Ceci n'est pas une non fungible token

| 7 minutes read

Please go ahead, screenshot that NFT - reupload it; hell, use the screenshot as your Twitter PFP despite not having paid a single Wei for it! Yes, I don’t care - It’s because an NFT’s image is METAdata. It’s purely symbolical. Not a certificate of authenticity; it isn’t the actual artwork either. It’s just a symbol for a concept that has a price. Let me explain.

Ceci n’est pas une certificate of authenticity

If you’ve never seen René Magritte’s iconic surrealist painting, I can’t help you. My website isn’t capable of transferring the actual image’s atoms in front of you. So yes, let me be annoyingly pedantic and remark: The picture displayed above, called “The Treachery of Images” isn’t Magritte’s piece.

Rather, it’s a symbolic digital representation of his real work. Someone took a photo of the original painting and so what you’re seeing here is one of the many digital copies of Magritte’s work. The real, physically painted canvas is currently on display in Los Angeles, California.

All of this to convey just that one aspect of Magritte’s work: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, meaning “That’s not a pipe.” Because, the painting depicts a drawing of a pipe and not just a pipe - so really what’s drawn on the canvas is a symbol.

While today, this being a rather obvious observation - in terms of correctly identifying concepts, I think Magritte’s work is significant. It draws us towards a certain confusion - we start conversing, discussing and learning what’s real and what’s “just” a symbol. What’s particularly interesting for me is the pendanty this work emits.

At the risk of being taken for a trolling attempt, Magritte points out the necessity to correctly identify things for what they are. I’ve come across this phenomenon so many times; and I’d wish we’d wake up to it more often. In Kahneman’s words, “System 1” is rushing to false conclusions, when we should engage number 2 - think slowly.

So then what are NFTs?

NFTs are symbols.

There are two reasons, I’ve started connecting symbolism to NFTs. It’s because of two discussions that recently emerged in the field.

The first is Hito Steyerl’s interview with Other Internet where she recaptures the ideas behind strikedao.com, squatting Bundeskunsthalle and experimenting with quadratic voting:

Sam Hart (SH): Squatting a name as a way to occupy the [Bundeskunsthalle] is something we want to ask about as well. Domain squatting has been a practice for as long as there’s been domain names, but there’s a particular significance to deliberately claiming their name? What pointed you in that direction?

Hito Steyerl (HS): Well, I mean, it’s the whole NFT magic. It’s laying claim to something. You don’t exactly know what it’s supposed to be, but it’s supposed to be very strong as a claim.

The context here is that Hito Steyerl, in an attempt to squat the German exhibition hall Bundeskunsthalle, had symbolically bought “bundeskunsthalle.eth” as a claim to use it for running governance experiments; not to claim it as her property. Here’s how she explains it:

SH: what first motivated you to squat art institution ENS domains?

HS: It was sort of a whim, I guess. I knew I had to do a talk at the Royal College of Art in London, which at that point was in lockdown, but they still had a student strike at hand because the college was still trying to take tuition. There were no studio spaces or no activities to talk of, so there was a student strike. Basically, I was trying to roll all of it into one by minting the whole institution as an NFT and giving it to the students in exchange for a larp, which they were supposed to create. Transforming it into a worker, self-managed institution. That was the idea.

HS: When I asked María Paula how to mint this most efficiently she said I should just buy the domain because this would be formatted as an NFT anyway, but it would also have the sort of squatting dimension, which I liked because squatting is also sort of devalidation of a property title. I mean, you’re not claiming property of something, you’re claiming usage of something. It’s not occupying it in the sense that you claim it for yourself. Then, I started minting some other ones at that time. I thought I will maybe use them someday.

So she never intended to claim the Bundeskunsthalle as her property by squatting “bundeskunsthalle.eth”: She used squatting the domain as a lever to motivate a broader discussion about governance. Squatting symbolizing a claim of power.

It is interesting, this type of action in the context of NFTs because it attempts to describe their utility. “Laying claim to something [symbolically].”

But it doesn’t conclusivly answer the question what NFTs are. Really, are they symbols? Or maybe certificates of authenticity?

Are NFTs Certificates of Authenticity?

On Wednesday last week, I was invited to a panel at NFTBerlin to talk about the history of NFTs and “What we’ve done.” I’m bringing it up here, as Beatriz Helena Ramoz, my co-panelist, from dada.nyc touched upon some widely-contested definitions of NFTs.

On stage, we asked ourselves what NFTs are. Certificates of authenticity? Programmatic pointers to storage spaces in the EVM? Or do they represent the actual artwork?

Now, for the sake of fostering autodidacticism, I’d now like to take the NFT screenshotting meme ad absurdum for further seeking answers:

Follow these four easy steps to get rich quick, anon:

  1. Go to your favorite stock training app, and pick your favorite stock. (e.g. AAPL)
  2. Now, look for the image representing the stock.
  3. Screenshot that stock’s image
  4. Profit! And since you didn’t have to spend a single penny to own Apple - you, dear stranger from the interwebs, are a genius.

So yes, here’s my main point: NFTs aren’t certificates of authenticity either. They’re conceptual symbols and we’re giving them a price on markets like OpenSea.

In fact, lots of interactions on the computer are just symbolic - we probably don’t even notice anymore.

For example, when you “like” someone’s photo of a cake on Instagram, you’re tapping the “thumbs-up” button. You’re not directly communicating with anyone really.

Instead, the Instagram user interface tells a server that they can now broadcast information to everybody else that you “like” an image. And really, it’s all just symbolic that you’ve instructed your computer to communicate information.

Sure, we’ve become so comfortable with social media use that we think “we’re communicating with others.” But really, we’re communicating with our computer, and then that computer communicates with other computers until a computer again communicates with a human and so on. By liking we’re not “saying” (as in e.g. speaking/writing) anything online.

And so similarly, NFTs don’t really represent an artist’s artwork - even though an artist might explicitly want you to believe that.

In fact, if you dive all the way down the rabbit hole, you’ll find that the original NFT standard document, the EIP-721.md, defines the NFT’s image within the “ERC721 Metadata JSON Schema”. So there you have it. The image is merely “metadata”, not the actual entity (which is the NFT itself).

NFTs are data structures or financial instruments

This leads us to conclude that essentially NFTs are nothing but on-chain data structures allowing market-based price discovery. If you give them value in, e.g., Ether or USD, they become interest-bearing financial instruments. They’re quite similar to stocks or tokens.

NFTs aren’t the artwork (in most cases); they may also not represent the artwork. And they’re not certificates of authenticity.

Instead, NFTs symbolize what their issuer has done in the past, does today, and could do tomorrow. They’re non-fungible, interest-bearing financial instruments that allow for both speculation (on the investor side) and conceptual liquidation of intellectual property to dollars (on the issuer side).

Learn more

Hito Steyerl’s StrikeDAO project:

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