NFTs have become an unavoidable subject for anyone earning a living as a creative person online, prompting a rush to understand a concept that is deeply mired in the jargon of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. Some promise that NFTs are part of a digital revolution that will democratize fame and give creators control over their destinies. Others point to the environmental impact of crypto and worry about unrealistic expectations set by, say, the news that digital artist Beeple had sold a JPG of his collected works for $69 million in a Christie’s auction.
Just as the trend is shuffling the deck on what is considered “valuable” digital art, however, it’s also re-creating some of the same problems that have plagued artists for ages: confusing hype, the whims of rich collectors, and theft. Digital artists already battle scammers who steal artwork and sell it as merchandise on user-generated T-shirt shops, for instance. NFTs are now simply another thing artists have to check.
Newcomers must untangle practical, logistical, and ethical conundrums if they want to enter the fray before the current wave of interest passes. And as some artists turn their digital creations into profitable offerings for a new audience of friendly, enthusiastic buyers, there’s a question lingering in the background: Is the NFT craze benefiting digital artists, or are artists helping to make wealthy cryptocurrency holders even richer?
“That feeling … is amazing”
Ellie Pritts, a photographer and animator from Los Angeles, learned about NFTs after talking to Foundation, an invite-only NFT marketplace, several months ago. Another artist recruited her for the site’s digital print business, but then she spoke with Kayvon Tehranian, the founder of Foundation, who mentioned its NFT sales.
“I was like, I don’t understand this. But it seems really interesting,” she says. “And there wasn’t a lot of information about it, but I was intrigued. He was actually the person who taught me about it.”
Non-fungible tokens are unique pieces of data that are part of a blockchain, bought and sold with the currency that blockchain supports. The ones you’re hearing about are pretty much all supported by Ethereum.
If you haven’t heard of Ethereum, you’ve probably heard of Bitcoin. Same idea; different blockchain. And while Bitcoin is primarily about exchanging money, Ethereum is better for exchanging assets. Any blockchain can in theory support NFTs, but this one was designed for them. NFTs are sold on any of various online marketplaces, where users can “mint,” or create, one for anything digital.
An NFT doesn’t mean that you own the piece of art itself. Instead, you’re basically buying metadata that grants you bragging rights—or, more often, the opportunity to sell that NFT later for even more money.
It’s a lot to take in, and sounds a bit strange. Pritts was skeptical until she minted and sold her first NFT in February. It was a short video piece she’d made for herself, without the expectation of getting paid: it sold for about a thousand dollars. Animation is time-consuming and expensive to create and has, historically, been difficult to sell for a fair price online. Maybe NFTs would let her do that, she thought. Mainly, though, selling just felt good. “That feeling that something that I made just because I love it has value is amazing,” she says. “The people who bought my pieces were doing a lot of research. They weren’t people that I knew. They decided to invest in me because they had looked into me and thought that I was promising.”
Tiffany Zhong, the founder of Islands, a creator platform that focuses on revenue streams, says that buyers aren’t necessarily supporting artists just as “cash grabs.” Instead, she thinks NFTs could become a different way for creators to build a fan base. Buying in early to an artist’s work comes with a sense of ownership, like having seen a now famous band at its very first gig. “If you’re an early supporter of a creator,” she says, “you’re betting on them.”
Pritts now feels like part of a community: she’s working on half a dozen collaborations with other artists who also mint NFTs, people she would never have met before jumping in a month ago. And, she says, she’s doubled her monthly income—in theory. The money is all in Ether rather than dollars, and she hasn’t cashed out yet.
“You have to put the legwork into it”
One of the difficult things about understanding NFTs is the jargon barrier; all the terms that explain how it works are really only familiar to people who already get crypto. As a result, a lot of the information on NFTs comes from its biggest evangelists: the marketplaces that sell them, the people who invest in them, and the artists who create them. To everyone else, it’s a bamboozle.
Amid the sudden rush of interest in this new avenue for their work, though, many artists have turned into guides for others.
Pinguino Kolb, an artist and longtime cryptocurrency advocate, has been flooded with questions from other artists about NFTs over the past month. “I get a lot of questions on why people are excited about it. That’s even from some of my programmer friends that know the crypto space,” she says. “They don’t understand why people are buying it.”
Why can’t tech fix its gender problem?
Not competing in this Olympics, but still contributing to the industry’s success, were the thousands of women who worked in the Valley’s microchip fabrication plants and other manufacturing facilities from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Some were working-class Asian- and Mexican-Americans whose mothers and grandmothers had worked in the orchards and fruit canneries of the prewar Valley. Others were recent migrants from the East and Midwest, white and often college educated, needing income and interested in technical work.
With few other technical jobs available to them in the Valley, women would work for less. The preponderance of women on the lines helped keep the region’s factory wages among the lowest in the country. Women continue to dominate high-tech assembly lines, though now most of the factories are located thousands of miles away. In 1970, one early American-owned Mexican production line employed 600 workers, nearly 90% of whom were female. Half a century later the pattern continued: in 2019, women made up 90% of the workforce in one enormous iPhone assembly plant in India. Female production workers make up 80% of the entire tech workforce of Vietnam.
Venture: “The Boys Club”
Chipmaking’s fiercely competitive and unusually demanding managerial culture proved to be highly influential, filtering down through the millionaires of the first semiconductor generation as they deployed their wealth and managerial experience in other companies. But venture capital was where semiconductor culture cast its longest shadow.
