As is often the case, a thought process that starts life as a Twitter thread really needs a more permanent home:
In the spirit of hearing both sides of the NFT conversation, I attended an hour long Twitter Space on Thursday evening — is that the right term? — hosted by The British Journal of Photography [now pitching themselves as ART3] and OpenSea.
The photographers all sounded like lovely people. I was rooting for them but I was soon really feeling for them. I accept that they don’t need me feeling for them but I believe there’s an important conversation still to be had.
I am worried that the people I heard this evening think they are in a world that is about photography.
I don’t believe they are.
NFTs are the child of crypto, not the child of art. That makes it fruit of the poisonous tree, a shady world that exists to drag people into it and make as much money from them while possible.
In that sense, the aspiring photographers are being lead down the garden path. I hope I’m wrong.
To elaborate a little from my original thread [below], I find the language and carrot dangling around NFTs grotesque.
Take this blog post by ART3 themselves. A sentence reads:
“It is no exaggeration to say the value of NFT art has been skyrocketing. In March 2021, American digital artist Beeple fetched a staggering 42,329 ETH ($69 million) at auction for his Everydays series — for which bidding only began at $100.“
It transpires that the investor who purchased Beeple’s creation was actually a consortium of investors, one of whom was…the original artist.
There are many more sides to what did or didn’t go on with this famous sale via the previous link — worth a look if you have the energy but bear in mind it’s time you’ll never claw back.
In short, it’s not the story presented by ART3, OpenSea and the industry at large to aspiring photographers.
HOW DOES IT ALL STACK UP?
During Thursday’s event, we heard from Marc Hartog that some of the photographs are in fact minted on Ethereum rather than Polygon. This was of particular interest to me when considering his response to my email in October.
We heard A LOT about the photography being minted as NFTs but we didn’t hear anything about who’s buying the work. So how does it all stack up?
It’s hard to understand, especially when looking at the NFT sales trends in the art sector [see below] that are openly available here.
And who’s making all this money? Is it sustainable or just a blip? I guess we’ll find out. After all, it’s an arena still very much in its infancy.
My fear is that aspiring photographers are being used to prop up The BJP while it tries to reinvent itself.
On the topic of stacking up, I see that @1854 now have over quarter of a million followers yet the tiniest amount of engagement I’ve ever seen for such a large following.
That neatly mirrors the noise around NFTs — lots of work minted on the blockchain but apparently not many primary sales, let alone the promised royalties of secondary sales that are already shown to be dwindling.
I could go on even more than I have already over recent weeks. But, as I see it, here’s the nub of it — at least for the art world anyway:
It’s rare that we get the chance to look at a new technology, pause for a moment and ask:
“Is this right?”
I would like to go on the record as one person who says:
“I don’t think this is right and people are already suffering as a result.”
Earlier this week, The British Journal of Photography announced that they have entered the NFT arena with the launch of ART3, a better way to collect, sell and own photographic art.
This coincided with my blog post last Sunday, so I wrote to The BJP expressing my concerns.
They replied to me last night and published it on Google Drive.
If, like me, you do your best to avoid signing in to Google, you can find their response below followed by the reply I’ve just sent them.
As you’ll see, and as I mentioned on Sunday, the topic of NFTs is a huge rabbit hole. After this post, I will likely take a step back before it consumes my entire life but I’m glad my missives have been so helpful to so many and, at the very least, that they’ve spurred on the much-needed conversation about such a controversial topic.
If you would like to submit your own thoughts to ART3, you can do so here.
On a separate note, I would like to thank Andy Barnham who has been my guide on this intricate and bumpy path, shining a bright light into the darkest corners of the rabbit hole that keeps on getting deeper the further you look.
Thank you for your email and I have read your blog post which includes some interesting points. As our minting policy states, we also care deeply about the environment and did our own in-depth research into the points you make before we launched ART3.io.
While we agree that minting NFTs directly on blockchains like Ethereum that use a “proof of work” mechanism is very costly in terms of energy consumption (and associated fees), the same doesn’t apply the blockchains that use a next generation “proof of stake” system, which has a significantly lower energy consumption. I recommend this NBC article, which provides a great introduction to the two different blockchain technologies, and explains how “energy consumption for proof of stake is 99.99 percent lower than proof of work”.
