The Media Lab
A coat check ticket,
a magic spell
A while back, a digital acquaintance of mine went to work for Zora, a company engineering a cryptographic protocol —
Here’s what I learned.
This message was emailed to the Media Lab committee. The assumed audience is subscribers interested in art and technology who are also fairly confident programmers. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)
I’m not going to explain the bl —
Radioactive dollars in Scrooge McDuck’s money bin.
Zora aims itself at artists, and its protocol deals in cryptographic objects associated with media: images, sound files, chunks of text, whatever. First and foremost, the protocol allows you to create those objects, in an operation called “minting”, which is a nice bit of language.
This is where you discover the whole system is more attenuated than you imagined, because it’s not like you’re “uploading your media into the bl —
I minted something; as a result, I now “own” a tiny digital object that refers to my short story The Writer & the Witch. This operation didn’t have any effect on my ownership of, say, the copyright to the actual work; it just brought this odd new entity, this amulet, this coat check ticket into the world (and into my digital wallet).
- connect an Ethereum account that I control,
- compute the hash of the story’s text, and
- submit a request, including the account’s address and the hash, to the Zora contract on the Ethereum bl —
Note: this submission costs money! Ethereum’s transaction fees are called “gas”, and the price of gas is shockingly high. When I asked my script to estimate how much I’d pay for the submission, it kept showing me an enormous number; I was sure it was a bug, and spent easily an hour trying to figure it out before realizing, oh, no, that’s … actually the number.
And, whew, when you’re tinkering in this domain, you’ve got to be careful, because your mistakes can cost you money. It really changes the feeling of running a script when you know it might be about to burn $20 out of your wallet.
In the end, it did burn several $20s out of my wallet, and when the minting operation succeeded, it was with a ~$100 surcharge. If reading that makes you feel a strong wave of “why bother”, I don’t blame you!
But it turns out even egregious fees can’t overwhelm the pleasure of getting something to work for the first time.
What else can you do with Zora? You can buy and sell, of course. The vibe is “cool internet art gallery”. You find an object you like, place a bid, and, if you win, your name goes in the ledger. You can keep the object forever, luxuriating in its aura, or you can sell it again.
That’s where some interesting capabilities pop up:
Each object maintains a perfect provenance—a chain of ownership back to its creator. That’s legitimately useful; it automates something that can be onerous, even treacherous, in the ~analog~ context.
When it’s minted, an object can have a profit-sharing agreement burned into its soul. Let’s say I sell the object I minted to the influential collector Katerina Hash-Jones and, simply by dint of her ownership, its value skyrockets. (Katerina only buys the best.) She sells it for 10X what she paid, but/and because of the agreement embedded in the object, half of that price is shared with me. And so on for the next sale, and the next, forever. My share could be 10%, or 1%, or 99%.
I think this is Zora’s most provocative capability; it feels genuinely new.
It’s important to say here that all of this market activity is tracked and verified with the same whirling, churning, million-monkey mechanism that powers every bl —
So, I had tinkered around, burned a few $20s, and minted my object. I was feeling mostly perplexed by the whole experience, but/and then I read about a pair of projects that turned me around a bit.
The studio called Larva Labs has produced two pioneering bl —
CryptoPunks are sort of the skeleton key for understanding this whole weird market, because (1) they were the first project of this kind, (2) they’re legitimately fun and charming, and (3) they are now worth a LOT of money.
Eyes: popped! Nose: bleeding! Humans: weird!
Again, I’ll remind you —
I think the wild market for CryptoPunks makes a strong case for the agreements available on Zora. Larva Labs initially distributed these objects for free! If the CryptoPunks had been minted with a 1% profit share burned in, their creators would be getting a stream of income from all these eye-popping sales. Not a bad thing to imagine. (If you want to feel like you’re going insane, read this very diligent article about CryptoPunk valuation.)
