Tabitha Nikolai: [00:00:04]
Hello everyone, we’re back with Frictionless: Holding on for Dear Life. Today we’re going to be talking around themes of precarity, escape, agency, specifically through blockchain technologies.
You know it’s been all abuzz. Probably something that your cousin talked to you at Thanksgiving about, if you went to Thanksgiving. Are you getting bullish on Dogecoin, etc? Certainly we come at it from the art world, so NFTs¹, you know you gotta be minting some NFTs, you gotta be doing that, you don’t want to sleep on it. So we’re here to discuss those, and we have our guest Stephen here today, who’s going to introduce himself in a moment, but I thought, just as a reminder of who’s hosting the show with us today, DB Would you like to introduce yourself to everybody, and maybe say a little bit about your interest in the cryptosphere?
DB Amorin: [00:01:05]
Sure, my name is DB Amorin. I’m a video and sound artist, a new media artist, primarily my practice incorporates translations between analog and digital medias and the failures of those translations, and teasing out how they can intersect with identity or our concepts of perception.
So thinking about this new arena of the metaverse and blockchain and things that can exist “on chain” has seemed to me, in terms of my artistic practice, a medium unto itself to explore and tease out those failures of translation perhaps. Additionally, I think I found out about NFTs in 2018 when a video piece of mine had been in talks for acquisition and in the end fizzled out, and several weeks later somebody introduced me to the concept of NFTs that could instantly provide a verifiable certificate of authenticity and my mind was blown. Where could I have access to this? Who knows about this? And who do I need to tap to code this for me, and what kind of platforms do I have? So I’ve been interested in the concept of NFTs and art intersecting with blockchain since around then. Ralph I’d love to hear from you.
Ralph Pugay: [00:02:38]
Thanks DB. So, I’ve been having difficulty expressing what my work actually is through these conversations. Because it’s largely amorphous and analog, but I would say that my practice mostly centers on using painting, drawing, and illustration, but also socially engaged projects to reflect on how symbols and the structures that contain and catalyze how we make meaning and engage with the world, but also the dysfunction that happens when we see the world through the, the complexities of coordination and coded frameworks. I’m mainly interested in today’s topic to really imagine and think about how these technological transformations would impact culture at large. I’ve also been learning more and beginning to integrate NFTs into my practice. So I’m really excited that you’re here with us Stephen to be in conversation to answer our questions. I think it’s Tabi’s turn.
Oh, shit, yeah I should have done that at the beginning because that would have been more organic. But, yeah I’m a new media, mostly like new media, sculpture, installation artist. I’m mostly using video gaming technologies but have done things adjacent to that. I come at this as kind of a crypto, or particularly NFT skeptic because to me it scarcifies something that has this digital plentitude, and to me in my own experience growing up in the 90s that’s one thing that felt really cool about the internet
is this infinitude and this non-scarcity. But at the same time, I’m interested in it, as I am in examining the social ramifications of all these new technologies. I did a project with some collaborators recently that was a media server that got hosted in a museum and then we didn’t tell them we were mining cryptocurrency on the computer at the same time, to then steal money from the museum to then give away to people. So I’m interested in this stuff. I’m interested in subversive uses of this stuff, but with the acknowledgment I’m not a technologist. My background isn’t in technology so that’s a reason I also am excited to hear and listen to Stephen talk to us a bit about what these things can do. Stephen Could you take it away and tell us a little bit about yourself?
Stephen McKeon [00:04:57]
Sure. So, my name is Steven McKeon. I’m on the finance faculty here at University of Oregon, I’ve been here for about 10 years. I don’t know how much background you want? I started my career in tech, back in the dot com era, so this is kind of like 1999-2000, that’s right when I graduated college, moved down to Silicon Valley to work for a startup, of course everything melted down later in 2000. And so, went off and did some other things for a while, ended up going back to school to get a PhD in finance, and then started here at U of O in 2011, and the very first MBA class I taught, which was 2012, I had some students in there that wanted to start a software company, and specifically around commercial drones. So at that point drones were mostly used for military reasons. They didn’t want anything to do with that. They wanted to use drones to fly medicine across Africa or all of these other uses where this technology might be able to do some good, or might be useful to more commercial uses, and so we ended up starting a company called Skyward, and we grew that up, and eventually sold it to Verizon. It became Verizon’s drone division and that’s sort of what brought me back to technology again from starting my career in it, but I had taken this long hiatus, and then Skyward really brought me back.
And so when we were wrapping up Skyward I decided the next thing I wanted to do was figure out where is the intersection between finance, where I had all this formal training, and emerging technology, and the logical answer of course was Bitcoin. This was about 2015, and Bitcoin was the only game in town, for the most part, back then. There was another platform called Ethereum, which was just launching right around that time, which we can dive into in greater detail, but that’s kind of what captured my imagination. And I started meeting people and one thing led to another and eventually reconnected with an old friend who ran a venture firm in New York, called Collaborative Fund, and we created a fund explicitly to invest in this segment, not necessarily just currencies but really the whole ecosystem around what we call Web 3.0, you can think of it as decentralized technologies that make up what a lot of us think will be the next generation of the internet. And so we started a fund called Collab Currency, and we’ve now invested in about 80 different companies and protocols, many of which are related to NFTs, and art so async.art and SuperRare and art blocks and lots of others we can chat about. And so that brought me right up to minute, so maybe I’ll pause there.
