On "inventing NFTs" and how we don't have any good way to talk about tech

On "inventing NFTs" and how we don't have any good way to talk about tech
Photo by bady abbas / Unsplash

I've been blogging here for more than 20 years, and the only organizing principle behind what I write here, if anything, is a fascination about how we make culture, and especially how we make culture around, and with, technology. Nothing has exemplified the complexity of that conversation more than my attempts to engage with the current hype cycle around NFTs, or non-fungible tokens.

Here are a couple of incontrovertible truths:

  • I helped Kevin McCoy create the first on-blockchain attempt to verify digital artworks as unique, at the Seven on Seven conference in 2014. That's intellectually the same idea and domain as the larger NFT ecosystem that exists today.
  • Kevin was the leader of this, and is the one who took it forward for years, both as a technology and a company (Monegraph) after I walked away from the space. Kevin deserves more credit than me, for sure, not to mention more credit than probably anybody else in the space.
  • We absolutely didn't call our implementation NFTs or "non-fungible tokens" because that technical term, while accurate in some sense of how code is implemented, truly sucks as a mainstream name, especially when trying to empower artists.
  • There are many ideas that predate our implementation, and that have arisen in the years since, that were as important to contemporary adoption of NFTs as our demo.
  • The implementation we did in 2014 was necessarily an incomplete subset of what the ecosystem allows today, as blockchains like Ethereum (which underlies the vast majority of NFT efforts today) didn't yet exist.
  • I don't believe in the "great man"/"lone genius" narrative of technology creation, and think that the industry's (and media's) desire to build these reductive narratives around "inventors" of popular ideas is deeply destructive, damaging and dishonest.
  • My primary motivations for doing this work, as I stated in our very first demo, was to try to enable artists to benefit from a technological innovation that I truly believe is inevitably going to be foisted on creators, either with or without their consent. By doing a public, visible demonstration, we took the most likely path of preventing the technology from harming artists by removing the ability for others to patent it later in an exploitative way, and by providing information to artists in a context of a non-profit, artist-centered demonstration held at a museum.

I offer this exhaustive context because it's useful for parsing the reactions to my perspectives on the NFT space. I wrote a brief piece about the demo right after we showed it off, and then, for the next 7 years or so after my collaboration with Kevin I didn't write or publish anything about it.

You can see all of this explained in the moment, thanks to the fact that there's a video of that original demo.

Seven on Seven 2014: Kevin McCoy & Anil Dash from Rhizome on Vimeo.

Presented by Rhizome, the Seven on Seven conference pairs seven leading artists with seven influential technologists in teams of two, and challenges them to develop something new–whatever they choose to imagine—over the course of a single day.

The Four Types of Reactions

As the hype cycle around the NFTs started to crest this spring, I wrote a fairly expansive, and unabashedly criticial, look at the NFT ecosystem for The Atlantic. The reactions there (and in the months since) have run an interesting gamut:

  • Those who didn't know me, and already bought into the NFT ecosystem, felt I was wrong, and that my claims about participating in an early innovation in the space were spurious and self-inflated. Thus, my opinons could be safely discounted.
  • Those who didn't know me, and who reject the NFT ecosystem, felt I was credible, and the "proof" they needed of the whole thing being just a scam that could be dismissed. An interesting subset of this group was those who, upon looking further, found out that I'm an exec in the tech industry, and decided that I hadn't anticipated that there would be harms in this space, and was too short-sighted to see that in the early implementation.
  • Those who knew me, and don't like NFTs, saw this largely as validating their sense that I know what I'm talking about. Although this was the most amusing category, because of a handful of folks who said "There's no way he actually worked on this stuff, because there's no way Anil's ego would let him shut up about anything for seven years."
  • Then there were those who knew of me, and who already bought into NFTs, and these were the most vociferously angry responses. The reaction here ranged from disappointment to people who clearly felt that I'd betrayed them.

But one of the most common through-lines amongst all of these cohorts is a skepticism about any claims to authority or invention. And that's great! Nobody invents anything, ideas are always floating around in communities, and we should always be deeply skeptical of any claims to authoirty in this way. Everything is a remix.

No Good Compromises

There's a really grim set of tradeoffs that come from my trying to write about this space, or any similarly contentious technical domain. I was aware of these risks in choosing to share my opinion, but there's no way to entirely avoid these challenges when talking about any topic.

