Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are big business now, at least for the moment. Everything from one of Creepy Chan’s first Myspace posts to a New York Times article has been put up for sale. (The Times piece went for the Ether equivalent of $560,000.) But they weren’t always a speculative, suspiciously scammy garden. In fact, according to Glitch CEO Anil Dash in a new piece in The Atlantic, the whole thing started as a project kludged together for a hackathon that brought artists and technologists together.
It all started in May 2014, Dash writes, when he was paired up with the digital artist Kevin McCoy. “This was around the peak of Tumblr culture, when a raucous, wildly inspiring community of millions of artists and fans was sharing images and videos completely devoid of attribution, compensation, or context,” Dash writes. A solution to that problem became the seed of their idea. “By the wee hours of the night, McCoy and I had hacked together a first version of a blockchain-backed means of asserting ownership over an original digital work. Exhausted and a little loopy, we gave our creation an ironic name: monetized graphics.”
Neither Dash nor McCoy patented the idea, though McCoy spent a few subsequent years evangelizing it. But they both envisioned their creation as a way to give artists more control over their work; that was always the thesis.
Technology should be enabling artists to exercise control over their work, to more easily sell it, to more strongly protect against others appropriating it without permission. By devising the technology specifically for artistic use, McCoy and I hoped we might prevent it from becoming yet another method of exploiting creative professionals. But nothing went the way it was supposed to. Our dream of empowering artists hasn’t yet come true, but it has yielded a lot of commercially exploitable hype.
Dash’s writing is lucid and clear on the implications of the technology and on NFTs as we currently know them. He’s also sharp on blockchain technology’s promises and limitations. Dash and McCoy’s “proto-NFTs” — as Dash refers to them later in the piece — are fascinating because they’re explicitly geared toward artists and are not necessarily so concerned with profits, unlike the NFT market we’ve got now.
The current NFT boom might be a fork in the road if enough people want it to be. We can use technology to benefit artists and compensate them for their work — we can take the path less traveled. The only question is: will we?