If the drama around Bitcoin, GameStop, and Dogecoin wasn’t enough, this week, a 10-second video art work sold for $6.6 million. The same video clip, created by digital artist Beeple, had been initially bought by a Miami-based art collector in October 2020. If these exorbitant prices for some art you can’t even hang on your walls seems confusing, you may want to get familiarised with the concept of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs as the cool kids call it — the latest inexplicable, but wildly growing digital assets in the tech landscape. Even Elon Musk’s girlfriend, musician Grimes, has gotten on the bandwagon — and made a cool $6 million selling digital art as NFTs, which included images and short videos set to music.
Some other pricey NFTs include a mediocre inked pencil sketch of Batman worth $195,000, and CryptoKitties’ Dragon worth $390,000 — don’t bother asking what that is. Celebrities are soon catching up — Paris Hilton recently sold an amateur drawing of her cat for $17,000, and electronic music producer 3LAU just sold 33 unique items for a whopping total of $11,684,101.
Reuters gets credit for being the first to put the spotlight on digital art and NFTs. Its report had one particularly amazing quote: “If you spend 10 hours a day on the computer, or eight hours a day in the digital realm, then art in the digital realm makes tonnes of sense – because it is the world”.
Insightful, isn’t it? And who among us doesn’t spend 8 hours online? Or doesn’t have our internet switched on 24X7?
What’s all the fuss about?
For the uninitiated, non-fungible tokens are supported on the Ethereum blockchain, and are unique tokens that cannot be replaced with another token. NFT is not used as a payment method in the way cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ether are used. Fungible things like a ten-rupee note can be replaced with another ten-rupee note. Even two Bitcoins are the same. But two NFTs will never be the same. Anything digital can be sold as an NFT — art, music, and yes, even land.
Turns out that apart from art, another example of NFTs is virtual real estate, and people are willing to shell out a lot of money for it. For instance, a simple 1,100 square foot plot is worth as much as $200,000.
And just like early Bitcoin investors, who were earlier thought to be crazy and are now looked at with wonder and awe, those dabbling in NFTs also may soon be on the wealthier side of the new class divide that’s emerging with the face-paced digital assets game.
The point of selling something as an NFT on a blockchain is that it gives the owner evidence of owning the “original” piece of work that can be verified to be different from the copies or reproductions of that particular work. Also, artists can enable an NFT to receive a payment every time the NFT changes hands from one owner to another.
NFT can be sold in exchange for regular fiat money too. However, if these things are sold as NFT on the Ethereum blockchain, then they will be typically paid for in Ethereum cryptocurrency. One unit of Ether is currently worth about 1 lakh Indian rupees — pretty hefty.
Blurring line between real and virtual
What’s most striking is not the digital art and NFTs themselves, but how people’s increased willingness to sink so much wealth in something virtual is symptomatic of our digital lives becoming our real lives.
The fact that something as seemingly obscure as NFTs has been as widely talked about this past week shows how deeply etched technology is in all our lives, even the lives of those who choose not to live on the internet.
It’s not only that it is mostly crappy art that’s been exchanged for such huge sums of money — it’s art that is virtual, it’ll live on your computer – you don’t get to hang it on a wall or show it off in your home. Even worse than that is spending money to buy and breed virtual cats or actually purchase a cat meme. A simple, and rather nonsensical, GIF of a “Gucci ghost” was sold for $3,600, and now the current owner is asking for $16,300.
What is the point of spending money on something you’ll never get to touch or hold?
Taste is subjective and what people do with their money is their choice. There is no saying whether hoards of Indians will embrace digital art and other NFTs anytime soon. In fact, there’s no telling how the Narendra Modi-led government will react to NFTs, since we already know it does not like other tokens and currencies that run on blockchain technology.
As the virtual reality industry grows and develops tech to create realistic looking graphics and immersive experiences, along with predictions that workplaces will go from physical to virtual, the number of people willing to buy virtual real estate on platforms where their friends can also buy properties and hang out together, is also increasing.
That could mean a world where people are happy spending money to buy virtual land in Genesis City, instead of a 3BHK in Noida.
Technology and its strappings used to be dismissed as non-essential, a distraction from the real world, it used to be accused of shortening our attention spans. But this week showed me technology and its services have finally been accepted as essential, and that our digital presence is no less important than our real world presence.
Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.