Thoughts on AnilDash’s Article on NFTs, and criticisms of blind innovation and optimism in tech

The article in question, for context: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/nfts-werent-supposed-end-like/618488/

Anil’s article tells the story of how he and Kevin McCoy came up with the idea of creating NFTs to help artists assert ownership over their digital work (they didn’t invent blockchain or such like, just for clarity).

I should first state that this isn’t a criticism of Anil or Kevin specifically, but a criticism of blind innovators (and associated blind optimism for said innovations) in general. A very good non-NFT example would be the Agile Manifesto for software development, an absolutely terrible idea that has done no end of damage in the software industry and is one of the most well known examples of how not to manage a project. These ‘blind innovations’ have one thing in common: they were preventable without any hindsight required.

Unlike many other ideas in tech, it is possible to prove without any reasonable doubt that NFTs were never a good idea and will never be in future, because they are trying to solve an unsolvable problem. I will do my best to explain this below.

The primary premise of NFTs can be summarised thus:

  • They are non-fungible (i.e. unlike a currency like USD, each token is not interchangeable with another — each one has its own value and information).
  • They are stored on blockchain, which by design is difficult (though not impossible) to modify.

They are thus intended to provide unquestionable proof of ownership of a given digital item.

I could now go on to explain about Blockchain’s weaknesses, and so forth — but it is irrelevant. Even if blockchain had absolutely no weaknesses and could not be compromised in any way, NFTs still could not achieve their goal, not now and not in the future. How can I make such a bold claim?

I can make it because the technology itself is not relevant to why this wouldn’t work. Imagine I had a box that nobody could subvert; that if I placed within it a record that person A bought an artwork from person B, the record within that box could never be changed or compromised in any way. That box would solve nothing. It would solve nothing because all the box does is store the record and prove it exists/is not tampered with.

Suppose person B originally stole the artwork and wasn’t the real owner. Does the box have any ability to verify this? No. What if person B never meant to sell the artwork, and was coerced or threatened into selling it? Also no. Merely having a “completely secure record” does not mean the owner had any right to sell, that the artist was in approval of this, or anything else. Of course, it’s not only NFTs that have this problem; legal contracts and other things have this problem too.

A real-life example of this problem would be something like the Salvator Mundi painting (or any other painting, for that matter). It is fiercely debated as to who the real painter is; before it was claimed to be Leonardo da Vinci’s work, it was previously attributed to another artist in his studio, and before that was unknown. The only way we ‘know’ it is legitimate is because experts agree that it is legitimate. If the artist was alive he could vouch for it, but could he ‘definitively prove to have painted it’? No. He would have to rely on others who would say ‘yes, I saw him paint this’, or point to his past works and show their similarities, or such like. In other words, the only way we can prove anything involves a certain amount of human trust. Anyone who paid attention to the presidency of Donald Trump in the US should see how it is (sadly) possible for even blatant, undeniable evidence of something to be called into question; when it comes to questions of ‘who owns what’, facts are generally only facts as they are agreed upon.

This is, coincidentally, similar to how all modern secure websites function. The mere fact that your connection is encrypted doesn’t prove you are connected to the server you think you are. What happens is that the servers for the website you’re connecting to (let’s imagine, say, Amazon.com) will have a security certificate. This certificate is provided by an authority, who verify that Amazon’s servers are in fact genuine. Your browser checks this certificate to verify this; if you could subvert the certifying authority, you could make the user think they are connecting to a genuine website when they are not (this has happened many times before, with massive consequences). In other words, you must trust that the certifying authority is legitimate and not compromised. No amount of super-awesome-unbreakable technology would help achieve this.

This problem also applies to legal contracts. The mere fact that a contract exists doesn’t make it true or legally binding; how do you know it wasn’t signed under duress? That the signing parties actually agreed on the terms and read them and understood them, or even that the goods owned by one side were legitimately owned by them? You can’t. In modern times people each keep a copy of the contract, and perhaps an independent third party also does, to stop one person modifying theirs and claiming the contract was always different, but even the most amazingly unmodifiable contract could never prove its own validity.

Blockchain isn’t special compared to any of the above; even if they had no vulnerabilities, proof of transaction does not equal proof of validity. Twitter bots going around minting NFTs for artworks without the artist’s permission are a good example. An NFT can’t be trusted on its own terms; you must check with the artist that it was sold by them, just as you would need to do with a legal contract or anything else.

All of this is on top of the fact that, even if you make an unbreakable, unquestionable technology to provide proof of ownership , it unfortunately doesn’t mean people have to accept it works (an example of how this works can be seen in Donald Trump’s politics: the mere fact that vaccines are proven to work, and any other number of facts that are certain but he doesn’t like, didn’t stop him from being able to convince his supporters that they were all evil nonsense). Add to that the fact that there is a great conflict of interest for those wishing to subvert proof of ownership for their own gain, and you can quickly see how any “proof of ownership” system is going to be severely limited by consensus.

There is, therefore, no possible technology, now or in future, that could allow for the creation of ‘unambiguous, definitive’ proof of the owner of absolutely anything. It is physically impossible; all that any current or future technology is able to do is assert that a specific object has not been tampered with. The only real technological advancement that can be made in this realm is faster or harder-to-subvert ways for humans to verify things; things like 2FA (2 factor authentication) are a good example, but none of them can eliminate the problems of trust. As a result, the concept of NFTs being able to definitely prove ownership of a digital item was always doomed, irrespective of how they were implemented.

Blind innovations — and the blind optimism that usually pushes them along — have a tendency to cause a lot of damage, no matter what the original intent was. More importantly, they are foreseeably bad ideas in advance, hence calling them ‘blind’; it didn’t require hindsight, for example, to see that the Agile Manifesto’s idea of “working code over good documentation” would have disastrous results in any commercial software project of higher complexity than Hello World.

As a result, it’s fair to say those who try to innovate this way deserve to be criticised, irrespective of whether they had good intentions or not — intentions aren’t enough when it can be proven the idea was damaging before it was started. NFTs, in particular — given their total reliance on cryptocurrencies to function in practice — were foreseeably a disaster, as they were bound to be used as a way to prop up the pyramid scheme (the cryptocurrencies themselves). That said, I will stress again that this is not *specific* criticism of Anil or Kevin — it is criticism of this kind of ‘innovation’ done by anybody.

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