NFTs without blockchains

Thursday 12th May, 2022 - Bruce Sterling

*It makes all kinds of sense, but it doesn’t have that delightful froth of financial speculation and collapse.


So, it seems to me that there is this group of artists who are yearning for the technical ability to create and sell digitally unique objects with verifiable authenticity in a way that mirrors the traditional art world. They’ve been told NFTs can be the solution to it, but are also having to swallow the speculation, scams, environmental impact, and financial exploitation that comes along with NFTs.

Could there be another way?

What is it about blockchains that solves the problems that artists are facing? Is it the distributed network or decentralized system? No, not really—a centralized server controlled by the artist or by a shared platform could achieve the same goal of processing sales and storing and displaying provenance data. Is it the associated cryptocurrency? No—if anything the cryptocurrency aspect is often a technical hurdle that must be overcome, rather than a feature.

It’s really the cryptography—yes, that other “crypto”—that is allowing artists to do what they feel they haven’t been able to do. With blockchains, if they have a known crypto wallet address, they can securely and unfakably record that they were the one to create the artwork. But this is not a new concept, or one achievable only with blockchains—it’s achievable with the bog-standard cryptography that’s underpinned the web for decades.

“Why doesn’t this non-blockchain solution exist if the technology’s been around for so long, and the problem dates back even longer?” you might ask. Well, it turns out it’s kind of technologically challenging for most people (artists and collectors alike) to use this type of technology. It’s also historically been tough for collectors to wrap their heads around the idea of digital uniqueness and scarcity, and to accept it as they accept uniqueness and scarcity of physical art.

But as we’ve seen with NFTs, these are apparently not insurmountable hurdles. User experience designers and technologists alike gape in amazement and horror at the previously unthinkable level of complexity that users have been trying to contend with in order to transact with crypto and buy and sell NFTs.

And artists like Lukashov, Mann, and Condon argue that it was NFTs that finally got more people to wrap their heads around the idea of digital objects and their associated uniqueness or scarcity. It’s debatable how many users actually hold this mental model, and if they do, how they came to understand it. I suspect it was not because non-fungible tokens were such an easy concept to grasp, given the number of people alone who just learned in the past year or two the definition of “fungible”. But regardless, there are certainly digital artists who believe NFTs have resolved that issue.

If we accept, then, that some technical complexity is acceptable, that consumers have embraced the concept of a digitally scarce object, and that the bits of the NFT world (like the speculative mania) introduced by blockchains are not particularly necessary or even desirable, is it possible that blockchains are not required at all for digital artists to achieve this new future of art that they are understandably excited about?

Blockchainless digital scarcity

Rather than creating a crypto wallet, an artist can create a PGP key pair. A PGP key pair consists of two pieces: the public key and the private key. The public key is not unlike a cryptocurrency wallet address, in that it can be freely shared and used to verify data actually came from the person with that key. The private key is not unlike a cryptocurrency seed phrase, in that it must be carefully secured, because access to the private key would allow anyone to sign a transaction as though they were the true holder of that key….