I recall 25¢ coin-operated video games from my youth. Whereas the thrill was short-lived, the fascination was long-lasting. How could I be controlling the things on this television screen? Later, I was fascinated by the Atari 2600, a machine that I could use at home and extend the thrill of the arcade games for a much longer duration.
For the next 40+ years, we have ridden along on the magic carpet ride predicted by Gordon Moore such that the availability and richness of computer-facilitated virtual escapes expanded. Virtual realms of possibility extended as computing power proliferated and the inter-networking of these computers was assured.
Take flight simulation as an example. As a teenager, I was increasingly drawn to aviation. However, I quickly learned that aviation is equally drawn to a fiscal plentitude that I was without. I also learned around the same time that a facsimile of the experience of aviation was possible via my computer, which was my first lesson in fungibility. Bear in mind that this is what this experience looked like for me then:
Fast-forward about 40 years and the reality is quite different. Computing has created an arguable equalization between the “real” and the “simulated” as can be seen in what desktop flight simulation offers today.
What is Real?
To wax philosophic for a bit, the power of computing brings to focus questions on how reality is defined and what inputs to our experiences shape reality. Among theories in philosophy which explore the question “what is real” is Critical Realism, which exists among many theories seeking reality.
A central theme of Critical Realism suggests that there is an objective reality available to us that is free from the subjective factors that color our perception. While we arguably shape reality for ourselves in the choices and investments we make, we do not change what is real. Before I get carried away, I refer back to the images above and ask whether the flight simulator “real enough?” My position is that the quality of simulation lowers the barriers to entry from which experience can be gained.
Rise of the Amateur
Personal computing – mobile devices, wearables, IoT, laptops, desktops, etc – provides access to knowledge and experiences which require nothing beyond the costs of hardware, software, and access to the network. This dynamic influence on our access to what is “real” is rapidly changing the world around us.
Access to computing and information is a disruptive equalizer that provides amateurs an ability to explore and dabble into realms that were previously exclusive to experts and professionals. Access to information, communication, knowledge, and experiences act as a catalyst and accelerant for learning . The selected and constructed reality made possible via the virtual realms afforded by computing technologies gives rise to the ascendance of the amateur: the race car driver who hones his craft in simulation, pilots being trained and certified via simulations, complex designs are proven without a physical prototype, and talent being discovered by going algorithmically “viral.” A level of access to what we perceive as real has changed the scope and dimensions of that reality.
Intangibles and the Non Fungible Token
Whereas worth and value have been long fixed to tangible assets, new digital treasures are increasingly established in a virtual context. These digital assets exist solely within the realm of computing as an arrangement of numeric values inherent in the bits and bytes of the machine. However, our machines hasten the transformation of the artificial into the real as computing powers increasingly “real” and compelling virtual experiences.
This brings focus to the namesake of this post: the Non-Fungible Token (NFT). We can understand the NFT with a review of blockchain technologies. Simply put, a blockchain is a list of cryptographically-assured references that record transactions of value as “blocks.” Revisions to the history contained in the chain of blocks must be cooperative, making the chain resistant to arbitrary change.
This returns the discussion to the question “what is real?” and adds the question “what is true?” In general, we expect that truth is factual and undeniable. Toward that end, let’s further example key blockchain properties:
- Immutable, Irrefutable, and non-repudiable – a fact established within a blockchain is assured distributed nature of the blockchain and the cryptographic manner in how the chain works.
- Indelible and credible – by arrangement, the block chain is established through distributed consensus such that the authority to establish veracity is decentralized and requires cooperation.
- Trustworthy and Immediate – The ubiquity, encryption, and decentralization of the chain ensures consistency and authenticity.
It took advances in computing to develop “intangible” goods, or NFTs, whose authenticity and veracity can be assured. Whereas, in the physical realm, time is certain to change the course of rivers, the fortunes of societies, and the rotation of the planet, blockchain promises persistence. This is perhaps as “real” as it gets.
On its face, blockchain is as about as disruptive as technologies get. Consider that a Non-Fungible Token Art Piece called “Everydays: the First 5000 Days” was auctioned at Christie’s in London for $69.3 million on March 11th, 2021. These are digital images, perhaps made from digital modeling software, of virtual art.
While the received wisdom is that digital goods are infinitely replicable, a fact that has completely disrupted and discontinued many business models, it is curious that a virtual art installation fetch such a large sum. A plausible answer is authenticity. When you get an NFT, it is a unique original and cannot be reproduced. Rather it is “owned” and has all of the strengths of blockchain technology.
Subjective Conjecture and the Metaverse
There is a sobering and emerging conclusion here such that veracity and reality – with the ensuing trust they bring – are increasingly established via disruptive technologies that will continue to shape society for quite some time. The value placed upon these “virtual goods” and virtual experiences can be summed up as the metaverse: a persistent and convergent virtual enhancement of our physical reality where the boundaries are blurred and getting fuzzier. Whereas the human imagination we posses is a strength, it is also a frailty that can be bolstered and augmented by machines.
Embrace Change and Invest in it
A colleague once explained Finance as the “decision to invest.” If the NFT phenomenon presages anything, it is that disruptive technologies will continue to shape what is real. Consider ARK Investment‘s Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF): ARK Disruptive Innovation. Focusing on Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Vehicles, Fintech (blockchain), Genomics, Robotics, and 3D printing, this fund bets long on these disruptions to become the facilitators of new renaissance polymaths. With the assistance of these and other technologies, the distance between achievement and idea promises to shorten appreciably.
Dr. Jeffry Babb
Gensler Professor of Computer Information Systems