The Problem With NFTs

The Problem With NFTs

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For online content creators the unavoidable  subject of 2021 has been NFT’s. From incredibly cringe-worthy ape profile pics, to  incomprehensibly tasteless tributes to deceased   celebrities, to six-figure sales of the “original  copy” of a meme, it is the thing that is currently   dominating the collective brain space of digital  artists and sucking up all the oxygen in the room. And I do want to talk about that, I want to  talk about my opinions on NFTs and digital   ownership and scarcity, all the myriad  dimensions of the issue, but I don’t   just want to talk about NFTs, I can’t just talk  about NFTs because ultimately they are just   a symbol of so much more, and it is that  “more” that is ultimately important. So let me tell you a story. [Drumming] In 2008 the economy functionally collapsed.

The basic chain reaction was this: Banks came up with a thing called  a mortgage-backed security,   a financial instrument that could be traded  or collected that was based on a bundle   of thousands of individual mortgages. Based on the  general reluctance of banks to issue mortgages,   the risk-aversion in lending someone hundreds  of thousands of dollars that they’ll pay off   over the course of decades, these bonds  were seen as especially stable. However   they were also immensely profitable for the  banks who both issue the mortgages and the bonds. Because of that perceived stability a  lot of other financial organizations,   like pension funds and hedge funds, used them  as the backbone of their investment portfolio. In this arrangement a mortgage becomes more  profitable to the bank issuing the mortgage   as a component of a bond than it is as a  mortgage. Proportionally the returns per   mortgage from the bond are just that much better  than the returns from the isolated mortgage.

There’s some problems, though. Problem one is  that the biggest returns on a bond come from   when it first hits the market, a new bond  that creates new securities sales is worth   more than an old bond that is slowly appreciating,  but not seeing much trade. Problem two   is that there are a finite number  of people and houses in America;   the market has to level out at a natural  ceiling as eventually all or nearly all   mortgages are packaged into bonds, thus very  few new bonds can be generated and sold. So here’s the incentives that are created. One: it’s good for banks if there are more  houses that they can issue mortgages for  Two: the more mortgages issued the  better, because a bad mortgage is   worth more as a component of a bond than  a good mortgage that’s not part of a bond.

So real estate developers find that they have a  really easy time getting funding from banks for   creating vast new suburbs full of houses  that can be sold to generate mortgages,   but rather than building the kind of  housing most people actually need and want,   they focus specifically on the kinds of  upper-middle-class houses that fit into the sweet   spot from the perspective of the banks packaging  the bonds. Buyers, in turn, find that they have a   suspiciously easy time getting a mortgage despite  the fact that, for most people, the economy wasn’t   doing so great. Wages were stagnant and yet even  though developers were going absolutely haywire   building new housing, the houses being built  were all out of their price range to begin with,   and counter intuitively this massive increase  in supply wasn’t driving down the price. This is because the houses were being bought, just  mostly not by people intending to live in them.   They were being bought by speculators who  would then maybe rent them out or often just   leave them vacant with the intent  to sell a couple years later.

Because speculators were buying up the supply  it created synthetic demand. The price keeps   going up because speculators keep buying, which  creates the illusion that the value is going up,   which attracts more speculators who buy up  more supply and further inflate the price. These speculators are enabled by a system  that is prioritizing generating new mortgages   purely for the sake of having more  mortgages to package into bonds.  

The down payments are low and the mortgages  all have a really attractive teaser rate,   meaning that for the first three to seven years of  the mortgage the monthly payments are rock bottom,   as low as a few hundred dollars per month against  a mortgage that would normally charge thousands. Caught up in all this are legitimate  buyers who have been lured into signing   for a mortgage that they can’t afford  by aggressive salespeople who have an   incentive to generate mortgages that they can  then sell to a bank who can put it into a bond   to sell to pension funds to make a line go  up, because it’s good when the line goes up. It’s a bubble. The bubble burst as the teaser rates  on the mortgages started to expire,   the monthly cost jumped up, and  since the demand was synthetic   there were no actual buyers for the  speculators to sell the houses to. So the speculators start dumping stock, which  finally drives prices down, but because the   original price was so inflated the new price  is still out of reach of most actual buyers.

Legitimate buyers caught in the  middle find their rates jumping, too,   but because the price of the house is going  down as speculators try and dump their stock   the price of the house goes down  relative to the mortgage issued,   and thus they can’t refinance and are  locked into paying the original terms. Unable to sell the house and unable  to afford the monthly payments,   the owners, legitimate and speculators,  default on their mortgages, they stop paying. Eventually the default rate reaches  criticality and the bonds fail.   As the bonds fail this impacts all the first order  buyers of the bonds, hedge funds, pension funds,   retirement savings funds, and the like.  It also cascades through all derivatives,   which are financial products that take their  value directly from the value of the bond.

This creates a knock-on effect: huge segments  of the economy turn out to be dead trees,   rotten to the core, but as a rotten tree falls   it still shreds its neighbours  and crushes anything below it. It was a failure precipitated by a  combination of greed, active fraud,   and willful blindness at all levels of power.  The banks issuing the bad mortgages were the same   banks selling the bonds and providing the capital  to build the houses to generate the mortgages.   The ratings agencies checking the bonds were,  themselves, publicly traded and dependent   on being in good relations with the banks,  incentivized to rubber stamp whatever rating   would make their client happy. The regulatory  agencies that should have seen the problem coming  

were gutted by budget cuts and mired  in conflicts of interest as employees   used their positions in regulation to  secure higher paying jobs in industry.   And, the cherry on top, the people largely  responsible for it all knew that because they   and their toxic products were so interwoven into  the foundations of the economy they could count   on a bailout from the government because no matter  how rotten they were, they were very large trees. [Drumming] This naked display of greed and fraud  created what would be fertile soil for   both anti-capitalist movements  and hyper-capitalist movements:   both groups of people who saw themselves as  being screwed over by the system, with one   group diagnosing the problem as the system’s  inherently corrupt and corrupting incentives,   and the other seeing the crisis as a consequence  of too much regulation, too much exclusion. The hyper-capitalist, or anarcho-capitalist  argument is that in a less constrained   market there would be more incentive to call  foul, that regulation had only succeeded in   creating an in-group that was effectively  able to conspire without competition. Of course this argument fails to  consider that a substantial number of   people within the system did, in fact, get  fabulously wealthy specifically by betting   against the synthetic success  of the market, but regardless.

