NFTs have become an unavoidable subject for anyone earning a living as a creative person online, prompting a rush to understand a concept that is deeply mired in the jargon of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. Some promise that NFTs are part of a digital revolution that will democratize fame and give creators control over their destinies. Others point to the environmental impact of crypto and worry about unrealistic expectations set by, say, the news that digital artist Beeple hadsold a JPG of his collected works for $69 million in a Christie’s auction.
Just as the trend is shuffling the deck on what is considered “valuable” digital art, however, it’s also re-creating some of the same problems that have plagued artists for ages: confusing hype, the whims of rich collectors, and theft. Digital artists already battle scammers who steal artwork and sell it as merchandise on user-generated T-shirt shops, for instance. NFTs are now simply another thing artists have to check.
Newcomers must untangle practical, logistical, and ethical conundrums if they want to enter the fray before the current wave of interest passes. And as some artists turn their digital creations into profitable offerings for a new audience of friendly, enthusiastic buyers, there’s a question lingering in the background: Is the NFT craze benefiting digital artists, or are artists helping to make wealthy cryptocurrency holders even richer?
“That feeling … is amazing”
Ellie Pritts, a photographer and animator from Los Angeles, learned about NFTs after talking to Foundation, an invite-only NFT marketplace, several months ago. Another artist recruited her for the site’s digital print business, but then she spoke with Kayvon Tehranian, the founder of Foundation, who mentioned its NFT sales.
“I was like, I don’t understand this. But it seems really interesting,” she says. “And there wasn’t a lot of information about it, but I was intrigued. He was actually the person who taught me about it.”
Non-fungible tokens are unique pieces of data that are part of a blockchain, bought and sold with the currency that blockchain supports. The ones you’re hearing about are pretty much all supported by Ethereum.
If you haven’t heard of Ethereum, you’ve probably heard of Bitcoin. Same idea; different blockchain. And while Bitcoin is primarily about exchanging money, Ethereum is better for exchanging assets. Any blockchain can in theory support NFTs, but this one was designed for them. NFTs are sold on any of various online marketplaces, where users can “mint,” or create, one for anything digital.
An NFT doesn’t mean that you own the piece of art itself. Instead, you’re basically buying metadata that grants you bragging rights—or, more often, the opportunity to sell that NFT later for even more money.
It’s a lot to take in, and sounds a bit strange. Pritts was skeptical until she minted and sold her first NFT in February. It was a short video piece she’d made for herself, without the expectation of getting paid: it sold for about a thousand dollars. Animation is time-consuming and expensive to create and has, historically, been difficult to sell for a fair price online. Maybe NFTs would let her do that, she thought. Mainly, though, selling just felt good. “That feeling that something that I made just because I love it has value is amazing,” she says. “The people who bought my pieces were doing a lot of research. They weren’t people that I knew. They decided to invest in me because they had looked into me and thought that I was promising.”
Tiffany Zhong, the founder of Islands, a creator platform that focuses on revenue streams, says that buyers aren’t necessarily supporting artists just as “cash grabs.” Instead, she thinks NFTs could become a different way for creators to build a fan base. Buying in early to an artist’s work comes with a sense of ownership, like having seen a now famous band at its very first gig. “If you’re an early supporter of a creator,” she says, “you’re betting on them.”
Pritts now feels like part of a community: she’s working on half a dozen collaborations with other artists who also mint NFTs, people she would never have met before jumping in a month ago. And, she says, she’s doubled her monthly income—in theory. The money is all in Ether rather than dollars, and she hasn’t cashed out yet.
“You have to put the legwork into it”
One of the difficult things about understanding NFTs is the jargon barrier; all the terms that explain how it works are really only familiar to people who already get crypto. As a result, a lot of the information on NFTs comes from its biggest evangelists: the marketplaces that sell them, the people who invest in them, and the artists who create them. To everyone else, it’s a bamboozle.
Amid the sudden rush of interest in this new avenue for their work, though, many artists have turned into guides for others.
Pinguino Kolb, an artist and longtime cryptocurrency advocate, has been flooded with questions from other artists about NFTs over the past month. “I get a lot of questions on why people are excited about it. That’s even from some of my programmer friends that know the crypto space,” she says. “They don’t understand why people are buying it.”
The world had a chance to avoid the pandemic—but blew it
The covid-19 pandemic is a catastrophe that could have been averted, say a panel of 13 independent experts tasked with assessing the global response to the crisis.
Their report, released May 12 and commissioned by the WHO, lambasts global leaders who failed to heed repeated warnings, wasted time, hoarded information and desperately needed supplies, and failed to take the crisis seriously. While some countries took aggressive steps to curb the spread of the virus, “many countries, including some of the wealthiest, devalued the emerging science, denied the disease’s severity, delayed responding, and ended up sowing distrust among citizens with literally deadly consequences,” said Helen Clark, cochair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response and former prime minister of New Zealand, on Wednesday.
The report —COVID-19: Make It the Last Pandemic — takes a hard look at why we failed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. It also looks to the future, highlighting strategies for ending the current crisis and avoiding future ones.
Here are five key takeaways:
- We had an opportunity to avoid disaster in early 2020, and we squandered it. “The combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis,” the authors write.
- Vaccine supply must be boosted and shots redistributed. The report calls on rich countries to provide a billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries by September 2021 and another billion by the middle of next year. It also pushes for vaccine makers to offer up licensing and technology transfer agreements. And if those agreements don’t come within three months, it calls for an automatic waiver so that production can begin where the shots are most needed.