Listen: if you look at this stuff head-on, with a cold alien gaze, it seems absurd. I told you I “own” the object representing my short story, but if you change one character in the text —
But then: if you look at art head-on, with a cold alien gaze, it also seems absurd and tenuous. As the trenchant Abe Burmeister wrote on Twitter,
anthropologically speaking there is near infinite evidence humans like owning scarce objects and also like to turn common objects into socially constructed representations of value. Combining the two seems pretty reasonable, hard part is getting people to agree on which objects
This is really 100% social; it’s about conjuring a dream of ownership, of value. The CryptoPunks were, and are, a magic spell; I mean that in a basically literal sense.
Will Zora be able to cast a spell of its own? Impossible to know.
I think all of this feels more natural to people who are immersed in the fine art market, or the market for rare limited-edition sneakers, etc. (I am not!) These are markets in which scarcity-by-design is a huge part of the fun, and that’s not true for all, or even most, markets for creative work. (I’m thinking of the market for, say, streaming TV shows, or science fiction novels, in which the fun, as well as the value, comes from abundance and shared enjoyment, not scarcity and sole ownership.)
So, while some of the companies building these protocols and platforms make grand pronouncements about reinventing the economics of like, ALL CREATIVE PRODUCTION, I think it’s more accurate to say they are establishing a new kind of fine art market, one with some useful and provocative new capabilities. (And/or maybe, by extension, they are proposing the “fine art-ification” of a larger swath of creative production … which is a coherent goal, even if it’s not one I support.)
The whole thing is silly, but a lot of things are silly, and humans do them anyway, and derive great pleasure in the doing. I’ll confess: I’m curious about what could be made and marketed in this way! One of the most interesting things Zora has published is here in their FAQ:
Instead of creating artificial scarcity by selling copies of digital goods … we propose an alternative: make one original openly accessible to everyone no matter who owns it, and sell that original token over and over again. As your work becomes more popular, people who want to collect it can buy the media —
first from you, then from each other. Each time the work is resold, you get a share of the sale price.
You might detect some resonance there with the “unlocking the commons” model that I’ve used several times, most recently with an e-book novella in 2020. There is a sense here of going with the grain of the internet; letting the bits flow freely, copied and recopied, while their coat check ticket, their daemon, that tight little cryptographic knot, sits serene, accruing value. Maybe.
My initial exploration is complete; impoverished by the price of virtual gas, I’ll let these questions simmer for a while.
A follow-up on the orgy of energy consumption. I ran the numbers and discovered that the exploration documented above produced approximately 390 kg of CO2, equivalent to burning a barrel of oil. Like just … black smoke pouring out of my laptop keyboard here. The former figure is from a nice (by which I mean: horrifying) carbon footprint calculator for Ethereum wallets, the latter from an equally nice (😱) carbon equivalency calculator from the EPA. You can quibble with the accuracy of the Ethereum calculator in particular —
I’m curious to know your reaction to all this. Do you find it absurd but interesting? Oppressively Black Mirror-ish? Straightforwardly exciting?
(I guess I’m also curious to know if it even makes sense. If anything/everything could have been clearer, do tell.)
An interesting note from a subscriber:
I don’t make or sell art online, so this is just a theory, but one of the advantages of the centralized platforms seems to be democratization of the ability to promote yourself. Value comes from the amount of attention and interest (which I want to say is true for any piece of art, combined with the scarcity factor), so it’s an interesting thought experiment to try to guess how the creator-consumer ecosystem would adapt on a platformless system.
My intuition is that it will be very important for Zora and its peers to act as central galleries and marketplaces. So, perhaps we’ll find ourselves in another situation (there have been many) where the decentralized promise of the bl —
It feels like the digital utopians (I have been one; I might be still) learn this lesson over and over: that accursed “centralization” often coincides with accessibility, usability, efficiency, good design —
This is a useful contribution from Chris Krycho, who wonders
what might happen if we tried Zora … but without the “mining”? And from this wondering emerges a dream of a research program for technologists: What would the implementation of such technologies look like? What would their edges and limitations be? What would they afford, and what would they not afford? How might they be well-adapted to us and our scale? How might they be built for mutual thriving with the rest of the creatures with which we share God’s green earth?
Sent to the Media Lab committee in February 2021