the gold of digital works – Liberation

Robbie Barrat is an artificial intelligence researcher and artist. His works harness the power of neural networks and question the creativity of machines. Of course, he quickly became interested in “NFTs”: this technology makes it possible to sell and buy digital objects – virtual works of art, collections, images, sounds and other objects – in a decentralized and reportedly secure way. As early as 2018, he partnered with Christie’s, the famous auction company, to offer 300 gift cards to attendees of an event so they could collect an exclusive NFT from the artist. Problem: the majority of those present had no idea what an NFT was. Only twelve of them finally claimed their due date, and the other works were probably lost (the card code was not used). The story of “Lost Robbies” has become a popular anecdote among digital artists, as a symbol of the traditional art world’s inability to take an interest in the digital revolution.

Three years later, NFTs are exploding in popularity and have taken over the art world. The French start-up Sorare, which is developing an online football game doped with NFTs, has just received 680 million dollars (approximately 580 million euros). This is the largest fundraiser ever made by a French start-up company. But while NFTs are fantasizing, Robbie Barrat has dropped everything. “I do not want to do more NFTs until the environmental and speculative issues are resolvedhe wrote on his Twitter account in April. No one talked about my works except to discuss their price […]. It’s as if my work was no longer art. “ This crisis of faith is a good illustration of the concerns that this bubbling market is causing. Some people see in NFTs the future of art or intellectual property and more generally a new technological frontier to cross. Others criticize an absurd, even dangerous speculative race for the planet and society.

Contemporary art and “shitpost”

NFT is the abbreviation for non-fungible token, or non-fungible token in good French. Specifically, it is a data file representing a digital object stored on a “blockchain”, a decentralized and secure information storage and distribution network. Unlike a crypto asset, such as a bitcoin for example, an NFT is unique. It cannot be exchanged for another, while one bitcoin is worth another bitcoin. This uniqueness encourages transactions. With an originality: with some exceptions, when you buy an NFT, you are actually acquiring data proving that you own it, not the object itself. If you’re the proud owner of Nyan Cat – a popular online video of a 2D cat galloping into space if NFT was sold for $ 500,000 – there’s nothing stopping people from continuing to share the happy cat’s GIF.

Although NFTs are inextricably linked to cryptocurrencies (most of the time they are bought via the Ethereum blockchain, with its means of payment, “ether”), experts in the sector, although accustomed to the roller coaster of cryptocurrencies, are somewhat overwhelmed by their success. . “We are currently witnessing a purely speculative race, believes Grégory Guittard, director of publishing local newspaper, French-speaking media specializing in cryptocurrencies. It is up to the one who manages to find the least known, oldest or most absurd project, and who may be in danger of exploding in a few months. For while NFTs have been trading for several years, it was in 2021 that their popularity really took off. They first developed in the world of contemporary art, which gave rise to record transactions, such as Everyday: The first 5,000 days, a work by the artist Beeple, sold at Christie’s for $ 69.3 million (approximately $ 59.2 million). But NFTs are also practiced by a public that is more accustomed to the culture of “shitpost” (absurd online jokes) than to the cozy atmosphere of auction rooms. For example, witness the recent success of NFT avatars, images with different themes (pixelated punk faces, cute cats, etc.) that accumulate and exchange, sometimes for very large sums. Between the 2.0 stamp collection, the financial investment and the identity requirement. The avatar then becomes a brand to belong to a community that is proudly displayed on its social network. Even though the speculative aspect, as with works of art, is never far away. At the end of August, Visa bought a CryptoPunk, particularly popular avatars, for around 130,000 euros to add to its collection “artifacts that have shaped the history of money and trade”.

NFTs are also making a remarkable inroad into the entertainment sector, such as music (Booba has just announced the upcoming release of a new song “exclusively available” and NFT), video games or sports. At Sorare, the startup that has raised record funds, you can form fictitious football teams by purchasing virtual cards representing real players and then scoring points based on their actual performance. While it is possible to play without NFT (with a bank card or even without spending money), Sorare has clearly benefited from investors’ appetite for this new technology. “We very quickly had the belief that the specific characteristics of NFTs [rareté digitale, traçabilité…, ndlr] would lead to a technological change that had the same impact on our lives as the advent of the internet or the smartphone “says Nicolas Julia, co-founder and CEO of Sorare.

