(2021-03-08) Sloan A Coat Check Ticket a Magic Spell

Robin Sloan: A coat check ticket, a magic spell. A while back, a digital acquain­tance of mine went to work for Zora, a company engineering a crypto­graphic protocol — really, a market — for artists. More recently, Zora published a bundle of devel­oper documentation and a client library for this protocol. It cannot happen that an art-adjacent SDK is published and I do not poke at it, so poke I did.

Zora aims itself at artists, and its protocol deals in crypto­graphic objects associ­ated with media: images, sound files, chunks of text, whatever.

I minted something; as a result, I now “own” a tiny digital object that refers to my short story The Writer & the Witch. This operation didn’t have any effect on my ownership of, say, the copyright to the actual work; it just brought this odd new entity, this amulet, this coat check ticket into the world (and into my digital wallet).

The object is just a reference. It associates your identity with the hash of the media (remembering that a hash is a numeric fingerprint, ~unique to any sequence of bytes) along with the media’s URL, where it can actually be viewed, played, read, whatever. (NFT)

Note: this submission costs money! Ethereum’s transaction fees are called “gas”, and the price of gas is shock­ingly high... $20

In the end, it did burn several $20s out of my wallet, and when the minting opera­tion succeeded, it was with a ~$100 surcharge. If reading that makes you feel a strong wave of “why bother”, I don’t blame you!

What else can you do with Zora? You can buy and sell, of course. The vibe is “cool internet art gallery”.

Each object maintains a perfect provenance

When it’s minted, an object can have a profit-sharing agreement burned into its soul.

I was feeling mostly perplexed by the whole experience, but/and then I read about a pair of projects that turned me around a bit

CryptoPunks are sort of the skeleton key for under­standing this whole weird market, because (1) they were the first project of this kind, (2) they’re legit­i­mately fun and charming, and (3) they are now worth a LOT of money.

if you look at this stuff head-on, with a cold alien gaze, it seems absurd. I told you I “own” the object representing my short story, but if you change one character in the text — add one comma — it will produce a different hash, and you can happily “own” the object repre­senting that version, even though it’s function­ally identical. Only the fact that I minted the object myself makes it meaningful. It’s all very tenuous

But then: if you look at art head-on, with a cold alien gaze, it also seems absurd and tenuous. As the trenchant Abe Burmeister wrote on Twitter, anthropologically speaking there is near infinite evidence humans like owning scarce objects and also like to turn common objects into socially constructed repre­sen­ta­tions of value

These are markets in which scarcity-by-design (artificial scarcity) is a huge part of the fun, and that’s not true for all, or even most, markets for creative work. (I’m thinking of the market for, say, streaming TV shows, or science fiction novels, in which the fun, as well as the value, comes from abundance and shared enjoyment, not scarcity and sole owner­ship.)

This is really 100% social; it’s about conjuring a dream of ownership, of value. The CryptoPunks were, and are, a magic spell; I mean that in a basically literal sense. (magick)

One of the most inter­esting things Zora has published is here in their FAQ: Instead of creating artifi­cial scarcity by selling copies of digital goods … we propose an alternative: make one original openly acces­sible to everyone no matter who owns it, and sell that original token over and over again. As your work becomes more popular, people who want to collect it can buy the media — first from you, then from each other. Each time the work is resold, you get a share of the sale price.

A follow-up on the orgy of energy consumption. I ran the numbers and discovered that the exploration documented above produced approximately 390 kg of CO2, equivalent to burning a barrel of oil

My intuition is that it will be very important for Zora and its peers to act as central galleries and marketplaces. So, perhaps we’ll find ourselves in another situation (there have been many) where the decentralized (DeCentralization) promise of the bl — ch —  lures people onto a somewhat more traditional, centralized platform — albeit one with some interesting properties. It feels like the digital utopians (I have been one; I might be still) learn this lesson over and over: that accursed “centralization” often coincides with accessibility, usability, efficiency, good design — the list goes on.

Edited:    |       |    Search Twitter for discussion