6 min read

We Can Do a Lot Better with NFT’s

How’s that for a title huh? I was playing with various puns or things that ended with “ee,” so it would be really clever with the “T” on the end. This didn’t work at all.

TLDR: NFTs are actually really exciting but also absolutely shit for the environment and potentially also for artists

Chances are you’ve read about Non-fungible Tokens or NFT’s at some point lately. If you haven’t, you can either read this pretty good Wikipedia entry on them, or think of them like this:

  • They are a way of having a digital thing that there is only one of
  • They can be exchanged, traded and sold
  • Many of them can be programmatic, meaning they can change or evolve

This last bit was the thing that piqued my interest and very cursory and generally rubbish tiny experiment with some art I had made. However, most NFT’s are nowhere near as interesting as something like this reclining nude and what I hope is a nod to the early Expressionists.

In many ways, NFT’s are the anti-MP3. You can’t copy them and thus, so the thinking goes, the world is once again safe for artists and creators of all shapes and sizes who can now, thanks to the promise of the Internet and the Blockchain(s), be able to make money and who knows, potentially even quit their real job some day.

NFT’s have also piqued my interest because a number of 3d artists have jumped on the bandwagon. 3d now has another output which is interesting. But, like all digital output, while many look cool the viewer is intrinsically aware that it was made with a machine. Here is the catch. Because that fancy animation was made with a computer, can you ever be sure that there was only one of the animation you’re looking at ever made? Not really.

These are not prints. There is no derivation from file to file, no slight markings of individuality of the actual file or media. It’s a weird concept actually, because there is a guarantee that this is the only copy on a blockchain that can be guaranteed as being it. You can still produce another just like it and put it on another blockchain for instance.

NFT’s are in artistic terms an interesting comment for this very reason on mechanical reproduction and asking just what is art if uniqueness is itself questioned. Warhol and Lichtenstein would have eaten it all up 1.

Burning for art

Boy, oh boy, what could be the problem with this you ask? Plenty. Mainly, Proof of Work, the bit where a blockchain is verified by millions of computers needing to be powered to complete billions of calculations seemingly needlessly. Proof of Work takes tons of electricity, and thus burns tons of fossil fuels. You might have heard this is sort of bad for our dying planet.

Computational artist and süper türk Memo Akten 2 does the maths and breaks down the ecological costs in raw and rough terms on NFT’s here

In under half a year, one artist’s multi-edition NFTs have a footprint of 260 MWh, 160 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Need I say more?

Oh, why should you love Memo Akten more than any other computational artist you ask? Why he opens a talk in Belgium I went to a million years ago with “Planet Caravan,” easily one of Black Sabbath’s best songs ever. This should be good enough for you, but he goes on in the article to question in a swinging light in a police interrogation room manner “Silicon Valley-style move-fast-break-things accelerationism” 3

This is the point, it is all well and good to try and create new things, especially if we’re talking about art, but doing so without considering the costs is clearly un-artful 4 in both tact, societal risk and wider, future civilisational costs writ large.

Writer, programmer, farmer and all around terribly smart Mr. Clever Cloggs Robin Sloan writes here about the environmental disaster his little NFT mining experiment made.

A follow-up on the orgy of energy consumption. I ran the numbers and discovered that the exploration documented above produced approximately 390 kg of CO2, equivalent to burning a barrel of oil. Like just… black smoke pouring out of my laptop keyboard here.

Bear in mind these guys aren’t just crypto bros going on and on about how awesome things are for their pump and dump schemes, or investors trying to pump and dump entire economies, but actual programmers and creators trying NFT’s in practice.

Burning art for art bubbles

Then there is this little NFT chestnut where a decentralised finance protocol developer made “art” (digital, non-fungible and token) with other “art,” (paper, ephemeral). They bought and burned a Banksy screen print and then made that the NFT.

While it certainly does work for being a controversy-imbued marketing ploy and clickbait wormhole, it is artistic in one respect, namely it burned art to make more art that lives by burning – fossil fuels in this case.

But this points to the question of art, money and both of their intertwined roles in civilisation. Yes, it’s potentially that big of an issue. Interestingly, there is the notion of NFT’s already being a bubble. Is it a bubble? Probably. No, scratch that – almost definitely.

But is this bad? Not at first glance necessarily, it depends on the nature of the bubble. If it was purely a financial one, those taking the financial risk take the burden of loss and it’s relatively straightforward and we’ve seen it since the invention of money. We would be talking about a financial bubble in the shape of a run on the entire tradable asset and subsequent market meltdown. The really worrying thing is that we would not be just talking about a financial bubble.

We would also be talking about the same thing happening to an art market and an art medium. Yes, we would see thousands upon thousands of digital artworks become worthless, and yet another Hail Mary pass of trying to make art pay for the people that make it drop to the ground as if it was thrown by someone on the Cleveland Browns. These are the risks that “Silicon Valley-style move-fast-break-things accelerationism” does not even vaguely give a shit about. These are the things that artists and creators should be kept up at night about, which is in the end being even more exponentially devalued as producers of artistic merit and work.

We can do a lot better than this

There are plenty of arguments for the net positive effects of crypto, for instance that the mining would happen anyhow. There are likely just as many for the opposite.

There is the argument that you can do it with Proof of Stake, which is a mechanism not requiring millions of computers crunching numbers subsequently burning fossil fuels. There are some examples of this being done, for instance with Flow, the new blockchain for creators that doesn’t function on Proof of Work. I’m well aware that green and renewable energy is gaining ground, but the fact is that it’s nowhere near where it should be. Not even vaguely.

This isn’t the point. The point is that we should be developing ways of having networks of money where environmental degradation isn’t even a remote possibility. The point is that art, although financial after the fact in many regards, is not in itself meant in its creation as a vehicle for money. Art is meant to express, question and inspire, not to create a new type of money.

Maybe more Warhol as he actually used reproduction in producing his artworks. For Lichtenstein it was more a matter of playing with the aesthetic ↩︎

You can tell by this picture of him drinking tea turk style, while playing backgammon in space ↩︎

Man, if there isn’t a word I like lately as much as “accelerationism,” I don’t know, especially with the connotations the word has to end of civilisation MAGA death cultists ↩︎

I’m trying to figure out how this isn’t a real word yet ↩︎