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When the expert speaker at an NFT tech panel goes rogue

Stick to the script, man! It’s confusing enough already

Something for the Weekend How can you save the world's oceans? By investing in NFTs of course!

A global network of campaigning filmmakers, Ocean Collective, hopes to drive up awareness about declining marine biodiversity by developing a digital Museum of Extinction.

Items of artwork from the museum will then be sold as NFT purchases to raise cash to fund a documentary series on the topic along with other environmental awareness projects.

Of course you know me best for my optimistic outlook and generally positive nature, so it may come as a surprise to you when I ask: WTF? When I think of NFTs I do not immediately think of their inherent contribution to the environment or how they meet the challenges of out-of-control energy consumption levels that are rising as fast as the seas. NFTs are all about money money money, surely? Not fish.

"Selling NFTs is a new way to fund environmental film missions, while offering NFT buyers the potential of a value increase of their assets as the film project evolves," says Bob van de Gronde, director at Ocean Collective.

Ocean Collective reckons it can make it work and even go "carbon positive", insisting that 5 percent of the income from the digital artwork sales will be used to sequester carbon from marine ecosystems. With every NFT it sells, more CO2 will be filtered out of the air than the transaction itself will produce.

Nope, me neither.

At this point, readers with an interest in the crypto and NFT industries will be composing polite messages to me pointing out that I really ought to stop writing about things I do not adequately understand. They do this every time and I appreciate the pushback.

You have a point: I have an unfair and totally unfounded opinion that NFTs are a load of horse-puckey. To my mind, they are not just non-fungible but intangible. NFTs don't really exist, except partly in your head and partly in the bank account of the person that sold them to you.

Well it's about time I stop playing the fool and get up to date on NFTs before I write a single more ignorant word on the matter. To this end, I recently attended a panel discussion event on the topic of selling NFTs into the art market. Let me tell you what I learnt.

First, though, here are some fish.

The audience of the panel event I attended was made up of artists and art buyers: the former desperate to find new ways of paying the rent on their garrets, the latter still somewhat baffled about what it is they would be – or already have been – buying when investing in an NFT.

The panel comprised three speakers: a digital multimedia artist who has been enjoying some success in selling NFTs; a boss of a development business that provides a platform for NFT art; and a university professor specializing in blockchain.

Clearly the intention was to put the audience at ease. The artist would say that she was earning money from her NFT auctions; the dev boss would assure everyone that the process can be secure and run honestly; and the blockchain boffin would try his best to explain how the tokens work and remind everyone that the artwork and the tokens were actually different things.

NFT art values go up, explained the artist, when the buyer is assured of their exclusivity. The fewer the copies floating about, the higher the price. This rather suggests that the best way to guarantee any NFT-locked artwork would be 100 percent exclusive - and thereby maximise its price - would be for the artist to destroy their own original files once the sale goes through. Yikes. We're talking KLF levels of dedication here.

Web 3.0 is largely trustless, noted the dev boss, so that's why artists should, er, trust their NFT platform to handle their delivery and maintenance. Right you are, isn't that great? I feel better about NFTs already.

Almost the entire discussion was dominated by the first two panelists. After about half an hour of hearing how fabulous the system is despite the inability of columnists on IT news websites to appreciate it, the previously silent academic leant forward to his mic and interrupted the flow.

"Let me play devil's advocate…" he interjected.

This is not a good sign. When people say this, it's usually so they can speak to you like an absolute idiot safe in the knowledge that you can't object since they don't really mean what they're saying: they're just playing the role of an absolute idiot in order to liven up a debate.

"… 'Non-fungible' only means you can't change the media associated to the token. It does not stop a buyer of your art from trying to extract copies of it and selling them on attached to new NFTs."

Much shifting of bottoms on seats could be heard in the auditorium as the artists in the audience began to squirm. So NFT isn't copy protection? they were thinking. What does this NFT thing do, then?

Don't worry your pretty little heads, answered the dev boss. Use a platform such as ours and we'll add layers of security. Besides, there are copyright security systems crawling around the interwebs to hunt for NFT and crypto scams...

"…Instances of which have risen by more than 500 percent over the last year," added the boffin. "But because the crypto industry is so fervently anti-regulation, there isn't any. So if your NFT gets ripped off, you're on your own."

Cue more shifting of bottoms, this time among the buyers. Hang on, they were thinking, I bought some "exclusive" NFTs and now you're saying there may be millions of identical duplicates out there and I'll have to hire cyber security firms and lawyers to track them all down?

"…And what if your NFT security platform falls over or you go out of business?" continued the professor, warming to his devil's advocate role so much that he could charge by the quarter-hour. "How would NFT owners then get access to the artwork they purchased?"

The whole audience is writhing by now. Where exactly are these NFTs I've been selling/buying? they were now asking themselves. What are they? Where do they go? Do they even exist? Holy cow, what have I done?

"…And are NFTs sold using cryptocurrencies really the sort of thing the art world should be encouraging? Where are your environmental ethics? Bitcoin, for example, consumes as much energy every day as the whole of Sweden, simply to exist."

Ah, that old trope, joked the dev boss. It used to be Ireland but these days it's funkier to refer to Scandinavian countries…

"The problem with the trope is that, give or take a few megawatts, it's true."

At this point, the person chairing the discussion felt obliged to remind the prof that, as the blockchain expert on the panel, he was supposed to be there to tell us how great blockchain is, not insult it.

"Oh yes, er, sorry. Just playing devil's advocate, you know…"

Too late. Much of the audience now realized they knew even less about what NFTs were than they had when they first entered the venue. Another part of the audience were busy checking their digital wallets and desperately trying to sell that pixellated splodge they had bought for $1,000 last week before the auditorium was drowned under the rapidly rising sea level.

Even the digital artist had fallen silent.

Armed with my enhanced understanding, I feel much more confident in my evaluation of the technology and the market in which it operates. When you buy an NFT, you buy a little bit of nothing attached to another little bit of nothing.

Life is full of such nothings – love, hate, surprise – and we assign value to them just the same. This is not a bad thing. But they are ephemeral. Systems built on blockchain principles can be pretty solid but the emotional values we assign to NFTs are uncertain and the financial values we give them are fragile.

Then one day you go looking for your NFTs and realise the question isn't about fungibility. It's existential.

NFT = not fucking there.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He apologies for what must read as an embarrassingly ignorant (emphasis on the "rant") essay based on false impressions acquired during a single event. He welcomes pushback from readers who understand it better. He also welcomes entertaining alternatives to Ireland and Sweden. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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