Into this environment in 2009 arrived Bitcoin,  an all-electronic peer-to-peer currency.   Philosophically Bitcoin, and  cryptocurrency in general,   was paraded as an end to banks  and centralized currency. This is what will form the bedrock,  both philosophical and technological,   that NFTs will be built on  top of. It’s a bit of a hike  

from here to the Bored Ape Yacht Club,  so I guess get ready for that. Strap in. As we get into this we’re going to need to deal  with a lot of vocabulary, and a lot of complexity.   Some of this is the result of systems  that are very technically intricate,   and some of this is from systems that  are poorly designed or deliberately   obtuse in order to make them difficult to  understand and thus appear more legitimate.

The entire subject sits at the intersection  of two fields that are notoriously prone to   hype-based obfuscation, computer tech and finance,  and inherits a lot of bad habits from both,   with a reputation for making things  deliberately more difficult to understand   specifically to create the illusion that  only they are smart enough to understand it. Mining and minting are both methods for making  tokens, which are the base thing that blockchains   deal with, but the two are colloquially different  processes, where mining is a coin token created as   a result of the consensus protocol and minting  is a user-initiated addition of a token to a   blockchain. All blockchains are made of nodes,  and these nodes can be watcher nodes, miner nodes,   or validator nodes, though most miner nodes are  also validator nodes. Fractionalization is the   process of taking one asset and creating a new  asset that represents portions of the original. So you get $DOG, a memecoin crypto DeFi venture  capital fund backed by the fractionalization of   the original Doge meme sold as an NFT  to PleasrDAO on the Ethereum network.

I’m sorry, some of this is  just going to be like that. The idea behind cryptocurrency is that  your digital wallet functions the same as   a bank account, there’s no need for a bank  to hold and process your transactions because   rather than holding a sum that conceptually  represents physical currency, the cryptocoins   in your cryptowallet are the actual money. And  because this money isn’t issued by a government   it is resistant to historical cash crises like  hyperinflation caused by governments devaluing   their currency on purpose or by accident. It  brings the flexibility and anonymity of cash and   barter to the digital realm, allowing individuals  to transact without oversight or intermediaries. And in a one-paragraph pitch you can see the  appeal, there’s a compelling narrative there. But, of course, in the twelve years since  then none of that played out as designed.  

Bitcoin was structurally too slow and  expensive to handle regular commerce.   The whole thing basically came out the  gate as a speculative financial vehicle   and so the only consumer market  that proved to be a viable use   was buying and selling prohibited drugs where  the high fees, rapid price fluctuations,   and multi-hour transaction times were mitigated  by receiving LSD in the mail a week later. And as far as banking is concerned, Bitcoin  was never designed to solve the actual problems   created by the banking industry, only to be the  new medium by which they operated. The principal   offering wasn’t revolution, but at best a changing  of the guard. The gripe is not with the outcomes   of 2008, but the fact that you had to be well  connected in order to get in on the grift in 2006. And even the change of the guard is an illusion.  Old money finance assholes like the Winkelvoss  

twins were some of the first big names to jump  on to crypto, where they remain to this day. Financial criminal Jordan Belfort, convicted  of fraud for running pump and dump schemes   and barred for life from trading regulated  securities or acting as a broker, loves Crypto. Venture capitalist Chris Dixon, who has  made huge bank off the “old web” in his   role as a general partner at VC firm Andreessen  Horowitz Capital Management, is super popular   in the NFT space. He likes to paint himself as  an outsider underdog fighting the gatekeepers,   but he also sits on the boards of  Coinbase, a large cryptocurrency   exchange that makes money by being  the gatekeeper collecting a fee on   all entries and exits to the crypto economy, and  Oculus VR, which is owned by Meta, nee Facebook.

Peter Thiel, who also went from wealthy to  ultra-wealthy off the Web2 boom via PayPal,   loves crypto, and is friends with  a bunch of eugenics advocates who   promote cryptocurrency as a return to “sound  money” for a whole bunch of extremely racist   reasons because when they start talking  about banks and bankers, they mean Jews. Some of the largest institutional  holders of cryptocurrency   are the exact same investment banks  that created the subprime loan crash. Rather than being a reprieve to the  people harmed by the housing bubble,   the people whose savings and  retirements were, unknown to them,   being gambled on smoke, cryptocurrency instantly  became the new playground for smoke vendors. This is a really important point to stress:  cryptocurrency does nothing to address 99% of   the problems with the banking industry, because  those problems are patterns of human behaviour.  

They’re incentives, they’re social structures,  they’re modalities. The problem is what people   are doing to others, not that the building they’re  doing it in has the word “bank” on the outside. In addition to not fixing problems, Bitcoin  also came with a pretty substantial drawback.

The innovation of Bitcoin over previous attempts  at digital currency was to employ a distributed   append-only ledger, a kind of database where new  entries can only be added to the end, and then to   have several different nodes, called validators,  compete over who gets to validate the next update. These are, respectively, the blockchain,  and proof-of-work verification. Now, proof-of-work has an interesting  history as a technology, typically being   deployed as a deterrent to misbehaviour. For  example, if you require that for every email   sent the user’s computer has to complete a  small math problem it places a trivial load   onto normal users sending a few dozen,  or even a couple hundred emails a day,   but places a massive load on the infrastructure  of anyone attempting to spam millions of emails. How it works in Bitcoin, simply put, is  that when a block of transactions are   ready to be recorded to the ledger all of the  mining nodes in the network compete with one   another to solve a cryptographic math problem  that’s based on the data inside the block. Effectively they’re competing to figure out  the equation that yields a specific result   when the contents of the block are fed into  it, with the complexity of the desired result   getting deliberately more difficult based on the  total processing power available to the network.

