03 February 2022

Moxie Marlinspike: “My first impressions of web3”

Instead of storing the data on-chain, NFTs instead contain a URL that points to the data. What surprised me about the standards was that there’s no hash commitment for the data located at the URL. Looking at many of the NFTs on popular marketplaces being sold for tens, hundreds, or millions of dollars, that URL often just points to some VPS running Apache somewhere. Anyone with access to that machine, anyone who buys that domain name in the future, or anyone who compromises that machine can change the image, title, description, etc for the NFT to whatever they’d like at any time (regardless of whether or not they “own” the token). There’s nothing in the NFT spec that tells you what the image “should” be, or even allows you to confirm whether something is the “correct” image.

So as an experiment, I made an NFT that changes based on who is looking at it, since the web server that serves the image can choose to serve different images based on the IP or User Agent of the requester. For example, it looked one way on OpenSea, another way on Rarible, but when you buy it and view it from your crypto wallet, it will always display as a large 💩 emoji. What you bid on isn’t what you get. There’s nothing unusual about this NFT, it’s how the NFT specifications are built. Many of the highest priced NFTs could turn into 💩 emoji at any time; I just made it explicit.

After a few days, without warning or explanation, the NFT I made was removed from OpenSea (an NFT marketplace):

Moxie Marlinspike

I saw this pointed out elsewhere as well – that a NFT is merely a link to a file, and while the link may be ‘crypto-secured’, the file itself may change at any point in the future and you’d be left holding something else than you originally ‘bought’ – but I think it serves to underline that the whole premise of NFTs is a massive scam. In the flurry of reporting about this latest craze, it’s easy to lose perspective – keep in mind that more people own items in Second Life than own NFTs. The article also explores the poor privacy of the protocols and the increasing centralization around a couple of companies that others use to interact with the blockchain – and recent news about a database outage at OpenSea confirm this covert centralization. This whole system feels like a ticking bomb of speculation and absurdity waiting to burst.

Why don’t you dabble in NFTs yourself?

I’ve been approached several times to ‘make an NFT’. So far nothing has convinced me that there is anything worth making in that arena. ‘Worth making’ for me implies bringing something into existence that adds value to the world, not just to a bank account. If I had primarily wanted to make money I would have had a different career as a different kind of person. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to be an artist. NFTs seem to me just a way for artists to get a little piece of the action from global capitalism, our own cute little version of financialisation. How sweet – now artists can become little capitalist assholes as well.

Brian Eno

Crypto, like meme stocks, is a poor replacement for the American dream. A functional nation would end gerrymandering, pass campaign finance reform, end the filibuster, abolish the undemocratic U.S. Senate, tax great wealth, institute public healthcare and build a social safety net to ensure that no one in our very wealthy country slipped all the way through the financial cracks of life and was ruined. But that’s not the American way. The American way is to cheer on the few lucky ultra-rich people, and fete them as heroes, and look for a way to emulate them, although such a thing is mathematically impossible. Instead of socialism, we have given people crypto. They buy crypto, for the most part, not because of lofty beliefs in techno-futurism, but because they think it is a way to get rich quick for a low entry price. Crypto is just a modern lottery ticket. But whereas lottery tickets only cost you a little at a time, crypto will inflate to the moon and then crash into the gutter in a far more devastating way. The bitterest irony, perhaps, is that while the regular folks flock to crypto because they think it’s a utopian land of opportunity for the little guy to make a buck, it is, in fact, largely controlled by a small cartel of rich investors.

Hamilton Nolan

And this is why the future, be it NFTs or Memoji or the howling existential horror of the Metaverse, looks so ugly and boring: it reflects the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced it. As the visual manifestation of cryptocurrency, NFT art combines the nuanced social awareness of computer programmers with the soulful whimsy of hedge fund managers. It is art for people whose imaginations have been absolutely captured by a new kind of money you can do on the computer.

It is also obviously a pyramid scheme, in which the need for a salable commodity is imperative and endlessly renewed, but the commodity itself does not matter because it is useless — not even useless the way all art is useless, because you can get the images and whatever grains of nourishment your hungry little soul might find in them for free, but useless the way a canceled stamp is useless, useless like a receipt or an envelope that has been torn open. NFTs are an occasion for commerce masquerading as art, just as so many ostensibly meaningful experiences of the 21st century turn out to be occasions to spend money masquerading as life.

Dan Brooks

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