June 30, 2022

Is it Possible to Decolonize the Blockchain and NFTs?

A group of international scholars addresses the current barriers to progress
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Is it Possible to Decolonize the Blockchain and NFTs?

Luke Hespanhol: With the hype around NFTs reaching a peak in 2021, we have seen many individuals and communities taking the opportunity to raise awareness about their art and culture. That includes some First Nations groups and those in the so-called Global South. Is there a risk here of buying into a nebulous ecosystem that provides quick gains in the short term, yet ultimately reinforces colonial structures?

Soraya Kouadri Mostéfaoui and Victoria Neumann: As argued by Mustafa Ali “the computing phenomenon itself is inherently colonial as it is founded upon, and continues to embody aspects of colonialism.” NFTs are no different and certainly reinforce the legacy of colonial structures (social classes). 

Marginalized groups may seek to use NFTs because they have been either excluded from traditional markets or exploited by them. This is understandable, as they want to secure a living and income for themselves. However, the economic models behind blockchain and NFTs do not allow radical change to the exploitative structures of capitalism. On the contrary, they re-reinforce them. 

Gustavo Romano: I see quick profits only for a select few. NFTs, like social networks, help to establish a new capitalist pyramid, whereby a few “influencers” rest on a multitude of followers. And as in any pyramid dynamic, the later you join, the less likely you are to make a profit, thereby feeding the pyramid and validating its dynamics.

Eduardo Navas: NFTs are the latest stage in a dematerialization of economic exchange. The problem for the blockchain, which goes back to early barter economies is: Who is able to perform and regulate its transactions? Blockchain technology may be decentralized at the moment, but the people who developed it as a form of exchange are part of, or emerged from, the ruling class, and hence have the proper knowledge to disrupt it. They may have what appears to be a subversive approach but, eventually, blockchain technology and NFTs will be absorbed by the established system. 

What is promising about moments like this, when major technological changes take effect, is that people in disadvantaged positions can find ways to participate. This contributes to cultural changes that provide opportunities to develop more stable lives and even wealth. However, this is meaningless if those who are able to join the fray allow pre-existing paradigms of subjugation to remain in place. Whichever paradigm emerges will have a different set of groups struggling against each other. This is the nature of social networks when we look at human history — struggle remains, but the players will be different and more diverse. In-groups will not be defined simply by race and ethnicity, but will follow more complex ideological divisions. This is already happening.

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LH: Defenders of blockchain technology argue for its potential benefits: autonomy, decentralization, democratic decision-making, and scarcity-driven value generation. However, it currently depends on unregulated crypto trading, opaque tech platforms, and computation power that is highly costly to the environment. How can we reconcile these different aspects?

EN: These aspects are not reconcilable. The problem is that humans continue to function based on a one-way extraction of anything they claim as property, including natural resources. But one-way extraction relies on the abstract premise of unlimited potential to increase one’s wealth, which further drives greed. People need to look beyond monetary economics and think of “environmental economics.” 

The tension between different cultures in the world comes about when countries decide to engage in a global economy while trying to balance their own group’s social contract with those of others via economic exchanges. Blockchain is not a realistic means of disrupting this tension owing to the large carbon footprint it requires to certify electronic transactions.

GR: While the blockchain can inspire us to build tools that promote decentralization and horizontality, it was created to evade state regulation in an elegant way rather than to pursue egalitarian social goals. 

SKM & VN: The political values underlying Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) stem from cypherpunks and cryptography as well as libertarian and anarchist communities. Take anonymity and decentralization for example, which are ways of evading interference and surveillance by state and financial institutions. While Web3 communities and DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) may adopt the rhetoric of democratic decision-making and equality, in practice they struggle to implement it owing to unequal participation. This leads inevitably to the reintroduction of hierarchy (class) which favors smaller groups of active developers or those who hold the most tokens, thereby creating more class-based elitism. 

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LH: NFTs assign value to intangible artifacts that might otherwise be “right-click-saved” and shared freely. This is a classic colonial gesture that reiterates the earliest formation of racial capitalism. How can we address the problems of digital property relations?

