tbyfield on Mon, 15 Mar 2021 00:58:37 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> what does monetary value indicate?

On 13 Mar 2021, at 19:07, Felix Stalder wrote:

> On 13.03.21 15:14, tbyfield wrote:
>> If I drew a venn diagram of how uninteresting mass digital art, the
>> art-systems economics, and cryptographic para-currencies have become,
>> you'd think it was just a circle
> Ted, you, of all people, know that 'interesting' is not an attribute of
> objects, but of questions, and that Venn diagrams indicate the absence
> of any.

Brilliant. Touché. 😹

> My question, which may well be uninteresting nevertheless, did not
> concern digital art, art-system economics, or even cryptocurrencies,
> para or not.

Your question was interesting, but the answers weren't going to be.

One distinctive feature of the last decade+ — since the 2008 meltdown — has been the normalization, even banalization of a 'Powers of Ten' illogic. The leaps in 'public' numbers are so far beyond any grounded comprehension that words *literally* fail: in writing and speech, the difference between millions, billions, and trillions is just a letter or two. That 'problem' has played a non-trivial role in governments' willingness to bid bailouts up and up and up, on scales that ceased to be linear. You can hear almost the conversations: "Millions?! Bob, we need *billions* — hell, TRILLIONS." And, lo, it becomes so: trillions are given away, even as knuckle-draggers obsess over how the $5 or $22 or $60 million that went to some cause they detest. Take contrast between Trump's trillions-strong tax cut for the rich and powerful against the lint-covered pocket change that went to the Mueller probes, which generated far more vocal opposition: it's easy to dismiss that as yet another rightist diversion (it is) or sign of the rightist public's financial *literal* illiteracy (it is), but it's also indicative of just how quickly and far behind these shifts in orders of magnitude have left the public's ability to imagine. The linguistic accident that orders of magnitude are distinguished not by mind-bending math but, instead, by a letter or two has played a pivotal role in enabling this escalation or acceleration.

After decades of having austerity beaten into our heads, skins, and bones, you'd think governments spending these upper-echelon orders of money would cause the earth to split open, but amazingly enough life just plods along, with one day like the next. The result is a real, if rarely remarked, cognitive dissonance. Things like the NFT bubble, almost a kind of foam so many and interconnected are the constituent bubbles, is a direct result. Between breathtaking bailouts, globe-spanning corporate consolidations, exploding exec 'compensation,' and unicorns and dragons run amok, people just don't a fuck: M, B, TR, WTF ever. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ The spread-out stacks of hundreds in a pseudo-gangsta influencers' instagram are *numerically* more apprehensible and, therefore, meaningful. We see this everywhere, most clearly in the US public's incomprehension of Covid, where deaths that have reached genocidal proportions are dismissed as a hoax, a super-flu, insurance-scamming by doctors and hospitals because people *cannot* correlate the numbers with their very tangible everyday lives.

But of course these differences aren't really reducible to a few letters, are they? Hence, in part, the growing reliance on graphics to 'show not tell' what the differences mean. Over the last year, no thanks to Covid, we saw these graphics consume entire front pages of newspapers not just to a degree never seen before but in *ways* never seen before. As happened in a cruder form in the wake of 2008, though, the shifts in order are so extreme that they even challenge the physical formats of a print media (which webbified versions still refer to and depend on). Yesterday's gob-smacking gyrations becomes tomorrow's barely perceptible noise at the foot of an impossibly steep visual cliff. A prime example is the 27 March 2020 issue of the NYT, which depicts a nightmare only a designer could love — the entire sixth column is stripped of any prose and taken over by a graphic spike:


But what I see in that isn't just a one-off visual gag. It's one more tremor in a tectonic shift in how organizations are struggling to understand 8and adapt to* what's going on. When the NYT published its first edition on the web on 22 January 1996, it was one big gif of what looked like a front page designed by a ten-year-old. In the 25 years since, the institution has turned upside-down and inside-out to become, in many ways, a global 'paper of record.' That required a complete transformation of its organizational structure, hierarchies, priorities, and procedures. But my intent isn't to dwell on the NYT: it's changes are one example of countless institutions that have faced similar and related struggled. All that '90s and 'naughties WiReD blather — bricks and mortar this, dinosaur that, etc, etc — was and remains very real.

When that started, we were barely out of photocopied and faxed diapers. In the time since, *visuality* — designs, UIs and UXs, logos / identities / brands, tropes, memes, influencers, and all the rest — vaulted from an adjunct largely dominated by specialists and technicians to, arguably, *the* dominant factor in whether the vast majority of corporations, initiatives, projects, careers, and even just people succeed or fail.