  • Because of reductive media habits (both journalistic media and social media), headlines always want to frame my participation in this space as if I'm claiming more authority or influence than I believe I've had. This sucks personally, because I don't want to undermine Kevin's primacy or authority in his role in the space, but also because it makes it appear as if I buy into the Lone Genius myth when I decidedly do not.
  • There's also the ugly perpetuation of media's tendency to only accept those who've been inside a particular system as the valid critics of it. This generally tends to necessarily make critcisms much more mild. For example, in the recent spate of whistleblowers talking about big tech companies, I am both grateful for their bravery and impact, while also deeply troubled that many long-term critical voices who've been offering warnings about potential harms have been overlooked for many years. That's especially true as many people made conscious, ethical choices to forgo the wealth and opporuntity associated by working within these companies and systems.
  • At the same time, there's a significant cohort that sees any participation in the space (even if it was grounded in a thoughtful and explicit critique of the risks) as disqualifying. I genuinely don't think it's intellectually honest to say "making a demo at a museum 7 years ago while warning of crypto triumphalism makes you culpable for scammers exploiting this technology now", but I also know better than to think I can talk someone out of that belief.
  • There's a not-insignificant personal toll to participating in any criticism about systems that are favored by the most powerful and wealthy people in an industry. The initial reactions ranged from everything from direct threats to me and people I care about, to the ordinary (but still exhausting) hateful reactions we commonly see on social media, to just the alienate of some friends, sometimes including longtime friends. Even after decades of being used to these reactions, they still wear me down, or make me wary about wading into any such conversation; it's a big part of why I didn't do so for the better part of a decade.

Ultimately, I chose to participate in the conversation despite my misgivings about these worries. I know from extensive experience that even people who are critical of an idea won't actually enagage with some sorts of criticism (positive or negative) without an appeal to authority on behalf of the critic. And interestingly, because of the extreme social dynamics around cryptocurrency and blockchain in general, and NFTs in particular, simply saying "I've been around tech for a long time and have prior examples of knowing what I'm talking about" actually is not sufficient as a credential. In fact, it's often seen as an anti-credential, in the same manner as anti-media critiques or other forms of trying to undermine cultural authority. The rhetoric neatly matches the "they're a member of the elite" dismissal that we see in various social and political contexts.

That is epitomized to me by the reaction to someone like Aaron Levie, the entrepreneur who's the founder of Box, a publicly-traded, multi-billion-dollar company. In addition to being one of the few actually funny tech execs with a public profile, he's built a business that's relatively well-known and inarguably technically innovative. Yet, as soon as he became critical of NFTs, he was dismissed as "NGMI" (short for "not gonna make it", this is jargon used in the crypto community to dismiss, sometimes extremely aggressively, anyone who speaks outside of acceptable narratives). His credibility in the outside community was an anti-credential. That's new in the mainstream tech industry.

Similarly, my empathy for people who participate in NFT spaces in good faith, especially artists looking to support their work, is generally responded to by critics as being naive at best, or as a shield for some presumed attempt to profit off of all of the hype. That's become more pronounced as I expressed some of this more sympathetic view in this recent interview with On The Media.  I've never traded any crypto or NFTs (or really done any transactions around NFTs except that original demo), but simply acknowledging that there are people in the ecosystem who aren't participating solely out of avarice or foolishness is seen as a suspect position, especially since this perspective tends to not be aware of the cautions that framed my original participation.

Where we go next

Ultimately, where we find ourselves in the discussion around NFTs (and the blockchain more broadly) is that the conversation is rapidly being consumed by the larger cultural war going on around various social issues. It's not yet impossible to have a nuanced opinion, or to consider multiple perspectives, but the window of opportunity there is rapidly closing, as people see taking positions on these technologies as part of their performance of social identity.

That worries me deeply, as I think any honest reckoning with these technologies has to acknowledge that they're deeply flawed, and that many current or potential harms can be ascribed to them. Increasing polarization around the discussion of them will likely only lead to increased future harms, as those whose social identities are formed around denying the harms calcify in their positions, and critics become less and less effective due to their cultural distance from those who are participating.

I don't think the opportunity to change the dialogue here is yet lost, and I do plan to share some more of what I've learned, and what might be hopeful paths forward. But the first step is to acknoweldge the brokenness of the dialogue around these technologies, and I hope doing so might get at least a well-intentioned cohort of good people to start conducting a more productive dialogue.