Tangibles and non-fungibles
9 min read

Tangibles and non-fungibles

Tangibles and non-fungibles

When I was 7 years old, my mum surprised me. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I don't think she did either, but one day she picked me up from school and told me we were meeting a man with a computer.

We pulled up to a small house and a guy, who couldn't look more like an 80s gamer if he tried with his metal band t-shirt straining over his portly stomach, long greasy hair, pale skin and thick glasses, showed me a machine called an Amiga 500, and a big box of games.

Oh man, how my eyes lit up when I saw that tattered old box with 'GAMES' scribbled on it with a marker pen. The Amiga 500 was pretty cutting edge at the time. Today it looks like a computer that would be used to parody the 80s...

It was my first introduction to computers and since that day computers and pixels in one shape or another have been an important part of my daily life, from gaming to learning to socialising to working, and even ranting in places such as this.

I'm quite sure computers are an important part of your life as well.

That's why today I'm mulling over how tech has grown into us, and our responsibility to shepherd the never-ending content streams into a more ethical and genuinely valuable direction.

And, how NFTs might just save the day.

Tangible value

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Unlike him, I often shoot in colour. There are other differences too. 

Over the last year I've described how I've created systems, using software, to make me a bit more productive and less distractive. It's working well, I've been reading and writing more, and I've found time to do more of what I like. But recently something has been bugging me.

It's difficult to put into words but things just felt... off.

With everything going through screens, the photos I was taking, the words I was reading, and the ideas I was noting down seemed to sit in a parallel universe. They exist but could just as quickly disappear from reality as quickly as they appeared.

And that's when I realised: I don't have enough analogue in my life.

So many of my habits switched to digital because it was quicker, cheaper, faster. But, the more digital I go, the more removed I seem to feel from the world around me. Things just felt out of balance.

I suppose my subconscious realised this before my dimwitted conscious did because a few months ago I switched to using film cameras.

I thought it was just down to the fact I lost some passion in photography. But now I realise it was also because all these digital tools around me were putting up a thin but far reaching screen between me and the world.

Holding an old camera in my hands, loading film, twiddling dials, and hearing that click feels tangible, more connected to my physical and mental self.

The process is harder and less forgiving, but I have to admit that after I printed off some select photos I actually felt like I was quite good at taking photos. It was a genuine surprise, an 'ah, I actually can do this' moment, despite the fact I've been paid to take photos on a regular basis for the last 10 years.

I just never had that feeling with digital cameras, with the unlimited opportunities to retake, reframe, and relight shots at will.

It's interesting how much more valuable the photos felt. The way the ink held the colours, the feel of the paper, the smell of it.

The paper held value (to me at least) because of the thinking and the actions that went into the process of bringing it into this world.

And this brings me on to the modern obsession with 'value'.

Tokenising value

(C) NYT

The word 'value' is used a lot online nowadays. Sayings such as 'always add value' float around the Twittersphere, advising you to focus on what people want in order to grow your follow counts.

I know this because I tried it.

Audience building guides tell you that by 'offering value' you will get followers which will lead to engagement which will lead to website visits which will lead to subscribers. They tell you that threads work well, which is why nowadays Twitter is inundated with threads about threads about threads.

I went into that rabbit hole briefly and it did work, to an extent. I wrote threads with how-to guides, top five film lists, and book summaries. But the process always left me cold.

Why? Because I was solely focusing on the utility of my work.

I was judging success by numbers. I needed people to follow, like and share on Twitter. I needed subscribers, and lots of them. So I did what I thought I had to do, for a short while.

But you see, I think these guides and social media gurus have got 'value' all wrong.

Value is not dangling something out there hoping it'll stick, and trying something else if it doesn't. Value is creating something with care, with intention.

Value is not taking 50,000 random photos and hoping one of them will be liked. Value is putting in the time to build a steady body of work that was built with intention, each and every photo, no matter if 99% will be ignored by the world.

There's a difference between learning through iteration and learning through machine gunning. Fortunately, something is now afoot that might just tip the balance towards the craftspeople.

Non-fungibles

The NFT (non-fungible token) craze is barely understandable and is, on the whole, bonkers. But, beneath the hysteria there is genuinely something important happening.

Here is where I'll attempt to explain what an NFT is, and likely fail at making it understandable. Advanced apologies dear reader.

