NFT Research, Going Crypto-native, and Tribute to Virgil Abloh
Since 2017, myself and an evolving cast of associates have been pondering value, preciousness, luxury, care, and longevity in digital products from our vantage point of design and computer science research.
In real life, I’m fascinated by how we imbue objects with value, meaning, and care, as we design and use them. Heirloom belongings, fashion, art, polaroids, and professional instruments are good examples. Something in the object’s design or history compels us to take good care of it for years to come.
In the digital world, we did not have materials to design such experiences. Software is traditionally a “fungible” material. Rarity and fashion are irrelevant. A concept like “luxury software” is incongruous. UI designs that overlay our most valuable data-belongings like passwords, memories, and finances are more or less nondescript.
Enter the blockchain and NFTs.
Against the backdrop of our interest in the technology and design possibilities, we watched NFTs explode into a defining trend for design, technology, and business in 2021.
Vis-à-vis significant market movements, the value, legitimacy, and utility of NFTs are disputed. Proponents are excited about revolutionary economic and cultural potentials of an open, secure, and immutable ownership database. Opponents are displeased by environmental issues and abundant wrongdoing in the ecosystem.
In either case, I believe NFTs are an important technological, cultural, and economic step that signifies important developments in our social systems. This is the invention of a new record-keeping technology that’s changing industries, governments, science, and more. Just like e-mail, CDs, hard drives, and Walkmans before it.
Even as reasonably informed people who have been watching the crypto space, during the NFT boom of 2021, we were overwhelmed by the avalanche of new technologies, concepts, and communities. A key struggle was to define the actors in the NFT space, and their respective cultures. Without understanding who is involved and why, design experiments we wished to do would fail in rigor and purpose.
To inform ourselves, we performed an analysis to understand the characteristics and relations of stakeholders in the NFT ecosystem. In the end, this analysis itself crystallized as a contribution we could offer to fellow scholars, creators, and innovators.
Our method was based on mining open data from the social tech news website Hacker News. We appraised 913 articles published over 2021, and analyzed 183 of them in depth. We took note of different kinds of stakeholders represented in this media set, their stories, and opinions.
Our research culminated in a model with six stakeholder categories and explains the motivations, actions, and relations of each: artists and creators, NFT owners, startups and investors, developers, auction houses, and corporates.
This, as far as we know, is the first data-backed model of its kind. It documents a multi-faceted account of the technological, cultural, and economic aspects of the NFT phenomenon using the methods and recording system of scholarly research.
Our paper, with a full account of our method, findings, background literature, and more, is set to appear at the 2022 “CHI” Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. A preprint is available here.
…in a crypto-native approach, proponents hope to create entirely new ways of funding public goods. While they share the same long-term vision of improving scientific progress, as well as attracting top talent and bringing research to market, their strategies are different. Their theory of change might look something like: "Ensure that scientific progress can flourish by inventing new ways to reward scientists, improve collaboration, and assess and amplify the quality of their work… — Nadia Asparouhova
In order to cover the costs of publishing our research, I’m auctioning off a visual NFT that tokenizes our paper on the Ethereum blockchain.
The NFT is minted as part of the Citations Collection — an ongoing experiment I put together during our research to get hands-on insights about designing, publishing, and marketing NFTs while honoring historically important computer science research.
A successful auction would be emblematic of progress towards innovative models for funding, publishing, and improving the ways we create science.
The auction ends May 3, when the paper is presented at the conference.
Regardless of the financial outcome, we aspire to pave the way for more crypto-native funding and coordination in design and computer science research. This approach is taken up with more zeal in life sciences.
Within our lifetime, this might become the norm. Perhaps, more research will be funded through NFTs and the creator economy than “official” sources. Time will tell.
Graphic design elements on this unique NFT (as well as the rest of the project’s visual communications) are crafted as a tribute to the prolific multi-disciplinary designer Virgil Abloh, who passed away in 2021 during the height of the NFT boom. Color, typography, and layout emulates Abloh’s social media posts announcing his academic lectures on contemporary design theory.
I’ve admired Abloh’s work and thinking for years. He was not only a creative genius, but also a brilliant design theorist and philosopher. I was deeply saddened by his loss. I’ve contemplated his untimely passing, and took decisions dedicating more of my career from scholarship to craft and innovation. But that’s another blog post.
I hope that this experiment at the intersection of design, science, “business”, and “fashion” will be a worthy tribute to a true design legend. His ideas and executions continue to inspire us all.
The exact cost we set out to cover through the NFT auction is the $260 registration fee we must pay to attend the conference remotely. At least one author paying this fee (or more for IRL) and showing up is required for inclusion in the conference proceedings, following a competitive review process where only around 20% of submissions are accepted.
That said, the amount is symbolic. The true cost of realizing and publishing such research is orders of magnitude higher. To give you an idea, here’s an account of the resources we spent on this work:
- 2 months of work by a senior researcher conceiving and managing the project, performing analyses, and producing the paper: approx. $10,000
- Principal investigator’s time spent supervising and coordinating: approx $4,000
- 1 month of work by a junior researcher working on the data: approx $2,000
- Things like software, travel, gear, gas fees for on-chain experiments: approx. $1,000
The total works out to approx. $17,000. (Incl. taxes.)
In reality, this is a very conservative estimate. Research projects like this are not self-standing. We have done this work as part of a larger-scale, multi-year research project which includes a fully-funded PhD position, institutional overhead, and more.
We’re very interested in more effective and economical ways of doing and managing research as well. Future work.
Myself and associates continue to work on designing digital value, delightful user experiences, and innovative public goods. We love to meet new collaborators, sponsors, partners, clients, and friends. Hit me up through Twitter, LinkedIn or WEATHERLIGHT if that’s you.
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The above represents my own opinion and the ethos of my company WEATHERLIGHT. Collaborators and other institutions involved are not implicated.
We are grateful to Vetenskapsrådet (The Swedish Research Council), who have generously supported our research vision on Digital Preciousness through their Natural and Engineering Sciences Grant 2019-04826. I’m personally grateful to my brilliant collaborators Amos Cappellaro and Ylva Fernaeus for their contributions and tolerating my strange meta-experiments.
We have a bidder!