GR: Tokenization, which is a new form of reification, is strongly associated with the act, or illusion of possession. While talk of “possession” in the digital domain borders on the absurd, it does raise questions about possession in the physical world. Why is it any more serious to assign value to a banknote than a token? Today everything can be tokenized, and everything acquires value as a sign.

A century ago, Duchamp’s readymade served to critique the fetishism of the art market and the compulsion to collect and possess. Few works are actually hosted on the blockchain, so it is still advisable to “right click and save,” whether or not you have bought the NFT.

SKM & VN: The question of digital property rights has existed since the birth of the Internet, driven by a neoliberal thinking associated with modern capitalism’s “colonial racist world system.”¹ NFTs have not altered this focus on exclusive property rights in any way, but have instead leveraged it ad absurdum. There is an urgent need to adopt a form of border thinking to drive a “de-colonial epistemic shift [that] brings to the foreground other epistemologies, other principles of knowledge and understanding and, consequently, other economy, other politics, other ethics.”² 

EN: As material property becomes scarce, information property may be created but must be rendered scarce in order to be of any value. NFTs make this scarcity possible by claiming that only certain digital files are “authentic.” Those who buy such files hope that the value of such immaterial or informational goods will hold, or ideally increase, over time. So it is about property and about claiming territory. 

However, while the issue can be framed according to colonialism, it is really about global capitalism, which is a combination of different forms of territorialization. Asia and the Middle East are also participants in this process, which have their own colonial histories. They therefore cannot be essentialized into a single type of colonial ideology. Instead, today’s colonial ideology is hybrid. What we are now dealing with as a global culture is an issue of territorialization (claiming an object), deterritorialization (preparing an object for a new purpose), and reterritorialization (directing a deterritorialized object toward a new purpose).  

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LH: The marriage of NFTs and DeFi seems highly problematic to me. For a start, not all cultural assets are financially tradeable, if they are tradeable at all. Do you think it is possible to decouple NFTs from trade?

SKM & VN: Turning anything that can be controlled, traded, and capitalized into an asset is the basis of the NFT’s technoscientific capitalism. Assetization itself is a colonial practice that uproots objects, practices, and experiences from their embedded context not only by assigning commodities a use value, but also by employing investment and return as key objectives, and therefore exchange value.

EN: At a moment when one’s online activity is worth money, all cultural assets are financially tradeable. The priority should be to provide people with the education required to have agency in an information economy in which their data is gathered and sold without their knowledge. 

GR: When Guy Debord declared: “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image,” art began a tendency towards dematerialization.³ Those of us producing net art in the 1990s felt, perhaps rather innocently, that we were dealing a final blow to the market fetishization of art. Yet today we see that capital, riding a tsunami of digitalization, has assumed within itself the tokenized digital image or NFT. For Debord, “situations” were a means of escaping the logic of the spectacle, and the intangibility of the event a way of opposing the marketable object. But now the market has overtaken the object, offering collectible “moments” for sale instead. 

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LH: How can we create value for the community of creators, providing them with real rather than merely aesthetic autonomy? What are the equitable and culturally sensitive mechanisms we might use?

GR: Today’s blockchain technology is institutionalized mistrust, built on a fear of being cheated, and a fear of the other. The question is whether we can imagine and build systems based on positive relationships; on mechanisms that, for example, ensure that an asset is enhanced if a collective benefit is achieved — smart contracts that not only prevent scamming but promote general welfare. Unfortunately, this is quite incompatible with the capitalist logic of unlimited accumulation, in which the objective is always “living better,” rather than “living well” or Suma Qamaña in Aymara. This is a concept deeply rooted in Andean cultures, which refers to the harmonious balance between the interests of the individual, the community, and its natural environment.

EN: Aesthetics are more relevant than people realize, and are the real driver of the global economy. When you look at the stock market, for instance, what is being bought and sold by most “retail” stockbrokers is not a company’s actual worth in terms of its balance sheet and potential for growth, but the story — the myth that makes that company what it is for the general public. This has made the stock market globally much more volatile. For further insight on this, it’s worth reading Robert J. Shiller’s book, Narrative Economics (2019). 