Once the math problem has been solved the  rest of the validation network can easily   double-check the work, since the contents of  the block can be fed into the proposed solution   and it either spits out the valid answer or fails. If the equation works and the consensus  of validators signs off on it the block   is added to the bottom of the ledger and  the miner who solved the problem first   is rewarded with newly generated Bitcoin. The complexity of the answer that the computers  are trying to solve scales up based on the   network’s processing power specifically to  incur heavy diminishing returns as a protection   against an attack on the network where someone  just builds a bigger computer and takes over. Critics pointed out that  this created new problems:   adversarial validation would deliberately incur  escalating processing costs, which would in turn   generate perverse structural incentives  that would quickly reward capital holders   and lock out any individual that wasn’t already  obscenely wealthy, because while the escalating   proof-of-work scheme incurs heavy diminishing  returns, diminishing returns are still returns,   so more would always go to those with  the resources to build the bigger rig. No matter what Bitcoin future was envisioned,   in the here and now computer  hardware can be bought with dollars.

Rather than dismantling corrupt power structures,   this would just become a new  tool for existing wealth. And that’s… exactly what happened. Thus began an arms race for bigger and bigger  processing rigs, followed by escalating demands   for the support systems, hardware engineers, HVAC,  and operating space needed to put those rigs in. And, don’t worry, we’re not  forgetting the power requirements. These rigs draw an industrial amount of  power and, because of the winner-takes-all   nature of the competition, huge amounts of  redundant work are being done and discarded.

Estimates for this power consumption are  hard to verify, the data is very complex,   spread across hundreds of operators  around the globe, who move frequently   in search of cheap electricity, and  it’s all pretty heavily politicized. But even conservative estimates from within the  crypto-mining industry puts the sum energy cost   of Bitcoin processing on par with the power  consumption of a small industrialized nation. Now, evangelists will counter that the global  banking industry also uses a lot of power,   gesturing at things like idle ATMs humming away  all night long, which is strictly speaking,   not untrue. On a factual level the  entire global banking industry does,   in fact, use a lot of total electricity.

But, for scale, it takes six hours of that  sustained power draw for the Bitcoin network   to process as many transactions  as VISA handles in one minute,   and during that time VISA is using fractions  of a cent of electricity per transaction. And that’s just VISA. That’s  one major institution. So, like, yes, globally the entirety of the  banking industry consumes a lot of power,   and a non-trivial portion of that is  waste that could be better allocated.  

But it’s also the global banking  industry for seven billion people,   and not the hobby horse of a few  hundred thousand gambling addicts. So just to head all this off at the pass,  Bitcoin and proof-of-work cryptocurrency aren’t   incentivizing a move to green energy sources,  like solar and wind, they are offsetting it. Because electrical consumption, electrical  waste, is the value that underpins Bitcoin.   Miners spend X dollars in electricity to  mine a Bitcoin, they expect to be able to   sell that coin for at least X plus profit.  When new power sources come online and the   price of electricity goes down, they don’t  let X go down, they build a bigger machine.

[Drumming] In 2012 Vitalik Buterin, a crypto  enthusiast and butthurt Warlock main   set out to fix what he saw as the  failings and inflexibilities of Bitcoin. Rather than becoming the new digital currency,  a thing that people actually used to buy stuff,   Bitcoin had become an unwieldy  speculative financial instrument,   too slow and expensive to use for anything  other than stunt purchases of expensive cars. It was infested with money  laundering and mired in bad press. After the FBI shut down Silk Road you  couldn’t even buy drugs with it anymore.

In practice you couldn’t do anything  with your Bitcoin but bet on it,   lock up money you already have in the hopes  that Bitcoin goes up later, and pray you don’t   lose it all in a scam, lose access to your  wallet, or have it all stolen by an exchange. The result, launched in 2014, was Ethereum, a  competing cryptocurrency that boasted lower fees,   faster transaction times, a  reduced electrical footprint,   and, most notably, a sophisticated  processing functionality. While the Bitcoin blockchain only tracks  the location and movement of Bitcoins,   Ethereum would be broader. In addition to  tracking Ether coins, the ledger would also   be able to track arbitrary blocks of data.  As long as they were compatible with the   structure of the Ethereum network,  those blocks of data could even be   programs that would utilize the validation  network as a distributed virtual machine. Vitalik envisioned this as a vast, infinite  machine, duplicated and distributed across   thousands or millions of computers, a system onto  which the entire history of a new internet could   be immutably written, immune to censorship,  and impossible for governments to take down.

He saw it dismantling banks and other intermediary  industries, allowing everyone to be their own   bank, to be their own stock broker, to bypass  governments, regulators, and insurance agencies. His peers envisioned a future  where Ethereum became not just   a repository of financial transactions, but  of identity, with deeds, driver’s licenses,   professional credentials, medical  records, educational achievements,   and employment history turned into tokens and  stored immutable and eternal on the chain. Through crypto and the ethereum  virtual machine they could bring all   the benefits of Wall Street  investors and Silicon Valley   venture capitalists to the poorest people  of the world, the unbanked and forgotten. This heady high-minded philosophy  is outlined in great detail in the   journalistic abortion The Infinite Machine  by failed-journalist-turned-crypto-shill   Camilla Russo. The book is actually really interesting.

