Because I have nothing to do (ha!), wasted a couple minutes trying to understand what NFTs – Non-Fungible Tokens – are. Pretty sure I don’t understand it, any more than I understand money.
(There exists a large class of objects in this world that seem pretty clear until you spend a few seconds thinking about them, and another class that start out murky – NFTs, say, or Hegel – that merely become more fundamentally murky the more thought one puts into them. In the extreme, one achieves what might be called Socratic nihilism: you only know that you don’t know. One of the reasons Aristotle is, at a minimum, more useful than Plato – but I digress… )
I was struck by this phrase in the first article on NFTs I looked at:
The other aspect is that it is a smart contract, permanently on blockchain, always able to be tracked.National Review Online
“Always”? You sure about that? This is the sense of ‘always’ I use when I say that an S&P index fund will always have value, meaning: as long as any stocks anywhere have value, an S&P index fund will have value. Put another way: if an S&P index fund becomes valueless, then the money you lost investing in it will be the least of your problems. Since investing in an S&P index is a close proxy for investing in the world’s economy, any general collapse(1) of S&P indexes would mean the world’s economy has collapsed. Rather than worrying about how your comfortable retirement just went up in smoke, you’d be worrying about how soon you are going to need to eat the family dog.
Thus, the reporter can say a “smart” contract will always be able to be tracked. All tracking it requires is the Internet and all the technology that supports it. Not just computers and wires, but the energy grid, metallurgy, international shipping infrastructure, roads – you know, the totality of the modern world, circa 2021. And don’t forget: the rule of law under which the concept of a permanent contract has meaning. The rule of law means not just written law, not just cops, judges, and lawyers, but the willingness of people to live as if the law binds them.
Notice anything fragile in there? Anything that might make this particular ‘always’ brief and exciting? Ultimately, the rule of law boils down to not stealing stuff even if you know you won’t get caught, not running the red light even when nobody’s around, filling out your tax forms without a thought given to how likely you might be to get caught if you just fudge a little, or a lot, around the edges. Like fiat currency, the rule of law exists only where people agree it has value and should be accepted.
Oligarchies of various flavors sometimes give the appearance of being law abiding. They know other oligarchs can make life hard on them, sometimes, if they don’t play by the rules, and they really prefer the little people to follow the rules, at least insofar as those rules prevent violence and theft against oligarchs. It’s also a lot easier to manage people who are under the impression the law applies to everyone. Otherwise, the oligarchs must keep up a constant show of power to keep the little people in line. As the Dread Pirate Roberts says, “Once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you and then it’s nothing but work, work, work, all the time.” Can’t go soft, once the rule of law – the law YOU make and interpret – vacates the hearts of your subjects. Far better to keep up the illusion.
Problem: the idea of the “law-abiding” “citizen” is dead except as an eccentric idiosyncrasy. The law has been reduced to whatever our betters decide it is and is applied however and to whomever they decide to apply it. Freedom of assembly? Freedom of speech? As dead as the concept of representative democracy. Our citizenship has been rendered meaningless by the last election.
Even all that other, more physical, infrastructure is not nearly as tough as it seems. Things get lost. Technological progress, like progress in general, happens when we only take 99 steps back for every 100 steps forward.
Was teaching the 8th graders about the Greek Dark Ages. After the fall of the Mycenaeans after 1200 BC, the use of Linear B script stopped. A literate people, builders of great palaces and defensive works, heirs to some degree of the great Minoan civilization of Crete, just stopped writing. In other words, a literate people became illiterate. Only centuries later did the Greeks adopt an alphabet from the Phoenicians and return to literacy. It’s an unanswerable question, if the Greeks would have ever developed writing on their own. The Mycenaean Greeks seem to have adapted Linear A (based on a forgotten language and unreadable) from the Minoans into Linear B (a syllabic script for Greek) the first time around, then the Archaic Greeks who followed them relearned to write from the Phoenicians the second time. People in the running for the greatest literary culture in history might never have written anything, left to themselves. That they forgot how at one point is edifying.
