Everything U Think Is True

The Webby Awards have recognized Kevin McCoy and I with their Lifetime Achievement Award this year, for "developing a blockchain powered way for artists to own and monetize digital work, which laid the groundwork for what would be known as Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)". I have a lot of complex feelings about this specific recognition, and about awards in general, and I wanted to share some thoughts that are a little more nuanced than just saying "thanks for the honor".  I’ll start with some fundamentals:

  • I’m grateful to have my work acknowledged, and want to center Kevin McCoy’s vision, leadership and hard work in this area, both in our initial demo of these technologies, as well as in the years since. And of course, it's important to recognize that the actual term "NFT" as well as fundamental specifications like ERC 721 were created by many others working from their own inspirations and contexts.
  • The  “lone genius” or “great man” (or great pair of inventors) narrative too often gets applied to the creation of technology, and I unequivocally reject that myth. Our efforts exist in a context involving many independent creators learning from and influencing each other, either directly or indirectly. There is a deeply inequitable dynamic of who gets recognized in tech.
  • I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but I do not overstate its significance and hope the primary focus of everyone’s attention is on one goal: supporting artists and creators on the internet.

To that end, I've written a bit about these ideas before. First, in The Atlantic, I wrote about the shift from our original conception of using blockchain technologies to support artists, to today's entire ecosystem of NFT and NFT-related tech. Then, more recently, I wrote about how we don't have a good way to talk about invention in technology, leading to reductive and exclusionary narratives about the way tech is actually developed.

The question I'm asked most often is, "How do you feel about NFTs?" My answer is complex because the space itself is complicated. Here are the basics:

  • NFTs are both a formal technical specification and a casual cultural concept. We have to be specific about which one we're talking about. I remain interested in, and inspired by, the promise of the actual technology even as I have been deeply critical of, and skeptical about, many of the cultural practices carried out under the banner of "NFTs".
  • I’ve heard from many artists and creators who tell me that finding an audience or a community of supporters through the enthusiasm for NFTs has sustained them and enabled them to create more art. This is meaningful and valuable, and indeed is the highest aspiration we had when initially doing this work.
  • The fundamental driver for the positive aspects of NFTs are a true and sincere desire to enable artistic expression, to gather in community with others who share those expressions, and to support and sustain the vital artists who make work that we find meaningful. We need more technologies that's motivated by these goals.
  • I’ve also engaged deeply with many of the strongest critics of the way NFT technologies are applied, and I think many of their critiques are both valid and essential. I share their grave concerns over the social, economic, ecological, cultural and political harms being enabled through the misapplication of these technologies. I think we have to prioritize addressing these criticisms ahead of pursuig some of the idealistic or even unreastic hopes for the tech.
  • The fundamental drivers of the worst aspects of NFTs are the broader cultural trends toward hyper-financialization of every form of labor or creativity, widespread economic precarity, and the normalization of destructive extractive economic systems. We don’t need more scams or casinos, and we do need more regulations and good policy. We need to address the systematic drivers of these harms, because the negative aspects of NFT culture are just one of the many ways in which people are being exploited in this way.

You can get a clear view of the original aims and context of our work by watching the original presentation that Kevin and I did at the New Museum back in 2014. Fortunately, it's captured on video:

I don’t honestly know how to fully reconcile the good with the bad here. I don’t think the criticisms will be strong enough on their own to completely stop the cultural forces (good and bad) that are driving participation, despite the validity of the criticism. I do think the fact that the criticisms are valid means that some corrective forces will come, especially as critics get more effective, organized and focused. The recent deflation of some of the speculative bubble around NFTs may only hasten that trend.

I also don’t think the reductive takes on either the positive or negative aspects of NFTs tell the whole story. There are people who find real meaning and community in supporting the art and artists they find through this new technology. And there are genuine bad actors who would ignore extreme environmental impacts while lying to others simply to profiteer of off dishonest speculation. I don’t think either of these realities could not have been predicted 8 years ago when creating a crude prototype of these technologies; most of the forces that have shaped their current form are driven by far larger cultural trends than we can attribute to a few lines of code hacked together over a couple of hours.

Back when I presented Vint Cerf with his Webby award recognizing 50 years of the Internet, I asked him how he felt about the fact that there had been both so much good and so much bad that happened as a result of his creation. His answer was echoed in the speech he offered onstage, where he exhorted us to do our best to create the good, and to amplify and acknowledge the good.

