This article originally appeared on Forbes on March 21, 2021.
In the demarcation of certain important techno-cultural moments, I believe that early 2021 will be noted as the time in which one of my axioms from a prior moment of demarcation — “We will know blockchain-based music startups have arrived when people stop saying the word Blockchain” — may have come to fruition.
I made this statement frequently during what I now think of as the first wave of Blockchain development (essentially, the era from the publication of Satoshi’s Whitepaper to the collapse of the price of Bitcoin in December of 2017). I pretty much yelled it from the stage in Berlin in 2017, where I attempted to explain why, even as Blockchain tech was growing more antifragile, Blockchain-based music initiatives were still deeply fragile. A more subdued version of the talk — entitled, “A Strong Wind Could Blow It Over: The Fragile State Of Music Blockchain Development” — can be seen here.
With this statement, I was obviously leaning on Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Think of it this way: no one talks about TCP/IP protocols or internal combustion engines; they just use the internet or drive the car.
The first wave of Blockchain development was all about the tech, and very little about the magic.
This tech-centric period is a necessary development stage for any advance. First, there are a group of early adopters who delight in the evolutionary process. For these people — and I’m one of them — the “tickle-the-brain” sensation that accompanies something not fully and immediately grasp-able, but represents tremendous possibility, is an irresistible combination.
Often, at this stage, the tech gestates in the shadows until — to radically oversimplify Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns" — the (exponential) technological advancement meets the (linearly) advancing customer needs. At this point, the tech leaves the domain of the nerds, and enters the mainstream market, precisely because for this mainstream market the tech is now invisible to them; it’s like…magic.
Blockchain — because it’s a sexy name/word, and because it was so conjoined, in this first state, to Bitcoin — did not gestate in the shadows, but rather was thrust into something akin to the mainstream far earlier than it should have been.
This premature push into the spotlight caused many to wrongly (and vitriolically) dismiss it; Lana Del Rey’s 2012 SNL performance, and the completely wrong visceral response from viewers at the time is analogous.
Over the past several months the public at large have been introduced to the (very unsexy) term “non-fungible tokens” (NFTs), and, confusing though they may be (they’re not), the public is going nuts for the things.
Here’s the thing: NFTs would not could not exist or have any value without Blockchain tech.
Do those minting NFTs or those purchasing NFTs care? Nope, and nor should they. The (Blockchain) technology is now sufficient enough so that it disappears into the background, while the utility and value and beauty that it powers emerges to the fore. Magic.
What’s exciting to me is, of course, that this usage of the tech may actually edge us closer to the ultimate purpose of helping artists create sustainable careers on their own terms.
In fact, I believe that it’s this very promise that’s accelerating the adoption. As I tweeted recently: One way to understand the seemingly rapid rise of NFTs is that we’ve reached a point where the creativity/uses lead the tech. Prior to this moment, it was the other way around, and that never works.
For however long this moment lasts — a moment prior to the co-opting/centralization of this tech by incumbents/institutions (and, perhaps, we’ll be wiser this time and resist that) — there is beautiful meritocracy; a time when everyone has access to the same tools, and he, she, or they who uses them most creatively wins.
To anticipate some responses:
- Yes, Blockchains (and, thus, NFTs) consume a lot of energy. This needs to be addressed aggressively. The next iteration of the Ethereum blockchain represents some promise. I would say, however, that prior to anyone focusing their own energy on exclusively critiquing energy consumption of Blockchains, they may want to make sure that they are vegan and wear no leather products.
- Yes, NFTs are likely in a bubble state. This is a necessary “hype state” part of all technological s-curves. It will — as bitcoin, the Internet hype of 1999, etc. did - burst, but what remains, post-pop, will be the foundation for real growth.