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Space the Whale, don't give NFTs a chance

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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Two weeks ago, Reno’s mayor announced that she wanted to save the Space Whale by selling it as an NFT on Reno’s DAO, which will be hosted on the Tezos network. 

If you’re like most people, you’re probably reading that sentence the way people read Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. There appear to be nouns (“Reno,” “Space Whale,” “NFT,” “DAO”), verbs, prepositions and perhaps even conjunctions, and they feel like they’re presented in the right order. However, if I rewrote the above sentence and said Mayor Hillary Schieve announced she wanted to save the Jabberwocky by selling it as a Bandersnatch on Reno’s vorpal blade, which is located in the tulgey wood, it would be every bit as meaningful — or as meaningless. 

The good and bad news is, even once you learn what those nouns actually are, her plan makes every bit as much sense as it would to read a Lojban translation of Alice in Wonderland while sipping paint thinner in a black car with the windows rolled up during a hot Laughlin summer day. Granted, her plan to save a piece of public art by sprinkling techno-mystical pixie dust on it is far less immediately harmful to your physical and mental health than any plan combining the consumption of mineral spirits, excessive heat, and reading a translation of an intentionally ambiguous literary work into a constructed language designed to eliminate ambiguity, but it’s every bit as likely to address any actual problems faced by anyone.

First thing’s first, though — what is a “Space Whale”?

***

To know the Space Whale, you first need to know Reno. 

Reno loves tearing down old buildings, replacing them with empty lots, and then, against all probability, dropping Burning Man-inspired public art installations onto them. This, in the minds of Reno’s civic leaders, is urban renewal. Many have speculated that if we knew exactly why Reno’s civic leaders think that, we should know a lot more about the nature of Reno than we do now. 

The Space Whale is the first example of Reno’s increasingly curious approach to urban renewal. It is currently located on the former site of the Mapes Hotel. 

The Mapes Hotel, when it was originally constructed after World War II, was Nevada’s tallest building for nearly a decade. By the turn of the century, however, nearly two decades of neglect left the distinctive brick Art Deco building in a state of utter decay — and so, unlike the considerably more historical and architecturally significant Kings Inn [We think he’s being facetious. —Ed.], which was allowed to sit unmolested for decades before it was finally converted into condominiums a few years ago, the Mapes Hotel was demolished to make way for absolutely nothing at all. 

Not a thing. Not a new residential project. Not a sports stadium. Not a new shopping center. Nothing. Reno replaced the Mapes — a distinctive 12-story Art Deco skyscraper, the former tallest building in Nevada, a place where presidents and celebrities mingled, the first skyscraper built west of the Mississippi after the Japanese surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri — with absolutely nothing.

Well, almost nothing. Technically Reno replaced the Mapes with a small parking lot, a few trees and shrubs (no pots of petunias, though), and a patch of concrete which can be turned into a small ice rink during the winter. Then, a few years later, city leaders added a three-dimensional jumbo-sized piece of “Live, Laugh, Love”-grade wine mom decor, renamed the lot after the misplaced oversized bathroom decoration (the empty lot is officially the “Believe Plaza” now), and then signed a one year lease for exactly one Space Whale, a metal and colored glass sculpture which originally debuted at Burning Man (apparently the 747 was unavailable).

That lease was signed four years ago. The Space Whale is still there, which is where the problems begin. 

When the lease expired, it turned out the original artist had no plan or desire to take the artwork back. Instead, he tried to sell it to the city (Reno declined), then tried to sell it on Facebook Marketplace for nearly a million dollars (apparently the artist assumed the sort of people who love free stuff have seven significant digits worth of dollar bills hiding in their free furniture), then finally tried to get the federal government to pay for it using pandemic relief funds (this was less successful than Henderson’s pandemic-financed city hall renovation plans, which at least reached the “Oh nuts, they caught us!” phase before advancing to the inevitable “Nevermind, what were we thinking?” follow-up phase). 

None of those attempts were successful. Consequently, the Space Whale remains on the former site of the Mapes Hotel, where it is getting every bit as much attention and care as the Mapes did towards the end of its life — absolutely none at all. Unsurprisingly, the Space Whale is starting to get every bit as run down and dilapidated as the Mapes did before it was unceremoniously demolished. Since it was originally constructed out of glass and metal, two substances not known for their softness and safety after they break over time, Reno has a whale of a problem on its hands.

What if people — preferably people from out of town — could be convinced to pay for the Space Whale’s maintenance or moving fees? What if, in the process of continuing in Nevada’s century and change-long tradition of parting fools from their money, Reno could also demonstrate it belongs in the same conversations as more successful tech hubs, like San Jose, Salt Lake City, Huntsville, or Cedar Rapids, each of whom hire and attract tech workers more consistently than Reno ever has? 

How does a politician in Nevada signal to the tech industry that they “get tech” and they’re ready to play ball? 

Oh. Right. They talk about blockchains.

Well, that makes sense. If you want to take a sucker’s money, you need to talk to suckers, and nothing attracts them like moths to a flame quite like...

***

A Non-Fungible Token, or NFT, is a cryptocurrency token with a unique identity. Unlike, say, a dollar bill or a bitcoin, each of which are functionally identical and equivalent to each other (and are thus consequently “fungible” the same way two otherwise identical barrels of oil are), each NFT is unique by design. Consequently, at least conceptually, NFTs can be used to authenticate and track the ownership of unique pieces of art

Like, say, a Space Whale.

Conceptually, however, any other database with support for primary keys can do this, too, and primary keys — unique automatically generated serial numbers for each record in a database table, in other words — have been around for at least five decades. What makes NFTs special is that very smart technologists successfully reimplemented a single portion of 1970’s-era database technology on the most energy-inefficient database technology on the planet, then convinced the owner of the Dallas Mavericks to shill for them.