Ecological and ethical debates

However, the sudden rise in the NFT market raises serious questions. The first, the most sensitive, is the environmental impact. NFTs are basically energy intensive. Many of them are based on the Ethereum blockchain. The latter is based on a system of “proof of work” (literally a proof of work), which guarantees the security of transactions. Each exchange must be verified by other users of the network, called miners, whose computers solve very complex formulas to obtain this authentication. It is this mining that uses a lot of energy. This problem is not specific to NFTs: any activity that relies on a blockchain using a “proof of work” is a concern. The University of Cambridge estimates that the creation and consumption of bitcoins over a year consumes more electricity than Finland. This corresponds to approximately 0.45% of the world’s annual electricity consumption.

However, it is very difficult to calculate the carbon footprint of blockchain-based activities, or NFTs, due to the opacity of miner activity. We generally do not know their exact electricity consumption and what type of resources (renewable or not) they use. But ecology remains an important point of tension and an endless source of conflict between professionals and anti-NFTs. Some players in the sector are therefore trying to respond to the problem. Several blockchains (Flow, Tezos) prefer the “proof of stake” method of authenticating their exchanges, which is much less energy intensive. The Ethereum Foundation has also announced that they intend to switch to this system. This process can take some time. The risks are significant, even for NFT owners: If the procedure goes wrong, some tokens can simply be lost, made inaccessible in the blockchain.

The debate over NFTs is also ethical, even philosophical. Should a GIF of Frog Pepe (famous internet meme) shaking his ass really sell for $ 9 million? The pro-NFTs will answer that it is the principle of any collection: it is the market that decides, and the people who buy these items have the free time to believe, or not, in their value. This year, for example, saw the explosion of speculation surrounding Pokémon cards. So why not around virtual tokens representing football players? “People have always loved to collect, and some are willing to spend more money than others. Should we limit the price of what men want to collect? I’m not sure,” appreciates for his part Nicolas Julia. The explosion of NFTs is nonetheless taking place in a particular context: the cryptocurrency market has never been so high and has benefited from an influx of liquidity associated with the Covid-19 crisis. It’s not for nothing that traditionally affluent sectors – such as football or contemporary art – have become interested in NFTs rather than Pokémon cards.

“A money machine”

On the art side, they see the most optimistic tokenization as a way to give power back to creators who can more easily generate income thanks to their digital works and benefit from the protection of an infallible contract (because they are registered in blockchain). The reality quickly turned out to be more complex. Artists have seen their works stolen and sold in NFT without their permission. For buyers, NFT thefts and scams are common. Finally, others are fighting the very philosophy behind this technology: why impose artificial uniqueness on online works when the Internet has always been the realm of free sharing? “This NFT trend may seem like a technical revolution, but in the end it’s more of an involution. It’s a return to an old notion of intellectual property: we recreate rarity in the light of copying, explains Laurence Allard, Associate Professor of Communication Science at the University of Lille and Researcher at the University of Paris 3 – Ircav. The Internet was a duplicating machine, and it is becoming a money machine. ”

In this sense, NFTs are perhaps part of the great movement of monetization of the Internet and Internet users. Today you can post a video on YouTube, get started with OnlyFans, stream a video game on Twitch and make money. And tomorrow? There are already examples of NFTs that have nothing to do with works of art or avatars. The US platform, for example, allows authors to transform their authorship into NFT and “make money on their thoughts”. In May, model Emily Ratajkowski put an NFT up for sale attached to a photo of herself taken without her consent, in order to “regain control of [son] picture”. And in the United States, a couple got married by exchanging NFTs as wedding rings. If NFTs were crucial in our daily lives, we can imagine that one day everything could be “mined” (recorded in blockchain): our artistic productions, but also our relationships, our consent, our opinions, our influence online. .. “NFTs are part of a global funding movement, concludes Laurence Allard. It is a way of describing any practice as an investment in which one can invest money.

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