What’s a “Metaverse?”
One term that people throw around in the crypto-sphere is “metaverse.” It’s worth asking ourselves what that means to us – how is it any different from the older digital lives we lived in MMORPGs or on Minecraft servers or Second Life or what have you? In my opinion – the failure to translate Ernest Cline’s “READY PLAYER ONE” from book to movie kind of illustrates what the disconnect is. If I’m just spitballing – I would say the metaverse isn’t really a thing that exists in Cryptovoxels or Decentraland or any particular actual server – it’s the identity and ownership that we’ve started to create in strictly digital spaces. What Steven Spielberg couldn’t capture was the kind of aimless existence online – everything had to be fast-paced and game-ified for audiences to feel the thrill that is only a tiny part of metaverse living. The metaverse has really been around since the internet began – when connecting with people you didn’t see in person meant you had to have a name and an identity that wasn’t just a given, that had to be deliberate in some way.
NFTs have really made portable a concept that had been building up for a long time: digital ownership. One of the things that made digital ownership of, say, skins for a character in Second Life seem silly was that we knew it was just files. Files are ephemeral, they come and go and get saved or deleted and disappear when the platform disappears. Consider all the stuff people had in Star Wars Galaxies that just evaporated when the servers were shut down. NFTs exist on the chain, so they’re not as subject to deletion. The value of our digital goods goes up when they can’t be copied or easily deleted or disappear when a game becomes unpopular – not only that, but the fact that they aren’t intrinsically woven into games anymore means that they fit better what our actual metaverse existence is like: it’s not really a game, it’s just life in a different space.
As we get further into the rabbit hole – fun philosophy questions like “what is real” matter more and more. I don’t think many people are arguing that are embodied existences are unimportant: on the contrary, we’re seeing boatloads of rhetoric and sentiment about how much we need to get back in touch with nature, work, producing our own goods and living lives not absorbed by our phones and online personas. Day-to-day though, a lot of us still have to work on our computer, have to be online in one way or another. As we realize that this life is “real” in it’s own way – more people see my avatar on any given day than see my physical face – we realize that we need to take care and value what that metaverse life is like just as we’re realizing our real lives aren’t automatically nourishing us, automatically good for our mental health, that in fact deliberate living is the only way to survive when every vice and malnutrition is profitable to sell to us. The “metaverse” is what we’re calling the digital portion of our life – not our workplace Slack account or our LinkedIN or even our Facebook or whatever – those are just augmented regular life, but who we are and what we’re like in those moments when we’re not doing work tasks, not being gamers – but just existing online.
This is all still a new phenomenon. It’s not exactly a new technology or a new platform that’s important – but the gradual growth of a separate world that we are a part of. The best analogy I can come up with is that it’s similar to how the world changed when 20th century travel meant that trade and tourism and even living arrangements became more globally fluid. We still lived in our local place, we still spent most of our time dealing with the people closest to us, working at our jobs – but now there is a vague apprehension that the world is bigger than us in practical ways. You could know circa 1840 that the world was bigger, but it was kind of a non-issue because you couldn’t just jet off somewhere else or have a package arrive in 2 day shipping from China. What the metaverse is doing is adding a third level, a *personal* existence in a global network, a persistent personality that we cultivate, and now actual possessions with value and utility. We can ignore the metaverse just the same as we could ignore the larger world outside our local environment – but it doesn’t cease to exist or become irrelevant to us just because we don’t engage.
Being Nimble When Obstacles Present: Tezos to Matic
So there’s been some kind of exploit on Hic Et Nunc recently, and while it didn’t affect very many people it’s going to take a minute for them to fix their swap contract so that no tomfoolery can be done. This is not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but there’s a lot of artists who are relatively new to crypto that want to keep on playing with low gas fees and exploratory art and now find they have no place to do that for a while.
You may already know this, but there’s other networks besides Tezos that are also cheap gas – and one of them that’s doing pretty well is Polygon (AKA Matic). Screensaver.world is my personal favorite up and comer on that network – but a lot of people probably don’t want to feel like they’re starting over and don’t know where to begin. There are probably better ways to do this – but I’m going to show you two ways to start playing around on Screensaver.world (from here on “SSW”) – at least while HEN is being fixed.
First of all, Metamask is probably the easiest wallet to use on Ethereum/Polygon. It sounds intimidating if you’ve never messed with different chains before, but Polygon is pretty easy to get to once you have Metamask. If you’ve only got a Temple/Galleon/Kukai wallet on Tezos, go ahead and sign up for a Metamask wallet. Typical crypto rules apply: DON’T SHARE your seed phrase with anyone, write it down somewhere safer than safe. There’s a mobile app that’s semi-useful, but the real powerhouse here is the Chrome browser extension. That’s what you’ll want – and if you use Temple Wallet it should be pretty familiar how it works by now:
Changing networks on your Metamask extension is super easy too:
So once you’ve got that setup and you have a wallet that you can send funds to one way or another – there’s a couple different ways to go about getting some Matic. First thing to know if you’re new to this: Matic/Polygon token exists on the Ethereum network AND the Matic network, but Screensaver.world uses the Matic network – so if you buy Matic token on the Ethereum network it won’t show up in your wallet on that chain (yet). Moving tokens from Ethereum to Polygon (or any chain to another, really) is called “bridging.”
