In a post in the Atlantic, Anil Dash claimed to have invented the concept of NFTs in 2014. When I first heard that I thought to myself: no way! Dash, who was one of the early drivers of digital publishing technology with Moveable Type, apparently presented the concept at the New Museum of Contemporary Art back in 2014. I’ve embedded the presentation below.
However Dash seems to promote the concept that NFTs are as a whole an awful construct because they are pointers to off-chain file storage locations. He writes:
We took that shortcut because we were running out of time. Seven years later, all of today’s popular NFT platforms still use the same shortcut. This means that when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?Anil Dash
Well, there are some pieces which manage to fit onto the blockchain. That’s the entire concept among the #onchaingang, which focuses on art that can fit entirely on the blockchain. That’s one reason why projects like Squiggles, Cryptopunks, and other pieces that don’t look so compelling are actually worth so much.
That said, Dash’s scathing review of NFTs is quite notable given his early influence on digital culture. Unfortunately, many of Dash’s arguments are totally spot on. Two particular quotes stand out here:
Most of the start-ups and platforms used to sell NFTs today are no more innovative than any random website selling posters. Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.Anil Dash
For this, he is correct. Many of the startups in this space are responsible for hosting the art and should they go belly-up, many of the collectors may eventually lose their pieces. However he goes on to rail against those who are crypto rich.
After a decade of whiplash-inducing changes in valuation, billions of dollars are now invested in cryptocurrencies, and the people who have made those bets can’t cash in their chips anywhere. They can’t buy real estate with cryptocurrency. They can’t buy yachts with it. So the only rich-person hobby they can partake in with their cryptowealth is buying art. And in this art market, no one is obligated to have any taste or judgment about art itself. If NFT prices suddenly plunge, these investors will try buying polo horses or Davos tickets with cryptocurrencies instead. Think of a kid who’s spent the day playing Skee-Ball and now has a whole lot of tickets to spend. Every toy looks enticing. NFTs have become just such a plaything.Anil Dash
While there have been homes for sale with crypto and other physical assets, Dash is technically correct. I’ve heard from many extremely influential crypto entrepreneurs that they can’t get most of their money out of the ecosystem. Some who claim to have hundreds of millions or even billions in cryptocurrency are currently reaching out to venture capitalists for funding.
If they’re so crypto-rich, why do they need funding? Frankly, Dash does a phenomenal job of attacking the trend but where he and I differ is in our optimism. Yes, I have seen many technologies that had the promise of helping creators connect directly with their fans. While there’s a chance that all these centralized marketplaces become the dominant businesses, thus making them the gatekeepers, I’m still hopeful that this technology can truly provide a path for a generation of talented digital artists.