From Commons to NFTs: Digital objects and radical imagination

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Emilio Vavarella THE GOOGLE TRILOGY | Report a Problem. 2012

“From Commons to NFTs” is an (expanded) writing series initiated by Shu Lea Cheang, Felix Stalder & Ewen Chardronnet. Cautioned by the speculative bubble (burst) of NFTs, the series brings back the notion of commons from around the turn of the millennium to reflect upon and intervene in the transformation of the collective imagination and its divergent futures. Every last day of the month during the next six months Makery will publish a new contribution of this “chain essays”. First text by Felix Stalder. Further contributions by Yukiko Shikata, Michelle Kasprzak, Jaromil (Dennis Rojo), Cornelia Sollfrank, Tzu Tung Le, and Jaya Klara Brekke

Digital culture has always been a source of radical social imagination. And in a capitalist society, there is little that is more radical than redefining property relations. Over the last 50+ years, there have been three ways to think of digital objects – blobs of data, software code, informational ‘content’ – as property. Either as intellectual property (first as copyright, later also as patents), communal property (under free licenses), or as “authenticated copies” (blockchain-based non-fungible tokens, NFTs). Property relations shape all aspects of society and culture and with each of these imagined forms, distinct social visions are being advanced. The vision expressed through intellectual property is structurally conservative, foregrounding firms producing commodities and artists marketed as individual geniuses. The push for communal property and for “authenticated copies”, however, contains quite radical breaks with the status quo — and quite radically different ones. While it is not impossible that yet another way of organizing the digital as property might emerge in the future (who knows?), at this historical moment, communal property vs authenticated copies are the ones through which radical departures are formulated. Not necessarily for the better, though.

Commons: Digital objects as a medium of community

In the early 1980s, the software-as-copyright model was consolidated by companies such as Microsoft. Its CEO, Bill Gates, had introduced this framing in his famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” (1976) by suddenly calling the previously accepted sharing of software “stealing”. His vision included the division of computer users into “producers” (of source code) and “consumers” (of binary code) and organizing their relationship as a commercial transaction.

The enforcement of this vision triggered a counter-movement that viewed software primarily through the lens of the previous open peer culture and thought of ways to restore and expand the community of users/programmers (Stallman 1985). Introducing the copyleft license, an ingenious legal hack to turn social dynamics of copyright on their head (copyleft), this movement was able to legally safeguard individual autonomy (ability to use and adapt your software thus, breaking out of the mold of the passive consumer/end-user) and the ability to built community (the right to share copies and improvements, thus rejecting exclusivity of commercial transactions). The main objective of this Free Software movement was a political/ethical one, to set everyone ‘free to help their neighbors’ as Stallman put it. During the 1990s, this movement grew rapidly, not the least because the Internet drastically lowered the costs of distributing digital objects and coordinating a large number of volunteers. Thus, the community initially only imagined came into being spectacularly.

While the communitarian ethos and values remained strong, the driving force soon became more practical. The underlying conceptualization of software as a shared resource, the ability of a distributed community to draw this resource, independent of contracts and product release schedules, turned out to be a very productive framework to develop complex knowledge goods (Benkler 2002). At the turn of the century, these two forces – the counter-cultural communitarian roots of net culture (Turner 2006) and the rising financial and cultural power of internet-centric organizations – created a heady mix of practical and utopian thinking about the power of the Internet to overcome old limitations and create a realm of freedom and cooperation (Moglen 1999).

As access to, and familiarity with, the Internet broadened beyond highly technical subcultures, the question of digital property became also virulent concerning non-technical ‘content’. By connecting the new experience with free software with the old practice of the commons, a new horizon of social possibility emerged (Boyle 1997), partially overlapping the vision of the global justice movement that “another world is possible.”

Sharing was again redefined, now as ’caring’, and even openly illegal practices such as large-scale piracy were integrated into this new horizon as “file-sharing”, framed as a form of civil disobedience to hasten the inevitable emergence of a post-copyright culture. “Kingdom of Piracy” (2002-2006), one of the first international art projects that addressed this new culture, declared “the free sharing of digital content – often condemned as piracy – as the net’s ultimate art form.”

On the legal side, projects such as Creative Commons ported the basic insights of the free software licenses to the cultural realm and in field after field – scientific and cultural publishing (open access), collaborative writing (eg. Wikipedia), music (netlabels), data management (open data) and many more – new ‘open’ approaches were innovated which treated digital objects as a non-rival, shared resource from which people could take with minimal restriction and to which they should contribute according to their ability, a participatory, democratic vision.