That’s amazing. Hearing you talk a little bit about Web 3.0 is something that’s come up in past conversations and it sounds like from what I understand a cornerstone of that is blockchain technologies specifically, can you give us one of those “talk to us like we’re five” breakdowns of blockchain?
Sure. So blockchain is a technology where it solves something called the “double spend” problem. So if you think about what is the big innovation that Bitcoin actually solved, it’s the idea that we figured out how to send lots of different things over the internet. We can send messages over the internet. We can send content like websites. We could replicate the mail, we could replicate magazines, we can replicate all kinds of information transfer over the internet. This is what the late 90s and and all through the 2000s were about, is movement of various types of content. The thing we never really figured out how to do peer to peer is send value. We know how to send an email message. We didn’t know how to send $1 or something equivalent to $1. It always had to go through intermediaries, which means through the banking system. So even when you think about FinTech, PayPal or Venmo or something like that, those are really just layers on top of the banking system. They’re ways that we now interact with the banking system in a digital environment.
But with crypto, without diving way down the rabbit hole, the idea is, how can we ensure that when I send you a Bitcoin that everybody knows that I don’t own that thing anymore and you do own that thing now? And the way we do that is with what’s called a shared ledger. So think about the concept of a ledger is like thousands of years old, it’s just the way we keep track of things. We get a ledger for our bank balance and our bank then knows every time I withdraw money or I deposit money they make a mark in the ledger and that shows me how much money I own in that account. Think of it as one giant ledger for all the money in the world. This is kind of like what Bitcoin is. And so when I send a Bitcoin to you, there’s a mechanism by which that occurs and once that’s written in the ledger, everybody knows Steve doesn’t own that Bitcoin anymore, and now Tabitha owns that Bitcoin, or DB owns that Bitcoin, or Ralph owns that Bitcoin, and everyone’s working from the same ledger. So we all know what is “truth,” who owns what. So that is the big innovation, and then you can extend that to the concept of ownership of many other things, and that’s where we get into NFTs and recording ownership of unique items, which would include art and collectible, and lots of other items.
Yeah, I think that the concept of an NFT obviously since 2020 has really exploded and has made its mark on the art world. People in my communities talk about it, I’m not sure if there’s a wide scale adoption of it, mainly due to skepticism but also maybe a little bit of an issue with understanding the technology behind what an NFT is and how it differs from a Bitcoin. Could you explain some of that and how it exists on different layers of Ethereum?
SM [0012:12:00]. Yep! So there’s lots of different, what we call protocols. So, Ethereum is one, Solana is one, Tezos is one, Bitcoin is one, there’s many beyond those ones I just named. All of those are basically a ledger, they’re just keeping track of stuff. So, with Bitcoin there will eventually be 21 million Bitcoins. You can think of it as one Bitcoin is exactly the same as another Bitcoin. So if I say you owe me one bitcoin, I don’t really care which Bitcoin you send me. I don’t differentiate between one and another. We call that fungible, so they’re fungible tokens, just like if I said, you owe me $10, and you took $10 out of your wallet, and gave it to me. Yes, they’re all unique, they have serial numbers, but I’m not going to look at that and be like, that serial number ends in five, you have to give me a $10 bill where the serial number ends in eight. We don’t do that, right? We consider all dollar bills to be fungible and basically one is exactly the same as another. So all an NFT is is a wrapper for a unique item. Where one is NOT the same as the next and so you can think of a piece of artwork as obviously this is the case, right, so you make a piece of artwork, and if you think of a physical painting. There’s just one of those. You can make another one that’s virtually the same but now there’s two and each one is sort of unique.
Non fungible tokens are basically the way to keep a unique record on the shared ledger. So the thing I always tell people is the NFT might point to an image like a JPEG of a piece of art, and we can talk about different types of art and generative art and, there’s a whole conversation there, but the simplest version, let’s say that I create an image, so Beeple, for example Beeple is a digital artist, he creates a new image every day, basically. And then I turn that into an NFT. What I’m selling to you, you’re not really buying the image. The thing you’re buying is a pointer towards the image. What you’re really buying is the record of ownership of that thing that links you with whoever it is that created that thing. So I know that Beeple only created one of these things. So, even though you can “right click and save,” as the saying goes, that doesn’t mean you own the thing. You can also make a copy of the Mona Lisa, go into the Louvre and take a picture and now we have another image of that image. That doesn’t mean you own the Mona Lisa. So the concept within a tease is it’s actually about the ownership record more than it’s about the image itself that it’s pointing to, if that makes sense?
I’m also a teacher and I think probably around the time Beeple was selling $69 million collage of many of many of their NFT works, before I started getting a lot of questions from students about NFTs, and did it seem like something they should get into and there’s the kind of hype
that builds around that and I’m wondering, are there things that you see in terms of like NFTs and the market around them that replicates…I guess my question is, what are the positive and negative things that you think that the NFT market replicates from the art world? And where does it differ? either for better or for worse.
