Humans are very good at inventing commodities, and we’ve been at it for a long time. See that pebble over there? Well, that’s a better pebble than all these others, and if you give me something in exchange for it, I’ll let you take ownership. It’ll be your pebble, forever. And soon there will be a market in pebbles, a pebble community, pebble exhibitions and auctions filled with pebble speculators, pebble exchanges, and pebble artists.
The deeper, evolutionary reasons why we do this—or why any species commodifies objects or experiences—are not immediately obvious. It could be a trait that supports social interaction and cohesion, helping distribute food and resources more efficiently throughout a population. Or perhaps it supports the signaling of individual fitness or intention that can guide our reproductive strategies. A behavior statistically favored in an intricate web of Darwinian selection, eking out a tiny advantage for the genetic lineage of anyone who plays along.
What further complicates this (as with any such trait) is the cost incurred for individuals or a species; the expenditure of resources and energy. The most explicit, and worrisome, example today is the emergence of commodities like cryptocurrencies or Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). In simple terms, just as a cryptocurrency is meant to be infallibly secure and fair, an NFT is a way to assign secure provenance and ownership to a digital asset. That digital asset might be an image, a video, or some hybrid digital experience.
Already there’s been a lot of grumbling about the extraordinary energy demands of cryptocurrencies. Now there’s grumbling about the absurd growth in the market for NFTs. This is because both commodities use a robust system for tamper-proof bookkeeping: the blockchain. Blockchain technology is purposefully burdensome and computationally distributed, making it notoriously energy intensive. Estimates put the energy used to create and trade a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin on a par with the total consumption of a country like Sweden. And that’s without accounting for the environmental footprint of the physical computer hardware. [Continue reading…]