NFTs and Identities

For all the criticism levied at NFTs — and as merited as it is based on the way they’re being popularized — their verification capabilities are poised to make them the first blockchain application that begins to massively reshape how we engage with hyperreality.

First, let’s overcome some of the obstacles to understanding the utility of blockchain technology at all. It is often described as a solution in search of a problem, which is a modernist take that fundamentally misses the point of having an idea. Much of the difficulty the masses have in accepting the concept (in my humble opinion) comes from the confluence of a few factors: first, very few alternatives for Internet protocols have been popularized to the degree of blockchain, so the concept of having any alternative at all seems odd — especially when we live in a world that would have us believe we can already do anything and everything we want to on the Internet as it is now. Second, blockchain spent a relatively short amount of time as a niche interest before it gained a great deal of notoriety, as a technology and as a cultural fixture. It came up while still nascent, shrouded by cyberpunk and anti-corporate ethos, full of mysterious figures with aliases and agendas, and fundamentally poised as a financial technology. Full of intrigue, scandal, and promises of riches, it demanded skepticism. Altogether, it’s understandable that the average person has a vastly different relationship with blockchain than with other members of its cohort like machine learning, whose applications were far more obvious and has already been widely accepted. People are dubious about blockchain because it doesn’t feel obvious at all — nobody asked for it, nobody saw it coming, and nobody really knows where it’s going. That (also in my humble opinion) is what makes it great. It’s a platform we can use to speculate and create the future, without the burdens of assumption or expectation.

Back to the relevance of NFTs. To understand the importance of blockchain, it needs to be looked at as a [legitimate] platform. And to convince the layperson to do so, the platform needs to be used in compelling ways that spur our collective imagination while also proving the platform’s usefulness in a real way: “see, this is what you can do with it.” This is what we have in NFTs (which are themselves something of a platform as well). And while NFTs functionally don’t introduce any fundamentally new paradigms — we already have ways to verify and own things online — they have a combination of characteristics and advantages that differentiate them from existing alternatives for verification. Those characteristics + their nature as a blockchain technology are what allow us to do new things with them, like owning digital art. One way of thinking of it is that NFTs are enabling the next generation of the terms of our interactions in hyperreality, not necessarily the interactions themselves.

NFTs implement paradigms from physical reality into hyperreality with higher functional and conceptual parity than other existing implementations. Owning an NFT is similar to owning a title or a key (or a hybrid of both, since they track ownership history). For users, this simplicity is attractive and serves as a better analogue to the way we interact, and transact, in physical reality. Most of the popular NFTs are built on open source blockchains, which means other platforms can implement and interoperate with them. That’s a recipe for widespread adoption. It’s an increasingly rare case of modern software innovation that enhances physically real life by working in harmony with it — it’s even poised to augment it in new ways, as NFTs and physical objects become associated and interface with one another (check out the tungsten/crypto phenomenon — the Verge, Opensea, Bloomberg [paywall]).

So the function and concept are there. But how are they being used? NFTs are currently suffering from many of the same cultural roadblocks that blockchain is dealing with, as well as a host of their own. The technology is being heralded by tech-nouveau bros, and if you’ve spent any time with NFT culture, it quickly feels like the Venn diagram of people who hype them and shill GME and Dogecoin is a circle (thankfully, it’s not... quite). To make things worse, when you take into consideration that even the cheapest ones are selling for head-scratching amounts, the whole thing feels like yet another thinly veiled playground for the ultra-rich and not at all like the platform of the future or a tool for empowerment. That’s precisely why I felt it was important to write this piece, and what I hope people begin to see when they look at this technology: the importance of NFTs (and blockchain) doesn’t live and die in the context of compensation — though for many, the new compensation frameworks and mechanisms for distributed control may truly be a financial game changer (not to mention change the landscape of art and further legitimize digital media as a form). NFTs are about what’s in the name: fungibility, or lack thereof. You can use them to prove, without a doubt, the originality and individuality of anything, which has implications not only for ownership, but for access. We can apply this to any digital entity: a piece of art, and thus a collection, but also an identity, and thus, membership in or even the existence of a group. Authentication is a huge part of real and hyperreal life, and a huge issue in both. That’s where NFTs will change the game.

Let’s think about identity and verification in physical life. To prove my identity, most of the time I don’t need to do much. My partner sees me and knows who I am. My cat as well, and my family, friends, etc. Bouncers and bartenders take my diver’s license and vaccine cards as proof of my identity and status without issue.

As we make our way into hyperreality, with phone numbers, credit cards, passports, and other digital registries, proprietary technologies have handled more or less well enough for the majority, and their grounding in physical objects as keys helps a great deal — though they are not without significant room for improvement.

Once fully online, we don’t have a single consistent, open source, interoperable protocol to serve as an analogue for physically verifying our identity. I can do my best to present a consistent and verifiable identity by curating my profiles, claiming the same handle across social platforms or minimizing variation between them, and use my social presence as a verifier in itself: I post photos with my partner so for anyone who knows either of us, we are both almost certainly who we say we are. If I can’t claim my handle or a platform isn’t particularly social, maybe I can attach my website or email address to my profile, sign in with a different service (eg Facebook, Google) that will offer verification by virtue of its connection, or link to a different social profile. In any case, most of the time, there are any number of factors that are not cohesively designed to enforce a verification in a social sense, and are almost entirely meted by third parties. At any time, we’re at the mercy of whether any such factors are implemented in a conceptually and functionally standard manner.

NFTs could be that missing ingredient. Imagine they are used to power “NFIDs”, as an additional layer of technology or by simply showing ownership of a specific NFT that is associated with a particular identity or set of permissions. We can even go broader than the individual in scale — NFTs can be collectively owned, denoting groups (families in hyperreality?), or cataloged in a public register to confer membership. I don’t want to be part of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, but they clearly understand the implications of this technology and have put together one of the more compelling early adopter cases for its use. Other groups are already also commercializing and experimenting with these possibilities:

Steve Aoki is working on a show based on a character from a previous NFT drop, called Dominion X. The show’s site says that it’ll be an episodic series launched on the blockchain (the first short video is on OpenSea), and there are hundreds of NFTs already associated with the show.

There’s also a show called Stoner Cats (yes, it’s about cats that get high, and yes it stars Mila Kunis, Chris Rock, and Jane Fonda), which uses NFTs as a sort of ticket system. Currently, there’s only one episode available, but a Stoner Cat NFT (which, of course, is called a TOKEn) is required to watch it.

NFTs, Explained, by Mitchell Clark for The Verge

You can imagine artists minting and selling tickets to their own concerts as NFTs (good riddance, Ticketmaster), access to social groups like Discord servers being meted by ownership, using an NFT to unlock your car or house and being able to just mint a new one or burn an old one whenever you may need, using one to provide your digital signature, and more. I may be outing myself as a non-computer scientist here, as I’m sure some of these things have already been tried in other capacities or may have inherent security flaws, but the examples are given for the sake of speculation. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, right? In any case, as we move more of our essence into hyperreality, people desire to have more experiences there, and new hyperreal and hybrid experiences emerge, we need higher interoperability and personal control — NFTs could be a step in that direction.