I detta inlägg tänkte jag återge en diskussionstråd på e-postlistan Nettime , med tankar kring den spekulationsbubbla i kryptovaluta som har vuxit fram kring så kallade NFTs, eller “kryptokonst”.
Själv har jag redan behandlat ämnet i en kort krönika i ETC , då mest om den vansinniga energiförbrukningen:
Precis som vanliga pengar förr var förankrade i guld eller andra ädelmetaller, har även Bitcoin sin koppling till en begränsad naturresurs, nämligen elektricitet. Enda sättet att skapa nya Bitcoins är genom att låta datorer lösa ytterst avancerade matteproblem och varje liten datorberäkning kräver energi. Sammantaget förbrukar nu Bitcoin nästan lika mycket elektricitet som hela Sverige, i storleksordningen 130 TWh per år. Lägg till detta alla andra kryptovalutor som bygger på motsvarande princip, inklusive Ethereum, som dominerar den växande marknaden för kryptokonst.
(Vissa som läser detta kommer genast att invända att Ethereum inte alls är som Bitcoin. Men det är det visst. Båda bygger på principen proof-of-work , det vill säga en sorts energimyntfot. Att sedan Ethereum i åratal sagt att man snart ska gå över till proof-of-stake  betyder ingenting förrän det faktiskt sker och om så någonsin alls kommer att ske kan betvivlas .)
Nu till tråden på Nettime, som öppnas av Felix Stalder  med två frågor, varav den första lyder:
What – after a decade of quantitative easing and crypto-currencies rising into the stratosphere – monetary value is indicating for the segment that profited the most from these developments and what does that mean for the rest of us?
Utgångspunkten är alltså det omtalade fall där konstnären Beeple har sålt ett stycke metadata för 70 miljoner dollar (eller snarare: för kryptovaluta motsvarande detta dollarvärde). Själva konstverket – en digital bildfil – är allmänt tillgängligt. Metadatan som sålts är i princip bara en garanti för att köparens kopia av filen har status som “originalkopia”. Frågan  gäller vad detta kan lära oss, inte om konst, utan om pengar och om värdering.
Brian Holmes  är först ut med sitt svar på Felix första fråga:
I believe that there are three distinct forms of money that currently operate in a hierarchy:
- Infinite money which is produced and deregulated in the financial markets through the manipulation of information
- Institutional money which is produced and regulated within national frames by governments seeking to stabilize social reproduction
- Sweat money which is produced on the ground through the exploitation of labor paid at the bear minimum of survivability
The last form of money is the most extensive one, it’s the most common coin, the basis of most livelihoods on earth. Institutional money, however, has been carefully decoupled from sweat money; and infinite money has been decoupled from institutional money in its turn. Institutional money began to be produced through Keynesian management of national economies from the 30s onward, it’s inseparable from social democracy. Infinite money started up after the postwar gold standard was abandoned in 1971, and became what it is today with the introduction of computerized trading.
What does infinite money mean to its owners? Financial capital is power when it is applied to institutions or labor processes. However it can also be used for status displays, what Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.” So you have to bring art back in. For better and mostly worse, “high” culture remains the noisy ghost at the top of the capitalist pyramid.
Konst har länge fyllt funktionen att förvandla pengar till prestige. Men det finns otaliga sätt att köpa prestige. Varför, frågar Felix , strömmar så mycket pengar just nu till blockkedjad metadata som hänvisar till bildfiler?
Why has NFT art become an object of prestige? I mean, for this amount of money, one could have bought a pretty mean yacht. So, what does it tell us about this social milieu that such a purchase confers bragging rights? And, since money is power, what are they planning to use this power for?
Rachel  O’ Dwyer  hör till de mycket få forskare som på allvar har undersökt det här fenomenet, närmare bestämt dess föregångare i form av “cryptokitties”, som hon skrev om i två  artiklar  redan 2018. Det handlar i förlängningen om hur konsten förvandlas till ett finansiellt derivat.
This shift from commodity to financial instrument also implies a different economic relationship to the artwork, where the certificate of ownership and authenticity, rather than the formal manifestation of the work itself, are what is most significant. The idea that economic value resides in a certificate of authenticity as opposed to in an artistic image, performance or experience chimes with the marketing of much conceptual and experiential art.
En köpare kan köpa ett konstverk som en tillgång, i hopp om att marknadsvärdet ska stiga över tid. Men köpet kan också vara köparens investering i sitt personliga varumärke, ett sätt att visa att man är en person som äger just denna konst. Pengar som “expressivt medium” är inget nytt, påpekar Rachel O’ Dwyer.