WAY #1 – Your first Matic can come from a faucet like https://matic.supply/ where they send you a tiny amount to get started – this is not a bad idea if you’re nervous about the idea of trying to move your own money or go through bridges and things.
Although I haven’t used it you can try https://transak.com/ to go from regular old government money to Matic (I don’t personally recommend this).
WAY #2 – If you’ve got a little stack of Tezos going and you want to use some of that momentum, the easiest way I could think of was to just use Coinbase. Once you have a Coinbase account set up, so long as you have some Tezos on that Coinbase wallet you can send tez to and from it and convert to other crypto currencies directly. It’s pretty simple – even if Coinbase kind of manages your currencies for you and isn’t the wallet of choice of the elite.
Important note: Coinbase buys Polygon/MATIC on the Ethereum network. So once you send it to your Metamask account, you need to bridge it from Ethereum to MATIC. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Zapper.fi has a very useful guide to this – but in my limited experience it was even easier just using the simple Matic bridge at https://wallet.matic.network/bridge/ . Once you’ve done this and you can open your Metamask extension, select the MATIC network and see that you have some MATIC in there – you’re ready to start playing on screensaver.world! Mints there are fractions of fractions of pennies, so if you’re used to mint costs being negligible on Hic Et Nunc you’ll feel right at home here. Buying is done by auction in all cases – so you don’t have to worry about choosing a price to list at. Most importantly – HAVE FUN and BE SAFE – and if you have questions google them yourself because I’m not that smart. If you have more questions maybe visit the screensaver.world discord.
On Collectibles and Crypto-Art
I’ve had a lot of people discuss tokenized art with me and ask about the difference between the file, the token on the chain – the relative worth of the token compared to the media file, things like that. I thought I would drop a few of my thoughts on the matter here.
I wanted to clarify first what I consider a few different kinds of things that we lump all together under NFTs and Cryptoart. In my opinion, there are generally three different kinds of things being traded
• Collectibles with arbitrary aesthetic value
• Collectibles with semi-relevant aesthetic value
One of my favorite little essays on the subject is still Collins Dyer’s Medium article that uses the baseball card analogy. The difference between the authentic collectible and a copy may be materially negligible, but it matters which one is real. If you photocopy a baseball card, you have not made two authentic baseball cards. One of the keys here, in terms of the “why” of collecting is that baseball cards aren’t really expected to be “pretty” – their value is generally tied to this outside thing (baseball) and the overall collectors market for baseball cards. You don’t look at a baseball card and say “well that’s not very impressive to look at” because that’s utterly besides the point. These are things I would call “collectibles with arbitrary aesthetic value.” This kind of concept makes a lot of sense when you think about NFTs that maybe make reference to the subculture, or have more of a reputation for being collectible than for being impressive (visually speaking). I tend to think that some of Beeple’s huge collection has started to work this way: people are indifferent to the actual art, but the collectibility – “blue chip art” is the reputation they chase. This goes for Cryptopunks too, I think. The visuals matter – people like monkeys and aliens I guess – but ultimately it’s not about the pixel art. You could find a thousand pixel artists doing much more detailed and impressive work, but that’s besides the point. Even weirder to consider: why are action figures with flaws often more expensive? Prototypes and short runs of mistakes are objectively worse than their “correct” counterparts, but worth more?
Secondly, consider another kind of collectible that is similar, but not quite the same: comic books. Now, a very expensive collectible comic book isn’t necessarily expensive because it’s work of art, but it’s likely that a very expensive one will both look good and have some sort of cultural significance or narrative significance for a pop culture phenomenon. Are early Superman comics worth a lot because they have the best art? Not really, but Superman became a big deal eventually, and they at least looked good enough and had exciting enough plots to help launch the character. It helps that as time goes on there’s less and less of them in mint condition and well-archived. To me, this makes sense of something like Hashmasks – where there are tons of them, but a few are rare, and the rare ones aren’t just valuable because they’re rare, but because people like certain designs that were algorithmically possible, or maybe the names using the name tokens were interesting. That is – there’s a combination of collectibility for its own sake and aesthetic value.
