BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone, and I'm back with glitched CEO and NFT progenitor Anil Dash, who's just been asked to reckon with what he and his then collaborator, artist Kevin McCoy wrought.
ANIL DASH When Kevin and I talked about it at the beginning, I think we said this could be something really big, and certainly he believed it deeply enough to build a company around it, and he's still doing this work. I mean, he's still a pioneer in the space, and I think we've diverged in our optimism about it. He sees that sort of silver lining to it, for the creators. Within the NFT community, people really believe the bubble will pop and then the true believers will stay, and this thing will all become the happy future we were promised. You know, for me, I come from the community that created the first wave of social media tools. We really thought we were going to empower people to have a new voice, communicate and connect in new ways, and all that did come to pass along with unimaginably terrible harms. You know? And I think that colors a lot of my perspective on it, which is that, you know, be careful what you wish or you can make the technology. It can do the thing you hoped it would do, and you can still lament the impact that it had.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Even people who collect NFTs describe this gold rush as a bubble. What do you think? Are we headed towards a big explosion?
ANIL DASH We could say the bubble will burst as they inevitably do, but I think our reflexive view of that is to say and therefore it'll all go away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, that doesn't happen.
ANIL DASH No. NFT's are already too big to fail. The idea of community plus art plus buying works online is too big to fail. At the major auction houses between 5 and 10 percent of their transaction by dollar volume is already happening through NFT's.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow.
ANIL DASH They're never going to let that go. They're not going to just leave that money on the table. The ship has sailed. The question is, what do we do about it and how do we have it be something that is positive for artists and creators. Positive for the people who are collecting and not destructive in society, especially when the entire blockchain world, but especially NFT's have such an egregious environmental cost?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about the environmental cost. It uses up a lot of energy.
ANIL DASH Mm-Hmm. The environmental impact is true of all of blockchain technologies and crypto technologies, especially in the earliest implementations like Bitcoin. In order to keep things honest and keep them in sync between all the people that had a copy of this ledger, this record, they used tremendous amounts of electricity. They have a concept they call proof of work. You prove the computer did these increasingly complex computations, but it effectively, if you're a layperson, can be known as proof of waste. The way they verify this is really a correct and true change to the blockchain ledger is by verifying that you really did burn that many computing cycles on absolutely nothing of worth. There are newer technologies that are not so wasteful. However, those are not what underlies the vast majority of NFT transactions today. Some people are saying, Well, the NFT's are all switch over to these less wasteful blockchains. Technically, absolutely possible. Incentive wise, it would be costly, and they're not motivated to do it. If you care about the environmental impact, you probably wouldn't already be in the community, right? It's sort of self-selects the people that were already willing to look the other way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about regulation? We know these transactions are used to launder money. We know that groups have funded white supremacy and fascism through these things. If they were using conventional banking, there would be laws against it.
ANIL DASH I mean, there are laws against individual banking, right? Physical traditional art has absolutely been used to launder money, including from the Nazis. There's a horrible history of art as an asset class for evil, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
ANIL DASH The evidence is we actually don't prosecuted in any context. But the FBI doesn't spend a lot of time at art galleries. And so I don't have a lot of faith that that lack of motivation is going to get any less acute when it gets 10 times harder to do because technology's complicated. The thing I actually think can help in some cases in past times with, for example, again, social communities online is if the norms of the community are that certain things aren't allowed. That actually is the most effective long term preventative. There are healthy communities online that haven't been taken over by people being horrible to each other with, you know, racism or sexism or all the other awful things people do online. And because the norms of the community, like we don't do that here because there are genuine communities around NFT's, if the communities had norms of like, we're going to suss out who's using this infrastructure and to do bad things. If that energy is trying to sort of say, we're protecting our community from people exploiting it, that I think could be a long term, resilient, effective way to cut some of these harms and reduce some of these risks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You observed at the top that a lot of these blockchains don't have room to actually put the entire art into it. You took a short cut back in 2014, and you just included the web address of an image onto NameCoin. That particular blockchain, but that's still going on, essentially, and this means that when someone buys an NFT, they're not buying the actual work, they're buying a link to it. And worse, they're buying a link that in many cases lives on a website that could fail in the next few years.
