Right-Click, Save CryptoPunks | Why NFTs Are Not the Same as JPEGs

Artwork | Right-Click, Save Community-II, Harsha Biswajit, 2022 ©

From CryptoPunks, Beeple’s record breaking NFT to BoredApeYatchClub and the dramatic merging of the Punks and Apes under the stewardship of Yuga Labs in 2022, this essay is a 5 part series exploring how NFTs are not merely a value creating tool, but a vehicle for building future societies in the guise of art.

Part I: Origins of Crypto Culture — Transition into The Age of Value

Part II: I embark on our NFT journey, using CryptoPunks as an anchor, to illustrate why NFTs and JPEGs are not the same by tracing the origins of digital art and the underlying philosophies that drove the invention of the media formats we are all familiar with today.

II

CryptoPunks and Digital Value — Why NFTs Are Not the Same as JPEGs

Now that we have established that a new environment is being formed in front of us, just as in life, the effects of a transition into the age of value has also seeped into the art world. We begin our NFT journey with CryptoPunks — now considered a classic, they are the link that ties the past with the future of art.

Launched in 2017 by John Watkinson and Matt Hall under their studio, Larva Labs, CryptoPunks are a collection of 10,000 algorithmically generated 24x24, 8-bit-style pixel art images, each with their own unique combination of randomly generated characters. They were inspired by a form of digital art known as generative art, where the artist intentionally transfers a portion of creative control to chance and randomness of code. Imagine having an array of different attributes laid out under a pre determined set of categories — Face Shape, Main Accessory, Background, Hair Style, etc such that when one feature from each category is composited together, the final result is a complete rendered image or a ‘Punk’. This way, once the ingredients are fed into the computer program, the algorithm can mix-and-match them to create an almost infinite amount of possible outcomes or variations of Punks.

In total there are 6,039 male Punks and 3,840 female Punks with traits such as 696 wearing hot lipstick, 286 Punks with 3-D glasses, 128 rosy-cheeked Punks, 94 Punks with pigtails, 78 Punks with buck teeth and 44 beanie-wearing Punks. There are also eight Punks with no distinctive features at all — sometimes referred to as Genesis Punks — and only one with seven attributes: CryptoPunk 8348 a big bearded, bucktoothed, cigarette-smoking Punk with an earring and a mole, wearing classic shades and a top hat. Source: Christies

This approach to art making, can be traced back to some of the earliest forms of digital art that emerged in the 1960’s where artists began concerning themselves not only with final form of the art object, but also became deeply engaged with the creative use of the underlying code and computer technology as an essential part of the artwork. While it may seem like CryptoPunks are merely an extension of this lineage, the fact that they exist as NFTs and not a JPEG or any previous file format, makes them an entirely different kind of digital artwork. To understand why, we need to look at the underlying philosophies that drove the formation of these formats in the first place.

As Christiane Paul, one of the leading commentators on digital art points out, the origins of digital media files we are all familiar with were born out of computer technology whose defining ideology can be traced all the way to a single article published in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, a prominent American engineer and scientist. In it he called upon his fellow peers when the fighting has ceased post World War II to “turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge.” He envisioned, in his own words, “a future device … in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility… an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

This device, The Memex, never got built but is now commonly acknowledged as a conceptual forebear to the Internet as a world wide web of accessible databases. In 1946, the University of Pennsylvania presented the world’s first digital computer, known as ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), and five years later, the first commercially available digital computer, UNIVAC, was patented. It wasn’t until the creation of the graphical user interface in the late 1960’s, popularized by the Macintosh, that linked a physical mouse to a two-dimensional grid of pixels on a digital screen that computer technology and culture took another step forward [1].

The philosophy behind technological innovation during this era was about spreading knowledge and connecting humanity, which gave birth to the DNA of files that would become ubiquitous with digital art and life, as we know it today. ‘JPEG’, the most universal imaging format of our times came to be in the 1990’s, TIFF, an industry standard in the world of digital photography was invented in 1986, and ‘GIF’, a popular format even today amongst the meme culture of the Internet was invented back in 1987. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Throughout the 1970s and ’80s,…artists increasingly began to experiment with new computer-imaging techniques…[and] digital art evolved into multiple strands of practice[s] that would continue to diversify in the 1990s and 2000s. With the advent of the World Wide Web…, digital art found a new form of expression in net art, which became an umbrella term for numerous forms of artistic explorations of the internet. In the early 2000s, net art entered a new phase when artists began to critically engage with the platforms associated with Web 2.0 and social media, producing work on social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. As digital technologies became part of the objects surrounding us…and familiarity with the language of the digital continued to grow, artists began to engage in practices that are now referred to as post-digital.”

Christiane Paul, “Histories of the Digital Now”

Today it’s fair to assume that the technologies of the 20th century have dictated our digital experience over the last 30 years so much so that every aspect from art, images, films, music to communication and social behaviour all rely on these native files as the interface between code and representation; digital and real. Technology is so integrated into our daily habits and routines that despite living in the real world, our experiences are more pseudo-digital than ever before. Yet through all this time, very little has changed with regards to the fundamental nature of files that shape our experience. Of course there have been advances in hardware and multiple iterations of formats offering higher quality, better compression algorithms and other such features but at the core their DNA remains the same. The extent of the capability of the medium has been limited to storing, manipulating, transferring, and displaying digital artefacts. In a sense digital culture has been bound by the qualities of these files, just like the laws of physics bind us to a specific experience of life. That is, until the invention of NFTs in 2014.

