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.

This message was emailed to lab newsletter subscribers. The assumed audience is subscribers interested in art and technology who are also fairly confident programmers. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)

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.

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, PokĂ©mon-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.

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