Lastly, there’s art. Is art collectible? Yes, but I don’t think it’s the same as a collectible. One of the differences is whether artwork – even a series – is meant to be a part of a collection someone can possess all of or whether individual pieces and series are meant to be statements in their own right. Think, for example, about whether it would make any sense to release a baseball card series of one or two cards. You couldn’t hold up the card and say “well, but this is an amazing card” – because maybe it is, but that’s really not how collectibles work – I think there has to be some sort of threshold of amount and variation on a theme that makes a collectible something other than a statement by itself. Artists that get lured into expecting collectors to snap up all their work, I think, have unrealistic expectations – or at least they’ve sort of changed the nature of the work they’re doing into something else. Real artwork, I think, has its value most anchored in its intrinsic aesthetic value – it is something that for whatever reason, either visually, thematically, conceptually – it brings meaning and pleasure to the possessor of it. This is a part of what has been thrown off balance with the influx of celebrity pseudo-art – the artwork is generally not particularly good (there are of course exceptions) and instead the art is being treated as collectibles, and the collection is as vast as there are A through D-List celebrities who decide to make something on a whim, so naturally the value of any particular piece is going to be very hard to predict and partly depends on the ongoing building of the collection of celebrity NFTs – and usually you can’t have the safety net of a thing that is simply beautiful or fun to rely on.
Now the question of what the difference is between the real thing and the file. If the file attached to the token is not fundamentally different than the JPG that could just as easily be hosted on imgur or something, why buy the token? I can offer a conceptual reason, and a pragmatic reason.
The conceptual reason to buy a token is fundamentally this: tokenization is what makes digital art authentically connected to the artist. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin points out that mechanically reproducing art destroys what he terms the “aura” – the sense that this material object connects you to the artist. This addresses a fundamental confusing thing – if you can reproduce a piece of art using machines, and do so in such a way that it’s indistinguishable from the original – what is the difference between the authentic piece and the copy? Benjamin claims it’s an “aura” – an intangible feeling that we are connected because these are the same atoms, same pieces of canvas or pigments or whatever that were moved by the artist. In the world of digital art, I believe it has always been confusing where the aura existed – since those bits and bytes were never really touching the artist in one copy of the file more than another, if you have the 2000th copy of a file, you own the same data that the original artist owned when they shared the file.
When you tokenize art, what you are really minting to the chain isn’t the art itself (which is technically usually stored via an IPFS hash or on a server somewhere or both) – but you are selling the connection, the traceable and prove-able moment where the artist said “this is finished, and this is mine” and put this data up for trade – a permanent public transaction that connects the buyer to the artist. Couldn’t the artist just make more? They could, theoretically, but it’s generally frowned upon in the same way that a famous photographer taking their negatives and developing new prints after selling some as “definitive” would cast aspersion on their collection. Essentially, the moment of creating the token that is attached to the art is the final form – the metadata attached to the token of the visuals, the title, the description, where and when it was “minted,” the artwork itself after that is essentially the raw material.
So buyers have a reason when they find something they love to truly “own” a digital file in a way that was impossible before. Now the practical reasons are multiple too: if we genuinely value art and digital artwork being produced, we’ve finally taken away the experience principle of copy as having the final word in “why not pay” for something. Formerly artists used giant hideous watermarks or just relegated themselves to essentially working for free or having complex security systems in place for Patreon patrons or something to make payment meaningful. In other words – we’ve created a much simpler payment-for-value method, artists getting some compensation for time they spend ostensibly enriching people’s lives.
The other pragmatic reason that NFT art is useful is that it both establishes a global marketplace and a global re-sale marketplace. As someone who’s lived in the rural midwest for a stint, the kind of art I make may have a market on the internet – especially amongst the cyberpunk larpers and newmedia junkies – but nowhere within a couple hours could I print my art and find people en masse that understood or wanted it. Suddenly having your work in front of eyes across the world and across cultural borders means that wherever it finds a demographic that is interested, you can reach them. Not only that – but in the real world, re-selling artwork isn’t something the average person has any experience with. The average person may have some experience re-selling collectibles, like comic books or baseball cards or even rare coins – but art? For an ordinary person, an investment in art is generally just lost money. How many people would know how to get in touch with galleries for art they didn’t make themselves, or find auction houses, or try to list on Facebook marketplace or something similarly absurd? The re-sale market seems restricted to the elite – fame being the main criterion for whether or not the artwork you own (which probably has to be worth something in the hundreds or thousands) can be considered for auction, how many people have access to that? The immediacy and universality of the art collection and re-sale market is a novelty, so long as people conceptually still believe in the connection to the artist or value things as collectibles. Which aspect grants value to the NFT isn’t really as significant as is the group belief that the value isn’t totally based on speculation.
In conclusion, I sell both art and collectibles with semi-relevant aesthetic value. I make a lot of art, and I work very hard on my art and the conceptual meaning behind it and the technique I use to create it. I also make some collectibles: MTG-like cards of my own mythos, VHS tapes and business cards for personalities and memes related to the $BASED money subculture. Different rules apply to different kinds of NFTs, but so long as we agree that value can be found in the tokenization expression – there’s no reason this market has to exist completely on the winds of speculation like so many things in crypto.