Not for the merits of the writing, Russo fails  to interrogate the validity or rationality of   even the simplest claims and falls just  shy of hagiography by occasionally noting   that something was a bit tacky or  embarrassing, but only just shy. She tells florid stories about the impoverished  people that Vitalik and friends claimed to be   working to save, but never once considers that  the solutions offered might not actually work,   or that the people claiming to want to solve  those problems might not even be working on them. That’s actually a big issue, since the entire  crypto space, during the entire time that   Russo’s book covers, was absolutely awash with  astroturfing schemes where two guys would go to   some small community in Laos or Angola, take  a bunch of pictures of people at a “crypto   investing seminar”, generate some headlines  for their coin or fund, and then peace out. For years dudes were going around asking  vendors if they could slap a Bitcoin   sticker onto the back of the cash register,  because the optics of making it look like a   place takes Bitcoin was cheaper and easier  than actually using Bitcoin as a currency. We have an entire decade of  credulous articles about how   Venezuela and Chile are on the verge  of switching entirely to crypto,   based entirely on the claim of two  trust fund dudes from San Bernardino. A whole ten years littered with discarded  press releases about Dell and Microsoft and   Square bringing crypto to the consumers  before just quietly discontinuing their   services after a year or two when they  realize the demand isn’t actually there.

The fact that the development of Ethereum was  extremely dependent on a $100,000 fellowship   grant from Peter Thiel is mentioned, but the  ideological implications of that connection   are never explored, the entire subject occupies  a single paragraph sprinkled as flavour into a   story about Vitalik and his co-developers airing  their grievances about some petty infighting. The book is mostly useful for it’s value  as a point of reference against reality.   It’s a very thorough, if uncritical,  document of absolutely insane claims. “The idea was that traits of  blockchain technology—such   as having no central point of failure, being  uncensorable, cutting out intermediaries,   and being immutable—could also benefit  other applications besides money.   Financial instruments like stocks and bonds, and  commodities like gold, were the obvious targets,   but people were also talking about putting other  representations of value like property deeds and   medical records on the blockchain, too. Those  efforts—admirable considering Bitcoin hadn’t,   and still hasn’t, been adopted widely  as currency—were known as Bitcoin 2.0.”

I love this paragraph because it  outlines just how disconnected   from reality the people actually  building cryptocurrencies really are. They don’t understand anything about the  ecosystems they’re trying to disrupt,   they only know that these are things  that can be conceptualized as valuable   and assume that because they understand one very  complicated thing, programming with cryptography,   that all other complicated things must  be lesser in complexity and naturally   lower in the hierarchy of reality, nails easily  driven by the hammer that they have created. The idea of putting medical records on a  public, decentralized, trustless blockchain   is absolutely nightmarish, and anyone who  proposes it should be instantly discredited.

The fact that Russo fails to question  any of this is journalistic malpractice. Now, in terms of improvements over  Bitcoin, Ethereum has many. It’s not hard. Bitcoin sucks.

In terms of problems with Bitcoin,  Ethereum solves none of them and   introduces a whole new suite of problems  driven by the technofetishistic egotism of   assuming that programmers are uniquely  suited to solve society’s problems. Vitalik wants his invention to be  an infinite machine, so let’s ask   what that machine is built to do. [Drumming] In order to really understand the full  scope of this we do need to dig a bit   more into the technical aspects,  because that technical functionality   informs the way the rest of the system behaves. In a very McLuhanist way, the machine  shapes the environment around it. As already mentioned, a blockchain consists  of two broad fundamental components:   the ledger and the consensus mechanism. All currently popular blockchains  use an append-only ledger.

Now this is, on its own, not that remarkable.  Append-only is just a database setting that only   allows new entries to be added to the end of the  current database, once something is written to the   database it’s read-only. Standard applications  are typically things like activity logs,   which is conceptually all a blockchain  really is: a giant log of transactions. The hitch is that it’s decentralized, with  elective participants hosting a complete copy   of the entire log, and this is where the second  component comes in, the consensus mechanism.

All validating participants, called nodes,  have a complete copy of the database,   and no one copy is considered  to be the authoritative copy. Instead there is a consensus mechanism that  determines which transactions actually happened. This is all the proof of work stuff. Proof of work isn’t the only consensus mechanism,   but it’s popular because it’s very easy  to implement by just cloning Bitcoin   and is resilient against the kinds of  attacks that crypto enthusiasts care about. It’s a very brute-force solution,   but legitimately if you want a network of  ledgers where no one trusts anyone else,   just making everyone on the network do extreme  amounts of wasted, duplicate work is a solution. One of the major problems that this machine  solves is what’s called the double-spend   problem: how do you stop someone  from spending the same dollar twice? If someone tries, how do you determine  which transaction really happened? Banks solve this problem by not correlating  account balance with any specific dollar,   processing transactions first-come-first-serve,  which they track with central resources,   and punishing users with overdraft  fees for double-spending.

Eschewing a central solution, cryptocurrencies  rely on their consensus mechanism. The most popular alternative to  proof-of-work is proof-of-stake,   where validators post collateral of some kind,  usually whatever currency is endemic to the chain,   with the amount of collateral determining their  odds of being rewarded the validation bounty   for any given transaction. The main proposal of  proof of stake is that it significantly reduces   the wasted power problems of proof of work,  but it’s less resilient than proof of work. On the energy cost side of things, proof of stake  is still inefficient, just by virtue of the sheer   volume of redundancy, but on a per-user basis  it’s at least inefficient on the scale of, like,   an MMO as opposed to a steel foundry. This is difficult to assess because the  most popular proof of stake chains are still   unpopular and low traffic in the  scope of things, heavily centralized.   Claims about scalability are backed  up by nothing but the creators’ word.

Proof of stake is also significantly more  complex because there now needs to be some   mechanism for determining who gets to do the  validations, and also determining how audits   are conducted, and then the question  of who has control over that system,   and whether or not someone can gain control of  that system or control over the whole stake,   via just buying out the staking  pool, et cetera et cetera et cetera. Proof of Stake also, even more explicitly,  rewards the wealthy who have the capital   to both stake and spend. It’s also even more  explicitly exclusionary. Ethereum’s proposed   proof-of-stake migration has a buy-in of 32 Ether,  which at the time of writing is about $130,000,   so really only early adopters  and the wealthy can actually   meaningfully participate  for more than just crumbs.

