Donald Clarke: The non-fungible token is beyond my understanding

Researching this new cultural phenomenon causes only headaches

Regular sufferers of this column will be aware that I hate a lot of things. Saturday Night Live. The word “craic” in English. Much else. You remember why you stopped reading.

Also high on the list is performative ignorance bragging. We’re talking about those people who can’t wait to tell you they don’t know one Kardashian from another. The phenomenon reaches its nadir with the “never heard of him/her/it” crowd that gathers at the bottom of any article on popular culture. A less malign incarnation involves those proud-doddery folk who rejoice in announcing that contemporary technology is now impossible for them to understand. “I can make neither head nor tail of this ‘wheel’,” they may once have said. “I’m perfectly happy dragging my sabre-tooth tiger carcass to the cave on a strip of matting.” Time to leave the advance of culture to other people.

The non-fungible token feels like the beginnings of a plot to edge all people over a certain age into self-imposed cultural isolation

I have done a reasonably good job of resisting that inclination. I can pay in the supermarket with my smartphone. I can set up my own Zoom conference. There is no danger of me making pathetic flappy gestures with my hands while whimpering that these “computer thingummies are all too much for me”.

Or there wasn’t until now. The non-fungible token (henceforth NFT) feels like the beginnings of a plot to edge all people over a certain age into self-imposed cultural isolation. It warns of an incoming Logan’s Run. Ten minutes ago you hadn’t heard of it. Now it is tokenistically non-funging itself across every second media story. When such things happen it is your duty as a non-dead person to establish at least iceberg knowledge of this vital new phenomenon. By “iceberg knowledge” I mean enough to give the impression that a vast mass of understanding lies beneath the few snatches of data you’ve memorised for use down the pub and (if that’s what you do) in newspaper articles.


Even that little is hard to achieve with the NFT. Here are a few news reports from recent weeks. "Quentin Tarantino to release 7 Pulp Fiction NFTs with secret unreleased content," Fortune tells us. "Warner Bros plans 'The Matrix Resurrections' NFT project," the Hollywood Reporter gushes. Rolling Stone tells us about "TikTok's first NFT collaboration with Lil Nas X and the artist Rudy Willingham".

There are faint shades here of the now-forgotten rush towards the "CD-Rom" as a complementary medium in the mid-1990s. The difference is that most semi-technologically literate people had an idea what was under discussion. You could push little pictures of Peter Gabriel around your Macintosh Performa while listening to that singer's latest album. Wasn't that it? If you weren't certain about this CD-Rom stuff, you could turn the crank on your dial-up modem and "Ask Jeeves". So, I can design my own sleeve for the new Prince release? I'll get back to you after this episode of Buffy.

The time has finally come, perhaps, to flap hands at a contemporary phenomenon, declare it beyond understanding and trust it will be forgotten in a year or two

Researching the NFT causes only headaches. Part of the issue is that the explanation takes in other confusing concepts you’ve spent the last five years failing to fully grasp. “Most NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is a cryptocurrency, like bitcoin or dogecoin, but its blockchain also supports these NFTs,” the Verge fails to explain. I still don’t know what a blockchain is (I’m not boasting. I’m just being honest). I have some idea what we mean by cryptocurrency – I imagine it being sold by a high-tech version of Ryan O’Neal’s huckster from Paper Moon – but I have barely reached iceberg level on that topic.

Just tell me what an NFT does. I know that you can invest in cryptocurrency. I know I can buy stuff with it. The Verge couldn't even settle on a definition. "I have questions about this emerging. . . um. . . art form? Platform?" the subheading reads on an article that is supposed to be explaining the NFT phenomenon to us. News stories suggest that, among other things, it is a way of viewing art works or video clips (such as excerpts from Pulp Fiction). But we already have a thousand ways of doing that. Why does this version charge the purchaser thousands of dollars – or bitcoins? Okay, the BBC explains that NFTs "act as certificates of ownership for virtual or physical assets". This begins to make sense. So, I can sue anyone who reproduces the image or video I have kind-of-purchased? Not necessarily. "In many cases, the artist even retains the copyright ownership of their work, so they can continue to produce and sell copies," the BBC article continues. What the hell are you talking about? This is like something from a particularly head-wrecking post-modernist novel. Where is Thomas Pynchon when we need him most?

The time has finally come, perhaps, to flap hands at a contemporary phenomenon, declare it beyond understanding and trust it will be forgotten in a year or two. People said that about the CD-Rom. Mind you, they also said it about television, the internet and The Beatles. This time, baby. This time.