Each NFT is functionally equivalent to a record in a database, or a row in a spreadsheet. Consequently, you can no more download a Space Whale from an Excel workbook than you can download a Space Whale from an NFT. What you can do with an NFT is what you could do with a spreadsheet with columns marked “From,” “To,” “Description,” “Date,” “Location” and “Name” — track who owns what, where it’s located, when they assumed ownership, and who they assumed it from. The only thing the NFT adds to the process is the ability for every person on the planet to check the history of your spreadsheet — and, if they have enough time, money and energy, to add their own rows to it. That’s not nothing, but we’ve been adding data to databases and the internet for a generation without NFTs and will certainly continue to do so for years to come. 

If it sounds like I’m being a little harsh, it’s because, once you get past the conceptual promise and hype of NFTs, the practical reality of them has been consistently worse than disappointing for utterly predictable reasons. To understand why, take this NFT for one of Grimes’ songs, which, when you break it down, provides the following information:

The first thing to notice is the art itself is not actually contained within the NFT. Instead, a link to the cover art (as an image) and accompanying music video (the animation URL) is provided instead and is hosted externally. Consequently, if her host ever takes down her art for whatever reason, doing so would also make her original art disappear. Or, alternatively, she could replace the content linked to in the NFT with something else, just like another artist did to their NFTs a few months ago, and nothing would stop her. The worst part is the technology necessary to identify that data has changed has been around for decades — checksums generated against the image and the music video would easily notify future consumers of the NFT if the underlying content had changed — but, for whatever reason, hasn’t been widely implemented despite the obvious need. 

But wait, it gets worse.

Literally anybody can make an NFT of literally anything. John Cleese, for example, sold the Brooklyn Bridge (well, a picture of it he took on his tablet) as an NFT. Revenge porn (for good and ill) can also be sold as an NFT. Since an NFT is just a database record containing links to data, you don’t need to own the underlying data at all. In fact, you could create an NFT of this very column, even though you don’t legally own the copyright for it, and sell it on an NFT marketplace (if you do, please donate the proceeds to The Nevada Independent and tell us about it!). There’s nothing stopping you or anyone.

So why does Mayor Schieve want to sell an NFT of the Space Whale?

***

Because she wants to govern by smart contract and selling NFTs is how she plans to finance that project.

A Decentralized Autonomous Organization, or DAO, is an organization in which each of its actions are stored as a smart contract on a blockchain and can be examined by anyone willing to download the blockchain the DAO’s actions are stored on. A good way to think of a DAO is as a combination of automatically generated meeting minutes and automatically executing contracts. 

So, for example, if you rent some city-owned property, you might currently sign a contract promising to pay rent on a given date. Instead of your rental contract being stored in the city clerk’s office, and instead of you manually cutting a check for your rent on the first of each month, it could instead be stored on the blockchain and configured to execute automatically as a smart contract. This use case, in fact, is one Mayor Schieve presented herself when she first talked about Reno DAO, which will be hosted on the Tezos Network (a different blockchain than Bitcoin or Ethereum, in other words) in March.

There are, however, two immediate problems with this. First, autopay has been around for years — my landlord pulls my share of the rent out each and every month without, so far as I’m aware, the use of a single blockchain. Second, blockchains are impossible to amend human mistakes out of — by design. That’s a problem if somebody mistypes your monthly rent payment into your landlord’s blockchain and it executes a smart contract which automatically extracts the higher value from your checking account. 

A more fundamental problem with a municipal DAO, however, is being governed by smart contract is conceptually dystopian. 

We currently live in a world where we each perform many small legal transgressions throughout our day. Some of us admittedly live in a world where we can get away with more of those transgressions than others — I was pulled over far more often when I drove a late ‘70s Plymouth coupe after college than I ever was in any other car I drove, in no small part because that car looked like “probable cause” to police officers conditioned to assume drivers of old Detroit-built personal luxury coupes were more likely to commit crimes than the drivers of, shall we say, more white (in every sense of the term) collar-coded vehicles — but even the least privileged of us aren’t hounded by tireless artificial intelligences tallying our rule breaking each and every day. 

Imagine if a smart contract executed each and every time you exceeded the speed limit, sending you a corresponding speeding ticket in the mail. Imagine if a smart contract executed each and every time you crossed a street without using the crosswalk and sent you a ticket for jaywalking. Imagine if you needed a couple of days to make rent, but a smart contract automatically pulled it out of your overdrawn checking account.

A lot of what makes human society livable is that the institutions we live under, and the contracts we sign with each other, are enforced by and for human beings, and can consequently be negotiated humanly. Outsourcing contract enforcement to soulless machines with overpowered graphics cards would ultimately produce the very dystopias predicted over a century ago when leaders foolishly tried to apply the disciplines and bureaucracies necessary to facilitate factory production to society at large.

To be clear, I don’t think Mayor Schieve actually wants to deliver a digital dystopia to her constituents. I think she just wants to convince fools from out of town to give her city the money it needs to properly dispose of the Space Whale so she doesn’t have to resort to more drastic measures. If she can get some of her city’s tenants to pay their rent more promptly in the process, and perhaps convince a tech company or two to relocate to the drier side of the Sierras, so much the better.

Even so, the road to Hell has been paved with better intentions than this — and at least a century’s worth of speculative science fiction, combined with the inflexible and amateurish nature of blockchain technology, provide all the signposts we need to know which way her road is going. 

David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the Executive Committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now the father of two sons, an IT manager, and a registered non-partisan voter. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].  

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