Can we forget how to access a block chain to validate the ownership of ephemera via smart contract? How many people understand what that means, or would care if they did? How many people today would be baffled by a rotary phone, or a physical map? How many would be able to reduce a live animal to something you could eat? I still run across floppy discs I forgot to throw away. CDs are all but useless today.
Skilled manual workers could build things like the F-1 rocket engine without computers or 3-D printers. And, weirdly enough, today’s engineers with computers and 3-D printers can’t. The highly skilled engineers, welders, and fitters, who got their hands dirty building rocket engines, aren’t around any more. That knowledge has died. In the linked video, the narrator assumes the original builders were in too big a hurry to notate every trick they used, revealing his ignorance of how highly skilled and productive people work. Welders – and I knew a lot of expert welders, including my dad – just knew stuff, and used it every day. The very idea you’d need to notate every trick you used to get something to work so that some newb non-welder could understand it would have been laughed out of the room.
I suspect NFTs will be dinosaurs sooner rather than later. Recall that all we have of dinosaurs are some bones and a few rare impressions of skin and feathers. From this, we imagine giant beasts, and imagine how they lived, like you can tell from bone fragments the often stunningly complex ways animals behave. The question is: do they become dinosaurs because better solution were developed, or because an asteroid strike, figuratively speaking, wipes out the world as we know it?
Imagine explaining the function of a mimeograph machine to someone under 40. “It’s like a computer printer, except completely different” isn’t going to help the callow youth run it. Heck, he probably couldn’t work the typewriter to make up the original. (I remember mimeograph correction fluid – I suspect that blue crap could have gotten one high. I am too straight-laced, and was even back in the Pleistocene, to have ever found out.)
Now imagine explaining how to use a mimeograph machine from some rusted, incomplete scraps. Thus, we see the Minoan’s beautiful ruins and artwork, and their Linear A script, and can as easily recognize that script as writing as we can recognize a Tyrannosaurus Rex bone as part of an animal. But we can’t read Linear A (and not through lack of trying), and we can’t tell much about what a T-Rex IS. We just guess.(2)
The near-universal confidence we have in the permanence of our current tech would be funny if it weren’t horrifying. It never rises to the level of thought, even thought by today’s debased standards of ‘thought’, that maybe, just maybe, it takes work to keep anything going, that entropy is the law, and we and everything we build and love, are profoundly antientropic. Civilizations really don’t spring up naturally, and tend strongly towards decay unless constantly renewed; libraries don’t just happen; knowledge is hard-won, and not yours if you don’t personally know it. The idea that this is ‘our’ technology is delusional. it belongs to those who understand it – and those people can forget, die, or simply fail to pass it along. It’s all very fragile by nature.
Once, a few years back, I had an amusing thought (it amused me, at least) at a meeting of our Chesterton reading group. At the table were about a dozen people, including a doctor, a couple teachers, an economics professor, a couple tech geniuses (I’m told one regular was somewhat famous in Silicon Valley for some fundamental invention used by everybody). A couple doubled as musicians and artsy-types. There were graduates from St. John’s College, MIT, Stanford, and sundry other schools you might have heard of. My funny thought: wow, we here at this table could just about recreate Western Civilization from scratch! ha ha ha. The main thing (among many) we lacked would be one little thing: everybody else’s cooperation.
Civilization is only possible when almost everybody plays nice – and agrees to come down hard on any who don’t. Otherwise, entropy will win.
- If only your particular investment firm’s index fund collapsed – say, due to fraud or gross incompetence – that’s another story. I’m talking here about funds becoming valueless because the underlying assets are no longer valued. Just to be clear, in case anyone as pedantic as me reads this.
- One of the fun things about the hundreds of cuneiform tablets from all those Mesopotamian civilizations is that almost all of them are boring business records. Imagine putting in the years to learn to read the various languages, then spending the time deciphering some tablet, only to discover it’s all about how many beans somebody owed somebody. Yet Gilgamesh was discovered pretty much by some poor slob happening upon the one in a thousand tablets NOT a boring business record.