This is, in turn, compounding inherent problems  with the long term growth of the chain.   Even if you solve the escalating  power requirements of proof of work,   the data requirements of storing the chain  and participating as a validator are also   prohibitive in a way that inevitably centralizes  power in the hands of a few wealthy operators. Vitalik: 85 terabytes per year is  actually fine, right? Like, because, uh,   85 terabytes per year, like, if you have, if  you have even one person that just keeps buying,   like, um, a hundred dollar hard drive, like, uh,  I think once every month then they can store it,   right, like it’s something like that. So, it’s  too big for just like a casual user that just  

wants to run the chain on their laptop, but one  dedicated user who cares, they can totally afford   to, uh, afford to store the chain. And so 85  terabytes, not a big deal, right, but once you   crank that number higher there comes a point  at which it starts becoming a really big deal. The major downside of all these systems is  that they’re extremely slow. Proof of work   is inefficient by design, and proof of stake  has multiple layers of lottery that need to   be executed before any transaction can  be conducted, and in particular suffers   from delays when elected validators are  offline and the system needs to draw again. As an extension of being slow  they’re also prone to getting   overwhelmed if too many people try  to make transactions simultaneously,   which can cause de-syncs between validators  and even lead to what’s called a fork,   where two or more pools of validators reach a  different consensus about the state of the network   and each branch keeps on going afterwards  assuming that it is the authoritative version. Forks can also be caused on purpose, and this  is, in fact, the only way to effectively undo   transactions. Like if someone stole your  coins the only way to get them back would  

be to convince the people who manage the  chain itself to negotiate a rollback. That’s foreshadowing for later. Now, because the nature of a fork involves  a disagreement on what transactions   actually happened, and who got paid for those  transactions, this means that each arm of the   fork has a vested interest in its own arm being  the authoritative arm, so resolving forks can turn   into irreconcilable schisms, which is funny as  an outside observer viewing it as inane internet   drama, but is frankly unacceptable for anything  posturing as a serious and legitimate currency. Like, it’s important to stress that  because of the nature of the chain,   the way that the ID numbers of later blocks are  dependent on the outcomes of previous blocks,   these aren’t just a few disputed transactions  that need to be resolved between the buyer,   the seller, and the payment processor,  these are disagreements on the fundamental   state of the entire economy that  create an entire alternate reality.

It’s an ecosystem that absolutely  demolishes consumer protections   and makes the re-implementation  of them extremely difficult. One of the big selling points of all this  technology is that it’s particularly secure,   very difficult for anyone to hack it  directly, since there’s so much redundancy. A lot of hay is made about the system’s  resiliency against man-in-the-middle   attacks, which are your classic  Hollywood hacker type attacks. Someone sends a command from point A and on the  way to point B it is intercepted and altered.   Someone hacks into the bank and adds an arbitrary  number of zeroes onto their account balance. Evangelists will commonly claim  that blockchain could revolutionize   the global shipping industry and reduce fraud.

It’s a good claim to interrogate. First, the things that blockchain is  capable of tracking are things that   manufacturers and shippers are already  tracking, or at least trying to track,   so this is not so much “revolution”  as it would be “standardization.” Even that is built on a predicate assumption  that everyone picks the same chain. It’s an extremely optimistic assumption. Many, many, many firms deliberately want their   information centralized and obfuscated  to protect against corporate espionage.

The lack of a shared, standardized  bucket to put all the information into   is not because it’s been heretofore  impossible, but because it’s been undesirable. Second, it assumes the existence of a theoretical  mechanism that ensures the synchronization of the   chain and reality above and beyond the  current capacity of logistics software,   some means of preventing people from just   lying to the blockchain and giving it the  information it expects to be receiving,   the blockchain equivalent of ripping off the  shipping label and slapping it on the new box. The bigger problem here is  that in the pantheon of fraud,   man-in-the-middle attacks  are actually pretty rare. Global shipping needs to deal with it in certain  capacities, but taken on the whole the vast   majority of fraud doesn’t come from altering  information as it passes between parties,   rather from colluding parties  entering bad information at the start.

Con artists don’t hack the Gibson to transfer  your funds to their offshore accounts,   they convince you to give them your password. Most fraud comes from people who technically  have permission to be doing what they’re doing. Rather than preventing these  actual common types of fraud,   cryptocurrency has made them absurdly easy,  and the main reason why cryptocurrency needs   to be so resistant to man-in-the-middle  attacks is because the decentralized nature   of the network otherwise makes them  acutely vulnerable to those attacks. What this all kinda means  is that blockchains are all   pretty bad at doing most of the things  they’re trying to do, and a lot of the   innovations in blockchains are attempts at  solving problems that blockchains introduced. The biggest issue that cryptocurrencies have  suffered from is a lack of tangible things to   actually use them on as currencies, rent or food  or transit, and this is for pretty simple reasons. One is that the transaction fees on popular  chains are so prohibitive that it’s pointless   to use them on any transaction that isn’t  hundreds, if not thousands of dollars;   no one is going to buy the Bitcoin Bucket from  their local KFC. Ethereum’s main transaction fee,  

called Gas, on a good day runs around $20 US  per transaction, but that’s severely optimistic. As of December 2021 the daily average  cost of Gas hasn’t gone below $50   US since August, with the three  month daily average riding over $130. And that’s just the daily average. The hourly price can, and does, swing  by up to two orders of magnitude. The throughput of blockchains is  so abysmal that transaction slots   are auctioned off to the highest bidder,  that’s why these numbers are so extreme. It only takes a few high rollers competing on  a transaction to drive the hourly price of gas   up over $1000 US. The internal term for this  is a “gas war” because it’s just that common.

Bots, in particular, can drive  gas prices well into the tens   of thousands of dollars as they  compete to capitalize on mistakes,   such as someone listing something for  sale well below its general market price. Also, it needs to be stressed: these gas wars  aren’t localized to just the thing that’s being   fought over. If Steam is getting hammered because  ConcernedApe posted Stardew Valley 2 by surprise,   that will probably stay pretty well  contained. If Taylor Swift concert  

tickets go on sale and LiveNation gets  crushed, you might never even know. What those don’t do is cause  the cost of placing an order   on DriveThruRPG to spike by eight  thousand percent for three hours. The second big reason is that value on  the coins themselves is so volatile that   unless you’re willing to engage with  the speculative nature of the coins   there’s actually a huge risk in  accepting them as payment for anything.