Yeah, so positives and negatives of NFTs, so there’s a bunch right? Let me just go to the most obvious ones, and I think the most obvious pro is allowing artists to monetize like nothing ever before, as far as I’m aware. So, Beeple is not a new digital artist. Beeple’s been around for years and years and years and years and had built up a big following on Instagram and I’m sure had monetized in some ways, but had never been able to create scarcity around these digital items because you can right click and copy and save it to your own computer, an exact replica of that image. And so without the ownership record it’s actually very hard to monetize digital creative works. And so, it’s creating this method to earn a living, and in some cases, like Beeple, an astronomical amount of money from creative output, and to me that just seems like something that’s good for the world. I think we should be promoting more creative output. And if we can find a way to route capital to the people that are producing some of that creative output then that seems like on net that has to be good for the world. So to me that’s the big benefit of NFTs.
I would say there’s two potential negatives that you could point to. One where there’s been a lot of attention is environmental impact. So, I want to talk about that too, so there’s energy usage, I want to talk about that for a minute. The second one is this idea of marking to market. So the fact that we now see a market price for every piece of art that’s out there, and that may not be a good thing. So let me start with the energy piece. It’s pretty well documented that Bitcoin and Ethereum, which are called Proof of Work chains, and I’m not going to go into the technical details, but the method by which they maintain their ledger consumes a lot of energy. I mean an astronomical amount, like by any sort of measure. So if you compared it to the amount consumed by a small country or something like that. And so in the grand scheme of things, it’s only a little tiny sliver of the amount of energy on Earth, but it looks like a lot compared to if you’re using the same amount of energy as the country of Belize, that feels like a lot of energy.
So, is it worth that, I think is where people land. I would make a variety of observations here. One is, there are other chains that almost use no energy at all. So, Solana and Tezos are chains where you’re seeing more and more NFT activity. I think what I read on Solana is that minting an NFT on Solana uses approximately the same amount of energy as a Google search, which we all do dozens of times per day and we don’t think about the carbon footprint of that Google search. NFTs will get to the same place [where] we don’t associate minting NFTs with any sort of negative environmental impact. That said, a lot of NFTs are created on Ethereum today, which does use a lot of energy. So the next question you have to ask yourself is, is energy use in and of itself bad, or is it something about the way that energy is produced? And so I would argue that the thing we actually are trying to avoid is energy use from energy that is produced from fossil fuels. That’s what’s having the environmental impact. So if you’re using energy that’s produced from renewables, like solar or hydro or geothermal, I don’t think actually using energy has any real…the carbon footprint is just an infinitesimal amount relative to if the energy is produced by coal. So you have to look at where is the energy produced that’s being used to power these chains. And the truth is that the majority of it is renewables, or what are called non-rivalrous sources, so energy that’s not going to be used anywhere else. And so, without a doubt, there is some energy from fossil fuels that is used for Bitcoin and Ethereum. And I think we all need to work to try and reduce that as much as possible, and until Ethereum also moves to what’s called Proof of Stake, which is this other mechanism that Solana and Tezos and some of the others use, which is slated to be in the next 12 months, it then will also be in this category of chains that don’t really use much in the way of energy.
So, a long way of saying, yes, I think there’s some issue right now in the sense that they do use a lot of energy, at least some portion of that energy comes from fossil fuels. I think the issue is much smaller than what the popular press has made it out to be. But I would also say that if you just look 1, 2, 3 years down the road, this is going to be a non issue. Nobody’s going to connect NFTs and environmental impact, unless they’re working on old and outdated information. So I don’t view this as a long run issue at all. Maybe I’ll pause there before I move on to the market thing. I feel like I’ve been talking for a long time.
Can I ask a question in response to that?
So I have questions around why, given the environmental impacts, and I’ve heard that Ethereum isn’t able to like move to a Proof of Stake until maybe six years from now, but yet people are continuing to buy into these Ethereum projects. And then there’s these other protocols that are slowly growing. Do you think that the reason why Ethereum continues to monopolize the space is because we’re still moving from this Web 2.0 monopoly way of thinking?
Yeah, I got your question. Why does Ethereum have such a dominant market position, despite the fact that it uses a lot of energy? So, here’s what I would say about that. One, is I actually think their market share is declining. So if you go back a couple years, the only place you saw NFTs was Ethereum, and these days you’re seeing NFTs on Solana, you’re seeing them on Tezos, you’re seeing them on Terra. We went from close to 100% market share of Ethereum to something a lot less than that, and frankly, most artists I talk to today, if they’re thinking about where to launch, I would say many of them are leaning towards something like Tezos. There’s a marketplace on Tezos called HEN and all the artists went there because they were worried about the environmental impact and so it developed this huge awesome artist community over on Tezos and has kind of taken on a life of its own.
