If you happen to count yourself among those appalled by the seemingly unstoppable rise of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, over the past few months, you might be forgiven a little schadenfreude at the recent news that a dispute has broken out over the ownership of Mars House, a digital file that sold in March for $512,000 (£360,000).
Let’s be clear what’s been purchased here. Mars House itself is nothing more than a string of ones and zeroes residing on a server somewhere. But the NFT isn’t even that string. All it is is another such string pointing to that one, certifying that it is the only copy of that precise sequence of ones and zeroes in existence. Put aside, if you can, the obscenity of a purely virtual dwelling selling for half a million dollars. The dispute over Mars House makes plain what should have been obvious all along: NFTs aren’t even capable of guaranteeing the one thing their value is supposedly predicated on, ownership of a unique digital asset.
NFTs are one of the signature fads of this deeply odd late-pandemic moment. At the centre of all the buzz surrounding them is something exceedingly curious: a digital token, generated using a cryptographic protocol of the same sort that underwrites currencies such as bitcoin, certifying the uniqueness of some image or other digital file. Again, what’s being bought and sold on the NFT market isn’t the artwork itself, just a kind of pointer to it, with the buyer’s name inscribed upon it.
An artwork need have no other merit – neither historical resonance nor social relevance nor aesthetic refinement nor even skill in execution – to be valued in this way. You can’t do anything with Mars House, other than own it. What is valuable about the string of digits that makes up the token is that you as purchaser are the sole possessor of it. And, as the recent legal contretemps makes clear, even that most basic assertion rests on shifting sands. All of which makes Mars House, like all NFTs, an infinite zero, and a perfect representation of the meaningless churn so much of our economy is based on.
In part, this is because NFTs, as the ultimate in artificial scarcity, solve a non-problem, an issue nobody actually had. The NFT frenzy marks the convergence of the art world and the disturbingly Ponzi-like dynamics of cryptocurrency trading, where enthusiasts speak openly of their contempt for “bagholders”, the last suckers to have bought in big before the market finally comes to its senses; the whole thing stinks of tulips. This is evidently no problem for an art market that long ago gave up the pretence that artworks might hold a critical mirror up to the rest of society, or are anything other than a particular, specialised asset class.
But ultimately, this isn’t why it’s so depressing to see artists rushing to prop up the NFT market. The real problem has to do with a presently inescapable feature of the way NFTs work. Each transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, on which most NFTs are currently recorded, involves a set of calculations called proof-of-work. Those calculations are intentionally designed to be energy-intensive. The furious churn of all the processors involved in validating proof-of-work globally burns vertiginous amounts of electricity, at significant environmental cost. The New York Times recently quoted a French artist taken aback to learn that their “release of six crypto-artworks consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than [their] entire studio over the past two years.” Similarly, Elon Musk’s recent large-scale transactions in proof-of-work-based Bitcoin released more carbon into the atmosphere in just a few days than the amount saved, in principle, by all the Teslas ever sold.
Artists peddling their work as NFTs may or may not care about this brutal calculus. But it makes particular nonsense of art that claims to spur the viewer to some kind of ecological consciousness. Consider, for example, John Gerrard’s recent announcement of an NFT for his video piece Western Flag – according to Gerrard an artwork that, in “flying the flag of our own self-destruction”, asks us “to consider our role in the warming of the planet and simultaneous desertification of once fertile lands”. By choosing to release a Western Flag NFT, though, it’s as if Gerrard and his gallerists have scrawled this statement across the land in letters of crude oil a mile from tip to tip, and then set them on fire … a thousand times over.
The promoters of Gerrard’s NFT promised that its environmental impact would be carefully offset, the sale rendered carbon-negative by investment in something called regenerate.farm, “a cryptofund for climate and soil”. But this is more than a little fatuous. Even assuming that all the claims regarding offsets prove to be true, Gerrard’s announcement created buzz, credibility and, crucially, validation – and therefore underwrote the market for other NFTs, the overwhelming majority of which were not offset or buffered, either by regenerate.farm or in any other way. Indulging in this kind of sophistry feels like reckless disregard for the planet, and depraved indifference to the damage being caused.
Some 12 years after bitcoin’s launch, and six after Ethereum’s debut as a blockchain that could be programmed in a way that permits NFTs to be issued, the technology’s many promised and radical innovations have yet to arrive. All that has actually come to pass is a transfer of power from the institutions of global finance to even sketchier and less accountable actors, while the rest of us are saddled with an environmental impact nobody can afford to bear. One can’t help but wonder if the proud new owner of Western Flag will think it was all worth it on some day, not so very far from now, when the coastal cities have drowned, the brackish water that comes from the tap needs to be boiled before it is safe to drink and climate refugees huddle in tent cities stretching to the horizon.