We Are All NFTs Now

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[1], 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.

Photo by Ru016bdolfs Klintsons on Pexels.com – Things like Dogecoin show the power of media and technology while concealing more basic changes.

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[2], and by inherently human biological and communal vulnerabilities. Now, these vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exploited by corporations, governments, and, most-of-all, social media platforms.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com – The Matrix was pretty prescient…

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Mobs and Riots

Reconstruction

Ulysses Grant, Union General and President of the United States, is more popular now than at any time since the 1880’s. After his death, he was long regarded as an inferior general, a poor President, and an unremarkable and flawed man. With a host of biographies and changing views on racism, his formerly withered reputation is blooming.

Grant’s military career and Presidency are an excellent example of the sandy foundations of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The moral clarity of his Presidency will henceforth protect him, inasmuch as there is a public memory of him at all in our relentlessly forward-looking society. But in the focus on the shifting opinions of Grant’s career, the context of his moral-firmness is a revelation of vicious inhumanity and tribalism.

Reconstruction is (probably, though I’m sure there are other contenders) the most shameful period of American history.

After the Civil War ended and slavery abolished it became clear that the true driving force of Southern society’s defense of slavery was not its economics, or based in regional conservatism (in the sense of unchanging institutions), or competing views of Federal power – it was based on social tribalism.

Subjugation, the institutionalized inferiority of black people for no other benefit than maintaining a particular division of social standing, became the primary goal of radical Southern political movements.

And the history of that tribalism and those political movements is shockingly depraved and revolutionary.

There were:

  • Massacres of black people, in some cases hundreds at a time
  • Literal coups, where state government’s were overthrown by armed force
  • Widespread Terrorism across the former Confederate states
  • Massive Federal military intervention, including the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus

By the end of Grant’s second term in office, Reconstruction was abandoned. And why did Reconstruction end without enforcing the rights of full citizenship of freed slaves? It was subsumed by national politics.

In the last three weeks, there were two nationally-known incidents (several others but these received the most attention) which intimately concerned race and policing.

The Destruction of Amy Cooper

A white woman used the police as an implicit threat on the physical health and safety of a black man. The reaction to the video of the incident being made public was animated by a modern mob, a digital one. Without passing judgment on her digital destruction, it is an example of the power of social media to amplify tribal signaling. Much of the backlash became about showing everyone else that “they were on the right side,” dare I call it virtue signaling?

The Murder of a Black Man

The murder of George Floyd was a clear example of the aggression and callousness of modern policing. But these protests, riots, and the reaction to them, have gone far beyond this initial outrage. Looting, arson, and people dissatisfied about other aspects of the social order have joined in, and muddied the focused protests over policing.

A Riot is a Signal

Mob violence is an expression of rage and tribalism. A mob, a riot, is a thing-in-itself, not connected to any particular ideology – in the post-Civil War south, riots were anti-black affairs. They were both political tools and a signal of dissatisfaction with the current social regime. We now judge this harshly, but it was, at its base, a signal to the occupying Federal forces, and enough northerners grew tired of constant intervention that they became effective political tools.  And public perceptions of those riots became the currency of national politics, deeply influencing the course of political events.

One thing that people tend to forget when they’re caught-up in idealism or discussions on policy: organized violence is effective. It goes both ways, the violence of the mob can produce real change, the suppression of the mob through violence can stifle it.

These incidents now are also in the process of being subsumed by national politics. The construction of narratives in relation to these protests both destroys nuance and is necessary to try to resolve the deep unease generated by chaos.

If I were to exhort people toward one action it would be to resist, and resist deeply, the temptation to blame all of  this on one of our two political tribes. These tribes will use this chaos to advance their fight over the throne, and not for reform.

Sound and Fury

Sound and Fury

Amid the uproar over the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, documenting (supposedly) the inner workings of the Trump White House and campaign, two incidents have not gotten the attention they deserve. And they portend grave ills in our political system.

First, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exempted the state of Florida from natural gas and oil drilling off its coast. Republican governor Rick Scott met with Zinke and afterward Zinke indicated that he had allowed the exemption at the governor’s request. Zinke has not indicated that democratically-run states could get similar exemptions. Along with the tax bill recently passed this is a clear example of Republican punishment of blue states.

