In a world whose economic and cyber fragility should be evident to all – revealed repeatedly by current events and now the war in Ukraine – the irresponsibility of our corporate leaders is matched only by the credulity of the citizenry.
In my last column, “We don’t need more unreality,” I discussed virtual reality and reported that the major internet companies are working hard to bring it into our online lives. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (now “Meta”) is especially keen to lure us into “locating” increasing amounts of our work, commerce, entertainment and socializing in a virtual reality “metaverse” that he believes should and will outcompete real life.
Zuckerberg wants his software-generated illusory digital world to become the “place” where we most want to spend our time; we should feel that the real world pales compared to life online in the metaverse.
Zuckerberg’s goal is a disturbing one. It would further detach us from society’s real problems and feed the data-manipulation-profit triad that has become the main raison d’etre of the web platforms.
In fact, virtual reality – filled with advertisements – will become a place designed to sell us more stuff.
It’s no accident that another digital-only creation – “NFTs” – is being hyped alongside virtual reality. NFTs are “non-fungible tokens.” That mystifying term is – essentially – technical jargon for digital files. A non-fungible token is simply one unique digital file. NFTs exist only in cyberspace; they are not real, physical objects. There is far less to this than you might initially imagine. An NFT – one digital file – could be a photograph, drawing, video, or graphic artwork. It could be a tweet, a song, a JPEG, or a Word document. Anything that can be created on a computer and contained in one unique file can be an NFT.
So what’s the big deal? If any file can be an NFT, why the buzz around non-fungible tokens?
Well, follow the money. In the same way that many speculators collect baseball cards, coins, antiques, vintage cars, jewels, art and other rare or valuable objects – “collectibles” – in the hope that these items may increase in value substantially, so speculators operating online have decided to gamble that certain unique digital files (NFTs) will increase dramatically in value.
Yes, this is ludicrous. But in response to this latest craze – this get-rich-quick Ponzi scheme – artists and celebrities are quickly cranking up their computers and generating digital artwork and digital images which the public is free to bid on and purchase.
Remember, you aren’t purchasing an actual piece of art, just a digital image of it. You have purchased the JPEG file of a photo, for example, and you could print it out on a piece of paper, if you desire. But so could anyone else, presuming the photo had been published online somewhere, which they always are.
Supposedly, you have purchased exclusivity, since only you will have the original file on your computer. But that’s a con. The artwork had to be printed somewhere – at least once – in order to market it. Thus, it was widely exposed – and duplicable – on digital platforms.
Some NFT hawkers like to say that the buyer has a copyright on the original file, but there is no existing law to back that up, and good luck trying to enforce anything across the global cybersphere. Copyrighted files – especially images – are downloaded and printed by millions of people every day across the world.
Nonetheless, people with money to gamble are buying NFTs enthusiastically. Recently, many digital-file-only “artworks” have sold for millions of dollars. Well-known artists, professional athletes, actors, and celebrities are cashing in by hawking digital files of their art or their merchandise.
It’s like the past craze for Air Jordans, only you don’t get actual sneakers, you get a digital image of them. An NFT has no value whatsoever unless people simply pretend that it has value.
And like all cons and Ponzi schemes, held aloft only by the atmospheric hype and pass-it-along delusions of the players, many people someday will be left holding worthless NFTs when there’s nobody left to buy into the mirage.
NFTs are the perfect complement to virtual reality. Fill your illusory world with illusory objects – and spend lots of money to do it.
There are two other things to know about NFTs. In every conversation about NFTs, you will hear the words “cryptocurrency” and “blockchain.” Do not be intimidated, impressed, or distracted by these terms. They are meant to camouflage the overall con and confer an aura of legitimacy and technological sophistication around NFTs. They are also meant to convince you that the whole business of buying and “owning” some individual computer file – an NFT – is secure.
Most NFTs are paid for with “cryptocurrency.” This is digital currency that is popular with technophiles, money launderers, and Russian ransomware spammers.
A “blockchain” is a fancy word for what is essentially a ledger book. But it’s a digital book that – through massive amounts of computer processing – records accounts and transactions and keeps track of NFT and cryptocurrency ownership.
But don’t be distracted. Remember, an NFT is just a computer file, nothing more.
Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is author of “Headed Into the Abyss: The Story of Our Time, and the Future We’ll Face.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.