The reason people still like Ethereum has mostly to do with its security guarantees. So, again, without getting into a lot of details, these chains can actually be attacked. It’s not worth going into how that would occur, but you could kind of think of it as if somebody really wanted to cause trouble and they had enough compute power, they could actually really foul things up because these are just public open source projects and the mining is adversarial. So, think about it like this, a lot of projects on Solana are gaming NFTs, a sword that I use in some game, or a character or whatever. And maybe they’re worth a few hundred bucks. And if I’m playing a game I want it to be fast, I want it to be cheap, ideally no environmental impact, but mostly I want it to be fast and cheap. I don’t need it to be the most secure chain ever because I’m just playing with this item. If some chain got attacked and I lost my sword, that’s not the end of the world, right. If I have a Fidenza, which is by an artist named Tyler Hobbs. It was dropped on a platform called art blocks. it’s one of the most famous versions of NFT art, and they’re half a million dollars, they’re quite valuable, and up for some of the rare traits and so on. I want it to be on the most secure thing possible. If I own a thing worth half a million dollars, or a million dollars, or two million dollars, I am possibly willing to tolerate a little bit of environmental impact to ensure that I don’t lose that thing worth many times my annual salary from U of O. And so I think that if you look at the high end stuff It all lives on Ethereum primarily because of the security features of Ethereum. And also because historically that’s where most of the users have been. But, as I said at the beginning, I think that is actually starting to diffuse out pretty quickly at this point.
Solana went down again at two o'clock in the morning (UTC+8) on January 4th. According to users of the official Telegram community, the attacker is suspected of using spam to conduct a DDoS attack.
Can I do another follow up question? I’m thinking about the economy of these spaces. You have one-to-one artworks that are emerging in different marketplaces, but then you also have these collections that seem to dominate the space because it’s very sensational to see somebody making a collection as an artist and build a team to deploy a project that makes millions of dollars. It almost feels as if that’s often what you see, and that’s what a lot of people get drawn in with in the space, but I’m thinking about that in relation to like concepts of centralization and decentralization where it can often feel like I can be optimistic that this place provides security in terms of me, as an artist, growing and developing an audience in digital space, but at the same time it also feels like there’s already emerging systems of power that are in place. That are taking over the amount of voices that are being heard. Can you talk a little bit about that? There’s that piece that I think is really interesting as we’re trying to adapt into this digital model of capitalism.
we started a revolution founded on individuals paying artists directly for their work
and then we let brands come in and pay artists to create NFTs on their behalf
see the problem? 👌💔🆗
— Museum of Crypto Art 🕳🐇 (@MuseumofCrypto) January 24, 2022
It’s something that gets debated in the space a lot, this concept about centralization versus decentralization. Actually the largest market place for art, which is called OpenSea is not a decentralized platform, it’s a company. It’s a centralized company that acts as a marketplace for NFT’s and this debate has actually just been raging, really over the last week especially, because there are other competitors that are more decentralized. And there’s a debate over, maybe you lose some features if you actually create a decentralized version, maybe it’s better for some of these things to be centralized, but I think also what you’re saying is very powerful voices… And I would say two comments. First of all, I think that’s just true of society generally, I don’t think that’s a blockchain phenomenon. If you look at the distribution of the value of traditional art, so set NFTs to the side for a minute, and you look at what things sell for, you’ve got the Picassos and the Moreaus and these pieces of art that sell for 10s of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars. And then you’ve got the long tail of thousands, 10s of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions maybe, of artists that are, quote unquote, starving artists. So, in fact, the vast, vast, vast majority of artists are not making that much money off their art, being excited to make a living off art. Definitely not selling for 10s or hundreds of millions of dollars.
So, NFTs are brand new, the whole technology is really just a few years old, and frankly I would say 18 months old in terms of when it really rose up, and there have been some that jumped out to quick, very prominent positions. Beeple became a very prominent NFT artist, and Tyler Hobbs became a very prominent generative artist, and Damien Hirst is doing some things and I would argue these were people that were already somewhat prominent before NFTs that found a new way to distribute and monetize their digital works. But if you actually look at the total number of NFT artists, most of them are still not making that much money. I don’t want to say that’s not a bad thing, obviously we want creative people to be able to earn an income. But one of the cool things NFTs is that… we wrote this article called “You’re Sleeping on Crypto Art,” a year or two ago, and one of my favorite lines in the whole article was that comparing the market for traditional art to the market for digital art is like measuring, I can’t remember exactly how to phrase it, but something like, measuring the market for air travel based on private jets. NFTs should allow ownership of digital art to be something that millions and millions of people can experience. Most people have not really owned art. That’s kind of been the purview of the wealthy segment of society by and large, and it should be the case that now everybody has the chance to own art.
I do not care. NFTs, especially bitcoin and ETH NFTs, use up a massive amount of energy, leading to higher consumption of fossil fuels.
NFT collectors don't care about art, they just care about money laundering
— Xenderman 🇺🇦 (@TheXenderman) September 6, 2021
Not just have art in a digital form, but actually feel the sense of ownership around art. And to me that’s really special, and I think it’s one of the like pros of NFTs, but in order to enable that it means that it has to sell for not very much money, and that’s kind of what’s cool about Tezos is like fees on Ethereum, just to buy something, you’re probably going to pay $50, $80, $150 in transaction fees. So you can’t sell a $5 piece of art. Say an artist wants to create a digital work and maybe they want to create a set of 1000, so that they don’t have to sell it for very much, like each one, maybe it’s 10 bucks. You can’t do that on Ethereum because you can’t go sell an item for $10 if there’s a $112 transaction fee, but you can do it on Tezos. You can actually sell art for $5, or $10, or $20, which is sort of magical. I love going on Tezos and buying NFT after NFT because I can afford to buy so many different pieces that I love with 100 bucks, or a couple hundred bucks. And so to me that’s kind of the magic of NFTs I’m seeing more on places like Tezos and HEN, their marketplace, because it just creates a very wide distribution for art that didn’t exist previously.
