December 7, 2021

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Would You Buy an NFT?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Do you know what a nonfungible token, or NFT, is? Shira Ovide explains in the On Tech newsletter “NFTs Are Neither Miracles nor Scams”:

Allow me to explain to normal humans what’s happening: NFTs are essentially a way to transform a digital good that can be endlessly copied into something one of a kind. When someone buys an NFT, what they’re effectively getting is the knowledge of owning an official version of a cat with a Pop-Tart body, a song, a video clip of a basketball dunk or another virtual thing. The records of ownership are maintained on a blockchain.

Now that you have some context, you can understand a little stunt the New York Times journalist Kevin Roose pulled on March 24. He turned his column about the rise of nonfungible tokens into an NFT itself and put it up for auction. The title of his follow-up piece expressed his disbelief at the high prices fetched by NFTs amid the current frenzy: “Why Did Someone Pay $560,000 for a Picture of My Column?

Do you share Mr. Roose’s astonishment that a digital token of a column that is available to anyone on The New York Times’s website sold for more than half a million dollars? Do you think that owning an official version of a piece of digital media is worth this much — or even worth anything at all?

In short, how do you feel about the recent NFT mania?

In his original piece, “Buy This Column on the Blockchain!”, Mr. Roose provides more examples of NFTs, many of them works of digital art, that have sold for millions:

The NFT market is exploding right now, as early adopters and cryptocurrency enthusiasts try to cash in on the trend. Recently, Mike Winkelmann, a digital artist from South Carolina who goes by the name Beeple, sold “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” a tokenized collection of his art, at an online auction at Christie’s for more than $69 million. NFTs representing other pieces of internet art — like an illustration of Homer Simpson as Pepe the Frog — have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. NBA Top Shot, a partnership between the N.B.A. and the blockchain company Dapper Labs that turns basketball highlight videos into unique cryptocollectibles, has $230 million in sales since 2019. Even well-known musical acts like Kings of Leon are getting in on the NFT action, selling millions of dollars’ worth of music in the form of digital tokens.

He then evaluates some of the arguments for and against the NFT boom:

Some of the NFT buzz is shallow hype, no doubt. The cryptocurrency world is full of scammers and get-rich-quick hustlers whose projects often end in failure. (Remember the initial coin offering boom?) And critics point out that NFTs and other cryptocurrency-related projects require enormous amounts of energy and computing power, making them a growing environmental hazard. There are also legitimate questions about what, exactly, NFT buyers are getting for their money, and whether these tokens will turn into broken links if the marketplaces and hosting services that store the underlying files disappear.

But there’s something real here that is worth taking seriously. For decades, artists, musicians and other creators have struggled with the fact that, on the internet, making copies of any digital artifact is trivially easy. Scarcity — the quality that gives offline art its value — was hard to replicate online, because anyone who downloaded a file could copy and paste it an infinite number of times, with no loss in quality.

Blockchain technology changed that by making it possible to stamp digital goods with a cryptographic marker of authenticity and keep a permanent record of its ownership. You can copy the file contained in an NFT all you want, but you can’t fake the digital signature behind it, which gives collectors of rare digital goods some peace of mind. And NFT fans think the technology could be used to keep track of all kinds of goods in the future — titles to houses and cars, business contracts and wills.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • In your own words, what is an NFT? How would you explain what a nonfungible token is to a friend or parent?

  • Would you ever buy an NFT? Of the NFTs mentioned in this article, which would you be most interested in owning? Would you sell a digital token of any of your own work?

  • How do you feel about the endless copying, altering and editing of digital media that takes place on the internet? Would owning an official version of a digital good like a video, a GIF or a song be worth something to you?

  • What other debates about the ownership of digital art have you heard about? For example, do you think that we need to do a better job crediting dance creators and preventing art from being copied on TikTok? What role might NFTs play in these conversations?

  • Are you concerned about the environmental impact of NFTs and other cryptocurrency-related projects? What do you think of the other arguments against the NFT buzz that Mr. Roose raises?

  • What questions do you still have about NFTs, cryptocurrency, blockchain or any of the other concepts in this article? Where will you look for answers?

About Student Opinion

Find all of our Student Opinion questions in this column.
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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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