Second, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein unilaterally released testimony by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS (commissioners of the infamous Steele dossier) without the consent and approval of Republicans. This action outraged the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Partisan clefting in the Committee displays an utter lack of cooperation and shared goals by the individuals tasked with running our government.

Winner-take-all

Key to these two incidents is evidence of intensifying winner-take-all effects in American political life. Laws are not passed and policy changes are not made unless one party controls majorities in the branches of government.

This fact is salient: Government has shifted from the mean to the outliers. While it may be true that our government was not as bipartisan in the past as it may seem from our current perspective, the political parties no longer shift to the middle in order to enact policy or win votes. Intolerant minorities now control policy and because of people’s political tribalism they will vote with a party or candidate with an extreme view as long as they are labeled Republican or Democrat. That is to say: people would rather vote and support a viewpoint with which they do not strongly agree as long as those candidates and policies are labeled and marketed as being part of their party.

Going as far back as the Affordable Care Act’s passage under the Obama Administration, passed with no Republican votes, the political parties have shown an inability to compromise. While this changing landscape has been analyzed, remarked-upon, and derided it has recently lost some attention due to the abhorrent and tumultuous Trump Administration. It is clear that the Trump Administration is a symptom, not the disease.

Going Forward

Partisanship, particularly the takeover of the Republican Party by an intolerant, radical minority, will stretch beyond the current administration. It is myopic to believe that all will be well after the inevitable downfall of President Trump – the American people and political system are not dealing with the causes of Trump’s rise in the first instance.

It is an irony that part of Trump’s appeal was in not belonging to a political party, that he was not part of the stagnant and dysfunctional establishment, but that his election has exacerbated the partisan divide in the country.

Dysfunction in Washington is here to stay, and while the issues of collusion and incompetence are important, in the arc of history it will be remembered as being “sound and fury” and not the central issue of the time.

The Megyn Kelly Mistake

In a television interview of Alex Jones, the radio broadcasting conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars.com, NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly tore into him over his support for the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a government-backed conspiracy. By all accounts she acquitted herself well and made Alex Jones look bad. But none of that matters. She was broadcasting to the wrong audience, and in turn, received no viewership for her new flagship program.

In a stinging stab of irony, the same people who listen to Alex Jones are probably the people she was most effective in appealing to in her previous career at Fox News.

Megyn Kelly was successful on Fox News as an anchor – she is intelligent, dogged, beautiful, and persuasive. Her profile continued to rise as an anchor and fill-in on Fox News and she received her own program, The Kelly File, on October, 7th, 2013. She did very well on the program being tough and probing (she was formally a prosecutor) and had excellent ratings, occasionally edging Bill O’Reilly. But when her contract ended with Fox News she chose to go to NBC and was elevated to the position of a lead anchor for three separate broadcast efforts.

NBC and Megyn Kelly failed to understand the new political-media landscape. There are no more trusted, non-partisan figures who can draw audiences. Its all about the audience, and bending your performance to suit their beliefs. The people who surrounded Megyn Kelly on Fox News were indicative of this media terrain. Tucker Carlson (who took Kelly’s time slot) and Sean Hannity have abandoned any pretense of moderation or fairness and appeal directly to the Trump/conservative political base.

Many on the right of the political spectrum understand the new realities of finely divided demographics. There are a host of provocateurs who have targeted Trump supporters and right-wingers as if they were a business targeting their products toward a certain demographic. These people are engaging in a scheme to make money, not to uphold their political beliefs.

Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Paul Joseph Watson are the foremost examples of people who have taken advantage of the internet and the media of political affirmation to benefit financially from targeting the “alt-right.” They spread lies, disinformation, and back Trump unreservedly in an attempt to attract an audience.

Megyn Kelly will probably fail as a news anchor for NBC in drawing audiences because liberals will not watch her because of her association with Fox News, and conservatives and Trump supporters will not watch her because she is not unabashedly backing their view points.

Pardons, the Law, and America’s Future

The United States of America sprung full grown from the Enlightenment as a nation-state like Athena from the mind of Zeus. It became a nation without going through the complexities of the European nation-states, which grew through feudal and class systems under aristocracies and absolute rulers to form modern states. America’s ideological foundation is firmly centered on the idea of the supremacy of ideas and ideals – primarily the idea of the nation as a system of laws and legally-established structures.

