Previously, I had made a personal pledge to never learn anything about NFTs (non-fungible tokens), but two things happened recently to break that pledge and take a closer look.
Thing one was NFTs making a splash in book world when news of a cryptocurrency collective paying 100 times the value for a rare book version of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” moved through the press.
Thing two was watching the new Beanie Babies documentary, “Beanie Mania,” on HBO Max.
First, for those like me who are mystified by this stuff, a quick explainer on NFTs that is gleaned from reading as much as I could bear, but also, caveat emptor, I’m no expert.
When I was in college, it seemed like every third dorm room had a poster version of Gustav Klimt’s famous painting, “The Kiss.” Of course, no one confused those posters with the real thing hanging in a gallery in Austria. They were a kind of copy, a thing that referenced the genuine article.
In the digital space, prior to NFTs there had been no way to determine which version of a file is the original, and which is the copy. There was no such thing as a rare copy of an eBook because every digital copy of an eBook is identical. It’s as if you could swap out a poster of “The Kiss” for the original and no one could tell the difference.
Somehow, and the technical necromancy behind this remains beyond me, but I believe the people who say so, blockchain technology makes it so you can designate one digital file an original and everything else is a copy. The result is the ability to make digital objects that are as scarce as real-world objects.
People were surprised when a cryptocurrency consortium named Spice DAO paid $3,000,000 for one of the pitch books that avant-garde film director Alejandro Jodorowsky had created for his ultimately aborted mid-1970s attempt at a film version of Herbert’s science fiction classic. The pitch book is rare, and estimated to be worth $30,000 to $40,000, but the purchasing consortium paid much more because they had big plans.
They would digitize the book, make an animated series derived from the book, and then burn the physical copy. They thought they had something scarce that they could make scarcer, like “the spice” in Hebert’s novel.
Burning the book seems to have fallen by the wayside, thankfully, since there are only a handful of copies of Jodorowsky’s artifact.
Unfortunately for the purchasers, buying a book is not the same thing as buying the copyright to a book. Just because I have “Star Wars” on DVD doesn’t mean I can make my own sequel.
It’s a bit of a silly story about some folks whose enthusiasm and big plans got out of control, wrapping up a bunch of like-minded enthusiasts into a scheme that fell apart.
This is the same story of “Beanie Mania,” which highlights a number of the figures who participated in the Beanie Baby collectibles craze largely centered in the mid-’90s Chicago area. The allure of the little plush toys was in their scarcity, artificially jiggered by the Ty company. Some of these participants believed that the worth of Beanie Babies could only go up.
Many learned otherwise when the value of their collections plummeted.
It’s possible that a clever and enterprising writer will figure out how to exploit NFTs and the blockchain to their benefit, and if they do, that’s great.
But also, I wonder about a world in which so much energy is going toward creating scarce things traded by the ultrawealthy over digital networks, rather than figuring out how to support art and artists in the spirit of abundance.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read.
1. “Matrix” by Lauren Groff
2. “The Space Between Worlds” by Micaiah Johnson
3. “Bewilderment” by Richard Powers
4. “Theory of Bastards” by Audrey Schulman
5. “Razorblade Tears” by S.A. Cosby
— Karla H. Grinnell, Iowa
Karla clearly doesn’t mind a little of the speculative in her fiction, so I’m recommending one of my favorite books from last year that dwells in that territory: “The 22 Murders of Madison May” by Max Barry.
1. “The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth
2. “Ghost Wall” by Sarah Moss
3. “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” by David Graeber and David Wengrow
4. “In the Eye of the Wild” by Nastassja Martin
5. “When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamin Labatut
— Max M., Denver, Colorado
Max seems to be drawn to fiction that includes philosophizing, and also doesn’t mind some darkness in the tale. I’m going with a classic in that vein, “Journey to the End of the Night” by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
1. “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” by George Packer
2. “The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race” by Walter Isaacson
3. “The Premonition” by Michael Lewis
4. “Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” by Arlie Russell Hochschild
5. “Mercy” by David Baldacci
— Ray C., Elmhurst
Ray looks like someone doing some reading to try to figure out what the heck is going on in the world around him, and I don’t blame him for a second. I’m recommending a book that may be less likely to be on his radar, “American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People” by Jared Yates Sexton.
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.