I learned today that the Mona Lisa is non-fungible. It only took me three articles and two You-Tube videos to learn that. Don’t get me wrong — I learned a lot today, all having to do with virtual reality and things like “NFT’s” and blockchain and bitcoin (although I have to admit there’s a certain quality about all these things that my brain just naturally rebels against, and, consequently, I’ll probably forget by tomorrow everything I learned today.) If you’re wondering why I would waste “valuable time” on things that don’t really exist or only exist digitally or intangibly, it’s because I wanted to understand why the hosts of Good Morning America were behaving this morning as if they’d all just glanced out the studio window at 44th and Broadway and seen a flying saucer. Gobsmacked, they were.
I can only take so much of GMA’s reporting, as it tends to see-saw between alarming, ohmygodwe’reallgoingtodie delivery and overly ebullient, ilovepuppies feel good stories. I understand that if they reported that Grady McGrady (not a real person, by the way), an average person working in a typical job was having an average day, it wouldn’t capture and hold anyone’s attention, even the average American who would — and should — be inclined to sympathize with Mr. McGrady. I always feel as if they’re masterfully manipulating my emotions. I’m up, I’m down. I’m up again (because heaven forbid I be left in a puddle of my own despair at the end of the show.
The news that apparently left the GMA hosts dumbstruck was the disclosure of Walmart’s recent forays into the metaverse and their plans to create their own cryptocurrency, as well as begin making and selling virtual goods. That’s right; pretty soon you’ll be able to buy personal care items and toys — the not real kind — if you have approved levels of NFT’s (non-fungible tokens). If you pause for just a moment to reflect on why they’re muscling into this realm, well, why not? In their own words, they’re “continuously exploring how emerging technologies may shape future shopping experiences.” (It’s perhaps cynical of me to suspect that this big-box giant has within its mission statement some language about garnering a bigger percentage of consumer spending than the competition.)
You might be surprised to hear that I don’t believe the lines between our physical and virtual lives are becoming blurred. I’m more apt to reframe it all by pointing out that our virtual behaviors are claiming more of our time, time being something that will always have finite value. If I ever have occasion to look back on something I either did or had and can’t remember if I did it or had it virtually or physically, then I might concede that the lines are blurred. The argument really has to do with how realistic-seeming these virtual elements have become, how effectively they mimic the real world.
This all brings me to my larger point. I’ll offer an example here: RTFKT is a sneaker brand; they design virtual sneakers that are then auctioned off, one pair per month. They’ve sold out every month, and the highest bids consistently come in at $15,000 or higher. I can’t speak for other consumers, but even if I had that kind of money to spend on anything virtual, I question the authenticity of emotion that that type of purchase (and possession) would generate. I spend more money on boots than I ought to, but when I physically wear them, they make me feel good. Could I feel the same if I dressed up my avatar in one of my pairs? Mmmm. . . doubtful.
So, why have we become a virtually acquisitive society? Washington, D.C. filmmaker/journalist Johnny Harris explains this phenomenon from a psychological standpoint, “As soon as humans have enough abundance to have their basic needs met — food, shelter, warmth, etc. — the next frontier is to create value in things that have no inherent value.” Cyclically, perhaps, and often tied to periods of plenty, we’ve been doing this for a long, long time. All it takes is a persuasive salesperson to proclaim that such-and-such has great inherent value, and it provokes a human response to want to acquire it. Hence, you’ll have people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, er. . . NFT’s to “own” a few seconds of video of NBA Top Shots.
For Johnny Harris’ clear and very understandable explanation on YouTube, click here.
*”non-fungible” – A term used in economics, for all intents and purposes it means unique and irreplaceable.