Intellectuals driving the ideology of the Trump movement (people like Steve Bannon) believe that the US is held together by white, Anglo-Saxon, and Judeo-Christian values. They are terribly wrong. They have misread the diversity of America as a weakness, or as a threat to the life of the nation. In the United States there has been diversity for much of the history of the nation, and fears that immigration from Latin America threatens the values and cohesiveness of the nation are histrionic. Without the concepts of justice and limited government, there is nothing to hold the nation from spinning apart.

Trump has consistently played to his base, and his pardon of Joe Arpaio is no different – many politicians and presidents over the history of the United States have played to their key supporters. But this is different than previous pardons and pandering. In several key ways the pardon undermines the rule of law.

Firstly, Joe Arpaio is a key political supporter of President Trump, especially on the divisive issue of immigration. Pardoning any key political supporter convicted of ignoring a federal court order is weighted with undermining the impartiality of the justice system. By doing this Trump is essentially placing political allegiance above the law and the separation of powers.

Secondly, the specific crime which Joe Arpaio was convicted for violating was a court order. “America’s toughest sheriff” flaunted the judiciary’s authority to determine whether or not his actions were constitutional. So the pardon was a direct challenge to the constitutional position of the judiciary, one of the three pillars of balanced government.

Thirdly, Joe Arpaio was pardoned without going through the normal legal process. Normally pardons are issued after a person has been sentenced and after they have appealed to the president to be pardoned. Furthermore, the individuals are normally pardoned in the interests of justice.

A key argument of Trump supporters is one of equivalency. This is an argument used with consistency by those supporting Donald Trump, and it is a dangerous form of sophistry. False equivalency blurs obvious moral and legal boundaries. In philosophical logic this is known as the “tu quoque” fallacy. Rather than addressing the logic of the argument presented against them, in this case “President Trump used his power to pardon to undermine the separation of powers and the ‘rule of law,'” supporters of the President will respond: “where was the outrage when Obama pardoned thugs and criminals?”

To address this fallacious argument it is instructive to examine some of the most controversial pardons and acts of clemency in recent American history. The first one that comes to mind is the pardon of Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate Scandal and forced to resign the presidency, was pardoned by President Gerald Ford shortly after he took office. Because Nixon had so poisoned the public perception of the Republican Party and the reasons for pardoning him were for the interest of the nation, it has generally been excused and vindicated by historians and politicians. This act, though enormously controversial at the time, was not made to a political supporter, and could not have been made for any feasible reason besides to move the nation past the tragedy of Nixon’s presidency. There was no personal loyalty, quid pro quo, or undermining of the law – the outcome of Nixon resigning the office and the implication of guilt were more in the public’s interest than his conviction in a trial.

Faction and partisanship have always been a threat to democracy and good government in America. Our Founding Fathers were concerned about the establishment of political parties and their ability to undermine the principals of republican government. Instead of ruining the government however, parties throughout the history of the United States have tended to operate within general bounds of fairness and legality, and as institutions have helped to channel a diverse and dissimilar population into orderly groups that can fight for general political principles. Several times the political parties have broken down, most catastrophically before the Civil War, where the regional demands on a single government became so great that the country was torn in half. Recently the rise of Donald Trump both displayed the weaknesses in the modern Republican and Democratic parties, and then tore them to shreds. Without the political parties channeling differences into governmental policy and actions the United States is left with the aimless politics of the dynamic politicians who rise to the top. In this case we have Donald Trump – not attempting to placate a political party who is willing to work within governmental structures, but appealing directly to his loyal, self-made political base of disaffected white Americans. Without a tradition, understanding, or respect for the government and law, he appeals directly to this political base. This is how democracy is undermined in America: it is done by breaking down the legal and heuristic edifices that keep the passions of people channeled and within recognized bounds of justice and fairness. Donald Trump doesn’t need to abolish the Constitution or rule by fiat to crack the United States of America’s foundations of individual liberty, limited government, and sharing of power.

The threat Trump poses is beyond the scope of contemporary conservative or liberal issues, he is his own class of threat. It started with denigration of the media – this allowed his supporters to feel that Trump was being misrepresented and victimized no matter his actions or words – making him nearly immune from criticism from his new political base; it was followed by the destruction of the coalitions that made the political parties (which they themselves are largely responsible for by growing so far from the people and interests they purport to represent); and now has moved on to the elevation of his political views over the laws of the nation.