There is a saying—often meant to be complimentary, and occasionally used to put someone in their place—that flits through my mind every once in a while. It goes along the lines of “That person has forgotten more about [insert subject] than you will ever know.”
It’s a bit back-handed, whether intended as compliment or put-down. While it theoretically praises the knowledge of the subject it references, it does by highlighting how much they have forgotten. When I was younger, that struck me as odd. If you are a master of your domain, shouldn’t you be on top of everything, facts at the ready, knowledge all-encompassing and readily available?
I have wrestled and reckoned with the dimensions of knowledge and remembering at a variety of points in my life and career. Without question, I’m an inveterate dabbler. I know something about a lot of things, and those things are not necessarily connected. Photography, for example, was an early passion. There was a time where many of the principles and techniques of good photography—or good darkroom techniques—were at the forefront, because I was using them pretty much daily or at the very least weekly. Reading a book about photography now, there are many essential principles that I inherently know and can cite. There are also many more concepts and ideas that I remind myself that I once knew but have since forgotten. While the basics are still there, many of the specifics have faded from disuse.
So it is with programming. I have no idea how many programming languages I have learned over my career. It is easily in the dozens, despite never—except for one summer just before university—working as a computer programmer. If you were to ask me today to write a program in any of languages I once used—Pascal, C or even BASIC—I would be reaching for the reference material, and wading deep into the archives of online references. Even HTML often requires consulting a resource to make sure my semantic structure is correct.
Despite that, the structure of programming is innate. I know the logic of programming intimately. I understand programming logic and data structures and how they combine in much the same way as I still know French: I know what I want to say and how it should be structured, but I’m going to have to look up the specific words that I want to use and how they are conjugated. If I were for some esoteric reason to dive back in to programming, I would become relatively proficient relatively quickly. It still requires thought and research and re-learning, though, to pull it off.
What that serves to highlight is how often we don’t know what we actually know. Or we believe that we have forgotten how to do something, because we haven’t done it for a while and the details have become obscure. This view of forgetting is a product of not separating out the specifics from the generalities. We may have lost the details, but the underlying principles and connections and structures are still there.
Where we get ourselves into trouble is presuming that our lack of instant recollection of details means we must not be good at doing something, or that we are now incapable of doing work or leveraging skills that we have employed in the past. We mistakenly attribute factual recall as being superior to the wisdom that comes from knowing structures and making connections. This is doing ourselves a massive disservice. It is usually easy enough to re-learn the facts; it is far harder to take on board essential reasoning abilities where they don’t currently exist.
As a case in point, I spent some time in the last little while going down the internet rabbit hole trying to figure out Non-Fungible Tokens (I shared a few articles about this in my newsletter a couple of weeks ago). What started this was the seemingly-overnight appearance of articles about NFTs in a variety of publication sources, attached to a surprising amount of hype. The reason for the hype was obvious: an artist named Beeple auctioned an NFT of one of his works through Christie’s for $69 million. In an incredibly meta article exploring the hype, a New York Times columnist auctioned an NFT of one of his columns and netted $560,000. An NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first tweet (“just setting up my twttr”) sold for more than $2.9 million.
All of this raises a number of essential questions: What’s going on here that I am missing? Are all of these people crazy? Is there something going on that I don’t understand? And what are these people actually buying?
The short answer is that, if you accept that this is engineered hype over the latest technology craze, you’re not missing much. Some of these people are crazy, a few are astute and many more are desperately hoping to make a quick buck. And while the technical details might be complicated, the essence of what is going on is no different than any other commercial transaction. But what people are buying is less than you might think, for the amount of money changing hands.
Put simply, an NFT is a simple registration of ownership and certificate of authenticity, wrapped in one happy package. It’s not the art, specifically (many—if not all—rights remain held by the artist). It’s not the thing itself (How do you own a tweet? How do you own a digital file of “art” that is easily copied, emailed, stored or deleted? How do you own the electronic image of a newspaper column that can be read widely on the newspaper’s web site?). It’s the link to the thing, and the right to say that you exclusively own the thing (even though others can readily access it).
If that seems odd, and certainly not worth the kind of money we are talking about, you are not alone in that belief. What we forget, though, is a fundamental principle of economics: things have value simply because people believe it to be so. Whether tulip bulbs, classic cars, old but genuinely undrinkable bottles of wine, beanie babies, basketball shoes, or various different genres of art, people have demonstrated their willingness to part with ridiculous sums because they see enormous value in whatever they are purchasing. NFTs just happen to be the latest fad to hitch its wagon to that particular crazy train.
