On NFT’s

I wrote this for the FreeFloat newsletter. It’s published as is here.

In 1996, a federal mint employee was eating bananas near where US dollar bills were being printed, and a Del Monte sticker on one of the bananas fell into the printing press and got under a transparent layer of a $20 bill. The Del Monte note was created. This particular $20 note is a collectible in some circles and has been auctioned many times before, and most recently for around $400,000. That the serial number of the note is printed over the Del Monte sticker makes this even cooler, and kind of unforgeable, and a fungible token became a non-fungible token.

What?

What does it mean for something to be “fungible” anyway? As an example, dollars (or any money for that matter) are fungible. That is, a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. It doesn’t matter if it’s a note with serial number XYZ or ABC or a ledger entry in some bank’s database. If I give you a $10 bill to transfer an equivalent value, the actual printed bill is irrelevant. This was made much easier when we went from cash (physical transfer of value) to digital transfer of value, and we now transfer an abstract notion of $10 without having to bother with a physical vehicle to carry that value. Now that we have digital money like your bank deposits or Bitcoin – what is the equivalent of the Del Monte note? I will get to that question in a bit.

In the physical world, there are two primary requirements for an object to become a collectible.

  1. It should be one-off, or a limited edition.
  2. It should have some intrinsic appeal because of aesthetic reasons (a Picasso, a Ferrari 250 GTO) or quirky reasons (the Del Monte note).

The appeal of a collectible is driven by popular culture. That’s beyond the scope of this article. The limited edition nature is what I am interested in. Most paintings appreciate in value after the painter has died. This makes that artist’s work provably limited edition. In rarer cases, the technology used to create the collectible in question is provably obsolete, or some raw materials have become extinct. Many times, if the creator is still active, they could implicitly make a promise that the collectible is limited edition. For example, the car company McLaren has implicitly promised us that they won’t make more of their iconic F1 supercar from the 1990’s. Or Ferrari with their 250 GTO from the 1960’s. Note that there is no technical reason that prevents them from making more of these cars. It’s just that if they break their word, the collectible nature of these cars will vanish. On the other hand, Seiko and Casio G-Shock, the Japanese watchmakers, make many limited edition collections of watches every year. In the watch collectors’ community, it’s almost a joke when a new “limited edition” Seiko comes out. Sure, there will only be 50 of these specific watches with some specific quirk, but tomorrow, there will be another limited edition collection with some other quirk. Eventually, even among watch collectors it’s hard to know which of these is a true collectible, and which is not. But they are all limited edition, according to Seiko.

What about collectibles in the digital world, where anything can be copy-pasted. Making a limited edition of anything is quite hard. For the most part, digital money is the only thing that cannot be copy-pasted. Government controlled digital money does this by having a centralized database with a trusted party (commercial or central banks) and this trusted party is – er – trusted to not copy-paste. Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies prevent copy-paste using cryptography, distributed computing, and game theory. If you can make a unit of a digital money unique, by affixing a banana sticker on it digitally, you get yourself a digital collectible, or a Non Fungible Token (or NFT).

Can we “affix a banana sticker” on a unit of digital money in your savings bank account? Bank account balances are not represented as cash-like notes with serial numbers. Every account has just a numerical balance, and that makes it quite hard to take a part of that balance, and affix a banana sticker on it. So, that’s out. What about the other money that we know about: Bitcoin? Bitcoin is cash-like, in the sense that each digital unit of Bitcoin (technically called a UTXO, or Unspent Transaction Output) has a unique serial number associated with it. But how do we affix a banana sticker on it? For better or worse, Bitcoin is a bit too focused on being a secure implementation of money, and makes affixing this banana sticker much harder, like that Del Monte note was a one-off with the US dollar, but most US dollar bills are unmarked and fungible. Bitcoin is out.

What if we had Bitcoin-like platforms where affixing banana stickers on non-copy-paste-able digital tokens is easy. These are NFT platforms built on Ethereum.

A bit of history here: Ethereum, being a more ambitious platform than Bitcoin, wanted to allow general purpose computation on a decentralized system with no central operator (the opposite of say, Google Cloud or Amazon Web Services). General purpose computation is all fine and dandy, but most users wanted coins equivalent to Bitcoin, but with more fine-grained control on how the actual units were minted and transferred. Note that Bitcoin itself has these minting and transfer rules, but they are all set in stone. Ethereum’s underlying currency: Ether, also has such rules, and for the most part, they are also hard to change. But if a single user wanted to create their own such coin platform, with their own minting and transfer rules, they could create such a platform on Ethereum. This platform standard was called ERC-20, and all the ICO’s you heard about from 2017-2018 were ERC-20 coin platforms with specific mint and transfer rules created by specific teams. To give another analogy, every ERC-20 token-platform is like a bank. Users of a specific ERC-20 token-platform have their own account in this bank with fungible ERC-20 tokens in these accounts, and can transfer these tokens from their account to someone else’s account. This entire ERC-20 bank, along with other such banks, are all built on Ethereum. There are 1000’s of popular ERC-20 token-platforms on Ethereum, with each of them having many users.

