NFT's, metaverse and consumerism

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By VITOR SILVEIRA*
A large mass of people spending a significant part of their resources on intangible services is something that only occurred a few decades ago.

Intangible consumer goods are nothing new, perhaps the oldest of this class is education. Although it may seem a little odd to qualify it that way, the fact is that for centuries people have paid someone who knows more about a certain topic to transmit this knowledge and the amount paid does not materialize in something tangible.

Maybe we could include paying for protection, whether state or private, on the list, but then there's no certainty, as a guard standing in front of your door is tangible, whereas paying taxes or a protection fee for local criminals is not tangible , you actually pay for something bad to never materialize.

However, a large mass of people spending a significant part of their resources on intangible services is something that only occurred a few decades ago. Cinema, to a certain extent, was a pioneer in massifying this phenomenon, although theater and circus are very old. But there is also some controversy there: when you go to a concert, a show or watch a movie, the real objective can also be a walk with friends washed down with various drinks or even flirting with someone interesting and in this case, if it materializes the flirting, we will (hopefully) have something tangible.

The arrival of cable television in the 1980s was another big step for the cultural industry. There, the habit of paying for an individual, private and continuous use consumer good was established. To convince people to pay for something that was always free, the trick was to offer channels without commercial breaks, of course, when the audience was consolidated, the ads came back in full force.

Today, however, it is common for someone to commit to paying monthly for a dozen intangible products and the internet is their main habitat, starting with the network access provider. If you want more privacy, hire a VPN, a premium email service is used by some, if you want to listen to music, subscribe to an audio platform, to watch sports you can pay individually for each championship, if you prefer movies and ai series the options are vast, there are dozens of these platforms available to anyone who still has some money left. Incidentally, audio and video platforms represent a new level of consumerism in this area, as despite having only one pair of eyes and ears, many people subscribe to every streaming service known to man.

But it is clear that this is still too little for capitalism, always voracious for new commodity forms that guarantee its (impossible) eternal expansion. Then comes the brand new generation of intangible goods, such NFT's, in Portuguese something like, products without specified price.

For those who haven't followed this subject closely or even have no idea what it's about, I apologize in advance for the poor explanation I'm going to give. Even though I studied the subject, I also didn't understand it properly and I doubt anyone has. I would venture to say that they are intellectual property titles on digital files, such as photos, GIF's or even text and music. You pay to be the exclusive or non-exclusive owner of a fully digital work of art. So far so good, nothing too confusing or too innovative, after all there have always been those who paid to be the sole owner of paintings or sculptures for example, although in these cases the object of contemplation was right there in your living room. However, times have changed and since today everything is digital, it is normal for works of art to rest on the computer's HD and not on the wall, no problem, honestly I think it's a good thing for artists, especially visual artists, this new market .

When, however, one goes one step further in trying to understand this market, things start to get really confusing. For example, some of the most valued NFT's are memes that went viral on social networks and when you buy the copyright from the person who supposedly created it (yes, proving the true author is often difficult) you are paying for a file identical to the one everyone downloaded for free. But anyway, you have the intellectual property of that file and with it you can… sell the meme to someone else?!

Also normal, would say the defenders of this technology, nothing more, speculation is something intrinsic to the art market. And since your meme has become so valued having been shared by millions of people, the best thing is that it continues to be distributed freely and reaches the billions of shares, right? Apparently not, some “owners” have already threatened to sue all those who somehow use their (?) files. And how do you know if you can share that funny montage or use that illustration as a profile picture without fear of being visited by the bailiff? It is beyond confusing, in some cases it even reaches nonsense.

Another example, a group of fans of the book/movie Dune got together to buy for millions of dollars an NFT that showed a sketchbook used in the first film adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel. They spent a fortune thinking they were acquiring the copyright to the best-selling science fiction work of all time, but they only took a photo of that sketchbook. Believe! It wasn't even the sketchbook that they actually bought, but just a photograph of it.

Are you still finding little? Well, never underestimate the creativity of the masters of capitalism, because now, thanks to other technology, you can also pay good money for a branded outfit or a big new car that really only exist in the form of ones and zeros. In fact, this trade in exclusive access items has already existed within some games for a long time, but now, with Facebook's Metaverse, many real-world brands are already selling their products in an intangible version in that immersive virtual universe...

For the time being, the thing is still very incipient and the so-called metaverse looks more like a video game from 20 years ago, where the products are not very attractive even for the most consumerist, but the tendency is that in the not too distant future, a fashionable sneaker costs the same price to be used by you in the real world or by your avatar in the virtual world. In a society like ours, obsessed with image and differentiation through consumption, it is perfectly plausible.

*Vitor Silveira graduated in social communication, writer and photographer. Author, among others, of Uma Vez Na Estrada.

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