To mint our NFTs, ART3 uses one of the leading proof of stake blockchains, Polygon, which claims credentials as the most eco-friendly blockchain. Polygon records transactions on its own chain using “ZK-rollup technology” rather than writing each transaction to the main Ethereum blockchain. This offers transactions with comparable carbon intensity to many other mainstream internet applications, such as email, cloud storage, internet search etc, that we all use daily.
As with many new technologies, blockchain and NFTs have started inefficiently and will improve rapidly over time. In fact, the entire Ethereum chain is well on its way to completing its imminent migration to proof of stake in the coming months. But, given the well publicised environmental impact of first generation proof of work blockchains it is hardly surprising, and right, that hard questions need to be asked and answered on these issues. This has certainly been our approach.
The decision to mint using Polygon, as opposed to minting directly to Ethereum, was taken by ART3.io, despite direct minting to Etherium offering more flexibility (e.g. Ethereum minting on OpenSea allows auction pricing, whereas Polygon only offers fixed pricing). Indeed, almost all of the biggest NFT projects still use Ethereum minting for those benefits. ART3.io are proud to say that we are one of only a tiny fraction of NFT sellers minting using Polygon and putting our environmental principles first. By leading the way on this, we are hopeful that we can set an example to others that success is possible minting on Polygon, so they have the confidence to follow in our footsteps.
Per some of the comments on your own post, there are significant benefits to NFTs or smart contracts which will be game changing for both collectors (being able to prove provenance and edition scarcity) and artists (being able to monetise their work and earn royalties on future sales). These are the tools which we are excited about, and which we will continue to explore as part of our long-held mission to help photographers realise their creative potential.
I would really encourage you to do your own deep research – starting with the links I have shared and going deeper from there – to gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of blockchain technology like proof of work vs proof of stake, roll-ups etc. The facts, I am sure, will put your mind to rest, as they did for us. This new technology has huge potential to empower creatives in so many different fields, so it would be a worthy use of your time.
The first drop we have open currently (Ones To Watch) has already raised significant income for 16 talented early stage photographic artists, and our next planned drops will be both highlighting work that shines a light on environmental issues, and allocate part of the income generated directly to environmental causes.
I hope that clarifies our thinking and position on the very important matters you have raised.
Ultimately, I’m left feeling that we need to take a step back from the sea of tech talk.
To be clear with you and anybody else reading, I understand that good things come from technology and that new technologies can be explored. However, the deeper I researched, the more appalled I became by the mechanisms that surround cryptocurrencies and the dark connections they’re known to finance.
You and other institutions can swamp us with the new language and tell us about how things will improve over time, but the fact is that we’re facing real world problems right now as a result of this activity — not just environmentally but practically too.
Mark Zuckerberg said, “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”
That’s the stage NFTs are at right now — it’s moving fast and things are being broken. Is it really time for The British Journal of Photography to jump on this bandwagon? And is it aligned with your Decade for Change award which you say:
“…explores the many facets of the climate crisis: the strength and fragility of the natural world; the indirect impacts on communities and everyday people, and our global efforts to turn things around.”
NFTs aren’t solving a problem. Best practice is best practice — be it in the real world or online — and is upheld by rules and regulations that have evolved over time. The internet itself is still in its infancy, let alone the world of crypto and NFTs, and the lack of regulations are already destroying lives for the benefit of the few.
Trust in tech is at an all-time low due to lack of transparency and trust is being based on faith — much like a cult or a religion — as opposed to fact. As a very simple example, purchasing an NFT relies on a process of trust that the transaction will be upheld, a trust that we’re already seeing repeatedly being broken for the reasons I described in my blog post.
Your move says nothing for photography, but everything for money. Indeed, your response notably revolved around tech and money yet said little for photography itself.
On the environmental issues, less energy does not mean ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ and I presume you’re planning to sell many NFTs, not as few as possible?