One such platform is Cryptopunks, which is an ERC-20 token platform created by a company with 2 engineers. Cryptopunks added one new feature to each of its erstwhile fungible tokens. Each token is associated with a unique 24×24 pixel art image representing various human like faces, which added – er – personality, to each token. It turned out that these tokens were now not fungible at all – some of these tokens have cooler personalities and are valued higher. Thus was born the ERC-721 standard, which allowed token-platforms to add a unique personality to each token that the platform mints. The ERC-721 standard is also popularly known as the NFT standard. Any token-platform that conforms to this standard allows creation/transfer/showcase of tokens with personalities – and sometimes, the personality is as random as a random string of 32 characters. The digital fingerprint of an image file can be 32 characters, and if you add such a fingerprint to a token – this token now has art associated with it. You could add digital fingerprints of music files to a token. Cryptokitties is another famous NFT platform on Ethereum – where each token represents a kitten, with kitten like features – all digital, of course. Note here that the token is associated with the token platform, which is in turn associated with the meta-platform on which the token-platform is built. Could the same 32 character fingerprint of some art be associated with a token from another NFT-platform? Yes, it can be.

After all that background, the main question is – are NFT’s valuable? From the earlier analogy, we could ask ourselves – are watches valuable? There are more watches coming out every year – and Seiko makes many limited edition collections every year – is a particular Seiko watch from a particular limited edition collection worth $69 million? You have surely heard of the Paul Newman Daytona Rolex. As I said earlier, it’s hard to understand the popular culture that makes something a collectible. But, what’s definitely understandable is – what makes a digital artifact a limited edition. The NFT standard says nothing about NFT’s being limited edition. It just says that there should be a way to create NFT’s, transfer ownership, and show their uniqueness. So, we have to trust the NFT platform that it will somehow enforce the limited edition nature of these tokens. In Ethereum, the computer code (also called a smart contract) that controls any deployed NFT-platform cannot be changed after it’s been deployed (immutable). This gives us some notion of trust: we can inspect the deployed code, and check for ourselves tokens minted by this smart contract are truly limited edition. Does that give us true limited edition now? Not quite – there are two major caveats.

  1. Deployed smart contracts can be modified in the future if there are backdoors or hooks in the code. Proving the non-existence of such backdoors or hooks is quite hard. Foundation App, a popular NFT-platform, is just one public backdoor. The entire contract can be changed unilaterally by that organization in the future. They are not even pretending to be immutable.
  2. An organization which deploys the V1 version of the NFT-platform could deploy a V2 version tomorrow, and a V3 version next year. If the organization puts enough marketing around these new versions of the same platform, users move. Case in question – Uniswap, the popular DeFi exchange contract is now in its V3 version.

In contrast, Bitcoin was deployed just once, and cannot be changed (at least, not easily). And the code is open and has been pored over by normal users, bounty hunters, cryptographers, butt-hurt software engineers, and other experts over the last 11 years and it’s almost certain that there is no backdoor.A backdoor could be built in the future, but it will be very hard, and very visible. An NFT, on the other hand is a single token created by one among many NFT-platforms, on top of one among many meta-platforms like Ethereum. To put that in context, there are around 10,000 NFT-platforms on just Ethereum right now. If we leave Ethereum, we get other blockchain platforms, which are ostensibly decentralized across the world – and NFT-platforms are being built on them. NBA TopShot NFT-platform is on the Flow blockchain meta-platform. I have no idea how Flow works.

To give a concrete example, let’s take the NFT that captured the popular media’s limited imagination. Beeple’s $69 million “EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS”. The painting itself is 300+ MB, and like most NFT’s is not actually stored on the blockchain, but somewhere else on the internet. It’s not that easy to find, but I will save you the trouble by pointing to a link the works (for now). Clicking on that link in the browser will slow your browser down as it has to download 300+ MB of data for a single image. The digital fingerprint of this image is: 6314b55cc6ff34f67a18e1ccc977234b803f7a5497b94f1f994ac9d1b896a017 (SHA256 hash of the actual image file). This fingerprint was affixed to token #40913 that was minted by a smart contract that lives on the Ethereum blockchain at the address: 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756. This smart contract is actually called “MakersTokenV2” (no, I am not making this up). Token #40913 was transferred to an Ethereum wallet at the address: 0xc6b0562605D35eE710138402B878ffe6F2E23807, who apparently paid the equivalent money in Ether to Beeple through Christie’s, the auction house. This transaction itself cannot be traced on the Ethereum blockchain. That’s kind of ironic – because we really don’t know for sure if the money was truly transferred or not. Assuming the transaction happened, the buyer now owns the right to transfer token #40913 on smart contract 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756 on Ethereum to someone else. I guess that ~10 people might have inspected the code that is deployed at 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756.

There is this other idea that poor artists, ripped-off musicians, multi-billion dollar sports-organizations like the NBA could associate their content with an NFT platform and get better remunerated for it. Each piece of content goes on a specific token from a specific NFT-platform, and committed fans will buy them. What I fail to see is how an NFT-platform is different than a private art-gallery or a record label, or a pay-per-view sports channel. They can all channel money to the artist, and they can enforce copy-paste protection through law. If a piece of art is fingerprinted and attached to another token on a competing NFT-platform, and this token is then sold – what happens? The artist or the NFT-platform representing the artist will sue the other platform or buyer. Or some such.

So, are NFT’s a fad? Yes.

Is every Bitcoin an NFT? Technically, yes. But every Bitcoin is worth the same value as every other Bitcoin.

Is every USD bill with a unique serial number an NFT? Technically, also yes. But every dollar bill is worth the same value as every other dollar bill. The Del Monte note though, is the kind of NFT that is in vogue now for being an NFT. That’s the fad part.

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