I saw this headline on Twitter:
From the article:
“While the source code to the web itself is a digital artifact that has existed since 1990, it is not until the emergence of NFTs that something like this could ever have been harnessed for sale,” said Sotheby’s Europe chairman Oliver Barker.
“We couldn’t have sold this 10 years ago, but now NFTs have enabled us to do it,” Cassandra Hatton, vice president and global head of science and popular culture at Sotheby’s, told the New York Times.
Yes. No one has ever sold computer code until now. There is a willful naïveté and suspension of disbelief regarding the value of art and creative works. If you’re feeling extra cynical you could say the same about money, government, and love too.
But this is a special kind of cognitive dissonance. At my day job, we sell HTML by the bushel. A little company called Microsoft is valued in the trillions, all from selling access to copies of computer code.
The code they’ve auctioned is already in the public domain. It has been rewritten, repurposed, and redistributed a million times by now.
So what are they selling? From Sotheby’s listing:
Until very recently, selling a digital-born artifact was not a possibility, however the advent of NFTs has now made this possible, allowing the buyer to prove that the files on offer here are the original, digital- born manuscript for the greatest and most consequential invention of modern times, direct from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, their creator.
By “minting” an NFT Sir Tim (or Sotheby’s? it’s unclear) has tried to create a rare, original manuscript from eternally malleable data.
They claim to have auctioned the “original” time-stamped files - but how can that be? The time-stamp on the file is just more data. Surely these files have moved from computer to computer over the years. They’ve been backed up multiple times, to multiple places, each time the time-stamp was copied along with it. (Yes, it could have been altered, too.)
Imagine a nearly infinitely long line of light switches. They can be on or off. A digital file is stored with some number of these light switches. So let’s save a digital file. Starting at the beginning of the row, we’ll switch on or off a light switch for every one or zero in the data. Now let’s back up our work. Let’s drag another nearly infinitely long line of light switches next to the first. Now very carefully, let’s mirror the arrangement of light switches from first row to the next. Don’t miss any!
Great! You’ve just made a copy of a digital file. Which one is the original? How could you tell?
If Sotheby’s had auctioned of Sir Tim’s old computer with the code intact - you might be able to argue that they might have an original file with all the tiny switches in place. There are atoms arranged in space holding that data. They’ve auctioned a copy of a copy, stored in the cloud, with a crypto-receipt linking to it.
I think most humans have a tiny metaphysical crisis when we have to confront digital media. It’s not really there but it feels like it is. When we put a favorite photo on our phone’s lock screen we don’t think “I have instructed this device to display a particular set of image data in this context” – we think “this is my favorite photo”.
Beyond the hyper-inflated speculative market shenanigans, I think this auction, and others like it represent the human desire to grasp things and hold on to a bit of history. The crypto-NFT boondoggle is a way to manufacture authenticity where none exists.