I have a question, but I would love for you to clarify one thing for our viewers who may not know. Could you explain what a “gas fee” is and why it exists?
Yes. So let’s say you create an NFT and then I want to buy that. Basically I’m going to pay you some amount, from buyer to seller, there’s some amount that you’re paying for the actual item you’re buying. Let’s say that’s 100 bucks. But somebody somewhere has to then update the ledger to say, DB doesn’t own that thing now, now Steve owns that thing. We need to update the ledger to say ownership of this thing now belongs to…It doesn’t say Steve, of course, it says my wallet address. So those [people who update the ledger] are what are called miners. You may have heard of the term Bitcoin miner, or Ethereum miner. it’s basically they’re accountants, they’re updating the ledger, and in order to pay them to do that work we have to pay fees and so my view is that long run, or not even, like medium run, 10 years from now, fees will be pennies. Fees should be on the order of a single digit amount of pennies, or less than a penny, should cost almost nothing. The problem is Ethereum is a victim of its own success, in the sense that it got so popular. It got way more popular than the actual number of transactions it can process.
— Shawn K 😱 (@HostShawn) January 30, 2022
And so, let’s take a non blockchain example of this. Let’s say that Lynyrd Skynyrd…I love Lynyrd Skynyrd, right. So Lynyrd Skynyrd is going to play Taylor’s, this little tiny bar across the street from my office. So only 100 people can fit in there, but I went and saw Lynyrd Skynyrd at Red Rocks a few weeks ago and there was thousands and thousands and thousands of people there. So you can imagine, now we put Lynyrd Skynyrd in a venue where only 100 tickets have been sold. What’s going to happen to the price of those tickets? It’s going to go up because there’s way more demand than there is capacity. And so it doesn’t mean that the show is different and the show might not be any better there than it was at Red Rocks, it’s just Ethereum is, without getting into a lot of details, it’s not that different than something like Tezos. They’re both shared Ledger’s where you keep track of things, but because everybody wants to be on Ethereum, and there’s not enough capacity, we pay the miners a lot in order to include our transaction onto the ledger. So you could think of it as there’s so much demand to be on Ethereum that it causes lots and lots of miners to join Ethereum and then they start competing. I’m leaving out a lot of details for simplicity. There’s a lot of technical details behind this. But you could think of it like it became so popular and the value of Ether went up so much that it created a massive amount of competition. And that competition is what drives fees to these astronomical levels. They change through the day. So right now we’re mid-day on a Monday, this is about as high as fees get, probably. Whereas if I wait til the middle of Saturday night, the fee might be half as much as it is right now. So it’s literally how much demand is there on the network that is going to determine what fees are. But the one sentence answer is it’s a payment to a miner in order to include the transaction on the ledger on the chain.
— Nazim Ahmed (@blockchainNaz) January 23, 2022
Okay, thanks for explaining that. I think that one of the barriers that many artists have to even entering the marketplace is the existence of these astronomical fees. And I’m going to piggyback off of things that both Tabi and Ralph have said. I’m glad, Ralph, you brought up the conceptualization that in people’s minds of what is centralized and what is decentralized. I feel like to many people It feels like you’re falsely buying into a concept of decentralization but they still see these large gatekeeper type platforms like Foundation or SuperRare where you have to apply, KnownOrigin, where you have apply for entry, and it’s still some shady curator and in that way it does feel like you’re still interacting with a very traditional structure of an art market or an art institution. Another aspect of what Tabi was saying, I’m losing my train of thought, I’m so sorry…
Well I do have a quick comment on that aspect that you just mentioned. So, we’re investors in SuperRare so we’ve actually thought about this a fair amount. And it’s true most people who applied were not accepted and that doesn’t feel good, and it became this controversial thing with SuperRare. So SuperRare moved from a centralized entity, SuperRare the company, where there’s a group of curators, effectively employees of SuperRare. And then the next step is they created a council, and so they brought in a bunch of external people, for example my partner at the fund, Derek, is on the SuperRare curator board, now he’s one of several. They brought in more voices to help determine this curation to more of the end state. They’ve now launched a network and a protocol and are going to have something called SuperSpaces. The idea is to start creating more and more opportunity for more and more artists to engage with the SuperRare marketplace. So I think there has been sensitivity towards how we get more people involved, but it did take a series of iterations. So there will still always be the main SuperRare site, which will be curated, just like only certain people can get into certain art shows. I mean, there’s lots of curation all across the art world, but I think the difference is I do think curation is going to get more decentralized. I don’t know if you’ve seen there’s a protocol called JPG, their whole thing is just about curation, and there’s actually a variety of experiments right now around, can we get a group to curate and I’m sure that’s got pros and cons to it as well versus a small Council of 8 or 10 people. But I do think there’s a lot of experimentation around curation that’s going on right now that hopefully will alleviate some of the issues you identified.
