Discover more from Divine Innovation
[16.0] Amrit Pal Singh
What does it mean to have faith in NFTs?
Disruption is Janus-faced trickster jargon. The term, writes Adrian Daub in What Tech Calls Thinking, helps “articulate questions of continuity and discontinuity,” but, as it does so, risks uniting “the gloomiest of doomsayers with the giddiest of cheerleaders.” Those who deride Kindles as a bastardization of the reading process, for instance, still deliver Amazon’s “this is a new thing!” sales pitch, just with less profiteering glee. The same holds for the opposite thesis, Daub explains:
The claim that something seemingly disruptive is, in truth, just part of a bigger continuity can itself be either critical or deeply conservative. It comes from an intuition that is shared by those who want to deflate the tech industry’s high-minded blather about itself and those who are paid to argue that Amazon should not be regulated any more than your friendly neighborhood bookseller. To be clear: all of these answers are absolutely right some of the time. Certain things about the tech industry are unprecedented (the tech, for one); others are business as usual (the industry). But how the public, the press, and politicians respond to both the tech and its industry depends on a sense of what our current categories are able to capture, and what they need to be adjusted to be able to capture. Disruption is one way that allows people to do both.
Disruption’s bilingualism parallels insecurities about technology’s place in our history and future. Tech companies, as covered in previous issues, encourage users to make sense of their cybernetic surroundings by turning lists (feeds) into catalogs (memes, references, codexes), transmuting content into canon. Unmoored by the unfurling, unrelenting slew of cyberspace, both users and platforms hope to explain the internet’s history as well as their roles in its future. But since the online world is always open-ended, we often experience our time on the information superhighway as nagging and uncanny—stumbling from one meme or subculture to the next, not entirely certain how the dots connect. Disruption is a corporate attempt to extrude power from the inchoate, casting a particular agenda as unprecedented and benevolent: our immortal canon and universal destiny.
Both of disruption’s poles—continuity and discontinuity—come into play in the NFT world. If you’re not sure WTF an NFT really is, NPR’s Jack Corbett has you covered:
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are crypto-based authenticated proofs of the uniqueness of a particular digital object. Most NFTs are traded using Ethereum (or ETH), a prominent cryptocurrency. An NFT can correspond to an image, a video, a contract, or other cyber-paraphernalia. NFTs tend to be “minted” by being added as a “token” to the Ethereum blockchain, a distributed mega-ledger of transactions; when NFTs are sold, it’s the token that is sold rather than the artwork tout court.
The system—and critiques thereof—exploded after an NFT collage sold for $69 million. That’s the kind of money you’d imagine emblazoned on a giant check. This raises equally giant questions: What explained the storied ascent of a system at once intangible and under-the-radar? Where on earth did this virtual windfall come from?
Vicky Osterwell argues that NFTs are both absurd and banal: a glossy denial of the capitalist imperatives fueling their ascendance (discontinuity) as well as a repackaging of the same schemes governing the art world (continuity). “Yoking art to crypto attempts a double liberation from the apparatus that conditions its value, but it is still underwritten by the premise of the art world and its nonfinancial mechanisms for inventing value.”
In a notable period of mass death, instability, and inequality like the Covid-19 pandemic, it makes sense that those who can afford to quarantine (like WFH tech bros with piles of cryptocurrency) are collecting digital art at astronomical prices in an effort to make some sense of their time, place, and purpose. Forming novel investment systems; inventing value for their commodities and selves. “When you upload an artwork, a canonical version is mapped to the token that lives on the blockchain and it can’t be touched or altered,” Foundation, the leading NFT platform, explains. “The file itself is then hosted on [a distributed system] to ensure that it will live on forever as well.” Talk of “canonical versions” and “living on forever” suggests that, while NFTs are more related to the art world than they aren’t, canonical urges underpin NFTs’ ascendance as decidedly social media.
Yet NFTs inhabit a system that literally prevents humanity from “living on forever.” (Corbett outlined the ecocidal dimensions of NFTs, too—bless!) Cryptocurrency infrastructure guzzles exorbitant amounts of energy per year for “proof of work,” the computer processing phenomenon generating discrete units of cryptocurrency. The ostensibly intangible object and process spell IRL doom for our ice caps. “Truly,” Osterwell inquires, “will there ever be a greater work of capitalist art than the total destruction of the climate that made it possible?”
This question may be a moot one, according to NFT evangelists. In an effort to explain these enthusiasts’ point, journalist Maria Bustillos explains, “energy-efficient alternative public blockchains based on a new technology known as ‘proof of stake’ are available, including Polkadot, Cosmos and Avalanche, and Ethereum is not far behind.” Yet larger systemic questions remain, Bustillos argues, especially given continuities between NFTs and our (flawed) artworld in meatspace.