Nu ser vi dock ett närmande från två håll, menar hon. Å ena sidan: kommunikation som pengar (sociala medieföretag som blir till de nya bankerna). Å andra sidan: pengar som kommunikation (en explosion av antalet valutor, “coins”, tokens, poäng).
I’m interested in why now though, beyond growing the speculation in crypto.
The past five years has seen a huge rise in art as an asset class and art is seen as a good hedge against market volatility. Tokens create situations where these art investments have greater liquidity.
But I’m interested in why everyday users are interested in NFTs. Is it pure desperation and precarity – you’re in debt, you probably won’t own a house so why not make a bet and invest in a token that might win big.
Felix  tar också upp detta med expressiva pengar:
Or, perhaps, something different, money has somehow morphed into an expressive medium in its own right. During the game-stop saga , I was struck by people saying that they don’t care if they would be losing money because they were here to make a point. This is a very unusual investment intention. Of course, this might well be a cynical strategy where somebody told others they shouldn’t care about losing money, so s/he could gain more, and more easily, but even then, the fact that a lot of people believed that somebody would think about investing in this way, tells us something.
Den andra av Felix inledande frågor  handlade mer om vad för slags bedrägerier som kan tänkas spela in i dessa spekulationsbubblor:
And, assuming that this is not a cartoon version of a potlatch where wasting resources serves to put rivals to shame, how many different scams – money laundering would be an obvious contender – are being layered on top of one other to create this?
could it be, that it’s a kind of hoax?
Like: two bubbles trying trying to keep each other up by leaning against one another: a fragile bitcoin market on the one side and a dysfunctional art market on the other side.
with the simple idea idea to create those crazy prices and to to lure luring real world money into the game.
Ontologiskt talat så kan man inte säga att pengar är, skriver Stefan. Det handlar om en “rekursiv numerisk operation under risk”. Så snart operationen har initierats, kan pengarna flöda. Man kan försöka att hålla på pengarna och i vissa fall kan det gå att stanna upp flödet, men pengarna blir inte operationella förrän de återgår i cirkulation (förutsatt att det finns någon som är villig att ta emot dem).
Angående lukten av bedrägeri så hänvisar Felix  till en rafflande artikel av Amy Castor  om den uppmärksammade rekordnoteringen inom kryptokonstbubblan när Beeple  sålde en NFT för uppemot 70 miljoner dollar. Felix sammanfattar artikelns tes:
I suspect there is more to it, more layers of scamminess, but so far the story goes like this:
The buyer, MetaKovan, and the seller, Metapurse, are entities controlled by the same person, Vignesh Sundaresan .
Metapurse is a fund which owns digital art works. It’s mission is to “democratize access and ownership to artwork.” Quite a statement to make in relation to digital art, but the entire story is full of scammy rhetoric.
You can buy into this fund, called B20 , then you own a tiny portion of its art works. You do this by buying special B.20 tokens. The value of these tokens reflects some speculative position on the underlying value of the art works held by the funds or profits to be made from selling these works.
There are 10 million tokens minted. 56% of these are owned by Metapurse/MetaKovan who thus controls the entire process in terms of writing to the blockchain. 2% are owned by Beeple himself (oh!). In December, Metapurse bought Beeple’s art work for 2.2 million. On January 23, Metapurse sold 1.6 million tokens at $0.36 a pop.
After the sale, which greatly inflated the value of the “assets” held by the fund, the value of the tokens rose to 23.00 and then fell back to 16.00. Given that buyer and seller are controlled by the same person, the actual costs for the purchase are only the feeds to be paid to Christie’s, some 9 million.
You can do he math yourself, but the profit margins are staggering, if Sundaresan manages to to get cash out his own tokens while it lasts.
What I find remarkable is the role of Christie’s in generating the narrative. Auction houses seem to have specialized in this lately, perhaps they always have. But, remember Sotheby’s sold a Banksy work that shredded itself (Oct 2018). Well, almost shredded. The story went around the world, greatly enhancing the value of the work. It’s hard to phantom that Sotheby’s did not examine the art work before hence realized that there was something hidden in the frame. Or, when Christie’s auctioned off the “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” in December 2018. The value is really generated by the story, told by a blue-chip auction house.