From the point of view of political economy, the emerging dynamics were ‘a-capitalist’, in the sense of not being directly opposed to capitalism, but also not fully contained within its logic. This, it turned out, was both the strength and the weakness of this vision. It was a strength because it could harness the capacities of an extremely diverse coalition of actors and establish real innovation and a new collaborative paradigm that is here to stay (Weber 2004). Also in the cultural field, it remains a horizon that continues to inspire a search for forms of expression and of being that are not fully subsumed under the totalizing logic of commodification (Sollfrank, Stalder, and Niederberger 2021). But it was a weakness because it left the movement ill-equipped to deal with constant processes of enclosure (resulting in effective dispossession of the original producers), its subsumption into a capitalist logic of ‘precompetitive collaboration’. Also, new business models were introduced that both undermined the licenses by redefining software as a service (hence getting rid of the requirement to share improvements when distributing adapted free software) and dispensed with copyright by being highly attuned to capitalize on the social interaction created by ‘sharing’. As a result, the digital commons and its definition of digital objects remain an important source of techno-scientific innovation, but its social utopian horizon shrank, effectively, to a niche.

NFTs: Property from artificial scarcity

On top of a rapidly evolving environment of blockchain-based crypto-currencies, which as technology is largely open-source, a new framework for digital objects emerged over the last five to ten years that took inspiration from the world of collecting art or other rate items. The two worlds – digital currencies and collector’s items – have come together in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), meaning an entry into a blockchain that represents ownership of something unique, usually residing elsewhere.

The key properties of such (physical or digital) objects are their scarcity, the social status provided by their ownership, and the ability to trade them in specialized markets. As such, this understanding of a digital object is fundamentally opposed to the notion of shared, non-rivalrous resources. Indeed, it’s exactly the extreme form of rivalry that unique or rare items represent that are necessary for them to acquire value. It also dispenses with the need for Smith’scontrol over the copy, since its focus is on “originals” that are taken to be fundamentally different from “copies”. Now, in a digital context, the differentiation between “original” and “copy” is, from a materialist point of view, nonsensical as there is no original and all copies are identical. However, the same situation exists elsewhere, for example, in photography where the first print is, in principle, equal to the 1000th print of the same image (be that derived from a physical negative or a digital file. Nevertheless, the art market found ways to introduce fine-grained differentiation, from “originals” (ie. a limited number of prints signed by the artists) to “authenticated reproductions” (made by an exclusive dealer with access to the artist or his/her estate), books segmented by quality and price, cheap reproductions as posters, postcards, T-shirts, all the way to ‘poor images’ floating around online. Conceptual art, through various forms of “appropriation”, has even found ways to turn mass-produced copies (for example, advertisements) back into new ultra-rarefied originals that sell for multi-million prices (Harrison 2012). In all of these cases, the value stems less from the material, but from the relational properties of the objects. In the case of photography, the closer the copy has once been to the actual artist, the more valuable it is, with the one directly touched, or blessed in some other form, being the most valuable.

In the case of the NFTs, the scarcity is created by designating, rather arbitrarily, one copy (or a small number of them) stored somewhere to be the ‘original’ or ‘authenticated’ one, and then marking this one copy by storing a reference to it in the blockchain. The blockchain does not store the rare item, but a token for it. As all transactions are recorded immutably, the current owner of the token can always be determined without a doubt. Perfect for trading. Since the value lies in the ownership of the one authenticated copy, there is no need to control the flow of unauthenticated copies, even if they are materially identical, since it is the relational properties that matter and they are different in each copy.

Again, this new conceptualization of the digital object as a unique entity has created both practical innovation and a very sizable market, but also a large overshoot of utopian thinking, ranging from the democratization of ownership, the decentralization of market art, to the creation of new genres of cultural expression and entirely new sectors of the “creator economy” in fully digital environments such as multiplayer online games or Facebook’s Metaverse. For others, it’s more pragmatically an opportunity to finally find a market for their creations and earn some money as long as the market allows. Given the boom characteristics of the current phase, there is some room for experimentation and unconventional successes, though the inherent logic of the art market tends towards an extremely steep pyramid.

