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On Thursday, my colleague Kevin Roose sold a newspaper column crypto token for more than half a million dollars. (To charity!) Someone paid $ 69 million for a digital file of a collage that anyone can view online.
This is part of the current mania in NFTs or non-fungible tokens, and they are an example of people rushing to judge basically anything new and new.
I have a clear conversation: the proliferation of NFTs is unlikely to be the world-changing revolution its proponents claim. And it’s probably not a completely absurd bubble either. As with other emerging technologies, there’s a good idea somewhere if we slow down and resist the hype.
Let me explain to ordinary people what happens: NFTs are essentially a way of turning a digital asset that can be copied endlessly into something unique. When someone purchases an NFT, they are effectively gaining the knowledge to own an official version of a cat with a pop-tart body, song, video clip of a basketball dunk, or other virtual thing. The ownership documents are kept in a blockchain. (For more information, see this delightful statement by Verge.)
You may find this confusing or silly. Push that aside for a minute.
Most of the time, NFTs for me is about how people, especially those who live and breathe technology, talk about them and other emerging businesses or concepts like the blockchain, the audio chat room clubhouse and ultrafast trains.
Almost immediately people sort themselves into camps to explain that this will change the world or that it is a total CODSWALLOP that is ruining everything. We would all benefit from more breathing and less shortness of breath.
Most things in life are neither glorious revolutions nor downfalls. And behind most novel ideas there is often the possibility of finding something useful. The problem is, exaggeration and greed often make it difficult to sort out the promising glimmers of horse manure. So let’s take a step back.
The supposed big idea behind NFTs, as my colleague Kevin and Charlie Warzel, my colleague on Opinion each explained this week, is to address a problem that the internet created. With sites like YouTube and TikTok, everyone now has a chance to make music, a piece of writing, entertainment, or other creative work and get noticed. But the internet has not really fulfilled its promise to enable the masses to earn a living from what they love.
NFTs and the related concept of blockchain promise to give people partial opportunities to make their work more valuable by creating scarcity. There is promise in making creators less reliant on middlemen like social media companies, art dealers, and streaming music companies.
Will any of this work? I dont know. Screaming in front of anyone who has a final answer. Basically everyone should listen to the wise and measured Anil Dash, a tech industry veteran who accidentally invented the concept behind NFTs and who is both angry with the Hucksters who rave about them and believes there is one.
That said, NFTs are unlikely to fix the broken economics of music streaming or tear down the power structures of the journalist and art world. I’m sorry to be a broken record, but technology isn’t magic. Likewise, cryptocurrencies are unlikely to be an effective solution to unaffordable housing. A complicated and expensive train may not be the best solution to global warming and our car addiction.
Are NFTs a bubble inflated by unusual financial conditions and our brains turning around in the pandemic? Certainly. Are they pointless beanie babies for rich tech brothers who are ruining the planet with all the energy it takes to create the digital tokens? Not quite, no.
Maybe they’re somewhere in between. And that’s good.
Technology has changed for the better
It often feels like political debates about technology are a hamster wheel that goes nowhere. But there is progress if you blink a little.
Tech journalists’ reaction to the 4,000. Congressional hearing on Big Tech’s power on Thursday was mainly: [muffled screams]. Yes, elected officials and technology chiefs went around in verbal circles. And it felt like America’s policymakers were moving at a snail’s pace to decide if and how laws should be changed to make tech companies more accountable, effective, and fairer.
All true. But let me give you two examples of how technology companies are actually becoming more transparent and effective. We should complain about what hasn’t changed, but we shouldn’t ignore what has changed.
Over the past few years, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have created searchable databases of ads that have appeared on their websites and provide some way of analyzing them. The companies’ claims are grossly inaccurate and inadequate, but I’d still say this is better than what we had before: no visibility into what ads were being distributed to billions of people.
This was a problem when Russian-backed trolls spread social media propaganda surrounding the 2016 US presidential election. After that debacle, Congress debated new laws that would require tech companies to maintain online political advertising libraries. That didn’t happen, but companies made a version of it themselves.
There are two ways to look at this. Either America’s big corporations are more accountable than our elected leaders. Or fear of more muscular laws forced tech companies to do something different. Either way, I would call it measured progress that elected leaders and tech companies deserve some credit.
Tech companies and U.S. government officials also skillfully handled attempts by foreign governments to compete against the 2020 election, as I wrote earlier. Even without a Big Bang Big Tech bill, both our powerful tech institutions and elected leaders were scared enough to address a threat to Americans.
None of this is a substitute for effective legislation. But it’s also not true that nothing happened in technology politics but screaming and screaming.
Before we go …
Gun shame when lending money: A new generation of online loan apps in India requires people to pass information from their cell phones. And they bombard borrowers and their contacts with phone calls and social media posts to push them for repayments, my colleagues Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar reported.
How TikTok changed music and us: You definitely want to hear this podcast with my colleagues Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, who talk about the creative expression of musical challenge on TikTok and why the app helped build the bridge between a pop song verse and a choir.
What does it cost to completely replace cable TV with online alternatives? Bloomberg News calculates it’s $ 92 a month.
Check out this 5 day old owl who is VERY carefully fed with tweezers. My favorite moment is the little owl that flaps its wings while swallowing.
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