Better NFTs to Kill Consumerism
Crypto is a frustrating space. It is a great demonstration of the fact that the solutions to problems that are actually pursued in the market are often biased toward what makes money as opposed to what effectively solves the problem.
There’s a great number of ways in which the combination of cryptography and distributed data structures (not just blockchains, but CRDTs and similar things in general) could be really useful and valuable. There are also some interesting similarities between the technical capabilities of cryptographic proofs and the function of khipus in ancient Andean civilizations, a powerful social technology that doesn’t have a clear modern equivalent (this is a subject for another time).
Instead, the things that actually get built are mostly things like “utility tokens” whose primary “utility” is allowing their developers to pump-and-dump their way into more funding.
I’d like to highlight a good example with NFTs.
The two main criticism of NFTs are their environmental impact and their dubious value. Let’s quick fix those.
First, environmental impact. Blockchains can be useful, and definitely do solve problems that other cryptographic protocols cannot. The costs of running them are a discussion for another time, but generally speaking it is not wise to use space on a blockchain when not necessary. The primary necessity of attaching an NFT to the blockchain is solving the double-spend problem. If you simply remove the functionality of transferability from an NFT, it no longer needs to be put on a blockchain and most of the computational cost drops to zero.
Now onto value. Why pay so much money for the ability to “own” a JPEG that anyone can trivially just copy or screenshot? If the reason is to support the artist, then great! If you want to be able to show off to other people that you support the artist, even better! Beyond that they’re mostly pointless beyond pure price speculation, which ceases to be an application when we remove the ability to transfer them.
A Noble Application
Right now, many people and organizations make at least some of their money on merchandise. You see it in media companies and youtubers especially. It’s one way that people can choose to support your work. Sell a t-shirt or coffee mug with your logo on it!
If someone legitimately needs a coffee mug or a t-shirt, and want to be a walking advertisement for the company they’re donating to, then this is great! However, if they’ve already got a cupboard full of mugs and a closet full of shirts, do they really need another one?
Not only is this manufacturing completely unnecessary things - wasting natural resources, money, and human labor that could be allocated toward better and more noble purposes - but it is also an inefficient way to donate to an organization! If you want to spend $15 to support a cause you like, why not give them the $15 directly instead of giving them whatever is left after buying a piece of junk you don’t need?
When consumerism began in the late 17th century, it was as heavily criticized just as it is today. One of the justifications made for it was that the production of all of this unnecessary junk helped fund other, more valuable work. However, if we can raise this money while producing purely digital goods with negligible use of resources, why do we need all these trinkets anymore? They at one point were a powerful fundraising tool, now they’re a few minor software projects away from being just an inefficiency that is worth removing from the equation entirely.
So what might this look like in practice?
Say you go to an organization’s website and want to donate. You want to not only support them, but also want to be able to show off to others that you support them.
The NFT in this case is a cryptographic receipt - you sign it with your cryptographic keys, the company signs it with theirs. It contains some metadata about the donation, perhaps putting you into some kind of donor tier based on how big of a contribution you made. Maybe with a little image or gif attached to add a visual component. If you want some attachment to a blockchain, a merkelized timestamp is a very lightweight way of doing that. This is simply a digital file you can then download.
Then, with a little platform support, in the same way you upload images to Facebook, Twitter, Discord, or any other platform, you could upload this file. Maybe you can show it off on your profile, like your own personal digital trophy cabinet.
Perhaps there’s a peer-to-peer network that people can connect to to access public key certificates to verify signatures. Anyone who can connect to such a network can efficiently separate valid files from forgeries, and saving someone else’s NFT to your harddrive is just creating another copy of a glorified receipt with their name on it. Putting your name on it without outing it as an instant forgery to anyone checking would require forging some cryptographic signatures, in which case unless you’ve got a few galaxies full of computers and a few trillion dyson spheres to power them all, you’re better off just donating to the organization yourself if you want your own valid copy.
A forged NFT file may be treated no differently from a corrupt JPEG. Or perhaps whatever platforms you upload it to will display it anyway, just with a big red mark that makes it clear to anyone viewing that it’s a forgery.
This basic idea of course could be generalized well beyond simply fundraising. Perhaps instead of being a receipt, this same application could be used for certifications; the NFT shows that you passed some kind of third-party audit to verify claims about your product or service. FDA approval, passed health inspections, ethically-sourced, endorsed by your favorite influencer, etc. A simple addition of an interactive proof component (with such proofs available over the same P2P network public key certificates could be found on) would allow for such certifications to be revoked if necessary.
The software infrastructure to build this would really not be that advanced. Generalizing this basic idea - files with arbitrary cryptographic data attached that can be verified with access to a P2P network - seems to me to be a very powerful idea that is fairly unexplored in the current crypto space despite its simplicity.