Evolution of Digital File Formats

NFTs represent a hard fork in the history of digital art in the same way computer technology of the 1960’s helped to create the medium in the first place generating a split of its own away from traditional fine art. Unlike previous iterations of digital art, a NFT contains all the qualities of a JPEG in addition to layers of programmable characteristics that can be written onto it. For example a common attribute with NFTs today is the ability for the creator to include a sell on royalty attached to the artwork that lives on in perpetuity. This means that where once artists could never benefit from the resale of their work in the secondary market, they now can with smart contracts that execute automatically with zero friction.

Coming back to CryptoPunks, what John Watkinson and Matt Hall were seeking was not another form of visual representation but a way create an ecosystem around their collection of digital characters that would mimic qualities of uniqueness and desirability found amongst real physical collectibles and trading cards [2]. Generative art allowed them to create visually distinct images, but there was still the problem of infinite replication associated with digital art at the time. We have to remember, the files that were in existence were not made to be scarce, instead they were designed to be deployed en mass to meet the needs of pioneers such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who were looking to bring computers into every household. NFTs on the other hand, embody a completely different philosophy to its earlier ancestors and are a byproduct of crypto-technologists like Vitalik Buterin who envision a future where we take back control of our digital actions by making programability, trust and value native characteristics of the digital experience.

Therefore, by making CryptoPunks NFTs, they were able to break the technological barrier associated with digital files by ingraining layers of scarcity and ownership into them. While they were initially created to act as unique pieces of art, they soon replaced the circular placeholders meant to display your identity on social media platforms. For some it was a way to reveal their inner identity and beliefs based on what the Punks stood for, and for others it became a way to protect their identity and remain pseudonymous, only to be known to the world by their avatar (Punk 6529).

‘Art as Identity’ became the first use case for NFTs.

This trend quickly spread across the ecosystem, igniting the NFT boom, as new creators observed how CryptoPunks were becoming a digital symbol of status and perhaps even resistance. After all, Punks are by nature counter-cultural, echoing the blockchain philosophy. Over time as the value kept soaring, and more celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Logan Paul, Jay Z began displaying their punks, the desire to own one kept increasing. Originally given away for free for anyone to claim, today a single CryptoPunk trades anywhere from $1 Million to $23 Million in the secondary market [3]. Their value experiment clearly worked.

Jay-Z displaying his CryptoPunk avatar as his twitter profile picture

The contribution the first wave of NFTs like CryptoPunks made to the blockchain movement transcends boundaries since in essence what they popularised was a way to value culture by transforming it into a scarce asset. Due to the programmable nature of NFTs, what this revealed was that in reality digital value can be linked to anything from carbon credits, event tickets, property rights, collectibles, historical paintings to digital identity, a financial product or anything that needs to be unique.

In the future, I believe all assets, human and non-human, will have a one to one digital replica in the form of NFTs, with art currently acting as the proof of concept or a gentrification tool for the use of NFTs across a wider scope of objects. In other words, NFTs will form the basis of value in the digital world and can be seen as a form of currency, echoing a futuristic version of the barter system of the past. Holding a NFT will be like holding a technologically enhanced mirror image of a scarce asset in the real world.

While the limits of a JPEG have been reached, new links have been forged between art and the larger digital ecosystem through NFTs, exponentially expanding what can be done with the medium. This is where we see the biggest deviation between the two formats and yet in my opinion it is not the only aspect that makes NFTs unique. As we shall explore with Beeple and Bored Ape Yacht Club in parts III and IV, what has become apparent over time is that the value of NFTs are directly linked to the strength of their communities and act more like malleable tools for community building rather than a distribution tool such as a JPEG. Unknown to John Watkinson and Matt Hall, what they would unleash was not just a framework to create value, but a way to bring people together in the guise of art. This is where I believe the truly (r)evolutionary trait of this new genre lies.

As the visionary media theorist, Marshall McLuhan would say, “the medium is the message”. In the case of NFTs, the medium is not necessarily art, but community. As for the message — it is being written as we speak. If indeed we are in an age of post-digital art, and NFTs are anything to go by, the next frontier is not about evolving beyond the digital but weaving itself deeper into it. We are now living through a transformation similar to what JPEGs and other computer imaging techniques did for the medium in the early days, however this time they are supercharged with qualities beyond pure aesthetics. Its real power will emerge when it begins interacting with other components currently being built within the Web 3.0 ecosystem unlocking the true value of these digital assets.

To elaborate on this idea, in the next part we begin by looking at how value is generated in the the digital art market to get a grasp of the fundamentals and how NFTs have changed this relationship. We then turn our attention to the story surrounding digital artist, Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple and his $69 Million NFT sale to make sense of the exorbitant price tag to understand where real value lies in the digital age.

Read On:

Part III— Right-Click, Save Beeple | Community is Culture; Community is Currency; Community is King

Melting Portrait

Harsha Biswajit is a new media visual artist currently living and working in Berlin. With a background in economics and digital fine art, his work primarily explores the changing nature of reality brought about by technological advancements in our society. This theme has run throughout his career and most recently manifested itself in experimenting with and writing about NFTs and Blockchain in general to understand how this new technology is going to shape our future. His works have been exhibited in USA, India, France, Spain and Hong Kong, amongst others.

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Berlin Based New Media Artist Exploring Transformations Brought About By Technology.

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Harsha Bis

Harsha Bis

Berlin Based New Media Artist Exploring Transformations Brought About By Technology.

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