On crypto-art, racism and outcome fantasies

If you want to find mistakes with something, you’ll be able to find them if you tried long enough. That doesn’t inherently make the thing worthless. The only exception I’ve encountered to this truism is the prevailing world-system – which is both fault-ridden and, by virtue of its great size and entrenchment, almost certainly unsalvageable.

I was bewitched by cryptocurrencies when I first discovered them, in 2008. I wrote an op-ed in The Hindu in 2014 advocating for the greater use of blockchain technology. But between then and 2016 or so, I drifted away as I found how the technology was also drifting away from what I thought it was to what it was becoming, and as I learnt more about politics, social systems and the peopled world, as it were — particularly through the BJP’s rise to power in 2014 and subsequent events that illustrated how the proper deployment of an idea is more important than the idea itself.

I still have a soft spot for cryptocurrencies and related tokens. I understand how they can be a clever way for artists to ensure they get paid every time someone, somewhere downloads one of their creations. I like that tokens can fractionate ownership of all kinds of things – even objects in the real world. I’m open to being persuaded that fighting racism in the crypto-art space can have a top-down reformatory effect. But at the same time, I remain keenly aware that fantasies of outcomes (as opposed to processes) are cheap.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are units of data that exist on the blockchain. According to Harvard Business Review:

The technology at the heart of bitcoin and other virtual currencies, blockchain is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. The ledger itself can also be programmed to trigger transactions automatically.

NFTs have been in the news because the auction house Christie’s recently sold a (literal) work of art secured as an NFT for a stunning $69.3 million (Rs 501.37 crore). The NFT here is a certificate of sorts attesting to the painting’s provenance, ownership and other attributes; it exists as a token that can be bought or sold in transactions performed over the blockchain – just like bitcoins can be, with the difference that while there are millions of bitcoins, each NFT is permanently associated with the artwork and is necessarily one of its kind. In this post, I’m going to address an NFT and its associated piece of art as a single, inseparable entity. If you read about NFTs in other contexts, they’re probably just referring to units of data.

The reason a combined view of the two is fruitful here is that AFP has called crypto user Metakovan’s winning bid “a shot fired for racial equality”, presumably in the crypto and/or crypto-art spaces. (Disclaimer: I went to college with him but we haven’t been in touch for many years. If I know something, it’s by Googling.) He and his collaborator also wrote on Substack:

Imagine an investor, a financier, a patron of the arts. Ten times out of nine, your palette is monochrome. By winning the Christie’s auction of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, we added a dash of mahogany to that color scheme. … The point was to show Indians and people of color that they too could be patrons, that crypto was an equalizing power between the West and the Rest, and that the global south was rising.

This is a curious proposition that’s also tied to the NFT as an idea. The ‘non-fungible’ of an NFT means the token cannot be replaced by another of its kind; it’s absolutely unique and can only be duplicated by forging it – and this is extremely hard. So the supply of NFTs is by definition limited and can be priced through speculation in the millions, if need be. NFTs are thus “ownership certificates for digital art that imbue” their owners “with demonstrable scarcity,” as one writer put it. This is also where the picture gets confusing.

First, the Christie’s auction was really one wealth-accumulator purchasing a cultural product created by consuming X watts of power, paid for using a new form of money that the buyer is promoting, and whose value the buyer is stewarding, in a quantity determined by the social priorities of other wealth-accumulators, to an artist who admits he’s cashing in on a bubble, plus allegations of some other shady stuff – although legal experts have also said that there appear to be no “apparent” signs of wrongdoing. What is going on here?

Minting an NFT is an energy-intensive process. For example, you can acquire bitcoin, which is an example of a fungible token, by submitting verifiable proof of work to a network of users transacting via a blockchain. This work is in the form of solving a complex mathematical problem. Every time you solve a problem to unlock some bitcoins, the next problem automatically becomes harder. So in time, acquiring new bitcoins becomes progressively more difficult, and requires progressively more computing power. Once some proof of work is verified, the blockchain – being the distributed ledger – logs the token’s existence and the facts of its current ownership.

