NFTs. Blockchains. Metaverses. Cryptoart. Beeple. WTF are all these terms you’ve been hearing about in the news lately?
Welcome to the future. Where Facebook is now Meta, your online existence is an avatar, and everything you own is digital. To understand NFTs and cryptoart, you have to understand this revolution in digital assets and ownership and how more and more people are placing value in it.
You can see this prevalent in mobile or video games with in-game purchases where you can buy a new weapon or a ‘skin,’ things that have absolutely no real-world use outside of that specific game. The younger generations are used to spending tons of money online, but my older brain may not get it – as I grew up with tons of physical toys. But we live in a world where we spend much (too much) of our day on our devices. When we’re spending more and more of our time online, those digital goods and how we present ourselves becomes increasingly important. To some people, it’s all that matters.
But like software, MP3s, and even event tickets – anything digital can be copied or forged. How can you know whether what you’re buying is legit? Show up to a sporting event with a fake ticket, and you’re out of luck; this is where proving digital authenticity and ownership is crucial and will only become more important as everything moves into the virtual realm. All the areas of our lives where physical documents like car titles, mortgages, or driver’s licenses exist – all those things can be easily forged and will eventually be replaced by online records. We already live in a world where you can digitally sign your taxes.
How can you verify digital authenticity and ownership?
NFT stands for non-fungible token.
WTF does that mean?
An NFT is a special digital token representing a unique ID that is linked to a digital asset that cannot be replicated and is the key to verifying not only authenticity but ownership of that asset. You can use an NFT for anything: event tickets, a JPEG, GIF, MP4, even music. If you buy a concert ticket NFT from Ticketmaster, you are guaranteed that it’s authentic and can prove you own that ticket.
Because NFTs are stored on the Blockchain (Bitcoin is stored on a bitcoin blockchain) where nothing can be forged or changed. Many blockchains have their own tokens or coins. Bitcoin and dogecoin have their own blockchains – kind of like how each casino has their own chips they use as currency that you can only use in that specific casino and nowhere else.
Think of a blockchain as a permanent leger or a massive spreadsheet to which anyone can add a new row of information to it, like the unique ID of an NFT that is attached to a digital concert ticket. The blockchain can check the authenticity of your ticket by cross-referencing it against the blockchains “spreadsheet”. Copies of this spreadsheet are stored on many computers so when you need to ascertain the authenticity of a digital asset, it needs to be checked against each of the spreadsheet copies to verify which is an original or fake.
As mentioned before – NFTs can be literally anything digital. But let’s talk about art, or cryptoart, as this is the most common type of NFT that you’ve probably heard of.
Motionographer has been a beacon for digital artists for years. In the past, the only way artists could sell their artwork and have someone collect or own it was via prints, paintings or other types of physical forms.
Why can’t digital artists make money off of their art?
Well, because no one would buy a JPEG that you could just right-click and download, right? Why would you buy a Picasso painting when you could just right-click and download an image of a Picasso?
Because right-clicking and downloading a photo of a Picasso doesn’t mean you own that Picasso. That JPEG image is worthless. Just like owning a postcard print of a Picasso doesn’t mean you own the original that is worth millions. The same goes for whatever digital art that you could save on your computer.
In the traditional art world, how can you verify the authenticity of a Picasso and who owns the original?
There are plenty of forgeries out there. How they’re verified is by the record of that art’s provenance, which is stored by art experts, museums, and galleries. Every time an original painting is sold, a record of that sale and the new owner is recorded and becomes part of that art’s provenance. Art experts, museums and galleries are basically the physical form of a blockchain. Without these institutions, forgery would be rampant, and art value would plummet due to the difficulty of proving authenticity.
Before NFTs, digital artists had no way to attach provenance to their art, to define ownership or authenticity. NFTs (right now) are literally the only way for someone to be able to say they own a digital asset or cryptoart and to assign value to it.
How is value assigned to cryptoart?
From scarcity, due to the fact that cryptoart is not reproducible, and from the perceived value. Some people assign massive worth to a piece of rectangular cardboard with a picture of a dead baseball player on it. Or small stuffed animals filled with plastic pellets. Why? Purely because the collectors of those objects assign a value to it due to the scarcity and demand. That’s literally it. In cryptoart and NFTs, it’s assigning value to the artists, the digital art, and the computer code attached to the digital image. Some people only buy cryptoart for speculation purposes, almost as if it were a meme stock. But others may purchase it because they want to support the artist and feel a connection to the work or the community that is built behind an artist or an art project.
To be honest, the moment I think I understand all this stuff, I’m soon reminded how much I don’t understand. The digital world is evolving quickly, and some people are diving into this purely because of FOMO. Some absolutely hate NFTs because there are a lot of environmental concerns for certain blockchains because of how much energy they use.
But to say there is no value in digital art is to say that digital artists add nothing of value to society. Digital and film photographers are treated equally. Just because our tools of choice are a Wacom pen and monitor versus a paintbrush and canvas should not devalue what we do as artists. NFTs and blockchains are in their early days – we’re talking as inefficient and clunky as Geocities websites in the early days of the World Wide Web when people asked “WTF is the internet?” – and they’re not perfect, but they pave the way for digital artists to finally be treated on the same level as traditional artists and to that I say – it’s about time.