We tend to consider aesthetics mainly in relation to visual art, or the arts in general, but aesthetics means sense perception. Aesthetic autonomy can be turned into what you refer to as real autonomy if one realizes the process of wealth production. Artists therefore need to understand the exact process behind their own “brand” creation, not only in order to maintain it — if they are able to achieve economic autonomy — but to ensure that they don’t compromise their creative drive once they achieve economic stability.

SKM & VN: We argue that a mechanism such as the NFT should be thought of with, for, and from the perspectives of the groups involved. Indeed, such mechanisms should amplify the otherwise unheard voices of marginalized communities in order to integrate their values and needs into developing technologies rather than expand the legacy of Eurocentric colonialism by continuing to mute unheard voices.⁴

Some blockchain communities are now paying content creators in a more transparent way, for example, 3Speak — based on the Hive blockchain protocol — in which video content creators are paid by clicks and likes, but without an underlying advertisement algorithm. Hive has developed a whole Web3 “ecosystem” of applications, including games and NFT marketplaces, as well as social media sites and video platforms. 

Similar blockchain initiatives promote tokenized communities, which adopt libertarian principles of ownership and transaction as the basis for social interaction in digital space. Likes and views, as well as individual donations, then contribute to an income, which is visible to all (including viewers) and paid in cryptocurrency. Depending on the consensus model, this could become problematic for both the environment and the miners, but it has at least fostered dialogue around revenue models and profit sharing, as well as a confidence boost for content creators demanding their fair share. These dialogues need to be extended with decolonial perspectives.

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LH: A truly decentralized system favors consensus over regulation. So, if an ecosystem is then “colonized” by exploitative actors, the consensus reached may actually only benefit a few big players with outsized voting power. Likewise, without regulation, nothing prevents cultural assets from being stolen and listed as NFTs on multiple marketplaces. How might accountability for cultural abuses be ensured?

EN: Even decentralized systems are predisposed toward colonization. The incentive that led to the Internet was the Cold War. It was US national security that led to the creation of ARPANET. In its early days, the Internet was a space that required populating. But once this had taken place, limits and new contracts were introduced. This process is still ongoing, but it does require regulation. 

Regulation does not equate with colonial ideology. It is possible to regulate inclusively to allow everyone a fair chance to participate. However, for this to happen, we need to make real changes in how we think about economics beyond money. 

SKM & VN: We don’t have accountability for cultural abuses even beyond the blockchain. Whether this is despite or because of regulations remains an open question. We are currently operating in a paradox, since both regulation and no regulation serve the same interest groups. Marginalized voices are rarely listened to by regulators or policymakers, which only expands colonial practices.⁵

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LH: The history of colonialism is rife with examples of direct exploitation as well as “good intentions” wreaking major damage. How do you assess the risk of new technologies such as NFTs, given this colonial background? 

GR: If we keep moving toward the vortex of a tokenized metaverse — a hyperreality in which we become the alienated physical counterpart of a digital avatar — the danger will come from not being tokenized. To be left out of hyperreality is to cease to exist in its simulacrum: reality. 

SKM & VN: Oppression and discrimination are omnipresent, what changes are the stakes involved. A young artist in Europe might use NFTs with the same motive as an artist from the Global South. For the former, the stakes are high, and the risk low, while for the latter the stakes are low, and the risks high. Therefore, the levels of oppression and discrimination are not uniform, which reinforces the colonial phenomenon. Every new technology that does not actively steer against colonial practices, is extending the colonial era by exploiting those who depend on it. 

EN: Colonialism is an ideology of power, and a filter through which power is deployed. Both NFTs and the metaverse are extensions of this ideology of power. To break out of it, we must understand how colonialism reinvents itself in new forms. If we do not do this, we will always be treating the symptoms rather than the causes.

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LH: Is the attempt to decolonize the blockchain, NFTs, and Web3 simply an act of replacing one neocolonial architecture with another?

