As an archivist, I’m excited about what disruptive innovations like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and artificial intelligence can mean for archives. But I am also worried. These developments pose existential threats to our field and, by extension, to the survival of human history and culture.
I give away old movies for free. It started in 1999 when I was won over by the promise, enthusiasm and fairness of the gift economy. Not 30 seconds after we first met Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, asked me, “Do you want to put your movie archives online for free?” Braving the new world of video digitization and sputtery streaming has changed my life. Our archive footage has enabled thousands, if not millions of artists, videographers, educators and even children of post-communist Polish villages to remix history and bring the past back to the present. I never knew how many people were using our material or who they were – but wasn’t that the point?
In 1999, the future of our archives had to be consumed, to enrich public memory with new, hassle-free evidence. I wanted our archives to be as ubiquitous as infrastructure, to find their way into every corner of the net, to spread everywhere without the need for attribution or credit. I wanted our archives to disappear from the web.
I still do.
But now the survival of the archives as we know them is uncertain. Whether we know it or not, we all rely on a patchwork of chronically underfunded public and private institutions that hold the world’s cultural histories and heritages in trust for all of us and make them accessible. Anytime we see an old photo, hear a historical recording, watch a news clip, or find a family history document, chances are it’s from an archive. While we see and touch huge digital archives online, most archives are still largely undigitalized collections of physical media such as movies, videos, music, photographs and paper documents. By design, the archives are deliberate and thoughtful, with a timeline designed to preserve culture “forever”. They are not designed to withstand weather disturbances.
It was only a matter of time before the market found a way to manufacture and sell digital scarcity, and the market for cultural objects has surpassed the archival ecosystem well. Artists, players, animators, athletes and executives now sell NFTs, tokenized digital objects whose authenticity is assured by the reverse traceability of blockchain transactions. The combination of the isolation of Covid-19 and the benefits of cryptocurrency has created a powerful incentive for digitally positive collectors to fight for these NFTs, and some creators are raking Ethereum.
Professor of Law Tonya M. Evans with optimism suggest that cryptographic art offers opportunities for black artists and communities to bypass the gatekeepers of white art and “capture and appropriate the value of the culture they produce.” While the current boom may well follow the path of the 1920s Florida Land Rush hype, NFTs are the first step in what is likely to be a robust market for unique or rare digital items. Many of these digital objects will not be born digital; instead, it will be single scanned copies of physical documents, for which there could be a huge market. Who wouldn’t want to own the master digital copy of their favorite author’s diary, a photograph of Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass, or the recently rediscovered newspaper from the 1919 Black Sox scandal?
Nothing can be a greater culture and ethical shock to archives than NFTs. Prevailing archival ethics generally dictate that all users are treated the same and that archival material is not exhibited or sold only to high bidders. And once archives select which materials to keep, in most cases they see themselves as ethically obligated to do so on a permanent basis.
If an archive has a merch business, it’s tiny: key chains and postcards. As poor with archival DNA as archival collections symbolizing NFTs can be, the ability to take advantage of digital scarcity by selling NFTs while retaining physical materials is a heavy temptation. The world of archives is a world of inadequate budgets and financial constraints, filled with underpaid workers and massive, ill-resourced projects like digital preservation and the difficult task of digitizing analog documents. Will the archives be tempted by the potential benefits of NFTs and symbolize digital representations of their crown jewels (or rights to those assets)? It would exacerbate an already bad situation, where institutions like our Library of Congress hold physical copies of millions of movies, TV shows, and recordings that cannot be touched because someone else owns the rights to. author. Ideally, archives and museums should own and control both the physical and digital state of its collections. This will not happen if they have to sell or license NFTs to survive. And there is another risk: striking NFTs requires a lot of energy (although we can hope for a cleaner process), and the future security of the archives is threatened by climate change. The researchers have discovered that almost all archives will be affected by risk factors such as rising sea levels, rising temperatures or heavy rains.