Do NFT collectors care about art ? I do not think so. They care about future sell price only. Do you have different opinion ?
Deeply strange pic.twitter.com/ycilbi1iNL
— James Kelleher (@etienneshrdlu) January 25, 2022
So I remember the second part of my question, which was in thinking about ways that decentralization can offer a revolution of these economic structures that can include more people. When we think about Beeple making $69 million off of a JPEG, it feels to most people that this system is just replicating all of the faults, all the failures of capitalism itself, and it doesn’t actually revolutionize anything. To segue into another thing that we wanted to bring up, which is the creation of DAOs and how they operate and the promise that then they bring to maybe mitigating some of this and allowing a group consensus to build these smart contracts that remove the necessity of what you referred to as the legal layer, or traditional legal systems to redistribute funds, according to democratize process. There’s a lot there to tease out, but maybe you could explain what DAOs are and how they exist, and how they intersect with DeFi, or decentralized finance, in general.
Sure. So a DAO stands for Decentralized Autonomous Organization. And you could kind of think of it as like a company that only lives in the cloud. So let me draw some analogies here. Let’s say you and I wanted to start a company. Or let’s say everybody on this call– so there’s four of us and we all want to start a company to do whatever. Like it could be a hot dog stand, we want to go invest in baseball cards, we want to start a company for some reason. So what do we do? Well, we all get some money together. So we all go down, we create the company, we file something with the state that says that this is an entity now, we use that to go open a bank account, we put some money and we each write a check, we put the money in the bank account. Then we say all right, one of us is going to be in charge– like go buy these baseball cards or go buy the hot dog cart that we’re going to need to operate– and so we trust that person to go out and execute the will of the group.
Anyway, so we all understand sort of how companies work. So if you wanted to do that, instead of with four people, with 4000 people and you wanted to do it with people all over the world. Like that whole mechanism that I just described– it doesn’t work right? Like you can’t have a bank account. Just literally getting somebody in France to be able to put money into a US bank account is like a whole ordeal.
So the collecting the money together part doesn’t work. The trust part doesn’t really work because if it’s just four of us we all know each other. And like I can say, I know DB I trust DB. I’m going to give you the ability to write a check out of that checking account and go buy our hot dog stand right? But if it’s 4000 people and we all don’t know each other it’s going to be very hard for us to trust that somebody just has control of all of our money and is going to actually do the right thing.
— Andre Cronje 👻 (@AndreCronjeTech) January 30, 2022
And so DAOs kind of solve for some of these issues in sort of– you could think of as really like human organization. So humans organize, in order to accomplish some task, and it could be as simple as running a hotdog stand right? But humans organize, they generally have created a company or a nonprofit or whatever to facilitate whatever the objective is of their group. What DAOs do is they allow humans to organize and they put all of those kinds of contractual relationships into the cloud. And so this is actually what crypto allows us to do is smart contracts. So this is something you can do with crypto that you can’t do with any other form of value. We can all send money into a smart contract, just like a wallet. And then we can put a rule on that contract that says no money can be released from that wallet, unless all four of us vote with our own wallets and say, all right we authorize $3,000 for this, this hot dog stand or whatever.
It’s very hard to do that with people that live all over the world in any sort of traditional legal structure. This is becoming a long explanation but what DAOs do is they allow humans to organize to accomplish some task without requiring that they all trust each other. So they can have a shared pool of money between them, and they can put rules on the way that money moves to ensure that no individual member can steal it or spend it in a way that the group doesn’t approve of.
And so I guess that’s why people are saying that DAOs are the organizational form of the internet because you could kind of think of it as like a company that only lives on the internet. But because it lives on-chain, so to speak, we cannot put rules about the way value moves, which sidesteps some of these issues we see with traditional organizations. So now, we could have 10 people in a DAO, we could have 100 people in the DAO, we could have 1000, we could have 100,000 people in the DAO, and we can put rules that say what needs to happen for any value to move. So maybe we have 100,000 members, and we say, 40% of them, so we need 40,000 yes votes in order to release any funds from this wallet right? Or you could say, if we get 20,000 yes votes it then goes to a special counsel. You can put in multiple layers of governance. There are many things that are being experimented with right now. But at the highest level, you could think of it as a way to organize people around a shared objective in a way that doesn’t let them steal each others’ money.
I’ll ask a question related to what you just said because I often think about DAOs in terms of being adapted to older institutional models. And it feels like in many ways it does make sense. And I often think, what would an educational model that’s like a DAO look like? But also questions around what would that transition look like even, because it feels highly like it requires some technological savviness right? And given that technology moves so fast, it also requires a lot of maintenance and updating. And so I’m just kind of wondering what your insights are in terms of it.
So like an educational model like the university?
Yeah. Like I would love to hear you imagine what U of O (University of Oregon where Stephen teaches) would look like as it tries to adapt into like a DAO model– but also how, how would that transform the way that we educate. Specifically in an art context maybe– just imagining.