Holding these cogent critiques in mind, some nagging questions remain: How do NFT insiders understand themselves and the shortcomings of their system? Who believes in NFTs’ future? Who gets rewarded for their faith in this new/old artform? And, given their sudden rise and breakneck consumption, how long will NFTs survive?
Amrit Pal Singh and I worked at the same Delhi-based financial technology startup—the one I once thought was “cultish” until I learned the history of the term. We left our erstwhile employer within a few months of each other. (They still owe him back pay!)
While I, plebe, have written some essays and gone to grad school since then, Amrit, prodigal, prolific, has designed successful card games, launched a 3D portrait business, and… taken off in the NFT world.
Above are Amrit’s first two NFTs, portraits of Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo in his (trademarked) Toy Face style. He made more than $16,000 from these two NFTs.
His next two sold for almost double that. Amrit, in other words, is #winning. And it’s precisely the extent to which the NFT world has rewarded his work that makes him an informative interlocutor.
In dialogue with a successful and astute insider, this interview with Amrit navigates the seams of continuity and discontinuity: it helps explain why the NFT world has proliferated in the midst of a pandemic, what draws artists and collectors to the medium, and where this system—a bubble? a scam? a godsend?—is headed next.
Divine Innovation: Amrit, what’s an NFT?
Amrit Pal Singh: It’s a digital token or an asset which acts like a physical object where, if I create it, and I own it, and if I transfer it to you, it now stays with you. It’s unlike digital files, for which copies exist everywhere. In terms of NFT art, we’re not talking about the image: the image is in the NFT. The NFT is the token combined with the image: the image is just a representation of the NFT. It doesn't need to be a JPEG. It can be video, audio, a contract. It acts as a physical object.
I don't know how much you like to read criticisms of NFTs or longform articles that go into, like, the differences between NFTs and the art world or its ecological costs.
I’ve given the criticism a fair bit of thought. There is an environmental impact: I'm not going to deny that. But the only reason people know about these numbers is because this whole technology is built on transparency. Anybody can check my account balance. Anybody can check what I have minted and what I have earned. The whole system is very transparent, including the energy consumption of every step. A lot of these calculations talk about the lifetime of the NFT, but they don’t keep in mind that the technology will change. The minting process is already changing. There’s a big change coming up in July.
Yesterday, I posted a study detailing how the average person produces almost two, three NFTs’ worth of emissions when they are emailing throughout the year. Consider how many people email versus how many people actually make an NFT. I don't understand the exclusive focus on NFTs as an environmental issue. The NFT community is worried about these things, so things are changing quickly. I bet more artists will join the community once these issues are fully sorted out, too.
With that in mind, I’m interested in what it means for you as a producer of NFTs to believe in this system: What has it done for you both materially and professionally? What compels someone like you to invest in this system and have faith in it?
The community of artists has been really supportive. And honestly, I was in a good place financially before NFTs: my Toy Faces project was doing quite well. I thought it was the peak of my career, only NFTs are ten times that. There's a Discord group of 200 NFT artists from India, and there are like 23-year-olds, 22-year-olds who are making previously unheard of amounts of money. (Obviously not everybody—like 90% of people don't sell their NFTs.) Once you get involved in the community, you understand that a lot of pieces have people behind them. People can invest in an artist’s brand, thinking: Okay, this guy is doing well already. Five years down the line, anything he has minted may have some value, so we will invest in it.
Memes are part of internet history. Most art these days is created digitally. So far, there hasn't been any concrete system to catalog it and revisit stuff 10 years later. So I think NFTs combined with some other technologies will help catalog internet history and the digital art movement, and help monetize it. The more I read about how fine art is collected and everything, I just can see very clearly that digital art will go this way: it’s the artform people are embracing—compare it to people who actually paint and showcase work in a gallery versus artists who make it digitally and put their work on platforms like Behance or Dribbble. Years down the road, people will see how a meme unfolded, like current outer-space crazes or other chapters in history. I think NFTs have a future for sure, but it will look different than it does now.
If I understand you correctly, it sounds like you think part of its success is through its function as an Internet Archive.
Yeah, see, that's the thing. The simplest example would be like when Apple launches something and it’s accepted, and then suddenly related technologies and products pop out. Things like Bluetooth headphones or new phone accessories.
NFTs, because of the monetization angle, hype angle, will push this world further. This seems to be the technology that will cast a light on digital art, its cataloguing, archiving. There will be more people valuing this art and these creations more—people paying, like, $1,000 for a digital image.
What do you think determines the value of an NFT? Looking at your own work, you had your portraits of the Daft Punk duo, sell for—what was it—13 ETH [approx. $27,000]?
