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If you ask a handful of people today for their opinion on NFTs, the responses will range from outright rejection to bemused indifference. For many people, NFTs represent a new, nonsensical format for monetizing that which does not need to be monetized any further — digital content. The impression is justified. After all, one of the most visible examples of NFT use to date involves a gif of Nyan cat selling for about $580,000 USD; that’s nonsense, you might think. But those who would scoff and immediately write off such a result as bizarre and unworthy of attention may be missing two crucial pieces of the puzzle: first, the rapidly approaching confluence of two technological streams that will, in my estimation, form a raging, inescapable river. Second, a reframing of monetization into the more familiar and sympathetic territory of property rights.
Let’s start with the reframe. Monetization is a dirty word that can turn even noble ventures into despicable behavior. It’s the difference between a sweet child collecting donations for cancer patients by building a stand to sell homemade lemonade and underage labor marketing overripe, liquefied fruit. Rather than dressing NFTs up in snap-judgment jargon, each of us should evaluate the technology for its merit or lack thereof. If NFTs can’t hold up to scrutiny after being stripped of extraneous labels, then it will make sense to reject their adoption in society. On the other hand, if the core concept is sound, maybe a few people could lower their pitchforks. So what are NFTs?
NFTs are the future of ownership. Delving into the technical details won’t help us here; it’s the properties of NFTs that matter, not their exact science. Ownership of digital assets is the cornerstone upon which NFT value is built. Forget absurdly priced digital art, forget the vain stumblings of this wild west emerging from a confusing and uncertain landscape full of scheming opportunists and idealistic world-builders. The early internet was the same way. When the dust settles, what will remain is an individual’s capacity to own that which exists in digital space. So what? Own all the pictures or videos you want; you’re left with only bragging rights as people copy and paste ‘your property’ to their folders. Enter, virtual and artificial reality.
We’ve become so accustomed to screens in our palms and on our desks that people have forgotten the dreams of digitization. I’m talking holograms, exploring cyberspace, and meeting your friends in a virtual lounge. Those visions of the future are no longer prophecy, they’re the present. Whether Meta or another company becomes the dominant player in the industry, billions of dollars are being invested in migrating society from doom scrolling to traversing digital space. Before long, this new realm of operation will be virtually (ha) universal. But what does this have to do with NFTs?
NFTs will allow people to exclude others from their property in the metaverse in a way that makes no sense in Web 2.0. By generating a virtual space people can explore and layering artificial realities on top of the world as we know it, the metaverse will powerfully trigger the human desire for personalization and along with it, the desire for exclusion. In other words, if you give a mouse a virtual cookie, they’re going to want some milk to go with it. Take fashion as a simple example. Suppose you design a T-Shirt with your best friend’s face on it. Suppose you post the design to your favorite blog. When you see the image circulating as a meme on Reddit a few days later, you’ll hardly be surprised. On the other hand, if you designed the T-shirt, made one for yourself, and walked around Times Square, you’d be shocked and offended to see half of your hometown wearing an identical copy in the following week. The point is, physical assets make things far more personal than digital assets ever have, so far. But with the proliferation of digital space, I predict that people will demand greater protection for their digital assets than was previously necessary or possible.
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