A digital image, inscribed in specific code on a blockchain, sold for over $69 million. There was a great deal of outrage, shock, mocking, amusement, and consternation over this price for something that appeared to be the equivalent of any shareable image on the internet. This was the first widely-known public eruption of part of a spending spree and gold rush in cryptographic assets, including cryptocurrencies and the images that I described (known as NFT’s – Non-Fungible Tokens). A NFT is a digital marker referencing an object placed on a blockchain which acts as a signature identifying the object as unique. NFTs of NBA highlights are trading in the thousands of dollars every day. While those may seem extravagant examples of conspicuous consumption, the hysteria and moralism surrounding the sale and purchase of NFTs (along with other examples of so-called “tokenization” – the creation of a digital asset representing a real or intellectual property) conceal some revolutionary changes occurring in the world of finance and our broad understanding of capitalism, along with how we organize and structure society itself.
The Internet, the greatest social innovation of the 30-year boom of technological innovation, has continued to shift the world in a way that is both subtle and extreme. Personal and public matters are irrevocably altered. We set our alarm clocks by talking to an electronic device, our friendships exist in multiple planes of communication, our employment is more impersonal. You pick-up a to-go order in a restaurant, ordered and paid-for online, not a word spoken to a waiter or host. A discreet, digital-only connection between a dictator’s secret police and a criminal organization leads to a targeted hack of a rival nation’s nationalized oil company. Big and small – everything is changing, though often hidden from our sight. Our present doesn’t look like the imagined future because we were thinking of physical changes: 5000-story skyscrapers, ubiquitous humanoid robots, flying cars and other visual immensities and oddities. Instead, the revolution animates an alternate world confined to invisible space and we are now a society looking down and inward (and constantly toward one another) instead of up and outward toward those still-fictitious colossal skyscrapers. Communications flow ceaselessly through wires and wi-fi disconnecting us from long generations of undisturbed face-to-face human contact while strengthening the bonds we share that are purely emotional and intellectual. Meanwhile, many of our most extraordinary technological innovations have discovered things that are so physically small, they are invisible to all except the most sensitive methods of detection. An example of this being the revelations presented from the particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, experiments from which confirmed the existence of a previously unknown particle, long after mathematical models hinted at its existence. In the mundane and tangible world, the force drawing our gaze inward is most often a smartphone. That communications-device may be the superlative tool representing the irony of humanity’s advancement: we are freeing ourselves from the natural restrictions of nature while binding ourselves closer to each other and our own impulses. As a particle accelerator reveals the hidden structure of physics when it collides particles, rapid, decentralized mass-communications reveal the most basic human psychological machinery.
Our interconnectivity, on an individual level between people, has fragmented the world and revolutionized capitalism in a way that may be intertwined with financial bubbles, but shouldn’t be confused solely for the bubbles themselves. Laws of governments, the constraints of supply and demand, and the conception of social equity have not necessarily changed all that much, just our relationships to those institutions and concepts. The changing relationships between person and power has devalued traditional authority, accelerating the rise in a peer-to-peer economy of individuals – a model now coming under threat from the traditional and centralizing forces of civil society, commerce, and government. There is a struggle between platforms and people, with immense rewards available to those who are able to extract more value from the centralized platforms than the platforms can extract from them. OnlyFans, NFTs, a politician’s social media presence, blogging, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, the effusion of podcasts, the cloistered chambers of Telegram groups and Discords – all are part of the same phenomenon of commoditizing the individual in digital space. We are all NFTs now – if we so choose.
Our public discourse and policy thinking is stuck in the past along with our major government institutions and the frameworks of civil society. Born of the 20th century when technological advances allowed singular forces to monopolize modes of communication, our perceptions of the threat of centralized power are skewed by the extremities of that calamitous 100 years. The internet, for the most part, is resistant to the broad forces of centralization that allowed Totalitarianism to flourish in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is more difficult for a nation to completely control all media and all communication in the Information Age (China is doing its best, though). Destruction of traditional media gatekeepers launches us to the past even as it compels us into unknown territories. Modern independent journalists and media analysts are reminiscent of the effervescent pamphleteering and journalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. These tabloids and polemics were resistant, but not immune, to government and corporate centralization by the mere fact of the difficulty of communication. These realities often made persuasion and propaganda more valuable to those who wished to control a citizenry than suppression. Internet-based dissemination of information may be resistant to centralization simply because of their profusion. Floods of data are the greatest natural constraint now for human endeavors, mirroring the troublesome deluge of abundance in other arenas. People themselves, our base needs and desires unchanged by plenty, are not immune from methods of control and influence.