Bitcoin in particular, owing to its glacial  transaction times, suffers from problems where   the value of the coin can change dramatically  between the start and end of a transaction. This is such a problem that it’s led to the rise  of an entire strata of middlemen in the ecosystem,   so-called “stablecoin” exchanges  like Tether that exist to quickly   transfer cryptocurrencies between  each other and lock-in values. The stablecoins, rather than  having a speculative value,   have a value that’s pegged to the value of an  actual currency, like the Euro or US dollar. The underlying problem that they  exist to solve is itself twofold. One is that converting cryptocurrency into   dollars is the step of the process that  makes you accountable to the tax man,   and the primary goal of crypto in general is  to starve public services, so that’s a no go.

The second is that there just  aren’t actually that many buyers,   and there’s not enough liquidity in  the ecosystem to cash out big holdings. Tether, the largest stablecoin, used  to advertise itself as being backed   on a one to one basis back when it was  called Realcoin, but that language has   become far more nebulous over time as it’s  become obvious that it just isn’t true. This is a very complicated situation, but the  short version is that the people who own Tether   also own a real money exchange called Bitfinex,  and there’s evidence that the two services,   both which require having actual dollars  on hand in order to back their products and   facilitate exchanges, are sharing the same pool  of money, swapping it back and forth as needed.

This means that at any given time  either service is potentially backed by   zero dollars, or at least that’s what  the data implies might be the case. Point is that if you’re a high  roller with tens of millions   of conceptual dollars tied up in cryptocurrency,   there’s a fundamental cash problem. Your  holdings have inflated to tens, hundreds,   or thousands of times what you put in, but that  price is just theoretical. It’s speculative.

You have all this crypto, you  can’t meaningfully spend it,   and there’s not enough  buyers for you to get it out. In order for you to cash out you need  to convince someone else to buy in. These factors, taken holistically, mean  that cryptocurrency is a Bigger Fool scam.   There’s a lot of digital ink spilt trying  to outline if it’s a decentralized Ponzi   scheme or a pyramid scheme or some hybrid  of the two, which is a taxonomical argument   that I’m not here to settle, but, like  both of those, it’s a Bigger Fool scam.

The whole thing operates by buying  worthless assets believing that you   will later be able to sell them to a bigger fool. The entire structure of cryptocurrencies  at their basic level of operation   is designed to deliver the greatest rewards  to the earliest adopters, regardless of   if you’re talking about proof-of-work or  proof-of-stake. This is inherent to their being. As Stephen Diel put it “These schemes around crypto tokens cannot create  or destroy actual dollars, they can only shift   them around. If you sell your crypto and make a  profit in dollars, it’s only because someone else  

bought it at a higher price than you did. And  then they expect to do the same and so on and   so on ad infinitum. Every dollar that comes out of  cryptocurrency needs to come from a later investor   putting a dollar in. Crypto investments  cannot be anything but a zero sum game,   and many are actually massively negative sum. In  order to presume a crypto investment functions as   a store of value we simultaneously need to  suppose an infinite chain of greater fools   who keep buying these assets at any  irrational price and into the future forever.” So with all that out of the way,  let’s talk about the ape in the room.

♪ NFTs super-sexy, man it always lures me ♪ ♪ I’m too focused and you know you’ll never   ever deter me ♪ ♪ Crypto astronaut ♪  ♪ Degen moving so hazardous ♪ ♪ Crypto what I’m   gon’ dabble uh ♪ ♪ OpenSea is like chapel yeah ♪ NFTs, non-fungible tokens. On a conceptual level the  tech acts as a sort of generic   database to mediate the exchange of digital stuff. The most optimistic read on it is a framework for  a type of computer code that creates so-called   true digital objects, meaning digital  objects that possess the attributes of both   physical objects and digital,  being losslessly-transmittable   while providing strict uniqueness,  which is an important concept.

Strict uniqueness is a way of  saying that two different things   are different things, even if they’re  different copies of the same thing. My copy of Grey by EL James is strictly unique.  While millions of copies of the book exist,   this is the only copy that is this copy,  and this is the only copy that has the   very specific damage of being glued  shut and thrown into the Bow River. [splash] It is also strictly scarce. While  millions of copies of Grey exist,   that’s still a finite number,  meaning it is possible,   though not immediately practical,  for the world to run out of copies.

NFTs impose a simulacrum of this  physical scarcity and uniqueness   onto digital objects within their ecosystem. [splash] On a technical level a non-fungible token  is just a token that has a unique serial   number and can’t be subdivided into smaller parts. Two tokens, even two that tokenize the same   conceptual thing, are still strictly  unique with different serial numbers.

Within the context of Ethereum  and its clones these tokens are   effectively a small packet of data  that can contain a payload of code. It’s a box that you can put a micro program into. That micro-program is called a smart contract, a  name that is so comically full of itself that I   feel like it’s misleading to even call them  that, but I have to for simplicity's sake. But real quick, yes, that is how the  inventors conceptualize the role of   these things, as the unity of programming and law.

The phrase “code is law” gets bandied  about as an aphorism, and it’s just   so full of holes that we’re going to be  spending the next forever talking about it. Before we move into that this is the root of it:   there is a tremendous disconnect between what NFT  advocates say they do and what they actually do. But, and this is very important,   both the claimed functionality and  the actual functionality are both bad. It’s all broken, none of it works well,   so the idea of it becoming the norm is  terrible, but the prospect of what the   world would look like if all the mythologizing  and over-promising came true also super sucks. The end goal of this infinite machine  is the financialization of everything. Any benefits of digital  uniqueness end up being a quirk,   a necessary precondition of turning  everything into a stock market.

