Robin Sloan
the lab
February 2021

A coat check ticket,
a magic spell

The Mint, 1809, Thomas Rowlandson
The Mint, 1809, Thomas Rowlandson

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.

Here’s what I learned.

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I’m not going to explain the bl — ch —  (never write it out; it’s like speak­ing the name of Sauron) because I presume you already know about this kind of dis­trib­uted cryptographic ledger. What you might not know about — I didn’t — is a spe­cial kind of entry designed to stand apart. The tech­ni­cal term is “non-fungible token”, with the ugly acronym NFT. It’s just a dis­tin­guish­able object with unique char­ac­teristics. There’s noth­ing rad­i­cal about that — this newslet­ter is non-fungible, in that sense — but these cryp­to­graphic objects are tracked (and bought and sold) inside a sys­tem that is oth­er­wise currency-like, so their dis­tin­guisha­bil­ity becomes noteworthy.

Radioactive dol­lars in Scrooge McDuck’s money bin.

Zora aims itself at artists, and its protocol deals in cryp­to­graphic objects asso­ci­ated with media: images, sound files, chunks of text, whatever. First and foremost, the pro­to­col allows you to cre­ate those objects, in an oper­a­tion called “mint­ing”, which is a nice bit of language.

This is where you dis­cover the whole sys­tem is more atten­u­ated than you imagined, because it’s not like you’re “uploading your media into the bl — ch — ”. No no no — noth­ing of the sort. 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.

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).

To mint the story and pro­duce the object, I wrote a short JavaScript pro­gram that used Zora’s client library to

  1. connect an Ethereum account that I control,
  2. compute the hash of the story’s text, and
  3. submit a request, including the account’s address and the hash, to the Zora contract on the Ethereum bl — ch — 

Note: this submission costs money! Ethereum’s trans­ac­tion fees are called “gas”, and the price of gas is shock­ingly high. When I asked my script to esti­mate how much I’d pay for the sub­mis­sion, it kept show­ing me an enor­mous number; I was sure it was a bug, and spent eas­ily an hour try­ing to fig­ure it out before realizing, oh, no, that’s … actu­ally the number.

And, whew, when you’re tin­ker­ing in this domain, you’ve got to be careful, because your mis­takes can cost you money. It really changes the feel­ing of run­ning a script when you know it might be about to burn $20 out of your wallet.

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!

But it turns out even egre­gious fees can’t over­whelm the plea­sure of get­ting some­thing to work for the first time.

What else can you do with Zora? You can buy and sell, of course. The vibe is “cool inter­net art gallery”. You find an object you like, place a bid, and, if you win, your name goes in the ledger. You can keep the object forever, lux­u­ri­at­ing in its aura, or you can sell it again.

That’s where some inter­est­ing capa­bil­i­ties pop up:

Each object main­tains a per­fect provenance—a chain of own­er­ship back to its creator. That’s legit­i­mately use­ful; it auto­mates some­thing that can be onerous, even treacherous, in the ~analog~ context.

When it’s minted, an object can have a profit-sharing agreement burned into its soul. Let’s say I sell the object I minted to the influ­en­tial col­lec­tor Katerina Hash-Jones and, sim­ply by dint of her own­er­ship, its value skyrockets. (Kate­rina only buys the best.) She sells it for 10X what she paid, but/and because of the agree­ment embed­ded in the object, half of that price is shared with me. And so on for the next sale, and the next, forever. My share could be 10%, or 1%, or 99%.

I think this is Zora’s most provoca­tive capabil­ity; it feels genuinely new.

It’s important to say here that all of this market activity is tracked and verified with the same whirling, churning, million-monkey mechanism that powers every bl — ch —  of this kind: an orgy of energy consumption, running nonstop. I think anyone participating in this market, or thinking about it, needs to contend with that fact.

So, I had tin­kered around, burned a few $20s, and minted my object. 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.

The stu­dio called Larva Labs has pro­duced two pio­neer­ing bl — ch —  art projects: Cryp­toP­unks and Autoglyphs, both of which intro­duce sets of these objects — large but finite, Pokémon-like — that can be bought and sold. Cryp­toP­unks is more popular; Auto­glyphs is lovelier. I enjoyed this pod­cast interview with the Larva Labs duo; every­one in the con­ver­sa­tion is engaged and excited but/and also prac­ti­cal and at least a lit­tle bit skeptical.