While there is a lot of superficial talk about community and democracy (often falsely equated with decentralization), the social vision advanced through this type of digital object is highly reactionary. It draws on the deep, right-wing libertarian currents within digital culture (Golumbia 2016), producing a trivial version of Adam Smith’s society of independent shopkeepers as ‘creators’ and fully aligning itself with the mega-trend of financialization (Haiven 2014). Rather than challenging, it hardens the already dominant logic of financial speculation and competitive markets, by enticing ever more people to play by its rules. Another ratcheting up of the vision of an “ownership society” so central to neo-liberalism.

Understood narrowly, this type of digital object reintroduces very old-fashioned social subjects such as the ‘genius artist’ and the ‘collector’, a form of hyper-possessive individual, who are bound together by the exchange of charisma and money. Slightly more broadly, it envisions a world where ownership is the dominant relation between people and towards the world, where, as one art collector puts it in Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary film, The Price of Everything (2018), “money creates involvement” and every possible type of relationship is realized a commercial transaction. Even more broadly, it envisions a world where competition over and exploitation of scarce resources are the driving forces of social life. The grotesque environmental and social costs are simply abstracted away. Another way in which this approach hardens and expands the already dominant, highly destructive logic of extractive capitalism.

From a systemic point of view, NFTs are a speculative bubble on top of the much larger speculative bubble of crypto-currencies. Both represent assets that have no intrinsic and no use-value, that is pure exchange-value whose valuation rises only as more money flows into the system (a classic characteristic of a Ponzi scheme). Perfect for speculation and given the unregulated character of this speculation, perfect for rampant fraud, both in the larger world of crypto-currencies as well as the smaller world of NFTs. This makes it hard to believe that both the smaller and the larger bubble are not going to burst at some point. Given the size of these bubbles, and the desperate state of society even before the crash, the outcome is unlikely to be pretty (Nolan 2022).

Even if these bubbles burst, these tools, and ideas will not disappear. There are, quite likely, niches in which the concept of “authenticated copy” on the blockchain will turn out to be useful and there is no need for this need to be tied to cryptocurrencies. But this is likely to be a niche, and not a particularly interesting one, most likely in multi-player games and the metaverse. However, given the highly centralized nature of these platforms, there is really no need for either blockchain or cryptocurrencies to trade exclusive digital property. We are more likely to pay in dollars and euros to have our exclusive claims registered in an old-fashioned centralized database. Already now, there is a surprising degree of technical centralization in NFT markets.

What’s next?

In their utopian horizon, the commons and NFTs represent radical, and radically different visions, and their proponents take concrete steps towards realizing them in the present, with consequences far beyond the digital. The commons are a constitutive part of a world where people are bound together by a common interest in the non-exploitative use and therefore long-term existence of a shared resource. This points at least partially beyond capitalism and the destructive effects of extractivism, towards a world in which both informational and physical entities can be understood as ‘matters of concern’. NFTs point towards a world in which all relationships are expressed as commercial transactions and private property is a main form of existence. Fully subsumed under the imperative of financial capitalism this will produce the same results here, both within its sphere (extreme inequality) and in relation to the wider non-human world (depletion and degradation).

As always the question is not a simple either/or, but whether the technological potential of the blockchain can be used to advance the social vision of the more-than-human commons. That will not be easy, given how deeply rooted this is in the most destructive strands of digital culture. But since technologies never disappear and their possibilities are not yet fully explored, there is no alternative to it.

References:

Benkler, Yochai. 2002. Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm. Yale Law Journal.

Boyle, James. 1997. “A Politics of Intellectual Property: Environmentalism for the Net?” Duke Law Journal 47 (1): 87–116.

Golumbia, David. 2016. The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haiven, Max. 2014. Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life. Basingstoke,
Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harrison, Nate. 2012. “The Pictures Generation, the Copyright Act of 1976, and the Reassertion of Authorship in Postmodernity.” Art & Education (blog). 2012. .

Moglen, Eben. 1999. “Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright.” First Monday 4 (8).

Nolan, Hamilton. 2022. “The Ticking Bomb of Crypto Fascism.” In These Times (Jan. 4).

Sollfrank, Cornelia, Felix Stalder, and Shusha Niederberger, eds. 2021. Aesthetics of the Commons. Zurich / Berlin: Diaphanes.

Stallman, Richard. 1985. The GNU Manifesto.

Turner, Fred. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago, Ill.: University Of Chicago Press.

Weber, Steven. 2004. The Success of Open Source. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.