Production: Archaeology of an NFT
In the summer of 2021, amid an explosion in sales of NFTs, Word Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee put up for auction the original source code for the Web. Even before the auction would hear its first bid, Berners-Lee, who had released the code open source at its inception and opted against commercially licensing it, would be asked to defend his decision to commodify it now as a digital asset. “This is totally aligned with the values of the web,” he explained in an interview with the Guardian. “The web is just as free and just as open as it always was. The core codes and protocols on the web are royalty free, just as they always have been.”
The incident highlighted the fault lines in people’s perception of the NFT market and more broadly of the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. On one side are the skeptics who point out variously that the NFT space is an overhyped bubble or that NFTs fail on their promise to protect artists. On the other side are those who acclaim the new tech as a revolutionary shift in finance and the art market. Either way, NFTs raise a number of questions about the future of digital objects and networks—and about the cultures that daily interact with these objects and networks.
A recent slate of articles suggests that the NFT economy has been transformative for creators. As Nancy Zastudil writes in the arts magazine Hyperallergic, “Artists are using NFTs to operate outside of conventional art-world models.” They’re leveraging the blockchain to reach new buyers and set more equitable conditions for the sale of their works. Rebekah Bastian contends in Forbes that the marketplace holds great potential for diversity, equity, and inclusion. A case in point is that NFTs extend beyond the economies of North America and Europe, as Fikayo Owoeye and Nneka Chile report on African artists adopting NFTs for their strong financial returns.
Indeed, if nothing else, the space has been lucrative. The digital artist Beeple, in likely the highest-profile example to date, sold a mosaic of images from his long-running Everydays series for $69 million, and NBA Top Shot has released thousands of collectible basketball highlights generating over half a billion dollars.
For this assignment, you’ll be asked to conduct an archaeology of an NFT. The area of the circuit of culture that we’ll focus on is production. As with other online phenomena, such as memes and remixes on social media, NFTs involve a form of production that is always also reproduction and mutation. As Jesse Walden puts it on the a16z Podcast, “the number of times a file has been reproduced on the internet is directly correlated to the value of that file’s NFT, meaning the more times a piece of media gets shared online, the more social value it has.” To use a prominent example, the more the Doge meme circulates on social media and accumulates meaning in its propagation, the more valuable it becomes when it is minted as an NFT, as was borne out when the original Doge photograph sold as an NFT for $4 million and quickly escalated to $220 million when it was fractionalized and resold as shares. Similarly, the more recognizable the basketball highlight and the more it has been posted and retweeted, commented on and remixed, the more valuable it is likely to be when it sells on NBA Top Shot. NFTs offer a further dimension in this accumulation of social meaning in that their provenance, tracked on the blockchain, becomes part of the value of the underlying cultural object. In this way, they combine features of internet memes and traditional art collecting.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are unique digital assets minted on a blockchain. Unlike cryptocurrency coins, which are on the one hand divisible into millions or even trillions of pieces and on the other hand hold the same value as every other coin and thus can be exchanged with one another one-for-one, NFTs are indivisible and entirely unique. Think of them as certificates of ownership, like the deed to a house or the title to a car, except that there’s no central office that issues them. Anyone can create an NFT for any kind of asset, whether a digital file or a real-world object. What’s more, because these assets are managed by a blockchain, they can be programmed in all kinds of interesting ways. An NFT can be hardcoded to deliver a 10 percent return to the original creator each time the asset is transferred. A designer can set up an NFT so that it uses the buyer’s wallet address to generate an image that is absolutely singular to that buyer and forever attached to their cryptographic identity. The possibilities are only beginning to be explored.
In Berners-Lee’s case, the NFT references four objects. The most prominent, which captured all the headlines, is a tar file that archives 9,555 lines of program code for the Web with original timestamps from 1990 and 1991. But that archive, as historically significant as it is and as much as it is the driving force of interest in the NFT, doesn’t offer much in the way of showcasing the purchase. This is likely why the NFT also includes several items purposely created to be packaged with the original code, including a 30-minute animated video visualizing the code being typed, a digital poster of all the lines, and an autographed letter from Berners-Lee reflecting on the process.
As a press release from Sotheby’s announced before the items were put up for auction, the NFT’s bidding would start at $1,000 and be minted on the Ethereum blockchain. The NFT, titled “This Changed Everything,” uses the ERC-721 token standard, the first such standard for minting non-fungible tokens. The standard was released on Ethereum in 2017 as a format for creating smart contracts that can function as exchangeable tokens. Each NFT has a contract address, which in the case of the World Wide Web NFT is 0x86ade256037d80d6d42df8df96d5be21cd25bd8f and can be used to track the provenance of the token. To date, the token has three transactions, two that were involved in minting it and one transfer, presumably to the new owner, who won the auction with a bid of $5.4 million.
- OpenSea’s “The Non-Fungible Token Bible: Everything You Need to Know about NFTs”
- a16z Podcast, “All about NFTs”
- OpenSea NFT marketplace
- Hic et Nunc NFT marketplace
- NFT Timeline
- Choose an NFT.
- Claim your NFT in the thread on Piazza. Your choice should not duplicate the selection of any other student in our class.
- Determine the blockchain on which the NFT was minted, for example, Ethereum, Solana, or Tezos.
- Capture an image of the artwork or some visual piece of the NFT if it is not an image. For this assignment, you will be required to provide a feature image. Be careful to follow the image requirements so you don’t end up with an excessively large file.
- Provide links to resources where applicable.
- Credit images where possible by providing a caption.
All assignments should be submitted as text documents on Blackboard and to the blog on the course site. For further instructions on posting to the blog, check out this explainer.
Due November 12 by 5:00 p.m. EST.