The map and territory of NFT art

How NFT art makes a mockery of our map of originality

I’ve recently become aware of the world of non-fungible tokens.

Wikipedia puts it as:

A non-fungible token (NFT) is a special type of cryptographic token which represents something unique; non-fungible tokens are thus not mutually interchangeable.

Non-fungible tokens are used to create verifiable digital scarcity, as well as digital ownership, and the possibility of asset interoperability across multiple platforms.

The application of NFTs that I found the most thought-provoking is in digital art. There’s websites, such as opensea.io, that have listings of NFT-based digital paintings.

In that website, you can buy any of the listed NFT-based paintings, and become the proud owner of the “original” version of a digital painting. People are paying outrageous sums of money for this. An NFT-portrait of Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin dressed like a medieval harlequin recently sold for $141,536.20. The NFT-art market is absolutely booming.

What’s the punchline? That the “original” version of a digital painting is pixel-by-pixel identical with any of its copies. On opensea.io you can go ahead and download a perfect .jpeg copy of any of the listed paintings for free. You can download the portrait of Vitalik Buterin right here, and set it as your wallpaper. It’ll be the exact same portrait that the buyer paid 141k for. There is absolutely zero material difference between the original and the copy, except for the fact that, in some technical fuzzy way, one is the original and one isn’t.

Most people are either perplexed when hearing this, or react with scorn. After all, it’s intuitive to think that digital paintings being infinitely and perfectly replicable defeats the point of paying for an “original” version.

My reaction is that NFT-paintings are a wonderful reduction of the idea of “originality”, and it’s a great exercise to analyze the phenomenon from the lens of map and territory.

Let’s pick a more traditional example: what makes DaVinci’s Mona Lisa worth more than a replica of the Mona Lisa?

One can point out a bunch of different factors at play here. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is more valuable because replicas were made by lesser artists and result in inferior paintings that don’t captivate the viewers as much. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is more valuable because it’s the only one that has the exact strokes of paint that DaVinci plastered on the canvas, while the replicas looks subtly different. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is more valuable because of its history, because it’s the painting that was in Napoleon’s bathroom, and the painting that was stolen and returned to the Louvre, while the replicas aren’t. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is more valuable because the atoms that make it up are the same atoms that were there when DaVinci finished painting it. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is more valuable because everyone agrees that it’s “the original” Mona Lisa, and everyone agrees that “the original” anything should be more valuable.

Let’s unpack this.

Let’s say scientists devised a way to create a perfect copy of a painting. They manufactured a machine that can read the exact configuration of atoms in DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, and create a perfect “clone” with the exact same type of atoms arranged in the exact same order. Would those clones be just as valuable as the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre?

Certainly not. Though the boundary between original and replica does get blurred a bit in this scenario, the original Mona Lisa would still have a lot of a fuzzy historical/sentimental value attached to it, as those atoms/that painting (and not its perfect copy) is the one that DaVinci painted. But this does tell us that its value is not derived, for the most part, from the fact that the Mona Lisa looks different than the replicas.

We could pose even more convoluted thought experiments. Like what if the machine, instead of copying the configuration of atoms, instead split each atom of the original Mona Lisa into two, in some sense creating two “originals”? But I think these kind of thought experiments just expose that there’s no good answer at this level, and that this exercise just misses the point.

People have a map that says that there’s originals and replicas, and that the former is worth more than the latter. We drew this map to navigate the uncomplicated, familiar terrain of painters and paintings, sculptors and sculptures, seamstresses and garments. Once we tread onto such unfamiliar territory that we are questioning what happens if we split atoms, we can assume that our model of which painting is rightfully the “original” has broken down. The map is too simple to reflect the idiosyncrasies of the territory.

Originality at this level is a useless term, and at the end of the day when putting a price on a painting, what matters is which painting everyone agrees is the original, fuzzy epistemological reasons be damned. It was never about the atoms; the map is not the territory.

What’s especially interesting about this thought experiment is that it shows how maps persist, even when the territory that gave rise to these maps changes. There’s a viscosity to them; they don’t just disappear from our collective minds as soon as they stop being useful.

We can think of all the aforementioned factors - how replicas tend to be of lower quality, how replicas don’t have rich histories, how replicas aren’t hung in fancy museums, etc - like characteristics of the territory that gave rise and credence to the map in the first place. Because we humans observed, in a bunch of different contexts, that originals tend to have a bunch of characteristics that make them better in many ways to replicas, we built a map that makes it intuitively obvious that it’s important to distinguish originals from replicas, and originals should be considered more valuable.

Even if we design a thought experiment that takes away literally everything that makes an original better than a replica, in the real world with real people who have pre-existing beliefs, the “originality” map lingers. People still are willing to pay more for the original.

Which brings me back to NFT paintings. In some sense, the fact that crypto art is made up of non-fungible tokens, makes an “original” CryptoKittie and a “replica” CryptoKittie not mutually interchangeable. It’s similar in a way, to our thought experiment about a Mona Lisa copy with an identical configuration of atoms.

But the subtler insight here, is that this fuzzy, super-technical, inscrutable to laymen claim to originality, is not the territory. It’s an excuse for us humans to slowly reach for our familiar model that “there’s the original CryptoKittie and there’s the copy”, and as soon as we buy into it, it’s enough to trigger our “originals are more valuable” mental routine, and the original will be worth 200k, while a bit-by-bit perfect copy will be worthless. The kicker here is that we’ll be just as able to derive meaning from owning the “original”; it’ll be satisfying in the same way that hanging the Mona Lisa in your living room would.

I find myself reacting to this with both fascination at how us humans can derive meaning from almost anything, and with scorn at how silly this all is.

Let’s end this with a few more reflections.

It’s interesting to note that while the question of what makes something original is a great one in some sense- I did write an entire essay about it - it’s also banal in the sense that it’s immediately diffused by having a notion of map-and-territory. Watching people be perplexed by the NFT phenomena makes the widespread confusion between map-and-territory very vivid in my mind.

It’s also cool to see how a model slowly propagates societally. Right now, there’s a miniscule portion of the population that know or care about NFT’s. A lot of people hear about it, and immediately dismiss it as weirdo nonsense. “This makes no sense without real paintings”. It’ll be cool to see how —as NFTs become widespread in games and elsewhere— the idea that a digital item can be “authentic” goes from being niche and hard to grasp to intuitively obvious to everyone.

It’s also important to realize that forcing scarcity into something as seemingly intrinsically multipliable as digital artwork is absolutely not-unique and we can find similar examples everywhere, both in the digital and physical world. Examples of artificial scarcity can be found in copyright, DRM, planned obsolescence, the diamond industry, paywalls, collectible cards, torrent poisoning , the Agricultural Adjustment Act, Tulip mania, price fixing by cartels and monopolies, signed merchandise, Chick-Fil-A closing on Sunday, knockoff Gucci bags, and so on.

Finally, I’ll gleefully mention that as I’m finishing writing this essay on originality, I found out that twitter user @DCCockFoster has used the Mona Lisa example to make the same points I made on NFT-paintings. Sorry pal, you should’ve tokenized the twitter thread.