Novelty and innovation vastly outran regulation and control in the last 30 years, leaving governments lagging in reasserting authority over people inhabiting virgin digital terrain. Innovation also outstripped our ability to consider the consequences resulting from our world-building. I imagine that in the future it will be clear that this was an era of peak freedom and anarchy in the Digital World, maybe only comparable to other periods of leap-frogging technological advancement. Pre-modern society was characterized by repressive hierarchical social, governmental, and economic systems, where the oppressed would revolt with sudden violence from time-to-time. The methods and severity of control have changed and moderated, but they still exist. No people, in any society, have ever had complete freedom and autonomy, of course. An individual’s freedom is always constrained by the forces of social pressure, and by inherently human biological and communal vulnerabilities. Now, these vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exploited by corporations, governments, and, most-of-all, social media platforms.
There are three important features of social media: the first is addictiveness, the second is enabling virality, and the third is, of course, facilitating networks for people. Addictiveness keeps people coming back, allowing algorithms to refine the most engaging content for them to interact with, and to project more and more advertisements to meet their eyes. Virality is a natural consequence of the ability to rapidly share popular, digestible content. A feature of virality is that something small: a brand, a movement, a political ideology, can become something very large. Virality is further enabled by the creation of social networks. Tribalism is the salient quality of human social networks: a consequence of allowing people to self-sort, especially in blank spaces where people will create social structures out of chaos. Tribalism is important in our world because it perpetuates rivalries and cultism. To these three volatile ingredients there is one more additive which makes an explosive solution – we had, have, and always will have, the only thing for which there is endless demand and never enough supply: the desire to be entertained.
Back when Trump was first running for President and rabid fan-groups appeared online on places like the social media site Reddit (the now-banned message board community r/The_Donald being the obvious example) I referred to them as a “grassroots cult of personality.” I think I had that partly right. I was using the outdated model referring to the aberrational centralization of the 20th century and I discounted the forces of entertainment in Trump’s digital popularity. This phenomenon became clear as being merely one example of an eruption of digital tribes. These digital tribes can become dangerous mobs which threaten to hijack public discourse and policy every time a critical mass is reached and a catalyst triggers a riot. Trump’s rise is an excellent example of those four ingredients I mentioned and the incredible force they can create, but not of the commoditization of the individual – another politician is an even better example of that phenomenon.
Every day, or almost every day, for a period of months toward the end of 2020, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was seen on the “front-page” of Reddit. Almost always as a screenshot of a Tweet moralistically ripping on GOP or neoliberal policies. In a way, AOC is now a commoditized symbol, instead of just an elected official. Her tweets and viral moments speaking in the House are her intellectual property – generating value for her brand. I haven’t done any formal study, but it appears that attention afforded to her has fallen sharply after Trump was booted from Twitter and left office. I believe this gives some indication that her popularity is tied to a broadcasted battle played out through traditional and social media.
Addiction. Virality. Tribalism. Entertainment. Those four ingredients combined with the revolution in the production of digital assets create feedback loops and form resilient social groupings which can have real power in the real world. Any individual who has the ability and desire can use these new social groupings to attain money, influence, and power – and now and in the future – especially money because of tokenization.
NFTs selling for seemingly outrageous sums of money and AOC’s domination of Reddit’s front page in her digital war with the GOP are two sides of the same coin. Everything is being commoditized, including our digital personas. Monetization of intellectual labor is going to be a key fact of the world from now on. This is not just a world of direct-to-consumer products and psychologically-savvy corporations, it’s a world of each individual and their intellectual output as a potential brand and business to a degree that was impossible even a few years ago.
Changes in technology and social structure are a Pandora’s Box. This is a good development for society in that it can advance individual freedom, broaden prosperity and the reach of justice, and accelerate innovations. This is a bad development for society in that it can precipitate physical and digital riots, allow small groups of bad actors, or even single individuals, to cause grave harm to large numbers of people, and foster new and harmful addictions in millions of people. I think addiction deserves special attention, and is most likely to present the greatest sustained cost to society-at-large as a side-effect of our advancement.
One of the most painful problems with addiction is that it often takes an extreme adverse event or events to pull people out of their delusion that they can continue to feed their compulsion without consequences. As people are addicted to social media, and that addiction is reinforced in a multitude of ways, these new communities act as enablers, shielding addicts from reality and the harm they may be causing themselves or others. Addiction is a massively harmful, intractable problem, and I’m afraid it is increasing everywhere.
Wild freedom and the darkest oppressions are both freely available to people now: every person a potential brand and every person part of a potential mob.
 I don’t like using the word capitalism as it has been both politicized, decontextualized, and made overbroad and non-specific – here, I use it to refer to the general system of property rights and the relatively free flow of goods and services between different entities – perhaps close to its basic definition.
 You think “cancel culture” and “social justice” are out of control now? Imagine being an atheist in 1100 AD in Europe, or questioning why Serfdom was hereditary.