that a person can own a thing, digital or analog, and think through which if any of these ways to own a thing relates to what NFTs do. 

First: You come into possession of an instance of a thing

This is pretty much the most straightforward and traditional way to own a thing. You go to an auction house and buy an oil painting. You take it home and hang it on the wall. It is in your possession. You buy a print copy of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus at the Mall, you drive home and put it on your book shelf. You might even then read it. You see a for sale sign out front of a historic house. You make an offer. They accept it. You sign a bunch of documents and exchange a bunch of money. Then you take possession of the home.

This can work exactly the same way for buying a digital object. Right now, you can go to Cory Doctorow’s website and buy a copy of his book Little Brother. You can also go to Jonathan Coulton’s website and buy a copy of the song I’m Your Moon. In either case, you pay some money and then you get to download a copy of the thing you bought. In the case of Doctorow’s book it’s an EPUB or a PDF. In the case of Coulton’s song, it’s an MP3. You can then make as many copies of that file as you like. You can put copies of it on different devices etc. They let you get DRM free copies, but you can also go to iTunes and buy a different book or song and Apple uses some software that controls things like how many devices you can have that file on at any point in time. Even in those DRM cases, you still bought a thing. You download the file with the content and you have a license that allows you do various things with it.

Strangely, when you buy an NFT none of these things are true. The NFT is in effect someone writing down on some list that you own something. It is unrelated to having a copy of the thing and strangely it’s also basically unrelated to owning any kind of license for anything. If you want to buy a genuinely scarce digital thing, you can try to get the single copy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. If you want to make a scarce digital thing, you could follow their lead and make a single copy of some digital object put it on a CD or a thumb drive, and sell it at auction. In any event, you don’t need an NFT.

Second: You enter into a contract that says you own something or aspect of a thing or an idea

When it comes to art and creative work there are a lot of things that are somewhat intangible and difficult to own. In good news there are already well trodden and trusted creative ways to solve that problem. In general they involve writing contracts. For example, when Dan Flavin sold his light based artworks to collectors he didn’t sell them a bunch of bulbs. He sold them a signed certificate of authenticity and diagrams for how to reconstruct the thing from off the shelf parts (there is a great discussion of this on pages 30-33 in Re-collection: New Media, Art and Society). 

Significantly, you don’t need NFTs or blockchain to write contracts. If there was something that blockchain would be useful for it would ostensibly be things like contracts, but still, it’s not really a thing anyone is seriously doing. In large part because we can do contracts just fine without distributed ledgers.

It’s worth noting that folks into digital cryptography have been trying to make digital signatures happen for a really long time. For all that effort they seem to be largely useless. One of my biggest take away from Jean-François Blanchette’s excellent book Burdens of Proof Cryptographic Culture and Evidence Law in the Age of Electronic Documents is that a huge amount of work went into attempts to make public key encryption be the basis of ubiquitous digital signatures but that in practice they don’t really do that much for us.

How many of us are emailing pictures of our signatures to each other pasted into word docs or stuck on PDFs? It’s clear that in practice emails work fine as records of approvals or authorizations. At the same time we frequently use various docusign style applications where there are click through agreements that are actually the underlying basis of executing a given contract or agreement and not anything fancy with digital signatures. We don’t need crypto for digital signatures because, as is the case with most signatures in the analog world, from context we know when we should have confidence that someone is agreeing to authorize something. As is the case in so many cases where crypto attempts to offer solutions, the situation of signatures is not really a technical problem it’s a social problem. We don’t need any kind of crypto to do contracts and agreements in a digital era. We certainly don’t need blockchain contracts, and in any event, NFTS clearly aren’t even related to contractual agreements documenting exchange of legitimate ownership of anything.  

Third: You can just assert you own something

In 2010 MOMA declared they were acquiring the @ symbol, and a few years later they similarly asserted they were acquiring the creative commons symbol. As far as I understand it, this is on some level a performative thing. They didn’t necessarily acquire anything, but in effect, by documenting the symbols and giving them pride of place and engaging in interpretation of them they are effectively doing the thing cultural heritage institutions do with artifacts even though the things in this case are intangible symbols.

What’s really fascinating about the acquisition of the @ symbol, is that, as Chan and Cope have noted, these kinds of examples of acquiring ideas and documentation of things are valuable frameworks to think about the future of collecting in cultural heritage institutions. In their case, these examples can change how a museum goes about collecting things like an iPhone app.

The take away in this case is that it’s possible for cultural heritage institutions to acquire funky immaterial things and for it to be both really inexpensive and genuinely useful in advancing their missions. This all has literally nothing to do with NFTs but in good news it’s far more interesting of a concept for cultural heritage orgs to explore.

Forth: You pay someone to write down on a list that they claim you own something

There are situations where what is being sold is an assertion that you are the owner of something. A good example of something like this is Star Registries. There are a bunch of different ones out there. They have been described as “low key scams.” The concept here is that someone who isn’t really authorized to sell naming rights to a star sets up shop and starts selling naming rights to stars. What you’re buying is the idea that they put your name on their list and according to them you got the naming rights to the star.

From what I understand, this is the closest analogy to an NFT. However, significantly, star registries also run just fine without using blockchain. Which makes star registries way more environmentally friendly than NFTs, which have been described as “an ecological nightmare pyramid scheme.” You don’t even need NFTs to run these kind of “low key scams.”

What would we say if a Planetarium started buying or selling Star Registries? 

At this point it feels like the right analogy here for NFTs is that they are effectively star registries that come with additional environmental problems. What would the cultural heritage community say if the Adler Planetarium started buying or selling entries on star registries? My guess is various professional communities would be outraged. So, if these things are effectively equivalent then it would seem we should all get outraged if any cultural heritage org entertains buying (or minting) NFTs. 

NFTs appear to be a non-solution to a non-problem for digital creative works

The examples I walked through demonstrate a range of ways someone can own and buy digital things. They all work fine without NFTs. So, I don’t even understand what imagined problem they are intended to solve. The only way I can understand NFTs as a phenomena is that 1) the hype in the cryptocurrency community is so strong 2) the level of understanding of the nature of digital content in the art community is so weak and 3) that the desire/vanity to assert that someone owns something is so strong for a lot of folks that people are lining up to play along with a really strange “low key scam.”

In any event, it doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with working to ensure enduring access to digital content. It seems, like much of cryptocurrency and blockchain more broadly, that this is all part of a strange techno-libertarian hype bubble around non-problems. In the case of currency at least, crypto folks are right that money is strangely all a big belief system. So when it comes to currency, I can accept on some level that distributed ledgers can solve similar problems to the made up problems that currencies solve. However, custody of objects isn’t the same kind of belief system situation as currency.

If there is something that I am really missing here? I’d love to hear it in a discussion in the comments. I do admit that the level of interest in this kind of thing is so large that I remain genuinely baffled about the whole thing and would be happy to engage with discussion about how I might be totally off base about it. 

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