Okay so yeah I do have a lot of thoughts on this. So think about… Why does a university exist, right? And then you can replace university with almost any organization. Like you could say why does Uber exist? Why does the university exist? What are the inputs and outputs? So you have people that want education– the students. You have people that can provide the education– there’s the professors. And then everything else is just people in the middle of those two groups, basically, right? And I’m obviously over simplifying this. But if you think of all the administration. It’s to make sure that money gets paid by the students and gets routed to professors according to their contractual terms– their employment terms. And most of that stuff in the middle is just to make sure that money gets routed to the right places, right? It gets collected from all the people that are receiving the education and get sent to the staff that are maintaining buildings and the professors that are delivering content. That’s kind of what the university is. It’s just a nexus of contractual relationships. The university is basically a money router and you can almost say that about any organization right? Like the reason it exists is to route resources from one group of people to another group of people that are providing some good or service.
So if you think about a DAO… So, we could start Professor DAO, right? And for simplicity, let’s say we were going to do a fully online model. So we’re going to dispatch him with all of the physical buildings and obviously that adds complexity, right? So let’s say we’re just going to deliver, which is pretty much what we did last year, right? During COVID everything was delivered online. So Professor DAO is maybe me and all my finance colleagues join the DAO. And then all the students that want to take our classes join the DAO, and maybe the DAO… I’m just truly brainstorming now. This is not all fully thought out in advance. But maybe the DAO creates NFTs. And so I have my alternatives investments class. I just taught it this morning. Sixty students in there. So maybe I create 60 NFTs or the DAO creates 60 NFTs, and anybody who buys one of these NFTs can authenticate into my video lecture by having the NFT in their wallet. And so then all this money goes into the DAO from all the money that people paid for these NFTs, and they basically bought a subscription to my class for the term, and then next term we will issue a whole bunch of new NFTs for Spring Term Alternative Investments.
All that money goes into the DAO and then, the other professors sort of agree or maybe a majority of us have to agree on how the money comes out of the DAO. So alright. Well, alternative investments is super popular so I should get paid twice as much as the person teaching, Muni Bonds or maybe it’s just proportional based on the number of NFTs that are sold.
So, anyway, as you can see, there’s a lot to think through. But the idea is if the university effectively at the end of the day is a money router for contractual relationships, then we can replicate a lot of those contracts with smart contracts so that the money goes into this bucket, and then out of the bucket. Ultimately the members of the DAO in order for the DAO to do anything have to agree– a majority of them have to agree on whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish. And so that part doesn’t change. What changes is, we’ve ripped out a lot of the administration that exists primarily to route resources, if that makes sense. That’s effectively what DAOs do is that they help us route resources in a much more efficient way.
That was an amazing explanation because I think thinking about DAOs is something that’s been intriguing to me but that I’ve always struggled with. I want to ask a question that’s maybe jumping back through some of what you were describing in terms of you collecting NFTs yourself, which was exciting for me to hear about that you’d like to you like to pick up small things and I guess when I think about the conventional art market, the legacy art market, there are a long tail of people that are buying because they love art, and it sounds like that’s your interest. But I think the bulk of the money in the art market is totally speculative, these unregulated things that people can store value in. And I wonder about, based on like the hype around NFTs, the number of people that you think are getting involved in this kind of micro financialization of this, and I mean that phenomena sort of writ large. I’m thinking about one of the articles that you shared with us too, that came up with our last speaker on the topic of Axie Infinity, this idea of micro work and gamified micro work. Do you have thoughts about the world we might be making where we’re granularly making these micro financializations. Does that make sense? It’s a weird question?
Yeah, maybe your question is, Is that good or bad?
TN: [0056:04] That’s part of my question. I have this fear we are just shackling ourselves to tiny little looms that we do all of our consuming and all of our learning and all of our playing, etc.
Yeah, so I guess then it’s a somewhat subjective question, right? Again, I’m a finance professor, which maybe biases my view, but I think another way to frame this is, do we want everything to be ownable? I do think that there is something special about ownership, like innately. I think it creates a different relationship between the person and the thing. If there’s an ownership component involved, and so I am pro ownership broadly, and with ownership comes financialization, typically. The way I look at it is there’s a lot of people on earth. We have a very biased view in the US, to some degree, because we have this gigantic economy generally, yes not every single person benefits from that, and there’s inequality and there’s everything else, but generally speaking, there’s a lot of opportunity in this country. Whereas there’s a lot of parts of the world where there is no economic opportunity for the most part, there is no way to work your way out of it. It sort of doesn’t exist. I’m thinking of various parts of Asia and Africa and really just all over the globe, this phenomenon exists. And you look at Axie Infinity, it’s a game people can play to actually earn money playing it. And it brought economic vitality to all these parts of the Philippines that were to some degree decimated by COVID, right. They were in a severe economic downturn, as many parts of the world were. And it was a way to just over the internet inject economic vitality into this geographic region that has no way of getting out of it, based on any sort of physical trade of goods and services. It’s almost like it has to come via digital means. And so, yes it does mean we’re going to measure more things. There’s going to be earnings based on more activities than there are today. But I also look at it as that means that people that don’t have the ability today to earn money in their local economy and local environment, are going to be able to port their labor. Using these cryptocurrency and web 3.0 sorts of technologies. And actually raise up a huge segment of humanity into economic opportunity.
