$65,340.80
+2.06%
$3,160.78
+4.96%
$80.03
+3.28%
$30.39
+7.48%
$122.85
+6.4%
$0.00
-2.63%
$26.98
+5.79%
$0.16
+6.97%
$22.01
+6.23%
$0.00
+7.75%

NFTs are fake and so is money


Calvin Becerra went viral earlier this year for a less-than-ideal reason. He got bamboozled out of what he claims is some $2 million in cryptocurrency and NFTs and complained on Twitter about the incident. Scammers pretended to be interested in buying one of his NFTs in a Discord channel and tricked him by saying they could help him fix a problem with his crypto wallet. During troubleshooting, they raided his wallet. The experience, he says, “felt like death.” He’s gone to great lengths to get the stolen digital assets back, paying hundreds of thousands more dollars to retrieve the tokens, including, most importantly, his three bored apes.

For many outsiders, it’s hard to grasp paying so much money for a trio of cartoon monkeys once, let alone twice. At some point, you’ve just got to let sunk cost be. But Becerra, 40, insists it’s worth it — he believes in NFTs, or at the very least, the moneymaking power of them. “They’re important to me because of the value that they will continue to increase by,” he says. “They’re huge.”

He’s right that NFTs — non-fungible tokens, little digital assets that exist on a blockchain — are having a moment. What’s not really clear is why. Then again, everything about money feels a little strange at the moment. Between NFTs, crypto, and GameStop, AMC, and other meme stocks, money has rarely felt more fake. Or, at the very least, value has rarely felt so disconnected from reality.

The concept of value is a fuzzy one, and valuation is often more art than it is science. Psychology has always played a role in money and investing — and there have always been bubbles, too, where the price of an asset takes off at a rapid pace and disconnects from the fundamental value. As Jacob Goldstein wrote in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing, all money is sort of a collective myth. “Money feels cold and mathematical and outside the realm of fuzzy human relationships. It isn’t,” he wrote. “Money is a made-up thing, a shared fiction. Money is fundamentally, unalterably social.”

The social aspect is clear in much of what’s going on now, whether it be a group of investors on Reddit trying to take down a hedge fund betting against GameStop or people paying thousands of dollars to claim ownership of digital art they could effectively have for free. But why certain groups of people have trained their focus on certain items is hard to parse. Becerra insists there’s a utility to the apes — there’s merchandise, events, and he sees having them as the “new world flex,” like a watch or a nice car. “Everything’s hype, a social media world, right?”

Lately, the hype aspect of money has felt more true and important than ever.

It’s been a weird year in money

Historically, the economy was theoretically based on labor and value creation at the individual level, and on the structural level, voting shares in companies based on their financial fundamentals and future value, said tech industry veteran Anil Dash, CEO of the programming company Glitch. But that idea died long ago. “A machine is what it does, and the purpose of the system is the output of the system. And the purpose of our financial systems … is to create ever more detached financialization that can just generate what the industry calls wealth and what the rest of the world just doesn’t see.” In other words, the confusing status of value today is a feature, not a bug.

You can see this clearly in the markets in 2021.

One of the first big stories of the year was the GameStop saga, and it was a fun one. An army of day traders on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets drove up the price of the game retailer’s stock in a matter of days, forcing halts in trading and costing some hedge funds that had been betting against the stock quite a bit of money. They rallied behind a guy who goes by Roaring Kitty; in one YouTube video about GameStop, he pretended to smoke a cigar while wearing a cat mask.

There have been all sorts of efforts to ascribe some bigger takeaway to the GameStop story — perhaps it was a populist uprising or a sign that there was something very broken in the market. But generally, most of the efforts to pull a concrete meaning out of GameStop fall flat. It was a relatively ephemeral incident where, as is often the case in investing, there were some winners and some losers. GameStop’s stock price has remained relatively high, compared where it was before January 2021, because enough investors have stuck around to keep it there.

GameStop has come to epitomize an era of meme investing, where ordinary investors are piling into stocks and cryptocurrencies and digital assets not necessarily because they believe in the underlying value of the thing they’re buying (though some do) but instead because it just seems like a thing to do. Dogecoin or NFTs or stock in theater chain AMC get popular online or in their social circles, and they turn around and think, why not?

“For a huge swath of the retail world, the mentality has merged of what is trading versus what is investing versus what is essentially just gambling,” said Tyler Gellasch, executive director of Healthy Markets, a nonprofit.

The scenario has generated quite a bit of fingerwagging from Very Serious People who say what’s going on is beyond the pale, that investing is supposed to be about underlying value and the real, tangible worth of a thing. NFTs and Shiba Inu coin, they say, are clearly fake. At the same time, so is so much of what’s going on in finance and the economy already — including the spaces the Very Serious People occupy.

During the 2008 financial crisis, for example, exotic financial instruments created out of subprime mortgages among Wall Street and banks helped take the economy down. They also revealed regulators to be asleep at the wheel. Very recent history makes it hard to take the Very Serious People in finance and government seriously as responsible stewards of the global economy. The financial industry has gone to great lengths to create new financial products with the potential to do more harm than good in the name of making more money.

“To have a boomer burn down the planet and then have them wag a finger that crypto’s bad for the environment? Please, that’s absurd,” Dash said.

“Money feeling strange in 2021 is based on a decade of money slowly feeling strange for lots and lots of different people throughout the world,” said Lana Swartz, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who focuses on money. “We’re at a stage where the government and financial institutions are revealed to be less dependable than we ever imagined they would be, so why not YOLO?”

A made-up quote from a 2021 Onion article gets at the attitude:

NFTs might be bizarre speculative bullshit, but what isn’t? Aren’t we all just finding ways to turn everything that exists into something we can make money off of? I might be throwing away thousands of dollars on NFTs, but you’re throwing away thousands of dollars on TSA PreCheck or lottery tickets or donating to political candidates or raising children. Critics will say NFTs are wasteful and can be used for fraud and other crimes—fine, yeah, find me something that isn’t?

The view may be nihilistic, but in the current scenario, it isn’t entirely wrong. So much of the economy feels like a scam — the gig economy, student loans, the hope of retirement, a 9-to-5 job. Consumers are always being tricked and squeezed by corporations. The promise of the middle class is fading fast, so for a lot of people, it just feels like you might as well lean into whatever financial chaos is available to try to hit it big. If housing prices are so high you’re never going to be able to own a home, why not try your hand at real estate in whatever the metaverse is?

Crypto feels like a scam. So does a lot of the economy.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the…



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