Oh sorry! An extra $4,000 in crypto there. What determines the value of that versus the portraits of women astronauts you came out with yesterday?
One thing I've noticed is that anything that also records an event, especially a current event, people do put value in it. In the Daft Punk case, I minted the NFT on almost the same day as the band split. So that adds to the value. There’s also the quality of artwork, which matters to a point, but then also I see a lot of collectors investing in artists who they think would do well in the coming years.
It’s the same with startup investors. Like they invest in 100 companies, they just need two of them to work to get their money back. So that's how collectors are thinking about it. It's very clear. Any investment, any kind of medium, it's always like that: 10%, 20% of the investments generates the entire chunk of money.
So it's people diversifying their portfolios basically.
Yeah, and obviously I have a lot of criticisms. I’ve noticed that there are hardly any women collectors. That’s obviously a problem because then the taste overall of the space is limited. Same with the artist side. It's not like the art field doesn’t have a lot of women. Probably because of the collector base, a lot of women haven't entered: they see a style they don't really associate with.
Even my personal style is not really catering towards the existing trend in the NFT space. Some of my work hasn’t done as well as people were expecting it to because they were portraits of women. I want to create artwork which is diverse and I need collectors who value that. The thing is it’s mostly white guys invested in crypto, and it's very closely linked to the stock market which has the same issue.
I’m not a big crypto fan, but now I'm invested in it because I acquired a huge sum of it. If you had asked me two months ago where to invest your money I wouldn’t have said Bitcoin.
Are you going to keep your earnings in crypto?
I’m pretty sure its value will increase.
You've gone from being like a cynic about crypto to now, you know, having faith in it to some extent. You're working in that market, you’re holding onto crypto instead of turning it to dollars or rupees or what have you. What makes you believe in it?
It's mostly research. I saw how Bitcoin grew, and I spoke to people who invested early on in Bitcoin as well as some people who backed out of it because of its constant crashes. I also spoke to a few people who invest in the stock market. That's the thing also, like, when people invest in a stock, they don't really know how the company is working. They just go with the trend and the history of the company. This is exactly like that. There’s this new wave of investors who are more comfortable in crypto than stocks. I can see the pattern. I plan to just keep my NFT earnings in crypto, forget about it, and cash it out after 10 years.
I guess the money makes up for the back pay our former employer still owes you after two years.
The timing worked really well!
Speaking of timing, what feels new to you about NFTs?
It might be a very personal thing, but I’ve mostly worked as a designer throughout my career because it was safe compared to being an artist, which normally involves more self-expression. NFTs have pushed me to explore that artistic side. It has ended up making me see more value in my work and what I do.
The pandemic means everyone’s active: everybody's talking and exchanging ideas all the time in the community. You might be too young for it, but it feels like when Yahoo! Messenger first popped up—just chatting to random people online. This feels like it has a lot more purpose because you’re creating stuff and you’re owning something, so it's a bit different. But it feels like how people might have felt when the internet started. That comparison might sound like an exaggeration, but it's not for the people who are in the NFT community. It might seem like a fandom or a cult from the outside because of that.
Why do you think NFTs emerged now? Because of the pandemic?
The pandemic definitely had a big role to play. When I look at my personal work even before NFTs, like, I know the Toy Faces series did well because of the pandemic. People like digital representation and it was a new thing they could do while everything was monotonous and routine. A lot of companies ordered Toy Faces for their employees because it was a silly, small way to cheer them up or have something new happen.
In times like these, obviously, the majority of things matter on the medical side, in that infrastructure, but in these times art also matters. Indulging in some things you like.
Also, NFTs seem like an alien concept to a lot of people, but it’s not for the generation that’s heavily into gaming. They spend digital tokens or digital currency and earn coins in a game. It's exactly the same but now it’s connected to fiat currency. Now you can use something like your Subway Surfers coins to actually buy stuff or cash out.
People who play games buy skins, a gun, or a power-up in the game by spending money or earning it by playing the game a lot. People in that world understand the NFT space way better than anybody else.
Would you be surprised if the NFT world went away over time?
I’d need to understand what the future of the pandemic is. There’s a huge debate about whether people will go back to work after this. Especially in a country like India, where a lot of businesses are traditional, working digitally doesn't work. But then there will be a group of people, especially in tech companies who have embraced remote culture entirely. I think many people will keep doing things virtually.
So you think it depends on the extent to which things remain online or not.
Yes, but, pandemic or no pandemic, I think people will embrace more online stuff. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that something like The Matrix could happen since people would want to exist non-virtually and do stuff. But the more I see, I see early adopters who may be interested in living only online. Honestly, like, reality sucks, right? I mean, I can't meet anybody. I can't do shit. So at this point I only exist virtually anyway.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.