There’s nothing particularly offensive  underpinning the concept of digital collectibles,   frameworks and subcultures for  digital collectibles have existed for   decades within various contexts, but NFTs   exist to lend credibility and functionality to  the cryptocurrencies that they exist on top of. Okay, okay, okay, code is law. Now, what that little smart contract  program does is up to the token creator. It can be a relatively sophisticated applet that  allows the user to execute various commands,   or it can be a plain hypertext link to a  static URL of an image, or anything in between. Most are a lot closer to static URLs  than they are to functional programs. This is in part because the thing  that NFTs have become synonymous with   are digital artworks, but really what  the token represents is arbitrary.

It can be a video game item, a  permission slip, a subscription,   a domain name, a virus that steals all your  digital stuff, or a combination of all of those. While the concept has been floating around since  2015 when the framework was thrown together   in a day during a hack-a-thon, and the first  Ethereum implemented tokens were minted in 2017,   for the mainstream the story starts in the spring  of 2021 following a string of high-priced sales   of tokens minted by digital artist Beeple,  culminating in a $69 million dollar sale   of a collage of Beeple’s work in March  via old money auction house Christie’s. This high-profile sale triggered a media  frenzy and an online gold rush as various   minor internet celebrities raced to cash in on  the trend, hoping to be the next to cash out big. Over the course of about six  weeks the ecosystem burnt   through just about every relevant meme possible. Laina Morris, popularized on Reddit as  Overly Attached Girlfriend, sold the   “original screengrab” to Emirati  music producer Farzin Fardin Fard   for the equivalent of a little over $400,000 US. Zoe Roth, aka Disaster Girl,   sold the original Disaster Girl  photograph to Fard, for also $400,000.

Kyle Craven sold the original Bad Luck Brian  photo for $36,000 to anonymous buyer @A. Nyan Cat sold for almost $600,000 with  multiple variants also selling for six figures. Allison Harvard sold Creepy  Chan I and II for $67,000 and   $83,000, respectively, also both to Fard.

In addition to these high-profile sales of things  that were already popular, whale buyers like Fard   were dropping four and five figure sales  onto a random assortment of other artworks. Corporations and individuals auctioned  off NFTs representing intangible,   non-transferable concepts, like the  “first tweet” or “the first text message.” Cryptocurrency evangelists jumped at  every opportunity to proselytize this new,   bold, revolutionary marketplace that  would free artists from the yoke of   the gig economy and provide buyers  with an immutable record of ownership   of authenticated artworks stored  on an eternal distributed machine. You could be holding the next generation’s  Picasso! Artists could continue to earn   passive revenue from secondary sales!  Imagine what it’ll be worth in five years! This created an air of absolute mania, as it  seemed like anything could be the golden ticket.

Digital artists, especially those  working with media like generative   art that’s difficult to monetize via  conventional channels like physical prints,   raced into the space and, on  the whole, lost a lot of money. Critics began questioning what it was  that was actually being bought and sold. Copyright? Commercial permissions?  A digital file? Bragging rights? In a huge number of cases the answer  wasn’t very clear, and even the sellers,   caught in the promise of a payday, weren’t  altogether sure what they had even sold. Tons of the tokens did little more than point to  images stored on normal servers readily accessible   via HTTP, meaning the bought assets would be  just as vulnerable to link rot as anything else.

Some pointed to images stored on peer-to-peer IPFS  servers, which are more resistant to link rot as,   similar to a torrent, it only requires that  someone keep the file active somewhere,   rather than requiring the original server to  stay up, but as millions of dead torrents prove:   that’s still a far cry from the “eternal”  storage solution that evangelists were claiming. The images were stored and delivered the  same way as any other image on the internet,   easily saved or duplicated simply  by virtue of the fact that in order   for your computer to display an  image it needs to download it. Claims of digital scarcity apply only to the  token itself, not the thing the token signified. More than that, there was no cryptographic  relationship between the images and the tokens. The image associated with a token  could be easily altered or replaced   if the person with access to the server that  the image was hosted on just changed file names,   making the relationship between the two tenuous  and flimsy in a way that undermined the claims   that this was somehow a more durable,  reliable way of transacting digital art. There was also no root proof of authenticity, no   confirmation that the person minting the  artwork was the person who created the artwork.

This is a pretty handy encapsulation of the  way that blockchain fails to solve the most   common problems with fraud, which tend to start  with bad data going into a system at the input,   not data being altered mid-stream. Artists who complained about  this system which clearly   incentivized impersonating popular  artists, including deceased artists,   were told that it was their fault for  not jumping in sooner, that if they had   bought in and minted their stuff first then  it would be easy to prove the forgeries. Because evangelists don’t see this as  a tool, as a market that may or may   not fit into an artist’s business, they see it as   the future, so failure to participate isn’t  a business decision, it’s just a mistake. They’re terrible people. All told the frenzy collapsed pretty quickly. By June the market had  already receded by about 90%,   which, incidentally, just further incentivized  the low-effort process of minting other peoples’   artwork, to the point that art platform Deviant  Art implemented an extremely well received feature   that scans several popular NFT  marketplaces for matching images.

The output of that is extremely depressing. Not to labour this point, but reposting  digital art without attribution is nothing new. Profiting off someone else's  art is also nothing new. All that’s new is NFTs represent  a high-energy marketplace with an   irrational pricing culture where the mean buyer is  easily flattered and not particularly discerning. The potential payoff is extremely high, much,  much higher than a bootleg Redbubble store,   the consequences border nonexistent, and  the market is clearly in an untenable state,   so there’s an incentive to get in at as  low a cost as possible before it collapses,   hence the absolute plague of art theft.

Even the argument that artists  could make passive revenue off   secondary sales turned out to  have a lot of caveats attached. One, the smart contract for the token needs  to have a function that defines royalties,   so anyone who minted a token based  off of hype making it sound like an   inherent function of the system was out of luck. And, two, the token doesn’t know what a sale  is and can’t differentiate between being sold   and being transferred, so it’s actually  the marketplace that informs the token   “you’re being sold” and collects the royalties.