But while ‘NFTs are anti-climatic’ is a simple point, this argument becomes stronger with some numbers. According to one estimate, the carbon footprint of one ether transaction (ether is another fungible token, transacted via the Ethereum blockchain) is 29.5 kg CO2; that of bitcoin is 359.04 kg CO2. The annual power consumption of the international bitcoin mining and trading enterprise is comparable to that of small countries. Consider Memo Atken’s line here, connecting NFTs, fungible tokens and the “crypto-art” in between: “Artists should be able to release hundreds of digital artworks.” But “There is absolutely no reason that releasing hundreds of digital artworks should have footprints of hundreds of MWh.”

Of course, it’s important to properly contextualise the energy argument due to nuances in how and why bitcoin is traded. In February this year, Coindesk, a news outlet focusing on crypto, rebutted an article in Bloomberg that claimed bitcoin was a “dirty business”, alluding to its energy consumption. Coindesk claimed instead that bitcoins and the blockchain do more than just what dollars stand for, so saying bitcoin is “dirty” based on Visa’s lower energy consumption is less useful than comparing it to the energy, social and financial costs of mining, processing, transporting and securing gold. (Visa secures credit and debit card transactions just like, but not in the same way, the blockchain secures transactions using consensus algorithms.)

However, the point about energy consumption still stands because comparing bitcoins and the blockchain to the Fedwire RTGS system plus banks, which together do a lot more than what Visa does and could be a fairer counterpart in the realm of bona fide money, really shows up bitcoin’s disproportionate demands. Fintech analyst Tim Swanson has a deep dive on this topic, please read it; for those who’d rather not, let me quote two points. First:

“The participating computing infrastructure for Fedwire involves between ten and twenty thousand computers, none of which need to generate [power-guzzling cryptographic safeguards]. Its participants securely transfer trillions of dollars in real value each day. And most importantly: Fedwire does not take the energy footprint of Egypt or the Netherlands to do so. … the more than 2 million machines used in bitcoin mining alone consume as much energy as Egypt or the Netherlands consumes each year. And they do so while simultaneously only securing a relatively small amount of payments, less than $4 billion last year.”

The energy consumption, and the second point, shows up when users need to protect against a vulnerability of consensus-based transactions, called the Sybil attack (a.k.a. pseudospoofing). Consider the following reductively simple consensus-generating scenario. If there is a group of 10 members and most of them agree that K is true, then K is said to be true. But one day, another member joins the group and also signs on 14 of his friends. When the group meets again, the 15 new people say K is false while the original 10 say K is true, so finally K is said to be false. The first 10 members later find out that the 15 who joined were all in cahoots, and by manufacturing a majority opinion despite not being independent actors, they compromised the group’s function. This is the Sybil attack.

Because the blockchain secures transactions by recursively applying a similar but more complicated logic, it’s susceptible to being ‘hacked’ by people who can deceptively conjure evidence of new but actually non-existent transactions and walk away with millions. To avoid this loophole without losing the blockchain’s decentralised nature, its inventor(s) forced all participants in the network to show proof of work – which is the mathematical problem they need to solve and the computing power and related costs they need to incur.

Proof of work here is fundamentally an insurance against scammers and spammers, achieved by demanding the ability to convert electrical energy into verifiable digital information – and this issue is in turn closer to the real world than the abstracted concepts of NFTs and blockchain. The problem in the real world is that access to crypto assets is highly unequal, being limited by access to energy, digital literacy, infrastructure and capital.* The flow of all of these resources is to this day controlled by trading powers that have profited from racism in the past and still perpetuate the resulting inequality by enforcing patents, trade agreements, import/export restrictions – broadly, through protectionism.

* Ethereum’s plan to transition from a proof-of-work to a proof-of-stake system could lower energy consumption, but this is an outcome fantasy and also still leaves the other considerations.

So even when Black people talk about cryptocurrencies’ liberating potential for their community, I look at my wider South and Southeast Asian neighbourhood and feel like I’m in a whole other world. Here, replacing banks’ or credit-card companies’ centralised transaction verification services with a blockchain on every person’s computer is more of the same because most people left out by existing financial systems would also be left behind by blockchain technology.

Metakovan’s move was ostensibly about getting the world’s attention and making it think about racism in, for some reason, art patronage. And it seems opportunistic more than anything else, a “shot fired” to be able to improve one’s own opportunities for profit in the crypto space instead of undermining the structural racism and bigotry embedded in the whole enterprise. This is a system which owes part of its current success to the existence of social and economic inequalities, which has laboured over the last few decades to exploit cheap labour and poor governance in other, historically beleaguered parts of the world to entrench technocracy and scientism over democracy and public accountability.

Granted, I’m talking about Silicon Valley and Big Tech whereas Metakovan labours in the crypto space, but they are not separate. Even if crypto is relatively younger compared to the decades of policy that shaped Silicon Valley’s ascendancy, it has benefited immensely from the tech space’s involvement and money: $20 billion in “initial coin offerings” since 2017 plus a “wave of financial speculation”, for starters. In addition, crypto has also helped hate groups raise money – although I’m also inclined to blame subpar regulation for such a thing being possible.

In fact, to continue what I said at the beginning, I’ll get on board a good crypto value proposition; the particular case of ‘Everydays’ and the racism angle is what rankles. “Depending on your point of view, crypto art could be the ultimate manifestation of conceptual art’s separation of the work of art from any physical object,” computer scientist Aaron Hertzmann wrote. “On the other hand, crypto art could be seen as reducing art to the purest form of buying and selling for conspicuous consumption.” Metakovan’s shot seems like the latter, a gesture closer to a dog-whistle about making art-trading an equal-opportunity affair in which anyone, including Metakovan himself, can participate.

If you really don’t want racism, the last thing you should do is participate in an opaque and unregulated enterprise using obfuscated financial instruments. Or at least be prepared to pursue a more radical course of action than to buy digital tosh and call it “the most valuable piece of art for this generation”.

This brings me to the second issue: what can the energy cost of culture be? For example, Tamil-Brahmin weddings in Chennai, my home-city, are a gala affair – each one an elaborate wealth-signalling exercise that consumes thousands of fresh-cut banana leaves, a few quintals of wood, hundreds of units of power for air-conditioning and lots of new wedding clothes that are often worn only once or a few times – among a lot of other things. Is such an exercise really necessary? My folks would say ‘yes’ in a heartbeat because they believe it’s what we need to do, that we can’t forego any of these rituals because they’re part of our culture, or at least how we’ve come to perform it.

To me, this is excessive – but then I have a dilemma when I need to decide if I should fly to attend a bloggers’ conference in a faraway city. I’m a proud member of the international blogging culture, but what ergonomic price can I pay for it? I wrote about a similar issue last year, vis-à-vis Netflix:

Binge-watching is bad – in terms of consuming enough energy to “power 40,000 average US homes for a year” and in other ways – but book-keepers seem content to insulate the act of watching itself from what is being watched, perhaps in an effort to determine the worst case scenario or because it is very hard to understand, leave alone discern or even predict, the causal relationships between how we feel, how we think and how we act. However, this is also what we need: to accommodate, but at the same time without being compelled to quantify, the potential energy that arises from being entertained.

At this juncture, consider: at what point does art itself become untenable because it paid an energy cost deemed too high? And was the thing that Metakovan purchased from Beeple, ‘Everydays’, really worth it? While I don’t see that it could be easy to answer the first question, the second one makes it easy for us: ‘Everydays’ doesn’t appear to deserve the context it’s currently luxuriating in.

Aside from its creator Beeple’s admission of its mediocrity, writer Andrew Paul took a closer look at its dense collage for Input Magazine and found “juvenile, trollish bigoted artwork including racist Asian caricatures, homophobic language, and Hillary Clinton wearing a grill”. (Metakovan said in one interview that he felt a “soul connection” with Beeple’s work.) ‘Everydays’, Paul continues, “appears to say more about the worst aspects of the art world and capitalism than any one … of Beeple’s doodles: gatekeeping, exploitative, bigoted, and very, very tiresome.”