Credit: GG Illustrator Emma Garcia-Melchor (@emmitagm)

NFTs: what are they good for?

By Holly Ellis

NFTs could be a saviour for future art but contribute to climate change and the worst of capitalism.

The virtual world is difficult to navigate at the best of times, and with the rapid pace of evolution that modern technology undergoes nowadays, it is near impossible to keep up to date with the latest trends. The newest cryptocurrency phenomenon to burst into the public eye are NFTs, also known as non-fungible tokens (though I imagine this does little to help explain anything for the general reader). An NFT is a unique piece of code stored on the public exchange that verifies individual ownership of a digital asset. At its simplest level, it is a unique proof of ownership. It is not tangible in the way that our car keys are, but it effectively does the same job: it lets us know that we own the asset it is attached to. Perhaps it would be better to compare NFTs to signed pieces of original artwork or limited-edition Pokémon trading cards. 

These tokens, to explain for those of you with the same technical knowledge as me (an English Literature undergraduate), can transform digital artwork and content into unique assets that can be traded on the blockchain. What is the blockchain, you might ask? Honestly, I am not 100% sure, but I do know that there is someone on Reddit who is desperate to explain it to you. What I am here to clarify, or rather draw attention to, are the concerns that the rising popularity of NFTs have generated. 

The advent of NFTs has transformed the digital art world. NFT versions of digital-only content and artwork have even been called the art world’s response to cryptocurrency. I know I have always been one to commission acrylic paintings from my artsy friends rather than buy online prints because I love the dimensional texture, but if the world is moving into the virtual, is it time we join it? 

The exciting part of all this is that people are willing to pay millions to get their hands on these obscenely expensive tradeable tokens. A gif of crypto kitty Nyan Cat sold for more money than it would cost to buy a flat in central London. The funny thing about NFTs, however, is that they do not actually prevent others from downloading or copying digital content. The only thing that an NFT gives, that cannot be replicated, is ownership. To put it in other words, Damien Hirst might have created the painting Beat Life and Cheat Death, but it is hung up on one of Jay-Z’s walls. NFTs have made exclusivity and scarcity possible in a virtual world full of replication and excess. NFTs, in theory, are a dream-come-true for online creators, collectors, and sellers, who stand a chance of gaining millions from the sales. The pay-off is obviously huge – but what about the potential risks, and what do NFTs mean for creators when the most in-demand (and financially viable) work is no longer physical? 

For every positive thing about an NFT, there are several overwhelmingly negative consequences. NFTs are making a mess of the environment, and just like their cryptocurrency kin, they have a huge carbon footprint. Don’t believe me? I would advise looking it up before you start mining for bitcoin. The greenhouse emissions that are produced because of these crypto trends are hastening the speed of global warming. But it’s OK because we can comfortably weigh up the extreme ecological impact of NFTs, with the once-in-a-lifetime chance to own a Taco Bell gif. 

The other problem with this phenomenon is that anything posted onto the internet (that has not already been tokenised) could, in theory, be sold as an NFT, with or without the creator’s permission. NFTs have introduced a dangerous new dimension to debates over ownership and copyright. Internet users have contested the presence of NFT artwork and the disastrous implications NFTs might have for creators. Artists on Twitter have spoken out against the trend, claiming that NFTs facilitate the theft of original content, as they allow third parties to step in and claim ownership of original content if the creator does not do so themselves. 

NFTs have been likened to the “worst parts of capitalism”, and at their base, they kind of are. I mean, what is the true value of owning a rare item, that can be redownloaded, replicated, and reproduced, other than to be able to say that you own it? There is no real sense of exclusivity in the rarity of the content because anyone can get access to it; it’s just another way for rich people to brag about being able to afford expensive things. I am sure the person that paid $2.9m for an NFT version of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first-ever tweet believes it is money well spent, but for someone like me, massively in debt with student loans, I can think of better ways to spend a fortune. Before you look up the tweet it literally says: “just setting up my twttr”. If each character is valued at nearly $140,000, would the NFT version be worth over $3m if Dorsey had just remembered to include the “i” in Twitter? 

If the environmental concerns were not enough to worry you, here is where it gets even scarier. Imagine the implications that this might have on anyone who has ever had a nude image leaked on the internet. Just the other day I saw a post go round on social media that stated: “If a guy sends you an unsolicited dick pic… turn it into an NFT with his name as the artist, then share with him the link to purchase. He will have to buy it from you if he wants to burn it and get it off the blockchain.” Yes, unsolicited nude pictures are a menace to society, but in this case, they are not the scariest part of the post. What concerned me was the number of laugh reacts present on a post that proposes an incredibly alarming reality. If someone were to successfully attach an NFT to a nude, in theory, it could be sold without the permission of the individual in the photo or used for blackmail. This would make the horror of revenge porn even more frightening. It is impossible to confiscate an NFT because it has no tangible presence – so even if the person who created it was arrested, the NFT would remain on the blockchain.  

Though there are many questions to be raised, one thing is certain, NFTs will be a breeding ground for exploitation if they are not properly regulated. The anonymity that comes with them creates the perfect environment for harm, theft, and violation. While I do not fully understand the disastrous repercussions that NFTs can have on our environment, our art industry, and even more worryingly, on the ownership of our bodies, I do think it’s about time that someone, somewhere, takes a closer look at the large-scale damage these little tokens might be causing.


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