End result, royalties are easily bypassed  simply by using a marketplace that doesn’t   collect royalties or uses a different  format of royalty collection that’s   incompatible with the function the token uses. While a few sellers, legitimate and otherwise,  made off with undeniably big paydays,   hundreds of thousands of artists bought  in only to find that there wasn’t a new,   revolutionary, highly trafficked  audience of digital art collectors. Instead there was a closed market dealing in  casino chips where the primary winners were   those already connected, who already had the means  to get the attention of the whales and the media,   a market where participation required buying  into a cryptocurrency at a rapidly fluctuating   price in order to pay the minting costs to  post the work, where it would sit, unsold. This left those artists in the lurch,  where they had to choose between just   eating the losses, or attempting to convince  their existing audience to buy-in as well. The people who actually won were the people  with large holdings of cryptocurrency,   specifically Ethereum which mediated the  vast majority of these big ticket purchases. David Gerrard, author of Attack  of the 50 Foot Blockchain,   summarized it on his blog very succinctly as such: “NFTs are entirely for the benefit of the crypto  grifters. The only purpose the artists serve  

is as aspiring suckers to pump the  concept of crypto — and, of course,   to buy cryptocurrency to pay for ‘minting’ NFTs.   Sometimes the artist gets some crumbs to  keep them pumping the concept of crypto.” The rush benefits them in two ways: first  the price of Ether itself goes up directly   from the spike in demand, between January and  May the price of Ether rose from $700 to $4000,   and second there’s new actual buyers  who aren’t just trading Bitcoin for   tether for ether and back again,  but are buying in with dollars,   providing the whole system with the liquidity  needed for whales to actually cash out. This arrangement, needing to buy a highly  volatile coin from people who paid far,   far less for it in order to participate  in a market that they control,   is why people reflexively describe  the whole arrangement as a scam. If you buy in at $4000 and compete against  people who bought in at $4, you’re the sucker.

It reveals the basic truth that these  aren’t marketplaces, they’re casinos. And, indeed, even through all the rhetoric   of “protecting artists” and whatnot was  the ever-present spectre of the gamble:   whatever you buy now might be  worth hundreds of times more later. Constantly invoked is the opposite  proposition of the bad deal:   what if you had been the  person who bought in at $4? Let’s take a closer look at that eye  watering $69 million Beeple sale. Independent journalist Amy Castor has done an  enviable job running down the details here in   her piece “Metakovan, the mystery Beeple art  buyer, and his NFT/DeFi scheme“ but to summarize   the long and short of her notes, the buyer is  a crypto entrepreneur named Vignesh Sundaresan   who purchased the piece to boost the reputation  and value of his own crypto investment scheme   Metapurse and Metapurse’s own token B.20,  which Beeple owns 2% of the total supply of. Following the Christie's sale the reported  value of B.20 went from 36¢ per token to $23. And that’s just the anatomy of a single sale.

The very obvious conclusion observers reached  was that none of this is about the art at all,   but the speculative value;  not what it’s worth to you,   but what it’ll potentially be worth  in the future to someone else. It’s not a market, it’s a casino, gambling on the  receipt for an image or video that’s otherwise   infinitely digitally replicable. The thing itself is immaterial as  long as it can make a line go up. This is the essence of the market,  and a microcosm of what evangelists   imagine they want to see as the future,  the financialization of everything. The frenzied market around old Reddit  memes was doomed from the start.   There’s a finite supply of meaningful  originals, so to keep this thing going,   to keep the line going up, you need something  more, something less tied to anything specific.

-- In the months since the initial  craze the marketplace had mutated. The It Thing was no longer memes or  digital works from established artists,   but character profiles from large, procedurally  generated collections with names like CryptoPunks,   Bored Ape Yacht Club, Lazy Lions,  Cool Cats, Ether Gals, Gator World,   Baby Llama Club, Magic Mushroom Club,  Rogue Society Bot, and Crypto Chicks. These were notable for, again, commanding utterly  irrational prices seemingly completely decoupled   from any legitimate or legal transaction,  and being generally extremely fugly. This surge generated an immediately  adversarial relationship between the buyers,   who touted them as both evidence  of their extravagant wealth and   their foresight into the future of digital  economies, and pretty much everyone else.

A very common response to anyone using one of  these profile pics, or bragging about their   purchase, became saving and reposting the image  in reply, or even changing profile pics to match. Spurred by a speculative tweet from  Twitter developers suggesting that   they were working on an NFT verification  system, Twitter users broadly rallied at the   opportunity to immediately identify  people that it was okay to bully. Tweets from within the cryptosphere started  leaking out, things like Santiago Santos   tweeting things like “NFTs = Identity 2.0. Can’t  remember the last time I used my pic on the left.”

Emphasis on physical traits. Genetic  lottery. Prone to bias and prejudice. Identity by choice. Unique and digitally  scarce. Representation of values and beliefs. Of course what Santiago was leaving out was  that he had paid the equivalent of $171,000   US for that profile pic, which probably gives him  some incentive to really commit to it as something   interesting and special, even  though, stripped to the studs,   literally all he was describing was using a  non-representational image as a profile pic. For about six years my profile pic on the Dungeons  and Dragons forums was a stock photo of a cabbage. So, not really breaking new ground here.

Greg Isenberg sat at his computer and  decided to bang out “most people who   make fun of NFTs - Own zero NFTs  - Have never minted an NFT - Have never participated in a community  - Have never staked their NFT - Haven’t built on-top of an NFT project  - Have never earned an NFT playing a game - Missed out on BAYC, Punks, Cool Cats etc.” A chain of logic implying that skeptics of  the market are just uninformed sore losers. Incidents like these lent to the very  accurate perception that the loudest   voices in NFTs weren’t very familiar  with internet culture as a whole,   weren’t terribly smart in general, and were by and  large coming at all this from the financial side,   further supported by all of them having “tweets  are not investment advice” in their twitter bios. In short the same people  who made and bought Juicero.

It also laid bare that the  conversa

2022-01-24 02:04

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