[Image by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0)]
“NFTs have literally taken over my entire mind and soul. I’m obsessed. It’s all I think about. I’ve never been so excited about something in my life because I really see this as the future. I’m just so obsessed with it that I actually have dreams about it every single night.”
If an AI algorithm analysed this comment, it would probably conclude that it had been made by a tech bro crypto junkie. It was made by Paris Hilton. She etched her status as a crypto fan girl even more stoutly when she recently named her newest pets Crypto Hilton and Ether Reum. Hilton wants to bring NFTs to the masses.
For those not as obsessed with NFTs as Hilton is, think of an NFT as a one-of-a-kind trading card of sorts that is upending the rules of ownership.
Physical money or cryptocurrencies are “fungible”, that is, they are equal in value (one bitcoin is always equal to another bitcoin) and can be traded for one another. NFTs are “non-fungible” because they have a digital signature that makes it impossible for one NFT to be equal to (or exchanged with) another. An NFT is “minted” from digital objects that represent both tangible or intangible items (artworks, videos, Tweets, etc.) and takes the form of JPGs, MP3s, videos, GIFs and more.
A common concern stemming from “owning the unownable” is that somebody could “steal” (copy) what you own. But while someone else could download or print the same artwork, for example, there’s a public record of your ownership on a decentralized digital ledger (the Ethereum blockchain) which actually minimizes the possibility of theft and lets potential buyers verify the provenance of their purchased artwork. Think of it as a deed, that the NFT buyer owns the “original” work. The copies are akin to prints of an artwork in the real world—anybody can buy a print, but only one person can own the original.
So, what’s the allure?
Before Covid, I travelled 200 days a year. In stark contrast, spending over the last 365 days primarily at home has made the lure of the digital world more enticing than ever. Like most others, virtual w(h)ine-and-cheese gatherings have replaced dinner dates and video games have displaced a good game of tennis. Enforced global quarantine has magnified the collective realization of the importance of our virtual worlds. And expressing oneself through an NFT-backed Chanel dress on an avatar, or collecting, trading and even racing virtual cars plays a huge part in making our otherwise mundane virtual worlds more real and exciting.
An equalising force for artists
Beyond spicing up our now almost-entirely virtual lives, for artists and creators, NFTs are an equal-access platform. The traditional art world is elitist. NFTs can break down several of the traditional barriers for artists by democratizing access, improving the economics of being an artist, and opening up a new demographic of collectors.
Hilton sees NFTs as a harbinger of this level playing field: “I see myself as a public figure with a large platform who can shepherd this technology into the mainstream,” she says. “And I do this to help empower people, especially creators, to uplift voices, especially females, and eventually change the world for the better.”
Closer home, Aparajita Jain is an undercover nerd who, like Hilton, sees NFTs as a force for good. Owner of Delhi-based art gallery, Nature Morte, Jain conducted what was touted as India’s first AI art show in 2018. “I’ve always been obsessed with technology. I want to take blockchain technology mainstream and empower and inspire people, especially creators,” she says. Terrain.art, Jain’s foray into the NFT world, will be a curated platform to maintain a high bar on the quality.
For her, the conversation should be focused on the strength of the artwork, not on the gender of the artist. “Great work gets noticed on these platforms and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from,” she says. “But having said that, I will pick a female artist, all other things being equal. Female artists are gaining traction in the space and it is great to see.”
She acknowledges how the fast-paced, evolving world of NFT art can be a tough space to navigate for these new artists being integrated into the mainstream. As she builds Terrain.art, Jain is laser focused on providing this safe and inclusive space for them to come together and share ideas on all things crypto art and learn blockchain/crypto art dynamics.
In the West, women are slowly but steadily staking their claim in the NFT market. The first NFT-backed digital home was very recently sold for 288 units of the cryptocurrency Ether (more than $500,000). The piece, Mars House, is an experience in augmented reality. It is a digitally enhanced version of a real home, designed as a modern, glass-walled structure intended to evoke feelings of serenity, well-being, and calm. Krista Kim, the creator of Mars House, got thrown into global prominence through her record-breaking sale. She says working with crypto art and NFTs has been an experience of “no barriers. “This is the most merit-based art market that I have experienced, where the art speaks for itself, regardless of your traditional art world credentials,” she says.
I am inclined to believe that the West is a harbinger of an upcoming NFT boom in India (as has been the case time and again with several technologies). When that happens, the optimist in me has strong reason to believe that it will level the playing field for women—both creators and collectors.
