|The Devil’s Advocate™|
The blockchain’s unique selling point is uniqueness: an entry on the ledger is fixed, immutable, unalterable and unique for all time. It cannot be changed, without editing every node on the distributed ledger, and it cannot be duplicated. This sense of uniqueness, which is encoded into the design of a distributed ledger, quite alien to the engineering of the internet, which depends on duplication as a means of transmission.
The internet: duplication by design
The internet not only allows, but encourages lossless copying: that’s the essence of its end-to-end architecture. This brought to a head a conundrum for intellectual property laws that had been brewing since, arguably the time of the Jacquard loom. The idea of “intellectual property” was forged in an analog age, where the distinction between an original and a copy was clear and ontologically fundamental. Also, the cost of generating copies was non-trivial and did not easily scale: since intellectual property was necessarily embedded in a physical substrate — to read a novel you needed a physical book — you could treat intellectual property as if it were physical property. To all intents, it was.
Their similarity started to melt at the edges with the invention of the camera, but bubbled away forever when, in the 1980s, we began routinely to truck in digitised information. Once you could extract information entirely from its mortal frame, and copy it with perfect fidelity in the æther, the game changed altogether. Older folk, like the JC, may remember the epiphany that came with ripping a CD for the first time. Suddenly there was no loss of fidelity at all. Sure, you still needed your substrate, but you could lift the data off it without compromise.
This provoked nervous fidgeting from recording label executives in the 1980s, but as long as blank CDs cost a bomb and posting them to your mates even more, “digital piracy” was a manageable problem.
But the monster rollers of the digital networked planet changed this forever. Napster’s Shawn Fanning was the first to surf them. Suddenly, you no longer need any substrate — bare, atomised packets of ones and zeros would do — and with a dial-up modem you could freely copy and distribute any digital artefact you wanted for nothing. This wasn’t some serendipitous by-product figured out by some crazy hacker: that’s how the internet was architected, literally from the very bottom layer.
The Man — and many struggling artistes, content creators and also Metallica — were confronted with deep questions about authenticity and uniqueness, which they weren’t ready for and, to be candid, still haven’t really got to grips with, thirty years later. How do I distinguish between my real stuff, and the ripped of guff on the internet? How do I be me?
A new architecture of uniqueness
And now, in our heady times, we are asked to behold a solution. An alternative network architecture that guarantees authenticity. Problem solved. The real essence delivered back to the creator. And what is this marvellous thing?
The blockchain, of course.
Where digital copies are indistinguishable from each other and from their originals, by design, tokens on a distributed ledger are necessarily unique. Each token is an individual, incorruptible and free, and lives its own immortal, indestructible, unhackable, unique life, written slavishly to every part of the network.
Thus, tokens on a blockchain are to data packets on the internet as Millennials are to Boomers: digitally native, preternaturally wise, immune to the foolish notions of yesteryear. They exist in, and are of, the digital realm. In this way, a blockchain and the regular internet are incommensurable: non-overlapping magisteria. It is as if the internet were some flawed Boomer notion that, like so many other flawed Boomer notions, the kids have re-rendered in the language of tomorrow.
The paradigm case of “a token on a blockchain” is, of course, cryptocurrency. Say what you like about bitcoin — and the JC has plenty to say elsewhere — but it is “blockchain native”: it exists in, of and only within the blockchain. Bitcoins are therefore intrinsically, certifiably, unique. You absolutely can’t rip them off. That is about their one true advantage. The only one, maybe, but it is an advantage.
And if you create your artwork on the blockchain, you get that same native uniqueness: any facsimiles of the artwork that exist off blockchain — copies floating around on the internet, hanging in fashionable galleries and so on — are, certifiably, ontologically inferior to the one on the ledger. That one is the real deal.
But that is a big if. The price you pay for entering the distributed ledger and getting your uniqueness back is that you must leave the peer-to-peer world, everything on it, and everything on the even more-flawed analog world underlying it, behind forever.