The fact that all of this is so scammy doesn’t seem to matter, because it’s the money that makes it real, the sheer scale is self-validating, even if the money itself is barely real to begin with.
Rachel O’ Dwyer  påpekar att detta påminner om när Damien Hirst år 2007 sålde  en fånig diamantskalle  för 50 miljoner pund, vilket etablerade honom som världens högst värderade konstnär. Köparen uppgavs vara ett konsortium av privata samlare som betalade i kontant, utan att lämna några spår. Sedan det sig att Damien Hirst själv var en del av detta konsortium . Ett skådespel för att blåsa upp konstnärens status, alltså.
we now know that the buyer didn’t actually pay $69,346,250, but “$60 million in ETH and $9 million in fees, also in ETH” – a significant difference IMHO. The whole Christie’s sale thus boils down to a conversion of one type of ETH token into another type of ETH token within the portfolio of a crypto currency investment firm, and using the art market transaction as means of pumping the value of the latter.
So it seems as if the art market is used as a prop for financial transactions that would likely be illegal on regulated financial markets. Ben Lewis’ 2009 documentary film “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble ” investigates the insider trade with Damien Hirst’s art, including the common phenomenon of a few collectors acting as cartels that inflate the prices of certain artists (which includes galleries who bid on their own artists in anonymous auctions). It seems as if this phenomenon is repeating itself, only that the insider trade and price manipulation now is no longer about the market value of an art work, but about the value of the currency with which it has been bought.
Brian Holmes  igen:
Gaming the system is a feature, not a bug, of the financial markets. After you analyze it for a while (as I did for about a decade) you just get too disgusted to go on. /…/
What’s so sad is not only that we are relentlessly told that this is the best way of allocating capital to productive enterprise. Or for that matter, that we are relentlessly told the blockchain will save us from corrupt banks and governments. What’s tragic is that the scams of the oligarchy – or what Veblen called the “New Barbarians” – are consistently able to fascinate global public opinion, while the lived environment decays.
Ted Byfield  ifrågasätter poängen med att alls ägna sin uppmärksamhet åt alltsammans:
If I drew a venn diagram of how uninteresting mass digital art, the art-systems economics, and cryptographic para-currencies have become, you’d think it was just a circle. There was a time when all three of these areas were fascinating, but in each the substantive groundwork was laid decades ago. What’s happening now no longer has any intrinsic relation to the specific, let’s say ‘crafty,’ details of these area.
We can ask why now, as Rachel does, talk about hoaxes as Stefan does, or lament the environment impact as John does, but I don’t see any of those lines of inquiry leading anywhere insightful or definitive. At a certain point in history, the cost–benefit of digging down in an effort to find something ‘real’ will become — like art bubbles, crypto-currencies, and assorted media objects — little more than an arbitrary way of framing some variation on ‘proof of work.’ Do you really think that, a decade or two from now, we’ll look back with 20/20 hindsight and regret ignoring this froth because it turned out to be seminal (or germinal) in some respect? I don’t. There are lots of non-events we were right to ignore as noise. This conjuncture is one of them.
På vilket Felix  svarar att “intressant” inte är en egenskap hos ett objekt, utan hos en fråga (och Venndiagram  signalerar frånvaron av frågor). Touché!
Sen ställer han själv en intressant fråga om kryptovalutornas värde:
What value does 1000 bitcoins confer to the person holding it? At the moment, seemingly U$ 60 million. Almost enough to buy an original copy of a gif. But sell your bitcoins now? No way. As a believer in bitcoin, you are convinced that if you hold it just long enough, then it will become worth 600 million, 6 billion, or 60 billion. Particularly when the next crash wipes out fiat money. On the other hand, you also know that it could crash to zero in no time. If the Chinese government decides to promote their crypto, bans bitcoin, and executes some traders, things can turn quickly. So, it’s a kind of quantum state, everything and nothing at the same time. Why, then, not spend some of it on a gif? no more, no less real, than the money that was spent on it.
Ted Byfield  kommer med ytterligare ett uppslagsrikt inlägg. Här ett utdrag:
One distinctive feature of the last decade+ — since the 2008 meltdown — has been the normalization, even banalization of a ‘Powers of Ten ‘ illogic. The leaps in ‘public’ numbers are so far beyond any grounded comprehension that words literally fail: in writing and speech, the difference between millions, billions, and trillions is just a letter or two. That ‘problem’ has played a non-trivial role in governments’ willingness to bid bailouts up and up and up, on scales that ceased to be linear. /…/ The linguistic accident that orders of magnitude are distinguished not by mind-bending math but, instead, by a letter or two has played a pivotal role in enabling this escalation or acceleration.