- The World Health Organization needs more power and more money. The WHO should have the authority to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential in any country on short notice, and to publish information about outbreaks without approval from national governments.
- A new organization is needed to help the WHO. The report calls for the formation of a Global Health Threats Council composed of heads of state to ensure that countries stay committed to pandemic preparedness and to hold countries accountable if they fail to curb outbreaks.
- The pandemic’s impact on nearly every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. More than 3 million people have died of covid-19, including at least 17,000 health workers. The crisis provided “the deepest shock to the global economy since the Second World War and the largest simultaneous contraction of national economies since the Great Depression,” the panel writes. The crisis pushed more than a hundred million people into extreme poverty. “Most dispiriting is that those who had least before the pandemic have even less now,” they add.
A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees
Clegern said the program’s safeguards prevent the problems identified by CarbonPlan.
California’s offsets are considered additional carbon reductions because the floor serves “as a conservative backstop,” Clegern said. Without it, he explained, many landowners could have logged to even lower levels in the absence of offsets.
Clegern added that the agency’s rules were adopted as a result of a lengthy process of debate and were upheld by the courts. A California Court of Appeal found the Air Resources Board had the discretion to use a standardized approach to evaluate whether projects were additional.
But the court did not make an independent determination about the effectiveness of the standard, and was “quite deferential to the agency’s judgment,” said Alice Kaswan, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, in an email.
California law requires the state’s cap-and-trade regulations to ensure that emissions reductions are “real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable” and “in addition to any other greenhouse gas emission reduction that otherwise would occur.”
“If there’s new scientific information that suggests serious questions about the integrity of offsets, then, arguably, CARB has an ongoing duty to consider that information and revise their protocols accordingly,” Kaswan said. “The agency’s obligation is to implement the law, and the law requires additionality.”
On an early spring day, Lautzenheiser, the Audubon scientist, brought a reporter to a forest protected by the offset project. The trees here were mainly tall white pines mixed with hemlocks, maples and oaks. Lautzenheiser is usually the only human in this part of the woods, where he spends hours looking for rare plants or surveying stream salamanders.
The nonprofit’s planning documents acknowledge that the forests enrolled in California’s program were protected long before they began generating offsets: “A majority of the project area has been conserved and designated as high conservation value forest for many years with deliberate management focused on long-term natural resource conservation values.”
Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides what emoji we get to use
Emoji are now part of our language. If you’re like most people, you pepper your texts, Instagram posts, and TikTok videos with various little images to augment your words—maybe the syringe with a bit of blood dripping from it when you got your vaccination, the prayer (or high-fiving?) hands as a shortcut to “thank you,” a rosy-cheeked smiley face with jazz hands for a covid-safe hug from afar. Today’s emoji catalogue includes nearly 3,000 illustrations representing everything from emotions to food, natural phenomena, flags, and people at various stages of life.
Behind all those symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies aiming to make text and emoji readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages look the same on all devices; a Japanese character should be typographically consistent across all media, for example. But Unicode is probably best known for being the gatekeeper of emoji: releasing them, standardizing them, and approving or rejecting new ones.
Jennifer Daniel is the first woman at the helm of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a fierce advocate for inclusive, thoughtful emoji. She initially rose to prominence for introducing Mx. Claus, a gender-inclusive alternative to Santa and Mrs. Claus; a non-gendered person breastfeeding a non-gendered baby; and a masculine face wearing a bridal veil.
Now she’s on a mission to bring emoji to a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. That means taking on an increasingly public role, whether it’s with her popular and delightfully nerdy Substack newsletter, What Would Jennifer Do? (in which she analyzes the design process for upcoming emoji), or inviting the general public to submit concerns about emoji and speak up if they aren’t representative or accurate.
“There isn’t a precedent here,” Daniel says of her job. And to Daniel, that’s exciting not just for her but for the future of human communication.
I spoke to her about how she sees her role and the future of emoji. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What does it mean to chair the subcommittee on emoji? What do you do?
It’s not sexy. [laughs] A lot of it is managing volunteers [the committee is composed of volunteers who review applications and help in approval and design]. There’s a lot of paperwork. A lot of meetings. We meet twice a week.
I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I recently talked to a gesture linguist to learn how people use their hands in different cultures. How do we make better hand-gesture emoji? If the image is no good or isn’t clear, it’s a dealbreaker. I’m constantly doing lots of research and consulting with different experts. I’ll be on the phone with a botanical garden about flowers, or a whale expert to get the whale emoji right, or a cardiovascular surgeon so we have the anatomy of the heart down.
There’s an old essay by Beatrice Warde about typography. She asked if a good typeface is a bedazzled crystal goblet or a transparent one. Some would say the ornate one because it’s so fancy, and others would say the crystal goblet because you can see and appreciate the wine. With emoji, I lend myself more to the “transparent crystal goblet” philosophy.
Why should we care about how our emoji are designed?
My understanding is that 80% of communication is nonverbal. There’s a parallel in how we communicate. We text how we talk. It’s informal, it’s loose. You’re pausing to take a breath. Emoji are shared alongside words.
When emoji first came around, we had the misconception that they were ruining language. Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji is kind of like a new language. It works with how you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve. How you communicate and present yourself evolves, just like yourself. You can look at the nearly 3,000 emoji and it [their interpretation] changes by age or gender or geographic area. When we talk to someone and are making eye contact, you shift your body language, and that’s an emotional contagion. It builds empathy and connection. It gives you permission to reveal that about yourself. Emoji can do that, all in an image.