There are people that genuinely and fervently believe that NFTs are the technology of the future, an essential means of protecting the interests and rights of artists and creators. There are hucksters that see NFTs as the next wave of hype to mine in making a quick buck (a buck with many zeros behind it). There are many more that are seeing others make millions and misguidedly figuring that need to get in to the market, as well (and the hucksters are counting on it). There are those who cynically view NFTs as one more passing fad, destined to end in an enormous crash as the weight of unsupported promises and untenable valuations implode as the bottom falls out
It is, in fact, possible for one person to inhabit all of those beliefs, and to a certain extent simultaneously. You can believe in the promise, invest to make a profit, get overwhelmed by your own greed and be crushed by bad luck and worse timing. Those who do make money out of NFTs—and there will be many more, at untold valuations—will do so because of a combination of fortuitousness, shrewdness and cynical calculation about when to get out before the market founders. There will be many more that lose their shirts, leveraged beyond what is reasonable and devastated when their investments become worthless. That isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when.
The challenge is making sense of this, and remembering that there are certain truths that don’t change just because hucksters and the scions of Silicon Valley (and the circles of that particular Venn diagram overlap a great deal) combine obtuse terminology and ridiculously enthusiastic and optimistic projections to describe whatever the latest innovation is that they are hyping as the next really great concept that is going to transform the universe. In the dot-com boom of the early millennium, there was a genuine desire to believe that the laws of economics had changed and companies with billion dollar valuations need not be profitable. Enormously sane people bought into this illogical reasoning. A few made out like bandits, and many more lost massive fortunes and destroyed the value of perfectly respectable and profitable companies as they bought into the hype.
If you are looking at something like NFTs and struggling to understand the valuations and the hype, it is easy to believe that you must be missing something fundamental about how they work. Those who have the most to gain by the confusion will often be the ones to most stridently defend the concept as profound, misunderstood and destined to change the world. It is always helpful in situations like these to push back to the fundamental concepts.
When you buy an NFT, you’re buying a certificate of ownership and authenticity. In many instances, you aren’t even buying an asset like a piece of art; you are buying a link to an image or representation of that asset. What other people can get access to for free (and freely copy) you are paying money for it. Often, you are paying a great deal of money. If that seems questionable, there is arguably good reason for it. But if you value owning Jack Dorsey’s endorsed NFT of his very first tweet, and are wealthy enough (if only in the blockchain) to pay the equivalent of millions of dollars for it, then by all means continue. Please don’t do anything rash like mortgage your house to pay for it, though.
It is incredibly easy to look at something that a large population of seemingly intelligent people are obsessing about, and to feel that you must be missing something important. It is psychologically incredibly difficult to hold to a view as being true, when everyone around you is arguing differently. If you want to gaslight someone, your best strategy is to bring a crowd.
Even where you have expertise, it is easy to question it. I’ve been a consultant for decades. I know how it works. I know how to market my services. I know how to network, build relationships and find opportunities. A weird confluence of the current economic times, my search engine history and the fact that I’ve been building a workshop have left me with social media feeds clamouring to convince me that my perspective, my consulting approach and in particular they way I do business development is all wrong. By watching a 60 minute video that is the lead-in to a funnel that bottoms out at an online course priced in the thousands, though, they will partner with me to set me on the path that works. I need to act soon, though, because only one or two places opened up, and they’ll be gone fast.
There will always be hype. The world is full of people trying to make a buck, and looking for their next mark. They would be more than delighted for it to be you. If something seems to good to be true, do your research. Question. Doubt. Listen to your gut sense of what makes sense and what does not. Does that mean at the end of the day that you shouldn’t invest in NFTs, or whatever the latest and greatest technological innovation that comes after it will be? If you are tolerant of the risk, want to ride the wave, and think you have the judgement to go in eyes-wide-open and get out before it crashes, go for it. There is also a history of the ebb and flow of fads to guide you. Just don’t believe that the fundamental truths of the universe have changed. They may get obscured in puffed-up propaganda and deliberately impenetrable technobabble. When that particular smokescreen clears, however, the truth will remain behind, brushing off the dust and steeling itself for the next assault on reason and logic.