Whichever way you package it, you’re stoking the fire of a trading mechanism that is the child of crypto, not a creation of the art world. From eco-footprint to money laundering, the problems with NFTs stem from the issues that already plague crypto — to use a legal phrase, NFTs are ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’.
They’re a way to fabricate value in an unregulated world of unaccountability, a way to sell things that aren’t things, all within the framework of a brand new way to torture the planet.
I stand by my comments that NFTs are a new way to sell the emperor’s new clothes in the art world.
People may well return to this blog post in years to come to point and scoff at it because all the practical, ethical and environmental issues have been ironed out. In the meantime, there are people suffering along the way, whether through lost/expired/broken NFT transactions or by dying in an illegal coal mine.
For what it’s worth, I really don’t believe this is going to end well at all and I stand by the blog post I published on Sunday.
With best wishes,
Two articles I discovered a few days after writing this post, which galvanised everything for me, bringing a neat full-stop to a hectic week:
Gosh. I’ve got myself into a right ol’ rabbit hole with this topic over the last few months, particularly in the last 24 hours.
The deeper I delve, the more the layers unravel before my eyes. The dark ramifications for this relatively new technology run far deeper than I ever imagined but I’ll come to that later.
NFTs — Non-Fungible Tokens — are perhaps the hottest topic in the art world at the moment, a new way to earn money from art which has exploded onto the scene during the pandemic as creators scrabble to earn a crust.
The latter is understandable. After all, these are tough times for artists with many of the traditional income-generating mechanisms pulled from under our feet in March 2020.
Then a new technology by the name of NFT strolled into town, apparently offering a whole new way to bring value to our treasured efforts. It’s already made some folk into millionaires — the wildest of riches seem tangible again in the toughest of times.
And that’s got to be good for artists and the art world, right? Right?
I’ve rolled my eyes at NFTs from the outset because I simply haven’t been able to get a handle on their attraction, a sentiment that’s persisted even after absorbing so many articles and videos over recent months.
NFTs may be a relatively new way to create currency from art but artificial mechanisms to generate perceived value certainly aren’t a novel concept.
As we know, photography is a highly reproducible medium so we’ve always needed to think of ways to create additional value so that people will feel more attracted to buying our work, in turn helping us pay the bills and continue to make new photographs.
Limited edition prints are a prime example of that.
When people buy one of my prints they have a beautiful, tangible object to hang on the wall and enjoy day-after-day for years to come.
It can even be handed down through the generations, a permanent memento of that chap who travelled to every lifeboat station.
Which brings me onto a pertinent question:
WHAT IS AN NFT?
In the simplest of terms, an NFT is a unique digital token associated with an artwork. It is not the artwork itself. People can buy and sell these unique digital tokens and make money from them. Just as with any trade, they can lose money too.
After rubbing your eyes, take a moment to re-read that last paragraph again.
That’s right — if you purchase an NFT, you’re not buying the artwork itself, you’re buying a string of computer code associated with it. In essence, a web link.
The string of computer code is described as a unique digital token minted on a blockchain.
Believe it or not, you don’t even have to own an artwork to create an NFT associated with it. The ownership of the unique digital token appears to be the attraction for the NFT collector rather than any tangible object.
I say ‘appears to be’ because I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.
“One difference with an NFT is that the exact image it links to is probably available online for anyone to enjoy as much as the collector who’s paid thousands of dollars for a token.”
She goes on to say:
“Perhaps the rights NFT collectors most highly value are bragging rights: They can say they “own” a work. Yet their copy has no special qualities aside from its NFT, so under the hood of the hype, the frenzy is about the token, in which there is now a booming secondary market.
“It’s hard not to see this as a case of digital tulip fever. Can you imagine paying millions of dollars for a bar code? Then again, perhaps this is the apotheosis of Warhol’s soup can strategies — attributing value to that which seems the most banal.“
Have a look at the video below to see an expert describing what NFTs are and why they’re so popular. He’s not just any old expert either, he’s Alex Atallah, the co-founder of OpenSea, the world’s largest NFT marketplace (according to their own website).