Take the Mona Lisa. You could have it on a poster, a perfect recreation of it could be made, and you can Google it and have it on screen. But there is and will always only be one actual Mona Lisa - that artwork is non-fungible. All the duplicates on post cards can be replaced like for like - they are fungible.

NFTs are then a way to attach genuine value to online art.

Right now the market is kind of insane. All the newly minted crypto millionaires who bought Ethereum for $1 years ago are buying monkey jpeg NFTs for hundreds of thousands of dollars because, to them, it costs nothing and there's infinite upside. That's because if a few actually do catch on and become the new Mona Lisa's of the modern age, they'll be swimming in even more cash, or Ethereum.

It's also because of signalling and mimetic desire. You can use those monkey jpegs as profile pictures, signalling to the online world that you own something expensive. You can't drive a Ferrari through Facebook.

People deride this, rightly so, but that doesn't mean there's no value to be found in NFTs.

Before, published writing was expensive and relied on a small cabal of publishers to get you printed. If you wrote something and wanted the world to see it, you needed to have it printed and bound and distributed. If it was good, you would be rewarded handsomely. But you relied on publishers and media and business to get the work out there.

Today, I could write 1 million words and put it online for basically nothing. If it's great, I might get several thousand views - but little if any money from that.

But what if I minted this work into an NFT?

If my 1 million word NFT is gibberish, it will fail. Nobody would pay for it and even if someone did nobody else will see value in it, so they're stuck with it. They made a bad bet.

If, however, my writing is something of note, something to shout about, someone out there could see value in it and invest. And perhaps others will too, and want to own a piece. The value will grow and more and more people will want to own a piece of my epic novel.

And as my fame increases, and my wealth allows me to write more epics, the early supporters of my work also benefit from that with a more valuable NFT. Even if they sell it they can take a percentage of future sales, forever.

NFTs bring value to online art and allow anyone to invest in anyone or anything they believe in. It is a response to a world drowning in content.

A finger in the content pumps

Hans Brinker, who saved Holland by putting his finger in a hole in a dyke. 

There's value in computers, in digital experiences. I've seen that since I was 7 years old. But there's also been an uncomfortable shift from using our hands to favouring digital content because of its ease to create and consume - something that is damaging both to us and art forms online and off.

'Smart Phone, Dumb Phone' by addiction guru Alan Carr is a book I haven't read, because I don't have time with my Twitter and Instagram doomscrolling. But I can see what it's about and I do intend to read it.

And this intention got me thinking about the ethics of communicators and marketers, particularly in the nonprofit sector, contributing to digital addictions and the mass creation of content.

This might get me into some hot water, but I am beginning to wonder if it is morally ok to do what everyone else does with pumping out endless streams of messages and content to keep the distraction machine going?

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm incredibly fond of computers and all things digital, as my Amiga 500 story and regular mentions of Nintendo attest to. I want a world with internet and Twitter and all the rest of it (well, quite a lot of it).

But as the old saying goes: moderation is virtue.

When I was 15, I played a football management game for an average of 40 hours per week over a summer holiday. Overall I gave at least a month, an entire month!, of my life to that game. While it gave me in-depth knowledge of the Lithuanian football league in 1998, I could probably have spent at least some of that time more productively.

The thrust of my thinking here is that I wonder what would happen if we put the breaks on the endless content pump and invested time, energy, and money in crafting less, but more valuable, content?

The kind of content people would pay to see or pay to own a piece of.

The kind of stuff parts of the NFT movement is trying to create.

Instead of social media content plans demanding we schedule 30 messages a day saying the same thing but differently over and over and over again, could that time instead be spent making a few big, great things?

I wonder if communication practitioners and marketers (i.e. me) will look back in a few years' time and say, Yes perhaps we should’ve messaged less.

Yes we should have focused more on artful content that might just stand the test of time, rather than a thousand tweets per month that are gone in a blink of the eye.

A couple of years ago I spoke to a professional photographer, a winner of a World Press Photo prize no less, who said that the difference between a pro and non-pro photographer is that the pro's work should stand the test of time. That photo you pay them to take today should still be useable in 20 or 30 years' time, at least.

Shouldn't more online creators think like that?

Perhaps we should all think about how we contribute to the never ending thumb sliding addiction on people's phones with blink-and-its-gone content that pulls them away from reading and watching things that somebody somewhere has crafted with time and love.

The stories, the videos, the poems, and the messages that hold real value, the things that stand the test of time, are the things that make a real, long lasting impact. That's where the real value is at.

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more