The metaverse, the dying analog world, and pixellated pop-tarts
Now maybe walled-in media platforms structured as decentralised autonomous organisations are different, but mostly, a blockchain is a crappy place to create art. It’s a ledger system: a fancy ownership register, made of cryptographically-hashed code. That is, artistically, limiting. Great, if pixellated rainbow cat-poptarts are your thing, but for anyone making art the old-fashioned way — paint and paper, sand and glue, finding bicycle wheels, inverting urinals and signing them — or even more so writing music or literature, whose value as artwork “natively” lives outside a distributed ledger, or whose value does not subsist in its substrate at all, but rather in the abstract information the substrate carries (such as a book, film or score) — having your artwork encoded on a blockchain, in a unique substrate doesn’t really help you. It’s one thing for David Hockney to do all his painting on an iPad: but the history of art would have been quite different, and quite a lot less fun, were Caravaggio or Duchamp obliged to restrict themselves to designing Nyan Cats in a cashbook.
So here’s the irony of the blockchain: if you aren’t quite ready for permanent immersion in the Metaverse: if you are not yet ready let the analogue world go, then not only does the blockchain not help: it makes things worse. To mint a token of a canonical “real world” artwork, is to create a non-fungible representation of it — a non-copy — the one that is certifiably, ontologically inferior to every other ripped-off copy: unlike a digital copy, it is uniquely, definitively not the original work.
The JC’s adolescent peotry as the case against the intrinsic value of uniqueness
The rampant copyability of anything everything in Web 2.0 no doubt prompted the stampede to non-fungibility. Authenticity is in deep demand: no-one trusts experts anymore. Everything is ripped off. Everything is fake. Indubitability — certainty — is some kind of holy grail.
But does this structural uniqueness — being uniquely, definitively not a duplicate — bestow some kind of intrinsic value in and of itself?
We say, “no,” all the above notwithstanding.
The JC has a small commonplace book of poems he composed, as a moleish adolescent. It exists in single copy, in fountain pen ink on cartridge paper, rendered in his youthful, spidery left-handed scrawl. Make no mistake: these are some of the worst poems composed in the history of civilisation. Not one has been committed to any other format and nor, if the JC has any say in the matter, will they ever be. They are, thus, utterly unique.
Now: do these ghastly poems have a single iota of value? Outside their very real extortion potential, they do not. Does their critical uniqueness change this? It does not.
There is great danger of crushing humiliation should they ever get out. So why does he keep them? The JC has wondered about this, and never managed a good answer — beyond the thrill they generate. The thrill from the singular terror that they ever be found by anyone and leaked to a disinterested world — God forbid, minted on a blockchain: encoded on every node of our future universe, perpetually inerasable part of our canon.
The structural uniqueness of cryptocurrency
Unlike any other ostensibly stable store of value, cryptocurrencies have no issuer, come with no implied promise, are backed by the faith and credit of no sovereign and are good discharge for personal debts under the laws of no existing present legal system — except El Salvador, and I hope I am not offending anyone by wondering whether that really counts. They are the purest, distilled abstract code; their value is held aloft entirely by the prevailing consensus that “aloft” is where they should be — yet on that flimsy pretext, some threaten to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth altogether.
But they are natives of the blockchain, and they are structurally unique. Is this faith in the uniqueness of the native children of the blockchain an explanation for the trillion dollar valuation of cryptocurrencies?
Have you got a better one? Hold on for dear life!
- Lawrence Lessig’s magical Code: Version 2.0 has a fabulous account of this.
- I mean, stark raving bonkers times.
- But see our essay as to why doubt is no bad thing.
- Adrian Mole-ish, or Wind-in-the-Willows Mole-ish, or nigel molesworth-ish it doesn’t really make a difference. Moleish.
- They would give Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings a run for her money.
- I know, I know: “stable”.