ANIL DASH I mean, how many websites that we use ten years ago are still around? Like entire websites disappeared. That's something that you know again, you have to really care about the art and the artists and the legacy of preserving a work for that to matter to you. And a lot of people don't. A lot of people like, I'm going to get in. Sell these things for ten times what I paid for them, and get out. So the idea that the artwork disappears in 10 years, who cares? Right? The problem is that same person who feels that way is in a chat server alongside somebody who's dead sincere. Is like I love this artist and I want to support them, and I hope this work is there forever, and that's what I was told by the person that put it up for sale. We have like the highest and best purpose of this technology alongside the venal, opportunistic, cynical use of this technology, and they're indistinguishable from a distance, and the criticism is not even fine grained enough to tell the difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't know if there's any way to know how many of the people in this market are sincere compared to how many are crypto enthusiasts just eager to spend their crypto-dough? There are a lot of people in this market who don't seem terribly interested in engaging with the critiques that we just discussed. They have some catchphrases. HFSP, have fun staying poor, or NGMI, not going to make it, that they throw around in response, but you still have some sympathy for those guys?
ANIL DASH I do. I do. There's an enthusiasm bordering on cult like in a lot of communities, and they have their own language. You know, those phrases like, yeah, have fun staying poor, which is like just the most cynical, awful...
BROOKE GLADSTONE ...Obnoxious.
ANIL DASH But the performative obnoxiousness of it is part of the culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's trigger the libs.
ANIL DASH Exactly! It's again, it's in gaming culture, it's in political culture. It's and all these other domains. And I think it's very hard for, well, people that are more polite to see that as like that's redefining identity for these people, especially for young men. They're showing off each other's bravado and obviously grounded often in insecurity. What I know is not going to work is critics from outside being condescending and talking about ancient history. Like things that happened in the last century. That does not work. At 23, I felt the same way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you?
ANIL DASH I was not as obnoxious about it, but did I think I saw the future and others didn't? Absolutely. I don't think we can write them off because it's not going away. I mean, I think that's the most important thing is I have been fiercely critical and I pointed out these flaws and the technical flaws and the social flaws. And you know what, scolding them is not going to make it go away. And what happens when we have the people who care about the ethical, social, cultural, environmental impacts. When they go away and walk away and wash their hands of it? That happened in social media. Like, I was sick of all this thing, we're all going to walk away. Who's left is the worst. Who's left is the people that run Facebook. Right? That's the nightmare here. If you leave the future of artists on the internet to the people who are most willing to wade in the muck in the mire, that is not going to be good for the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Blockchain technology, theoretically, was going to help decentralize the internet, redistribute power and ownership. You know, that was your goal with the NFT is to empower artists, address some of the problems in the existing art market. Do you still hope that this technology can be used to build a fairer, better internet?
ANIL DASH I'm torn, and I really do go back and forth almost on daily basis because I will see the most despair inducing exploitation of vulnerable people, vulnerable artists, and I'm like 'throw the whole thing into the sea.' You know, it really is very hard not to feel that way. And then the next day, I'll hear from an artist who was skeptical and cynical about it said, Let me just dip my toe in and try it, even though I know there's all these warnings of red flags. And they'll be like, God, this thing paid my rent this month, and I never thought I'd get to sell something as an artist. You know, I talking to a woman who's a filmmaker, and she said she's going in eyes wide open. She knows the NFT world replicates the same sexism and misogyny and homophobia and racism as the industry that she's been in her whole life. And she says, Well, where am I going to go to sell my art and support my work? That's not going to replicate those systems? I don't have an option with that. And so if there's a chance that this can support me and maybe connect me to a community that I care about my work on the other side of it, I have to try it. And I was very empathetic to that argument.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've mentioned you're a dad. How many kids have you got?
ANIL DASH I got a 10 year old boy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm-Hmm. And you have a an eight year old NFT.
ANIL DASH I do, I do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
ANIL DASH Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anil Dash is the CEO of Glitch, a developer community whose coders collaborate to create and share millions of web apps.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Eli Cohen with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our show was edited by me and Katya. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week. Adriene Lilly. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.