It's weird to win an award

For me personally, I am choosing to see my selection for this honor as a prompt to do more to be worthy of this moment of recognition. I don’t expect I’ll do more about NFTs directly (I’ve never traded any, and haven’t done any coding around them since that initial demo) but I will always try to do more to ensure new technologies support creators, especially those from marginalized or underserved communities.

I also chose not to reject this recognition despite my deep misgivings about a lot of NFT culture, because I think it’s useful for people to see the ambivalence and complexity involved in getting recognized for any technological work. Every person who’s ever been praised for “inventing” something has also enabled harms in the world, whether they foresaw them or not. I have certainly been complicit in creating technologies that others used to negative ends. And I work in an industry where I regularly interact with people who created technologies that literally enabled genocide or fascism, to far greater recognition or reward than I can imagine.

I’m hoping if people can see me get a prestigious award and hear me say, no one can get such recognition with clean hands, then maybe we can be far more skeptical and critical of anyone who’s gotten the same (or more!) recognition or wealth or power.

The question, then, is how we build systems of accountability in order to counter the harms associated with new technologies. We need to reflect on how we amplify the positive and restorative  impacts of technology as effectively as possible.

What I learned from Prince

When Prince won his Webby Lifetime Achievement award in 2006, his acceptance speech was "Everything U Think Is True". Though he was being his usual cryptic self, I found a lot of meaning in what he shared, because it represented both the possibility of making something new (which requires a certain irrational degree of optimism), and in the greatest risks of contemporary culture (the attack on truth that we see exemplified in the worst of the Internet). It's left me reflective about what comes after.

There’s a limited period of time in one’s life where the things you make or do are relevant and the world is willing to accept them. Basically, I see it like two windows of time, one in which you do your best work, and the second in which others are willing to accept it. If you’re lucky, there’s maybe a five-year overlap, like Stevie Wonder making records in the 70s. If you’re Hilma af Klint, the second window doesn’t appear until decades after the first, which is especially unfortunate when that’s also decades after one’s death.

But if you are in an overlap between the making-things era and the world-gives-a-shit era, then maybe you can get recognition, including the weirdest form of recognition, winning an award. Awards are the tool with which an institution or community reinforces its values and power over its community members. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, always to the dissatisfaction of many.

I am going to get a Webby Lifetime Achievement award, which is of course absurd, but I’m going to accept it. The Webbys are a truly weird institution, starting as a sort of “please take the internet seriously” effort decades ago, and maturing into an industry recognition system that’s probably closer to the Clios than to the Oscars or Grammys that they aspire to. But they get more and more real celebrities to show up (the one true legitimizer of any awards), and they throw a nice event every year.

Truly, a chance to go to a nice party, dress up, and get positive affirmation is really all the incentive I need to be on board.

But I’m deeply ambivalent about the ostensible reason for my award. I’m proud of having contributed to working on some interesting technology, but I was not as central to that effort as Kevin McCoy, with whom I collaborated. And our early implementation of the technology is not the form that actually got popularized when the tech gained traction.

More pertinently, the tech we created, while interesting and valuable, has also come to represent a certain cultural concept, and most of the manifestations of that concept are things I’m deeply critical of. Can one be proud of making something if others ran with the idea and turned it into something negative? I think we have to be, because people can turn any good thing into shit, but we can’t let them stop us from trying to make good things.

I also have a lot of ambivalence about the “lifetime” aspect of this award. The joke I keep making is “do they know something about my lifetime that I don’t?!” but it is reality that my life is barely half over; I am not sure I want to concede that this is the most notable piece. I know for certain that this is not the work I’m most proud of, because my most meaningful work is the long, slow, quiet, patient fixing of complex things, in deep collaboration with others over time.

Awards can’t recognize that. Awards are designed to be individual, to perpetuate the Great Man myth, to assert the idea that invention or innovation happens from a single coherent moment or effort. I don’t believe that, really. But they don’t give awards to “a bunch of folks kept hacking away at a hard problem for a long time”.

Still, I’ve done things I’m proud of, and I’m going to interpret this award as a mandate to do more of that meaningful work. Can I dismantle the institutions that perpetuate injustices, and devolve power from those (including myself) who don’t always wield it fairly? Can I make technologies that more effectively anticipate harms and misuse, and have more structural barriers to being used for exploitation?