NFTs and AI have a very uneasy concept of history
As an archivist, I’m excited about what disruptive innovations like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and artificial intelligence can have for archives. But I’m also worried. These developments pose existential threats to our area, as well as to the survival of human history and culture.
I donate old movies for free. It started in 1999 when I was fascinated by the promise, excitement, and fairness of the gift economy. Not 30 seconds after we met, Brewster Kahle, the creator of the Internet Archive, asked me, “Would you like to put your movie archives online for free?” Facing the new world of video digitization and sputtery streaming changed my life. The images in our archive allowed thousands, perhaps millions, of artists, videographers, educators, and even children of the post-communist Polish village to mix history and bring the past to the present. I never knew how many people used our material or who they were, but wasn’t that the point?
In 1999 the future of our archives was to be consumed in order to enrich public memory with new problem-free evidence. I wanted our archives to be as ubiquitous as the infrastructure, to go to every corner of the network, to spread everywhere, without the need for imputation or credit. I wanted our archives to disappear online.
I still do.
But the survival of the archives we know now is certain. Whether we know it or not, we all rely on chronically underfunded public and private organizations that trust the world’s history and cultural heritage and make it accessible to all. Every time we see an old photo, listen to a historical recording, watch a news story, or find a family history document, it is likely to be created in an archive. While we view and touch massive digital archives online, most archives are still collections of largely un Digitized physical media, such as film, video, music, photographs, and paper documents. Depending on the design, the archives are deliberate and thoughtful, with a timeline designed to preserve the culture “forever”. There are no shortage of weather interruptions to build on.
It was only a matter of time before the market invented a way to manufacture and sell digital handicaps, and the market for cultural objects has had a good time in the archival ecosystem. Artists, gamers, animators, athletes, and executives now sell NFTs, tokenized digital objects that can be said to ensure the reverse traceability of blockchain transactions. The combination of Covid-19 isolation and cryptocurrency profits created a powerful incentive for positive digital collectors to compete for these NFTs, and some creators are working on Ethereum.
Professor of Law Tonya M. Evans optimistic suggests crypto art provides an opportunity for black artists and communities to avoid the porters of white art and “capture and appreciate the value of the culture they produce”. While today’s boom may pave the way for the 1920s Florida landfill, NFTs are the first step toward a strong market for single or scarce digital objects. Many of these digital objects will not be born digitally; instead, they will be digitized copies of physical materials, and there could be a large market. Who wouldn’t want a master digital copy of their favorite author’s magazine, a photograph of Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass, or a newly revived 1919 Black Sox scandal?
Nothing could be a greater cultural and ethical blow to archives than NFTs. The main one archive ethics in general, that all users are treated equally and that archival materials are not disclosed or sold to large bidders. When archives select storage materials, in most cases they are considered to be ethically permanent.
If an archive has a commercial business, it’s very small: keychains and postcards. Since it is just as appropriate to tokenize archive collections as NFTs with the DNA of the archive, it is tempting to take advantage of the digital handicap by selling NFTs while maintaining physical materials. The world of archiving is a world of inadequate budgetary and financial constraints, full of paid resources and scarce resources such as digital preservation and the challenge of digitizing analog materials. Will the archive tempt potential rises in NFTs and indicate digital representations of their crown jewels (or the rights to those assets)? This would already exacerbate the bad situation, where organizations like our Library of Congress store physical copies of millions of movies, TV shows, and recordings that cannot be touched by someone else’s copyright. Ideally, archives and museums should contain and monitor the physical and digital condition of their collections. This will not happen if they need to sell or allow NFTs to survive. And there is another risk: to unify NFTs a lot of energy (although we expect a cleaner process), climate change threatens the security of archives in the future. If researchers have find almost all archives will be affected by risk factors such as rising sea levels, rising temperatures or heavy rainfall.