Graphs#

It's a kind of game and it's a game where you have points.

This is how Vitalik Buterin, co-creator of Ethereum and Ether, the second-largest cryptocurrency answered when asked to define money. He goes on:

And it serves a lot of useful functions. And so it kind of just survives in society as a meme for thousands of years.

Something that hasn't existed for thousands of years are NFTs—non-fungible tokens. For those unfamiliar with the mushroom-sounding F-word, something fungible can be interchanged with other goods or assets of the same type, money itself being the canonical example. But by saying these tokens are non-fungible we recognize that these tokens are unique: they can't be replicated.

The most formative example is CryptoPunks, the influential non-fungible token first seen back in 2017. These unique, collectable characters were initially released for free to anyone with an Ethereum wallet.

The punks themselves are diminutive pixellated characters that now fetch tens of thousands of dollars. CryptoPunk #6965 was sold last month for 800 ETH – that's around 1,500,000 USD. How did we get here?

Choose your own (NFT) adventure#

Technologies and topics bubble under the surface of general popular culture until a critical mass of activity punctures through the discourse.

If you read anything at all you've likely had your fill of articles describing NFTs. The most accessible of these stick to surface-level commentary and are broadly of two themes with a rough split in coverage:

  • the clickbaity, SEO-friendly "here's what you need to know about NFTs in 2021," and
  • "you won't believe how much this person paid for [something that sounds trivial]"

Neither treatment cuts into the why of NFTs, what's the appeal? Why bother?

There are (at least) four broad categories for you to choose your own NFT adventure.

(Oh and if you are looking for a primer, try this coverage in Verge or this good glossary of NFT terms.

Minted#

A Satire of Tulip Mania by Jan Brueghel the Younger (ca. 1640) depicts speculators as brainless monkeys in contemporary upper-class dress. [source]

When newspaper headlines tout gigantic financial reward for a digital asset it's hard not to see dollar signs. If something doesn't exist in the real world then surely it should be easy to obtain? Put differently, if others are creating money out of thin air, why can't I?

In NFT lingo this creation or commitment is known as minting. It certainly feels that if people are minting and selling such banal things as tweets then the barrier of entry is remarkably low. An email? This newsletter? Your grandmother?

As with Tulip fans in the 17th century or, say, GameStop fans in 2021, it's easy to get caught up in the rush.

One thing that differentiates the NFT speculation over tulips, meme stocks and beanie babies is the overwhelming influx of "cash" from multi-millionaires and/or billionaires with literal, virtual cash to burn.

Looking again at the Ethereum ecosystem, many who participated in the original "pre-sale" of the currency and bought in at the pre-mining event in 2014 now find themselves with mountains of Ether, the currency fuel that powers the Ethereum network.

Seven years later, early-adopters are faced with the option of a hefty tax bill upon exchanging or tossing some loose change (bytes?) to an artist. Many crypto-holders are choosing the latter. It doesn't take much imagination to see how money laundering and similar nefarious motives might also be "appealing" options.

But one thing is certain. The non-fungible nature of these tokens offers something a number on a cryptocurrency tracking screen struggles to match: exclusivity.

What is CryptoArt?#

For some NFT enthusiasts, minting cryptoart represents a greenfield opportunity to coin and own a new aesthetic.

Take a look at the home page of popular cryptoart marketplace Zora. The showcase of recently minted digitally enhanced smorgasbords of content feels in equal parts gaudy, online and, sometimes, an in-joke.

Hypnotic loops of generative art, pristine three-dimensional renders and vaporwave visions. You may have opinions on whether any of these constitute as art but isn't that the very definition of art itself—that it doesn't have one?

Drew Schwartz in Vice notes that cryptoart isn't as innovative as it first appears. But this may be irrelevant for those born into a world with a fully-realized internet. By making art less tactile it reflects an online, permanently connected world. One that feels even more real in (groan) a global pandemic.

For more context on the environmental impact I also recommend cryptoart.wtf which gives a breakdown of the impact of random pieces of cryptoart from across the marketplaces.

A lien against the future#

Putting the brakes on the feverish speculation of NFTs and the aesthetic of cryptoart there's a significant moral argument—prominently laid-out by Everest Pipkin's scathing depiction of a core building block of NFTs, "proof of work" places a direct lien against the future."

During unprecedented temperature increases, sea level rise, the total loss of permanent sea ice, widespread species extinction, countless severe weather events, and all the other hallmarks of total climate collapse, this kind of gleeful wastefulness is, and I am not being hyperbolic, a crime against humanity.

The ecological argument against NFTs is an easy one to sympathize with. You may argue, "what's one more game with points?" but why does that construct have to be enormously wasteful?

Pipkin dismisses the idea of something called Proof-of-Stake, which would look to reduce the environmental impact of cryptocurrency and related technologies. I'm hopeful that the suggestion that Proof-of-Stake is vaporware is inaccurate.

oh no crypto#

My background in computer science and cryptology created a strong pull towards the promise of technologies that sustain the blockchain.

To the occasional chagrin of cryptology experts, it's hard to detangle modern cryptography from cryptocurrency technology. It doesn't help that both are shortened to "crypto."

Renowned cryptographer David Chaum’s creation of the first anonymous digital money system was a major catalyst for the CypherPunk counterculture of the 90s. This blended crypto(graphy), politics and mathematics to advocate for the use of technology to protect rights and freedoms.

This history lives on today in the continued proliferation of electronic money and smart contracts by cryptocurrency fans.

The thrill of the hash#

I was charmed by author Robin Sloan's creation of "amulets," last week. Explained and documented over on his site, these are unique NFTs defined thusly:

An amulet is a kind of poem that depends on language, code, and luck.

  • Its complete Unicode text is 64 bytes or less.
  • The hexadecimal SHA-256 hash of the text includes four or more 8s in a row.

This is a fancy technical way of saying that amulets are both

  • short, and
  • fingerprinted to a mildly interesting format when transformed with commonly-used algorithms

Here's an example. You can try it out on the scratchpad:

Winter evening, a leaf, a blue sky above.

This is an extremely rare amulet from Albert Granzotto – rare as it has ten 8s in a row, right at the beginning of the hash.

Picto-poems#

I'm not a poet and it felt obvious to start churning out randomly generated text in the hope of stumbling upon a string that was both an amulet and a satisfactory poem.

Stretching the definition of "poems" and inspired by various projects of the past I looked to generate emoji to see if there were any low-hanging fruit hidden in (ideally short) strings of emoji. And indeed, I found a number of rare amulets.

👩🏽‍⚕ 🦓 🕺 (mythic)

👽 🙌 👹 (legendary)

👌 🚐 🏛️ (mythic)

👉🏻 🧜‍♀️ 🧜🏾‍♂ (mythic)

In a bid to make a (tiny) mark in the space I wasted hours of my life following arcane steps to mint one of my rarest discoveries and list it on Zora. Behold the "mythic":

A screenshot of a three letter string of emoji (🚬 👑 🍣) on Zora.

It's a stretch to pretend this "poem" has a narrative but I do enjoy the incongruence of each of its three components.

Is this the best I can do? I'm still looking!

NFTakeaways#

The fact I bothered to follow through with minting one of these silly emoji combinations is a testament to the appeal of three of the four NFT adventure paths I described above. The raw gamification of writing code to discover them and the rush of minting to plant a flag in the chain is rewarding.

As for the environmental consideration: following the amulet rules I offset the carbon produced by the emoji poem's life on the blockchain. Considering the innovation and excitement surrounding NFTs it’s a shame that this problem underMINEs the entire crypto sphere.


Thanks for reading, have a great fortnight – see you soon!

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