Yet, despite commanding such a supreme perspective on the topic, even Alex appears to struggle at times when it comes to describing NFTs:
Still scratching your head? Me too.
The implications for photography really dawned on me during a Twitter conversation back in May with astronomy photographer Andrew McCarthy on various aspects of the NFT model:
As you can see above, I found it incredulous that I could download the high resolution file of his work. In a previous 12 year chapter, I was a printmaker and retoucher so I have the skills and equipment to make a huge print of the utmost quality from Andrew’s beautiful photograph of the moon (something I will never do, of course).
Andrew went on to say that he didn’t mind about that because he was protected by international copyright law. Furthermore, the digital token had the value, not the photograph itself.
For want of a better phrase, that is screwed up.
NFTs were dead to me from that moment, let alone from what I would find out later.
Incidentally, I see that the NFT page for Andrew’s image has been taken down. A quick scan of his Twitter feed this morning seems to show that he’s concentrating heavily on print sales. Perhaps he’s had a rethink? I do hope so.
Anyway, back to those digital tokens…
NFTs seem to be secure and un-hackable because the tokens are maintained across tens of thousands of servers dotted about the planet.
Although they may be secure NFTs are by no means risk-free.
That string of computer code will stay there for as long as the company hosting it is still in business and/or for as long as the link to that code is still pointing ‘in the right direction’ to associate it with you and your transaction.
“The owner of a domain could either redirect the URL to point elsewhere or could simply forget to pay their hosting bill which would result in the disappearance of the URL altogether, resulting in an expensive 404 Page Not Found.“
In summary, people who buy NFTs aren’t buying the artwork itself, nor do they have any rights to the artwork.
They are buying a unique digital token associated with the artwork and the transaction. Although ‘secure while it is secure’, the mechanisms around that transaction could fail at any time for a plethora of reasons.
With me so far?
Good. But now you need to make sure you’re sitting down because it’s about to get dark, very dark.
We’re in the midst of a climate crisis, right?
A climate crisis.
Remember the tens of thousands of servers I mentioned earlier? They use a lot of energy.
So much energy that analysts estimate the average NFT consumes 75 kWh in its lifetime (with all transactions taken into account).
I thought it would be interesting to revisit the Ethereum energy consumption statistics I first published above as I knew they would have increased.
However, I got of a fright when I saw how their footprint is looking now:
You’ll hear people saying but Ethereum 2.0’s coming soon but that’s been promised for years and it’s not here now!
At the time of writing, Ethereum remains 100% Proof of Work, the system that creates the heinous statistics above.
You’ll also hear people talking about Proof of Stake as an alternative.
It’s true, PoS is much more energy efficient than PoW but it’s littered with its own problems and doesn’t negate the catastrophe being created by Ethereum right now, today.
In short, it simply isn’t good enough to say “it will be alright in a few years” when the biggest problems are here now.
If you were going to hit a wall at 100mph in 1 minute’s time, would you feel better if you were told the wall will be removed in 2 minutes’ time? I’m guessing not.
Anyway, back to October’s words…
And check out this article published just yesterday at bitcoin dot com, kindly sent to me by Andy Barnham. A paragraph reads:
“In an effort to explain why Kazakhstan is considering imposing restrictions on new cryptocurrency mining operations, the Ministry of Energy told local media that data centers minting digital coins use 5 megawatts (MW) of electricity each hour. Just a single mining facility burns an average of 3.6 million kilowatts (kW) a month, the department stated, noting that the amount equals the consumption of 24,000 homes.”
I find all these statistics incredibly alarming and very few people in the art world seem to be joining the dots.
For example, take JR’s recent excitement in announcing his grand entrance into this new technology:
ASIDE: It pains me to write this as I hold JR in high esteem, not least as he’s been a huge influence on a new dimension to my own work during the pandemic. This week, I was very disappointed to learn of his foray into NFTs.
As JR’s tweet says, his NFT page is live here where the concept is described thus:
“…the artwork has been divided into 4,591 Greetings from Giza NFTs, each showing a unique detail of the work made up of black and white shapes.”
So, it’s not just one NFT — it’s one artwork split into 4591 NFTs. The cost of each NFT is $250.