Things like the NFT bubble, almost a kind of foam so many and interconnected are the constituent bubbles, is a direct result.
But of course these differences aren’t really reducible to a few letters, are they? Hence, in part, the growing reliance on graphics to ‘show not tell’ what the differences mean. Over the last year, no thanks to Covid, we saw these graphics consume entire front pages of newspapers not just to a degree never seen before but in ways never seen before. As happened in a cruder form in the wake of 2008, though, the shifts in order are so extreme that they even challenge the physical formats of a print media (which webbified versions still refer to and depend on). Yesterday’s gob-smacking gyrations becomes tomorrow’s barely perceptible noise at the foot of an impossibly steep visual cliff. A prime example is the 27 March 2020 issue of the NYT, which depicts a nightmare only a designer could love — the entire sixth column is stripped of any prose and taken over by a graphic spike:
What strikes me about this discussion is all the sniffy moralizing, what with the go-to reference points of ‘scam’ and ‘hoaxes.’ Yes, Bitcoin consumes more energy than N countries, sure, but — again — we’re back in the realm of incomprehensible orders of magnitude: ‘miners’ don’t GAF how much CO2 a GIF NFT generates — they’re looking at the Lambo. We could save oceans of e-ink if we just recognized that we’ve had the solution to that problem ever since Pigou suggested it  almost exactly a century ago: tax the shit out of cryptocurrencies and anyone or anything that touches them. Non-fungibility is a two-edged sword: it might guarantee that a GIF is unique, but it also ensures that all the resulting liquid wealth it generates is indistinguishable. That’s the basic premise of financial enforcement: it doesn’t matter which dollar you tax or confiscate. It’ll all just move offshore you say? We know how to deal with that too. The only thing that’s lacking is the political will to tackle the problem, but that doesn’t have anything to do with cryptocurrencies per se.
Money is pouring in, it is generated out of the blue, and as a consequences draws in more investors (the Elon Musk effect). This money now has be parked somewhere. As we need, the right-wing liberarian mindset is pretty introvert. It is not going to invest it in climate change tech or social anti-capitalist struggles. The crypto assets want more crypto, ergo one way to is crypto art.
Felix Stalder  försöker klarlägga vad som faktiskt har bytt ägare:
The NFT in the blockchain, recorded for eternity, does not contain artwork itself, but metadata pointing to the art work. It basically says, the file over there is the ‘originalcopy’ and I own it. Of course, everyone can still copy the art work over there (assuming it’s a public location), but only that file on that location is the “original” one. Of course, if that server disappears, then the meta data point to nowhere, and becomes impossible to distinguish between the copies that might float around somewhere.
One way to sidestep this is not to point to a location, but to a hash, which can stored anywhere in a decentralized file system.
In Beeble’s case, the token contains metadata that points to such a hash (a IPFS  file). This has the advantage that it’s not depended on a server which may or may not be around for very long, so it removes the dependency of the particular entity which host the server mentioned in the token.
In other words, the seller, in order to have any object at all, is dependent on makersplace.com to remain online. In this case, it doesn’t really matter, because buyer and seller is, in effect, the same person. But in other cases, the buyer becomes dependent on the seller for as long as s/he hold be token. Of course, the “originalcopy” could also be stored in decentralized file system, but apparently, this is not done very often. Some people have called this structure “long-game extortion”.
Här hänvisar Felix i sin tur till en serie tweets av Jonty Wareing . Här kommer ett utdrag:
Out of curiosity I dug into how NFT’s actually reference the media you’re “buying” and my eyebrows are now orbiting the moon
The NFT token you bought either points to a URL on the internet, or an IPFS  hash. In most circumstances it references an IPFS gateway on the internet run by the startup you bought the NFT from.
Oh, and that URL is not the media. That URL is a JSON metadata file
Which means when the startup who sold you the NFT goes bust, the files will probably vanish from IPFS too
In short: Right now NFT’s are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them.
It is likely that _every_ NFT sold so far will be broken within a decade.
