IIf you are among those horrified by the seemingly unstoppable rise in NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, in recent months, you may be forgiven for some frustration at the recent news that a the dispute has broken out on the Mars House estate, a digital file that sold in March for $ 512,000 (£ 360,000).
Let’s clarify what has been purchased here. Mars House itself is nothing more than a string of ones and zeros residing on a server somewhere. But the NFT is not even that chain. All that is is another chain of this kind pointing out to that one, certifying that it is the only copy of that precise sequence of ones and zeros that exists. Put aside, if you can, the obscenity of a purely virtual home that sells for half a million dollars. The dispute over Mars House makes clear what should have been obvious from the start: NFTs aren’t even capable of guaranteeing the one thing on which their value is supposed to be based, ownership of a single digital asset.
NFTs are one of the hallmarks of this deeply strange late pandemic moment. At the center of all the rumors that surround them there is something extremely curious: a digital token, generated through a cryptographic protocol of the same type that subscribes to currencies such as bitcoin, certifying the uniqueness of some image or other digital file. Again, what is bought and sold on the NFT market is not the artwork itself, just a kind of pointer, with the buyer’s name inscribed on it.
A work of art does not need to have any other merit, neither historical resonance nor social relevance, nor aesthetic refinement, nor even skill in execution, to be valued in this way. You can not make anything with Mars House, other than ownership. The valuable thing about the string of digits that forms the token is that you, as the buyer, are the only owner of it. And, as recent legal mishaps make clear, even that most basic claim relies on quicksand. All of which makes Mars House, like all NFTs, an infinite zero and a perfect representation of the senseless loss that so much of our economy is based on.
In part, this is because NFTs, as the ultimate in artificial scarcity, solve a problem that is not a problem, a problem that no one really had. The NFT frenzy marks the convergence of the art world and the eerie Ponzi-like dynamic of cryptocurrency trading, where enthusiasts openly speak of their disdain for “bagholdersThe last fools who have bought big before the market finally comes to its senses; everything stinks of tulips. This is obviously not a problem for an art market that long ago abandoned the claim that works of art could be a critical mirror to the rest of society, or that they are anything other than a particular asset class and specialized.
But ultimately, this isn’t why it’s so depressing to see artists rushing to shore up the NFT market. The real problem has to do with a currently inescapable feature of the way NFTs work. Every transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, in which the majority of NFTs are currently recorded, involves a set of calculations called a proof of work. Those calculations are intentionally designed to consume a lot of energy. The furious turnover of all processors involved in proof-of-work validation globally burns dizzying amounts of electricity, at significant environmental cost. The New York Times recently listed a French artist was surprised to learn that his “launch of six crypto-works of art consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than [their] the entire study for the past two years. “Similar, By Elon Musk Recent large-scale transactions in proof-of-work-based Bitcoin released more carbon into the atmosphere in just a few days than the amount saved, in principle, by all the Teslas sold.
Artists who sell their work as NFT may or may not care about this brutal calculation. But he makes a particular nonsense of art that aims to stimulate the viewer to some kind of ecological awareness. Consider, for example, John Gerrard’s recent announcement of an NFT for his Western Flag video piece – according to Gerrard a work of art that, by “raising the flag of our own self-destruction”, asks us to “consider our role in global warming and the simultaneous desertification of previously fertile lands”. When choosing throw a western NFT flagYet it is as if Gerrard and his gallery owners scrawled this statement across the earth in crude oil letters a mile from end to end, and then set them on fire… a thousand times.
The promoters of Gerrard’s NFT promised that its environmental impact would be carefully offset, the sale turned carbon negative by investing in something called regenerate.farm, “a crypto fund for climate and soil.” But this is more than a little fatuous. Even assuming that all the claims regarding offsets turn out to be true, Gerrard’s announcement generated enthusiasm, credibility, and most importantly validation and thus subscribed to the market for other NFTs, the vast majority of the which were not compensated or buffered, neither by regenerate.farm or in any other way. Enjoying these kinds of sophistry feels like reckless disregard for the planet and depraved disregard for the damage that is being done.
About 12 years after bitcoin’s launch and six after Ethereum’s debut as a blockchain that could be programmed. In a way that allows for NFT broadcasting, the technology’s many promised and radical innovations have yet to come. All that has really happened is a transfer of power from global financial institutions to even more schematic and less responsible actors, while the rest of us are burdened with an environmental impact that no one can afford to bear. One can’t help but wonder if the proud new owner of Western Flag will think it was all worth it someday – not too far from now, when coastal cities have drowned, the brackish water coming out of the tap must boil before it’s safe. Drinking and climate refugees crowd into tent cities that stretch to the horizon.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism