Monday, February 28, 2022

On Collecting Digital Art

I have no interest in digital art, nor in collecting it, and I especially don't have any interest in anything connected to cryptocurrencies. Nevertheless.

Recent usage seems to suggest the verb "collect" being used to describe the purchase of NFTs. Possibly only some purchases, I don't know. Anyways, the verb is in play. That's interesting. It suggests to me that people who "buy" NFTs are generally coming to the conclusion that they're not buying the, uh, "art" that the NFT describes in a way that confers anything that resembles ownership. The don't own the art, they... something else the art. It's not clear what. They're settling on the word "collect" as far as I can tell.

This makes a lot of sense, actually, and seems to more accurately encapsulate the off-kilter quasi-but-not ownership concept the crypto shills keep hammering on about.

One "collects" experiences as well as artifacts. One might reasonably "collect" baseball players in the form of baseball cards. In this sense, to "collect" means something like to add to a list of things I am personally invested in. Baseball cards are particularly apropos, they are an essentially worthless piece of heavy paper with a picture and some words and numbers on it. They gain social value by their reference to a popular athlete. They gain monetary value through a combination of social value, and scarcity.

NFTs, by and large, are not backed by anything as meaningful as baseball, but whatever. Baseball is also just a social thing anyways, albeit one that employs a bunch of people.

This suggests that NFTs are insanely overpriced. They should default to a dollar, or a pound, and only special ones should reach high prices, and then only temporarily.

More to the point, though, it points out the absurdity of NFTs as currently designed. There is no ledger, immutable or not, for baseball cards or for experiences. The "blockchain" plays no important role here (as usual: all "blockchain" applications can be improved by removing the blockchain part, and NFTs are no exception. What's interesting is that, when you remove the blockchain, arguably there is something left.)

There is no reason in the world to have NFTs "on the blockchain" at all. If we want to generate a concept of "collecting" art as distinct from "owning" art, well that's fine and dandy. There's a lot of ways to do that, ways that don't involve any blockchains. You can get fancy with crypto, or the artist can just send you a friggin' email.

Obviously if you constructed this in a sensible way, there would be no opportunity to make vast sums of money doing basically nothing, so that's an issue for a lot of people involved in the space. But, if you're one of the few people who actually think it's about something other than taking a shitload of someone else's money and sticking it in your own pocket, there are other ways to do those other things that don't involved hanging out with a bunch of criminals.

All this stuff is just socially constructed anyway, right? Do you want bragging rights? Do you want a public record that you personally bought a thing? You can do this, it's not even hard, and you don't need a blockchain to do any of it. I'm not even a cryptographer and I can rough out the algorithms you could use to do all this shit cryptographically, "digitally native," without a ledger of any kind. You can do this entirely with self describing free-floating objects that you could encode as a QR code and print out on an index card.

Or the artist could just send you an email.

Blockchain shills tell you that things on the blockchain are permanent records, but they're not. They literally cease to exist when the miners stop generating them, and the miners will stop the moment the cryptocurrencies drop to zero, which they are guaranteed to do some day. A QR code on an index card will be readable in 500 years if you don't get the paper wet. Your NFT will literally cease to exist in your own lifetime, unless your time is very short indeed.

I think the idea of "collecting" as separate from "owning" is potentially interesting, in all its social ramifications, but by lashing it irrevocably to crypto-currency, the idea loses any chance of long term survival. Holding tight to the anchor is a fine until the ship goes down.

This is a problem.


  1. NFTs are basically glorified baseball cards.

    1. No, they're dorky AF. Printed ephemera for 8-yos & the developmentally-delayed.

      I sort of like the game though, just not enough to watch it.

  2. Baseball cards are way better than NFT's. They can easily be shared. They can fade, get torn, wear out, or can be preserved carefully (this is part of the fun of collecting, not just accumulating, but caring for the collection). It would be great if the photography world agreed on a baseball card like sharing format, decent quality, for trading and selling small, collectable prints at affordable prices (like $10-20), maybe 4 x6 or 5 x 7. Photo on one side, text on the other. That would be much cooler than an NFT.

    1. There's a rack of those in every art museum's gift shop. You can have your very own Mondrian, show it to your friends, spill things on it, etc. Blockchain not involved.

    2. I think it would be interesting to introduce some artificial scarcity and maybe blind bags, though. Like a proper "collectible card" thing.

      Sure, anyone can have a Monet's Waterlilies, those are common. But that late Monet that's all crazy red shit? Those are rare and cool!

    3. Now, *these* baseball cards are cool:

      Seem to hold their value, too...


  3. As a kid I had a Post Cereal Sandy Koufax card, might even have been from his rookie year. I prefer not to know what that might be worth today.

    I listened to a podcast interview with someone pushing DAO (decentralized autonomous organization), which I think are also managed via blockchain but I may have that completely wrong. He seemed to take great pride in the fact that DAOs are beyond the reach of any legal jurisdiction, which he saw as a good thing, because governments do terrible things like impose working conditions on companies, thereby limiting an employee's right to choose to be enslaved in a toxic workplace (I guess). I may be misrepresenting his views a bit, but I question the desire to dispense with concepts that took 400-500 years to establish. It's a bit like going back to private fire control companies. I thought we already learned that lesson. I guess it's ok now to publicly admit that you want to be above the law, is that where we are now?

    1. We watched that crowd have their way with Ottawa last month. The standard retort to mouth-foaming libertarians is to point to various failed states that lack any sort of functioning government.

    2. Tell me about it, I live in Ottawa.

  4. Unlike baseball cards, your Mom is less likely to throw out your NFTs while you are away at college.