Will that make them worthless? Hard to say
“NFT startups are long-game blackmailers” is an entertaining concept
Rachel O’ Dwyer  förtydligar:
With a few exceptions where people actually encode images into the hash (see https://cryptograffiti.info ) the only thing you own with cryptoart is the act of ownership itself. People sometimes draw comparisons between owning cryptoart and owning a collectible like a baseball card (you own ‘this’ card but you don’t have any rights to the image etc) but in this case, you don’t even own the card. To me this is emblematic of a shift from the artwork as commodity to the artwork as a financial asset or increasingly as a financial derivative.
Ted Byfield  påpekar att den här logiken länge har funnits i konstvärlden, där frågor om proveniens  blivit allt mer komplexa sedan konceptkonstens genombrott. Konstverk kan ha ett värdering “i sig” som förblir rent hypotetiskt så länge man inte kan dokumentera dess tidigare ägare och marknadstransaktioner. Ännu ett långt och uppslagsrikt inlägg av Ted:
As art prices have soared and arty milieus have mushroomed over the last decades, standards for authenticating works have gone completely mad. Their ostensible purpose is to reduce the risk of forgeries, but mostly it just creates bullshit jobs in the culture sector. “What did you do today?” “I verified that petrified mass of shrimp carcasses and noodles in a garbage bag as an authentic artifact of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s seminal 1992 performance  at the 303 Gallery rather than, as most thought, a contemporary forgery or, as some believed, an artifact of the performance he did three months later at Andrea Rosen. And how was your day?” It’s just plain-old manual proof-of-work.
This growing focus on provenance is just one tiny facet of the rising culture of authentication. The same kind of thing has also happened with people’s work résumés and academic records, process and product certifications like ISO 9000/1  standards, heightened security techniques from currency design to 2FA  techniques, commodity-sourcing certifications (everything from Fair Trade agricultural products to isotopic analyses of nuclear materials), ART STOLEN BY THE NAZIS – the list goes on and on and on and on.
Taken together, this all makes it clear that we live in the Age of the Fake. That’s not to say everything is fake or anything is real – it just means that, as a civilization, we’re more and more consumed by the endless busywork of trying to establish not-fake. When you log in to some account you aren’t proving who you are in any meaningful sense, you’re merely giving the receiving end evidence (i.e., reasonable grounds for limiting their liability) that you aren’t who you aren’t. And, of course, when you prove you “aren’t a robot” by doing some re/captcha, you’re helping to train ML systems to do image-recognition, or at least a few years ago you were. By now there are probably dozens if not hundreds of abstract meta-derivative auction systems built on top of that that, so you kill time clicking on pictures of fire hydrants instead of taking up more valuable CPU cycles bothering someone else with whatever you’re on about. If that hasn’t happened yet, it will soon enough: for example, a service that targets neo-nazis and wastes their time so they don’t waste everyone else’s would be a really good thing, wouldn’t it? But, then, an entire task force at McKinsey could waste time preparing a report surveying which political beliefs are most easily ‘triggered’ into clicking on cows rather than getting something done. Oh, wait, Facebook, never mind.
Also, it’s worth noting that pretty much zero disinterested third parties ever have actually gone to the trouble authenticating some NFT-ish art thing. In practical terms, doing so might be difficult to the point of impossibility. I could claim “I have the ur-NFT” but for you to validate my claim, you’d need to spend $BIGNUM effort learning masses of hypertechnical bullshit involving some ridiculous hodgepodge of protocols, services, providers, actors, reputations, etc. Who can be bothered? $SMALLNUM time passes and hey, presto, my claim has gone unchallenged — and, as with most things, all that was aerial condenses into some good-enough approximation of solid, and in itself it comes to serve as de facto evidence of authenticity. Because, really, no one can be fucking bothered.
To anyone who’s spent some time thinking about the modern sense of information, this should sound ‘eerily’ familiar. In Shannon’s model , information isn’t the thing itself, it’s better understood as a measure of the reduction of uncertainty that it might be something else. When we think someone has transmitted the letter “A” to us, we didn’t really get an A, we just got [letter] are and able to establish a high level of confidence that it isn’t B through Z. But as you read this mail, you aren’t concerned with “Wait, is that apparent instance of the letter A *really* an A? And what would it mean if my confidence level were lowered by N%?” You just read. It’s the same with NFTs, except the people who make them are getting paid better than I am for typing this. But I’m reasonably confident that this email is somehow more important than whatever pot-induced NFT stunt Elon Musk is doing today.
Und wo weiter.
Få orkar väl läsa detta, men för den som ändå har scrollat hit kan tipsas  om en tecknad serie i The Guardian som slagkraftigt sammanfattar det väsentliga .