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.

Top sale prices for CryptoPunks
Top sale prices for CryptoPunks

Eyes: popped! Nose: bleeding! Humans: weird!

Again, I’ll remind you — this is so so crucial — when you buy CryptoPunk #2890, you are NOT buying an image of a little blue dude, as depicted above. Rather, you’re buy­ing an entry in a ledger that as­so­ciates your iden­tity — yours alone — with Cryp­toP­unk #2890, an image of a lit­tle blue dude. That’s it. That’s the deal.

I think the wild mar­ket for CryptoPunks makes a strong case for the agree­ments avail­able on Zora. Larva Labs ini­tially dis­trib­uted these objects for free! If the Cryp­toP­unks had been minted with a 1% profit share burned in, their cre­ators would be get­ting a stream of income from all these eye-popping sales. Not a bad thing to imagine. (If you want to feel like you’re going insane, read this very dili­gent arti­cle about Cryp­toP­unk valuation.)

Listen: 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. Com­bin­ing the two seems pretty reasonable, hard part is get­ting peo­ple to agree on which objects

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.

Will Zora be able to cast a spell of its own? Impos­si­ble to know.

I think all of this feels more nat­ural to peo­ple who are immersed in the fine art market, or the market for rare limited-edition sneakers, etc. (I am not!) These are markets in which scarcity-by-design 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.)

So, while some of the com­pa­nies build­ing these pro­to­cols and plat­forms make grand pro­nounce­ments about rein­vent­ing the eco­nom­ics of like, ALL CRE­ATIVE PRODUCTION, I think it’s more accu­rate to say they are estab­lish­ing a new kind of fine art mar­ket, one with some use­ful and provoca­tive new capa­bil­i­ties. (And/or maybe, by extension, they are propos­ing the “fine art-ification” of a larger swath of cre­ative production … which is a coher­ent goal, even if it’s not one I support.)

The whole thing is silly, but a lot of things are silly, and humans do them anyway, and derive great plea­sure in the doing. I’ll confess: I’m curi­ous about what could be made and mar­keted in this way! 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.

You might detect some res­o­nance there with the “unlocking the com­mons” model that I’ve used sev­eral times, most recently with an e-book novella in 2020. There is a sense here of going with the grain of the inter­net; let­ting the bits flow freely, copied and recopied, while their coat check ticket, their daemon, that tight lit­tle cryp­to­graphic knot, sits serene, accru­ing value. Maybe.

My ini­tial explo­ration is complete; impov­er­ished by the price of vir­tual gas, I’ll let these ques­tions sim­mer for a while.

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. Like just … black smoke pouring out of my laptop keyboard here. The former figure is from a nice (by which I mean: horrifying) carbon footprint calculator for Ethereum wallets, the latter from an equally nice (😱) carbon equivalency calculator from the EPA. You can quibble with the accuracy of the Ethereum calculator in particular — it’s a tricky thing to estimate — but even if it was off by a factor of ten, the result would still be shocking. I bought a carbon offset for 3X the amount I produced; it cost $10, and is literally the least a person can do.

I’m curious to know your reaction to all this. Do you find it absurd but interesting? Oppressively Black Mirror-ish? Straightforwardly exciting?

(I guess I’m also curious to know if it even makes sense. If anything/everything could have been clearer, do tell.)

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️

An inter­est­ing note from a sub­scriber:

I don’t make or sell art online, so this is just a theory, but one of the advan­tages of the cen­tral­ized plat­forms seems to be democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the abil­ity to pro­mote yourself. Value comes from the amount of atten­tion and inter­est (which I want to say is true for any piece of art, com­bined with the scarcity factor), so it’s an inter­est­ing thought exper­i­ment to try to guess how the creator-consumer ecosys­tem would adapt on a platformless sys­tem.

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 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.

This is a use­ful contribution from Chris Krycho, who wonders

what might hap­pen if we tried Zora … but with­out the “mining”? And from this won­der­ing emerges a dream of a research pro­gram for technologists: What would the imple­men­ta­tion of such tech­nolo­gies look like? What would their edges and lim­i­ta­tions be? What would they afford, and what would they not afford? How might they be well-adapted to us and our scale? How might they be built for mutual thriv­ing with the rest of the crea­tures with which we share God’s green earth?

February 2021