What strikes me about this discussion is all the sniffy moralizing, what with the go-to reference points of 'scam' and 'hoaxes.' Yes, Bitcoin consumes more energy than N countries, sure, but — again — we're back in the realm of incomprehensible orders of magnitude: 'miners' don't GAF how much CO2 a GIF NFT generates — they're looking at the Lambo. We could save oceans of e-ink if we just recognized that we've had the solution to *that* problem ever since Pigou suggested it almost exactly a century ago: tax the shit out of cryptocurrencies and anyone or anything that touches them. Non-fungibility is a two-edged sword: it might guarantee that a GIF is unique, but it also ensures that all the resulting liquid wealth it generates is indistinguishable. That's the basic premise of financial enforcement: it doesn't matter which dollar you tax or confiscate. It'll all just move offshore you say? We know how to deal with that too. The only thing that's lacking is the political will to tackle the problem, but that doesn't have anything to do with cryptocurrencies per se.

This all reminds me of academic figurative painters shaking their heads in disbelief, staring at a urinal that Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven had signed R. MUTT 1917. To them, it was garbage, a barbaric affront to their view of how the world should be and art's role in it. So let's set aside the climate-disruption aspect, the scams and hoaxes, and the pearl-clutching. What's happening? Well, what is *the* dominant form of the image now? Probably the JPEG; GIFs get honorable mention, and PNGs / SVGs are like the technicians who never get awards. We've become so accustomed to this flu format that we assume, by default, that they're the just the fast-food trash we  generate on our roadtrips on the 'information superhighway.' Someone — or maybe lots of people, as happens now — had a pretty brilliant insight of the kind that, in my view, is legitimately artistic: what if they aren't a urinal in the taken-for-granted instrumental sense but the absolute opposite, something utterly unique, rare to the point of pricelessness? This time around the urinal requires a more advanced infrastructure to be itself, but, again, everything does these days. The fact that it relies on an advanced technological matrix isn't that interesting: so did industrially manufactured porcelains, mass-produced high-quality pigments for painters, linen canvases, and all the rest.

The detailed quasi-forensic analyses that Doma, you, Rachel, and Brian have laid out are interesting in their own right because I'm part historian, part technician, part geek: I love that stuff. But I also see that pointing out that Damien Hirst was playing both sides doesn't really advance our understanding of the structure. From the foundation year of art school to the rump monarchism of august auction houses, the arts are plagued by atavistic relations. We knew that. Saying that isn't cynicism, it's the truth. If more people acknowledged that truth, the intersecting systems that make up 'art' would face greater scrutiny and demands for reform. But few do, at least in ways they're willing to act on — hence the cynicism.


> I was wondering if there is anything to be learned about what
> constitutes monetary value, and for whom, by considering that somebody
> is willing to pay, somebody is willing to facilitate and somebody
> willing to accept, a cryptocurrency supposedly worth U$ 70 million for a
> piece of meta-data conferring ownership over the 'original copy' of a
> digital image.
> One could say, as you do, it's all noise, non-value being paid for
> non-art. A transient non-event.
> One could say, as Brian suggested, this real, a form of conspicuous
> consumption of a new elite with infinite money at hand, with art playing
> its classic role of conferring status to money. If this is the case,
> then two things would interest me. Why has NFT art become an object of
> prestige? I mean, for this amount of money, one could have bought a
> pretty mean yacht. So, what does it tell us about this social milieu
> that such a purchase confers bragging rights? And, since money is power,
> what are they planning to use this power for?
> Or, perhaps, something different, money has somehow morphed into an
> expressive medium in its own right. During the game-stop saga, I was
> struck by people saying that they don't care if they would be losing
> money because they were here to make a point. This is a very unusual
> investment intention. Of course, this might well be a cynical strategy
> where somebody told others they shouldn't care about losing money, so
> s/he could gain more, and more easily, but even then, the fact that a
> lot of people believed that somebody would think about investing in this
> way, tells us something.
> What value does 1000 bitcoins confer to the person holding it? At the
> moment, seemingly U$ 60 million. Almost enough to buy an original copy
> of a gif. But sell your bitcoins now? No way. As a believer in bitcoin,
> you are convinced that if you hold it just long enough, then it will
> become worth 600 million, 6 billion, or 60 billion. Particularly when
> the next crash wipes out fiat money. On the other hand, you also know
> that it could crash to zero in no time. If the Chinese government
> decides to promote their crypto, bans bitcoin, and executes some
> traders, things can turn quickly. So, it's a kind of quantum state,
> everything and nothing at the same time. Why, then, not spend some of it
> on a gif? no more, no less real, than the money that was spent on it.

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