NFTs can change the traditional power dynamics for women creators. Using NFTs, hitherto unrepresented but vastly talented women artists can reach a large, diverse, international community of buyers without the traditional bottlenecks of exclusive networks and deep pockets. “The solution to ‘up our physical infrastructure’, whose deficit became glaring during the pandemic, lay in creating a virtual infrastructure,” Jain says.
For the several women artists, who do creative gig work, NFTs can help free them from the starving artist syndrome. Though artists will pay fees to offer their work on platforms like Terrain.art, the cost would often be less than the standard 50% cut many galleries take. In a Spotify-like model for art, the artists would get paid for the length of time their work is shown. They could also profit through royalties programmed into the blockchain when their artwork gets resold from collector to collector—10% usually, sometimes more. “That’s basically unheard of in the brick-and-mortar art world,” Jain says. For a long time, the perspective of several of these artists has been that the best way to survive as an artist is to not have to survive as an artist. NFTs could bring about a future where they can sustain themselves entirely through their art.
On the demand side, NFTs will also help reduce the traditional skew to male collectors. “NFTs make it less intimidating and more accessible for young millennial women to collect art, too,” says Jain. The market is becoming increasingly global, young and online. The days when you had to attend an invite-only event or work with an art dealer to own a piece of art will become a thing of the past. Technology will enable the little guy (or girl) to have as much power as big, powerful names and entities to influence the market for art. We have seen this play out time and again across other technological innovations too—like Robinhood empowering the mom-and-pop investor, and Reddit mobilizing individual investors to use their collective power to move the stock market.
Most importantly perhaps, NFTs could allow women to kickstart a virtuous cycle of art-as-allyship. Women are getting wealthier, more powerful and more vocal about their support of other women. At the same time, NFTs are empowering women artists because restrictions in the traditional setup are being stripped back. With these two independent but positive supply and demand tailwinds, it is inevitable that more women will support women artists as the NFT boom continues.
A prime example of this cycle of art-as-allyship is an auction history first that took place on May 14, 2021. Christie’s offered traditional paintings accompanied by original NFT artworks by the anonymous digital feminist collective Rewind. Activist and gallerist Amar Singh recently pledged to donate $5 million worth of art by women, LGBTQ+ and minority artists to museums worldwide by 2025. “For me, LGBTQ+, female and minority artists have long been overlooked and cast aside. My collaboration with Christie’s brings the women of abstraction [i.e. women as avant-garde creatives] to the forefront where they belong, with the added help of Rewind Collective’s stunning NFTs also honouring them,” he says.
But the cautious optimist in me also can’t help but consider how NFTs might be ahead of their time. Inevitably like any new technology, there is bound to be imperfections in its rollout, ranging from a speculative boom to tech-world opportunism misusing it in unsavoury ways. And while NFTs can put power back in the hands of the creator, they consume untold gigajoules of actual power and generate a massive carbon footprint akin to crypto mining. The upsides of NFTs derive from their adoption of blockchain technology. But the physical processes to encode NFTs onto the blockchain guzzle electricity as computers crunch through extremely complex puzzles as “proofs” to verify transactions—a proof-of-work system. The push to make NFTs sustainable is leading to a more energy-efficient proof-of-stake system. This promotes reliability with a financial incentive—users deposit some of their cryptocurrencies as proof that they own it and that they have a personal stake in the system’s accuracy.
I grew up with art all around me. My parents thought it was a good idea to take an eight-year-old for a day-long exploration of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence on one of our best family vacations to date. I grew up in a household with a firm belief that art is incredibly important, not just because of its powerful and thought-provoking messaging, but also its ability to serve as a creative outlet for individuals to find their voice. I anticipate that one day I will hang sustainable digital art I own on the walls of my real-life home, which will change form depending on different outcomes and speak to a neon-hued alternate reality that we could all come to believe in.
(Hustle Fuel represents my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.)
About the Hustle Fuel series: Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal. Especially for women—but not just for women. It demands ‘hustle fuel’—which is precisely the attitude any entrepreneurial leader needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.
This series looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a women's lens. It will include
- A column that takes a wide-angle view of the changes at the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, strategy, innovation—and what they mean for women leaders.
- And candid conversations with a new generation of women who have ‘made it happen’ in business and industry.
The columns and conversations will be archived here as they get published.