The Valley’s original venture capitalists were a tight-knit bunch, mostly young men managing older, much richer men’s money. At first there were so few of them that they’d book a table at a San Francisco restaurant, summoning founders to pitch everyone at once. So many opportunities were flowing it didn’t much matter if a deal went to someone else. Charter members like Silicon Valley venture capitalist Reid Dennis called it “The Group.” Other observers, like journalist John W. Wilson, called it “The Boys Club.”
The venture business was expanding by the early 1970s, even though down markets made it a terrible time to raise money. But the firms founded and led by semiconductor veterans during this period became industry-defining ones. Gene Kleiner left Fairchild Semiconductor to cofound Kleiner Perkins, whose long list of hits included Genentech, Sun Microsystems, AOL, Google, and Amazon. Master intimidator Don Valentine founded Sequoia Capital, making early-stage investments in Atari and Apple, and later in Cisco, Google, Instagram, Airbnb, and many others.
Generations: “Pattern recognition”
Silicon Valley venture capitalists left their mark not only by choosing whom to invest in, but by advising and shaping the business sensibility of those they funded. They were more than bankers. They were mentors, professors, and father figures to young, inexperienced men who often knew a lot about technology and nothing about how to start and grow a business.
“This model of one generation succeeding and then turning around to offer the next generation of entrepreneurs financial support and managerial expertise,” Silicon Valley historian Leslie Berlin writes, “is one of the most important and under-recognized secrets to Silicon Valley’s ongoing success.” Tech leaders agree with Berlin’s assessment. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs—who learned most of what he knew about business from the men of the semiconductor industry—likened it to passing a baton in a relay race.
Predicting the climate bill’s effects is harder than you might think
Human decision-making can also cause models and reality to misalign. “People don’t necessarily always do what is, on paper, the most economic,” says Robbie Orvis, who leads the energy policy solutions program at Energy Innovation.
This is a common issue for consumer tax credits, like those for electric vehicles or home energy efficiency upgrades. Often people don’t have the information or funds needed to take advantage of tax credits.
Likewise, there are no assurances that credits in the power sectors will have the impact that modelers expect. Finding sites for new power projects and getting permits for them can be challenging, potentially derailing progress. Some of this friction is factored into the models, Orvis says. But there’s still potential for more challenges than modelers expect.
Putting too much stock in results from models can be problematic, says James Bushnell, an economist at the University of California, Davis. For one thing, models could overestimate how much behavior change is because of tax credits. Some of the projects that are claiming tax credits would probably have been built anyway, Bushnell says, especially solar and wind installations, which are already becoming more widespread and cheaper to build.
Still, whether or not the bill meets the expectations of the modelers, it’s a step forward in providing climate-friendly incentives, since it replaces solar- and wind-specific credits with broader clean-energy credits that will be more flexible for developers in choosing which technologies to deploy.
Another positive of the legislation is all its long-term investments, whose potential impacts aren’t fully captured in the economic models. The bill includes money for research and development of new technologies like direct air capture and clean hydrogen, which are still unproven but could have major impacts on emissions in the coming decades if they prove to be efficient and practical.
Whatever the effectiveness of the Inflation Reduction Act, however, it’s clear that more climate action is still needed to meet emissions goals in 2030 and beyond. Indeed, even if the predictions of the modelers are correct, the bill is still not sufficient for the US to meet its stated goals under the Paris agreement of cutting emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030.
The path ahead for US climate action isn’t as certain as some might wish it were. But with the Inflation Reduction Act, the country has taken a big step. Exactly how big is still an open question.
China has censored a top health information platform
The suspension has met with a gleeful social reaction among nationalist bloggers, who accuse DXY of receiving foreign funding, bashing traditional Chinese medicine, and criticizing China’s health-care system.
DXY is one of the front-runners in China’s digital health startup scene. It hosts the largest online community Chinese doctors use to discuss professional topics and socialize. It also provides a medical news service for a general audience, and it is widely seen as the most influential popular science publication in health care.
“I think no one, as long as they are somewhat related to the medical profession, doesn’t follow these accounts [of DXY],” says Zhao Yingxi, a global health researcher and PhD candidate at Oxford University, who says he followed DXY’s accounts on WeChat too.
But in the increasingly polarized social media environment in China, health care is becoming a target for controversy. The swift conclusion that DXY’s demise was triggered by its foreign ties and critical work illustrates how politicized health topics have become.
Since its launch in 2000, DXY has raised five rounds of funding from prominent companies like Tencent and venture capital firms. But even that commercial success has caused it trouble this week. One of its major investors, Trustbridge Partners, raises funds from sources like Columbia University’s endowments and Singapore’s state holding company Temasek. After DXY’s accounts were suspended, bloggers used that fact to try to back up their claim that DXY has been under foreign influence all along.
Part of the reason the suspension is so shocking is that DXY is widely seen as one of the most trusted online sources for health education in China. During the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, it compiled case numbers and published a case map that was updated every day, becoming the go-to source for Chinese people seeking to follow covid trends in the country. DXY also made its name by taking down several high-profile fraudulent health products in China.
It also hasn’t shied away from sensitive issues. For example, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia in 2019, it published the accounts of several victims of conversion therapy and argued that the practice is not backed by medical consensus.
“The article put survivors’ voices front and center and didn’t tiptoe around the disturbing reality that conversion therapy is still prevalent and even pushed by highly ranked public hospitals and academics,” says Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.