When digital becomes scarce

Value depends on what a damned fool is willing to pay for something. Football legend Diego Maradona's 1992 silver Porsche 911 convertible has been sold a few days ago for $578,000 at a Paris auction. $578,000. But of course the previous owner kept his car as well as its authentic vehicle logbook in pretty good shape. Why you would necessarily want to drive around in Maradona’s car is a mystery to me. But the fact that it was has driven the prize to absurd heights.

Julie Laiymani F X05Iw4B Cq Unsplash

Value may depend on what a damned fool is willing to pay, but it also determines how we look at something. We perceive a poor hoarder who fills up his home with empty Nutella jars as “a sad eccentric”. But we call a well-to-do fifty-something who collects vintage Aston Martins “a collector”.

The holy tongue

Promoting scarce goods is nothing new, of course. Just think of the fantastically weird relic cult of the Catholic church. My favorite example truly has to be the holy tongue of Saint Anthony of Padua. When they dug him up about 30 years after his death, that tongue was found completely intact between his bones. What’s even more uncanny is that this extremely durable tongue went on a world tour in 2013, pretty much like a true rock star. The question remains if that really was his tongue. We’ll never know, I guess. That’s because his holy body part did not come with a logbook. But I’d say it still was a pretty good investment.

I have to confess that I’ve never really liked it, but I also still remember that Van Gogh's Sunflower painting was sold for the record price of 39 million dollars back in 1987. What seemed an absurd amount of money at the time, could now pretty much be regarded as pocket change. But yes, scarce things make awesome investments.

Unfortunately, that kind of scarcity used to be reserved for "real" things. The digital world lived by other rules. You could immediately make a copy of an original file, image or mp4. Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Copy, Paste and lo and behold, no more scarcity.

Until now. You’d have to have been living under a rock if you haven’t heard or read about NFTs or non-fungible (non-exchangeable) tokens these days. It's the latest craze. With the magical technology of crypto and blockchain you can make a digital file "unique". That means scarce and sellable.


Mind you, not everything crypto is non-fungible. A crypto currency such as bitcoin is not. A bitcoin is a bitcoin, just like a euro is a euro. It’s perfectly interchangeable and not in any way unique. But thanks to the blockchain, you can also provide a digital concept with a unique signature: a kind of digital logbook, containing information about where it comes from.

Last month, American artist Mike Winkelmann, also know as Beeple, was the first to put a digital artwork as NFT for sale through Christie’s, a traditional auction house. On March 11, “Everydays – The First 5,000 Days” was sold for a hallucinatory $69.3 million. That started things rolling and even Twitter founder Jack Dorsey now put his very first tweet up for sale as NFT (that was even before Beeple’s price was known). Last time I checked, the counter was at 2.5 million dollars. That’s a lot of money for the underwhelming 5 words "just setting up my twttr".

Like I said, value just depends on what a damned fool is willing to pay for something. Why ever would I want to “own” Jack Dorsey's original tweet? Yes, you could see it as an investment and there’s the bonus of the bragging rights. Still. But this NFT craze does show that something is going on in the digital world. After the cryptohype, the world of assets could very well be up for a complete change. 

And for me, that's the really fascinating part here. It's not about people being willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money for NFTs, because that bubble may very well burst as time ticks by. No, it's about a new kind of digital ownership, that goes far beyond copyright. It's about being willing to pay for a work of art that's all over the internet and for everyone to see, just to call it your own. It's about the 'old' concept of ownership - remember when we said that "sharing is the new owning" - finding its way back online. Digital is no longer only about abundance. Scarcity is back with a vengeance.

This piece is an adapted repost from my opinion piece in the Dutch newspaper De Tijd.