SKM & VN: While Web3 is still emerging, it is hard to foresee how negotiations on decentralized infrastructure will enable or dismantle existing power structures. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs are, in large part, colonial and capitalist. The question is how far decolonization can dismantle their oppressive power. That is a challenge!

As an organizational tool, the blockchain might be interesting, and there are ongoing experiments with (re-)distribution and collective management of the commons, particularly in the space of DAOs. The question is whether communities can engage with the blockchain, with its built-in economics and political values, with a decolonial motive. As of now, we are yet to see anything concrete.

EN: Decolonization is futile without an engagement with the source and driving cause of colonial ideology. In my view, we should not focus on whether NFTs or any related technology are colonized or decolonized, since they emerge from and carry with them vestiges of colonialism. The most beneficial approach, in my view, is to focus on appropriating the dynamics of colonialism, and redeploying them in ways that are fair and balanced for others. This is obviously an ideal proposition, but it is necessary and possible so long as we understand the actual processes behind colonialism.

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Soraya Kouadri Mostéfaoui is Senior Lecturer in Web Technologies and postgraduate research tutor at the School of Computing and Communication at The Open University. She obtained her PhD in Ubiquitous Computing from the University of Fribourg. Her research interests include the design and uptake of human-centric digital systems, with a focus on the relationships between people and the digital world, addressing issues surrounding healthcare, education, equality, diversity and inclusion.

Eduardo Navas is Associate Research Professor of Art and Digital Arts & Media Design at the School of Visual Arts, and Research Faculty in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Arts & Design Research Incubator (ADRI) at Pennsylvania State University, where he researches and teaches principles of cultural analytics and digital humanities. He has published numerous books, with the latest, The Rise of Metacreativity: AI Aesthetics After Remix (2022), due for publication by Routledge later this year.

Victoria Neumann is a PhD candidate in Computer Science with a background in Science and Technology Studies (STS) as well as Political Science and Anthropology. Her research focuses on socio-technical issues in data infrastructures. She has recently been part of an EPSRC-funded project, “Civic Data Identity Partnership,” that explores the use of blockchain technology and DAOs in healthcare. She is part of the decolonization group at the School for Computing and Communications at Lancaster University, UK.

Gustavo Romano has developed his activity as an artist, curator, and theorist since the early 1990s as part of the pioneer generation of net art. He has received numerous awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Telefonica Foundation Vida Award. Born in Buenos Aires, he lives and works in Madrid.

Luke Hespanhol is a Senior Lecturer in Design and Director of the Master of Interaction Design and Electronic Arts at The University of Sydney, where he also completed his PhD. His research focuses on the relationships between people, technology, culture, and the environment, addressing fields from digital art, artificial intelligence, and robotics, to smart cities, urban interfaces, media architecture, digital placemaking, community engagement, and digital inclusion.

Dr Hespanhol is an RCS community resident scholar.

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¹ A Quijano and I Wallerstein, “Americanity as a Concept, or the Americas in the Modern World-System,” International Social Sciences Journal 134, 1992, 549-557 cited in SM Ali, “Prolegomenon to the Decolonization of Internet Governance,” in D Oppermann (ed.), Internet Governance in the Global South: History, Theory and Contemporary Debates, São Paulo, Brazil: International Relations Research Center, Núcleo de Pesquisa em Relações Internacionais (NUPRI), University of São Paulo, 109–183.

² WD Mignolo, “DELINKING: The rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality and the grammar of de-coloniality,” in WD Mignolo and A Escobar (eds.), Globalization and the Decolonial Option, London and New York: Routledge, 2010, 303-368.

³ G Debord, Society of the Spectacle, K Knabb (trans.), London: Rebel Press, 1992, 17.

⁴ AD Selbst, D Boyd, SA Friedler, S Venkatasubramanian, and J Vertesi, “Fairness and Abstraction in Sociotechnical Systems,” Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, January 2019, 59-68.

⁵ SM Ali,  “A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing,” XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students – Cultures of Computing 22(4), 2016, 16-21.