I think it’s worth it. So, yeah I don’t disagree with you that there may be negative side effects or …I’m struggling to nail down exactly the right term, but you can imagine some aspects of this, where everything is more financialized than it is today. That is sort of disconcerting or discomforting or maybe we don’t like as much. But I do think if the trade-off is providing economic opportunity to billions of people around the globe that effectively can’t access it today,
I think it’s a trade off worth making, and society always evolves. If some angle of this we end up not liking then we’re going to need to develop some new solutions to solve our new issue, which is always the story of technology. Technology evolves, eventually results in some outcomes we don’t like, and then we need to try to solve those.
Amazing, my head is swimming with stuff from what you’re saying and I could ask a million questions. Ralph or DB, do you have anything you want to throw out before we maybe wrap up?
I just have one question, and maybe it’s a lot. Maybe it’s too large of a question to end on. But, it comes up consistently within the crypto conversation. And just also just hearing you talk about the promise that yourself and many other people feel about the ability for crypto and its related DeFi opportunities to allow us to escape precarity and achieve some sort of agency. Then on the other hand we hear the presence, and there will always be a presence, of bad actors, rug pulling, these kinds of things, consumer protections in these spaces and like the possibility of regulation kind of looms over the conversation about crypto, and every time something hits the news it’s what tanks Bitcoin again. How do you feel about that, and is it possible? Is it necessary? What is your feeling on regulations for this space to protect people who are just entering this retail economy, or retail investment economy for the first time?
Just heard about the @Blockverse_NFT rug. The project sold out yesterday in less than 8 minutes (500 ETH) and had 792 ETH in secondary sales. Discord & website closed and the anon devs are gone. Do we need a federated entity that approves all NFT projects and its doxxed founders?
Yeah, so it’s definitely coming. At least in the US, right, and I have very mixed feelings about this because the truth is that it’s a global technology. At the end of the day the US has, what 300 million people? Out of what, 7 billion, or whatever the global population is. It’s a fraction of the global population now in terms of economic activity, it’s substantially more than just its proportion in terms of number of people, which is why a lot of people pay attention to this market, but if the US government or the various US regulatory agencies create regulation that is very onerous, what’s going to happen is all of these platforms are just going to geofence out US users, and it will be to the detriment of US citizens in the long run, is my belief, because we’re already starting to see it happen.
There’s a platform called 1Inch, and it’s an exchange. So if I have this type of asset and I want to trade it for Ethereum I can go to 1Inch, and 1Inch looks across all of the different markets where that thing trades and will route my order to wherever I can get the best price for it. So then there started to be more scrutiny on DeFi, and 1Inch just geofenced out all the US users. And I don’t even think it really impacted their volume that much. It probably lost 5% of their volume or something like that, but they felt like that was a reasonable trade off to make because they didn’t want to have to deal with US regulations.
So now here I am as a US fund manager and I used to have this tool to always route the trades for my investors to the best possible price across all markets, and now that tool is gone. I’m inevitably always getting worse price execution because I just have to pick a single market as opposed to using this aggregation tool. And so that’s just one really small example, but you can imagine that it will be the case that many of these platforms will just choose to skip the US, as opposed to try to actually comply with the regulations. So that is the thing that makes me fearful. I do think a heavy handed regulatory approach just causes US consumers to basically get eliminated from being able to actually use many of these technologies. That’s a different question from saying, regulations occur for a reason. I mean there’s a reason they might try to regulate these things, and it’s for the reason you described, which is getting rugged, so basically getting your money stolen, and hacks and there is people making claims that are blatantly untrue and I was just explaining this to my class the other day, which is everything used to be unregulated if you go back 150 years even. Effectively stocks and bonds were relatively unregulated. How did we end up with all these regulations? Bad stuff happened, right, you know, people started getting their money stolen and then we were like, that’s not good. Let’s make a law against that. And then times 1000, now we end up with thousands of laws trying to rule out all of these bad things that happened. That is where regulations came about because there were outcomes that society deemed unacceptable. And so we’re trying to prevent them.
The argument is, is the enforcement of consumer protection through our existing regulatory regimes actually going to do more harm than good If it means that consumers just don’t have access at all? Is there some level of risk that we should be willing to tolerate in order to have access to these unbelievable tools that society has really never had access to before? I don’t know the answer to that, but that is where all the tension is. Maximizing consumer protection would be, you can’t ever use anything and you can never leave your house, and like wrap up in a blanket and stay on your couch. We tolerate in this society some level of risk in order to do things like drive a car. Driving the car is risky. It is not riskless to drive a car, but it’s really useful. It allows us to get places and do things, and so we tolerate that risk. I would say the same thing with a lot of these new financial technologies is there’s going to be some risk out there, but we need to weigh that against the potential benefit of engaging with these things. I don’t know if I fully answered your question, but that’s kind of the way I think about it?
I think you answered it and then some. I’m getting this picture of the trolley car problem and Waka Flocka Flame’s Bored Apes are on one track and consumer protections are on another track or something and we have to make a choice. And that’s a great segue into our next episode that’s going to be about trust and democracy and community. So I think that’s a good place to leave it. Stephen McKeon, thanks so much for your time today.
Thank you so much for having me.