If the energy figures I’ve found so far are correct, this means:
4591 NFTs x 75 kWh = enough electricity to power an average UK home for 88 years!
JR says that his NFTs are powered by Palm, whose site contains this information (bear in mind that ‘gas’ doesn’t refer to the fossil fuel but to further jargon for another type of transaction):
“Palm is a new NFT ecosystem for culture and creativity, built efficiently with Ethereum. The Palm ecosystem features low gas costs, fast transaction finality, and is over 99.9% more energy efficient than Proof of Work systems.“
But I’ve found other up-to-date sources like this that say:
“Ethereum has plans to change its proof-of-work algorithm to an energy efficient proof-of-stake algorithm called Casper. This change would minimize energy consumption and will be implemented gradually according to the latest roadmap. For now, Ethereum is still running on proof-of-work completely.”
In better news, I’ve stumbled across the great example set by Joanie Lemercier, an artist who’s realised the impact of his actions and changed his behaviour to less impactful methods.
The article on Wired reads:
“The culprit was Lemercier’s first blockchain “drop.” The event involved the sale of six so-called nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, which took the form of short videos inspired by the concept of platonic solids. In the clips, dark metallic polyhedrons rotate on loop and glisten—a reference to Lemercier’s installations in the physical world. The works were placed for auction on a website called Nifty Gateway, where they sold out in 10 seconds for thousands of dollars. The sale also consumed 8.7 megawatt-hours of energy, as he later learned from a website called Cryptoart.WTF“
The piece continues:
“After learning about his carbon footprint, Lemercier canceled two planned drops, which had been tentatively priced at $200,000.“
As I mentioned right at the start of the article, the concept of NFTs is a hot topic and its popularity is sky-rocketing, along with its energy consumption:
Imagine what this sudden increase in energy consumption means for the planet while we’re in the midst of a climate crisis.
It’s absolutely catastrophic.
In between hearing so cool, incredible and awesome in that interview with Alex Atallah earlier, there didn’t seem to be space to mention this fatal environmental and social impact.
It seems that some of the companies who run and maintain the blockchains are very aware of their environmental impact and therefore endeavour to highlight that they’re using renewable energy to power their operations.
I’ve found that greenwashing is rife, even down to companies referring to their blockchain as an ecosystem, as if giving the impression from the outset that the whole NFT arena is green from the ground up.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Such is the power consumption from the servers maintaining cryptocurrency blockchains (NFTs are a cryptocurrency) that it’s heavily contributing to global power shortages — so much so that dormant coal mines are being reopened across the globe in a sprint for cheap energy.
Not only that, but the working conditions are often so dangerous (particularly in the illegal mines that are reopening) that there are hundreds of deaths as a result.
To put it bluntly, cryptocurrencies are contributing so massively to the unprecedented spike in energy consumption that hundreds of people are dying in the scramble to produce the energy required to run the servers.
Never mind all the arty bollocks and general guff around NFTs, what about the energy consumption and deaths of hundreds of miners?
I read a reply to a tweet recently (I can’t locate it now) which defensively said something along the lines of:
“NFTs are the best thing I’ve ever done for my family.”
I wonder if that would include his grandchildren and great grandchildren, or the families of all those miners who are currently dying around the world trying to serve the needs of the few who refuse to look beyond the end of their nose in pursuit of a quick buck?
We need to break this cycle.
Keep on thinking about alternatives. There are a myriad of other options open to us. Some of them are described within these pages and, in many cases, previously tried and tested ways remain the best.
Of course, every method of earning a living from our creations will have an impact of some kind but very few will bear such a level of guff, greenwashing, social and environmental impact as NFTs.
The emperor’s new clothes? Yes.
A house of cards? Certainly.
To anybody trading NFTs or planning to enter the arena for the first time, I implore you to stop.
Nature knows nowt about money and this is just a new way to torture the planet.
Earth is the only home we’ve ever known and NFTs are one of the last things it needs right now.
Two articles I discovered a few days after writing this post, which galvanised everything for me, bringing a neat full-stop to a hectic week: