The 1990s were the last days of the Golden days of art. Musicians, filmmakers, painters, writers - they each had an unspoken understanding of the rule: Whoever owns the thing, experiences the thing. CDs, VHS, canvas, or scroll - you could put the thing in your backpack. In the days of physical art, ownership of an object was linked to access or control of an experience. This was always the case, since pre-history.
Then the Internet happened.
The Replication Machine killed this rule. It sent us through a hypnagogic odyssey of Kazaa pirates, absurd memes, $8/month fuedal gatekeepers, and most recently, NFT fart sounds inked into Ethereum, the future financial operating system of planet Earth.
Each of these phases might be thought of as standalone cultural episode. But they're all unified by a common characteristic: they create a new relationship between ownership & experience. The internet broke an age-old fusion, and each phase is a new iteration, trying to reconcile the divorce.
It's all the same continuum. The arrival of NFT's might seem extra-terrestrial, but they didn't come out of nowhere. They're part of the same movement that got my middle school soccer buddy busted by the Feds for ripping one too many Adam Sandler movies.
The Internet wasn't the first replication machine that sucker-punched our tribe of imagination monkeys. The printing press eroded Christ's empire. Just a tweak in the nature of production was enough to change our God and shift our ratios to "text-centric."
If the printing press was a sucker-punch, then the Internet is some kind of inter-dimensional nuclear fungus.
Infinite scale, instant distribution, for all mediums. Yikes.
The rules of art gradually shifted from the Cavemen, to the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Kings, to the Ad Agencies. Through the subtle turns, and through the collapse of empires, the fusion of ownership and experience was a bedrock that was stable throughout history. But the arrival of the Internet was like a historical earthquake, collapsing the Creative Enterprise into a sea of lava.
What has been consistent throughout history was a "plane of cooperation" that existed in hand-to-hand meatspace. But the rise of a hyper-linked multi-media network brought a new plane with new rules. The moment something touched the Internet, it's ownership was lost. The experience of an object could be instantly cloned, ad infinitum, and shot through digital highways to strangers out in Morocco and Boca.
The last 20 years have been a meander around the loss of ownership. Artists have pivoted from a complete loss of ownership, to ownership by content pimps, to ownership in the form of a digital deed (NFTs). The growth of platforms for artists isn't random. Each evolution is a step closer for ownership to fuse with it's missing half: experience.
v1 - Piracy
Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, The Pirate Bay
Loss of ownership, chaos
If you had a computer, internet access, the ability to rip content, and the latest "black-market" software, you could shoot anything through the Replication Machine. It changed the rules of ownership, and gave the artist no say in the matter. Listeners who were savvy enough got access to all the world's music for free, but not without consequences. For years, Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" was my favorite Beatles song. When I found out a mislabeled MP3 warped my view of history, it was worse then my reaction to the truth on Santa.
In this medium, the artist is at the mercy of an alien technology. If they release anything into the world, it could be replicated and distributed without them having a say or stake in it.
v2 - Feudal Kings
Spotify & Netflix
Ownership is sacrificed to a plaform
The early days of chaos were reigned in by startups that eventually grew into feudal kings. It also helped that sites like Limewire got shut down for "copyright infringement at a massive scale."
Platforms with software developers and UX experts would court record labels to give them a cut in the "Library of Alexandria" (the catalog of all the world's music, ever). Masses, understandably, flocked like gnats for the access & convenience. No one wants to own MP3's anymore. This spawned a new model of "brokered access," where artists are forced to work with content pimps in exchange for eyeballs.
These platforms have captured the attention of the world, and artists feel the pressure to comply. With pennies (or fractions of pennies) on the dollar in royalties, they need to find other ways to monetize their work.
v3 - Digital Deeds
NFTs (non-fungible tokens)
Artists can sell ownership, but it's not linked to experience
It helps to think of NFT's like property deeds. The NFT isn't the house, but the piece of paper that says you own the house. There's a critical difference though. In meatspace, the person who owns the deed typically has exclusive access to live in the house and mow the lawn. In NFT-space, the house is filled with lunatic squatters uploading selfie videos to TikTok, and you get to brag that your real-estate is Internet-famous.
The image below (which sold for 6 figures as an NFT) says it all. The difference between a JPEG and an NFT is a verification stamp. NFTs let you prove that you own the copyright to something on a decentralized network. There is nothing preventing anyone from screen grabbing an NFT and blasting it around the Internet. We're all watching a near-billion dollar public experiment, where people figure out if there's value in owning the copyright of a digital good that they have no control over.
There is a lot of excitement around NFTs, and it's framed as a momentous step for artists. Somehow, giving the artist the ability to determine the scarcity of copyright ownership leads to a revolution.
It's experimental - it's fascinating - but I'm skeptical that this is the holy grail of digital art. It seems like a band-aid that lets us bypass the Spotify era and return to a new version of Limewire where the artist has slightly more control.
Even though we can confirm ownership on a blockchain, it's still completely divorced from the ability to access the experience. We've assumed "unlimited replication" is an inherent quality of the Internet, but maybe it's only a product of the browsers and protocols we currently have.
What's missing from the NFT movement is a context that matters. We have a new technology that can cryptographically enforce ownership, but we don't have a context that is replication-resistant. I wrote about this in an essay called "Gaga NFTs in the Metaverse."
The NFT Experiment is what happens when only 1 of 2 critical technologies are developed. Blockchain handles ownership, but we don't have a context like the Metaverse that can solve our replication dilemma. The new valuation models we're seeing are wacky, weird, funny, and convoluted. The irony is that the rise of a Metaverse, a cutting edge social simulation, could bring art back to a model that's sticks and stones simple.
The re-unification of ownership and experience is an attractor that could drive the evolution of the NFT space.