May 23, 2022

NFTs and the Risk of Perpetual Colonialism

Luke Hespanhol asks whether Web3 can really avoid the oppressions of Web2
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NFTs and the Risk of Perpetual Colonialism

Blockchain has dominated the conversation around technology, finance, and digital culture in recent months. Defended by many as a new internet paradigm, the discourse surrounding Web3 owes much to the popularization of NFTs as a format to promote, collect, and distribute digital artifacts. In principle, such technologies address a number of perennial problems faced by digital creatives: Assertion of authorship, creation of scarcity, and the removal of intermediaries who control access to meaningful revenue as well as cultural discourse itself.

But despite the many artists who have established new audiences and revenue streams through the affordances of the NFT, for many, those benefits remain a mirage. While arguments about the feasibility, suitability, and sustainability of NFTs continue to rage wildly, I would like to address the underlying tenets of the crypto ecosystem and its advocacy, and how they may risk, intentionally or not, perpetuating centuries-old colonial practices.

Positionality

Before continuing, it is necessary to explain my position toward this subject. I was born and grew up in Brazil, a former colony of Portugal. While independent as a nation since 1822, echoes of colonialism continue to play out in Brazil (and Latin America more broadly) to this day, through practices of socio-economic exclusion directed particularly toward Indigenous and Black people. I am neither Indigenous nor Black, having come from a family of European migrants, and acknowledge my privilege within that context, undoubtedly translated into the opportunities I had access to, including higher education.

Later in life, I migrated to Australia, where I currently live and work as an academic researching design, technology, culture, places, and communities. Like Brazil, Australia is a former European colony, and British colonial dynamics continue to define cultural narratives today, reflected in the denial of past and current atrocities toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as refugees and many migrant groups. This background shapes my approach to the topic of this essay, which, I caution the reader, is itself biased.

Extractivism, exploitation, and evangelism

It is no coincidence that proponents of new technologies are often referred to as “tech evangelists.” The uncritical optimism that characterizes much of the current discourse on Web3, the non-negotiable adherence to its principles, and the assumption about the inevitability not only of the technology, but also of the context and world view in which they operate, often veer into dogmatism. As argued by Jeff Doctor (Cayuga from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory (in the land today known as Canada)), tech evangelism operates on the premise of how new technology can benefit people, empowering them with abilities they previously lacked. Under these narratives, new technologies are sold as tools of emancipation, if only people can accept them — an approach reminiscent of colonial missions which, in the past, crossed the seas with the self-declared goals of rescuing natives who would otherwise live obliviously in darkness, eternally.

Yet, darkness is always relative to the one holding the candle, and reality depends on the perspective of every individual or cultural group (and different cultures relate to the world in radically different ways). As discussed by Angie Abdilla, a Palawa (Trawlwoolway) woman (from the land now known as Australia) in her essay “Beyond Imperial Tools,” modern technology is not culturally neutral, and Western technology, in particular, echoes the logic of extractive colonialism that has been operating for centuries. 

Power spheres mutating overtime — from the Crown, to the bourgeoisie, to the primacy of the (white) individual celebrated by the Enlightenment, to the early entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, to the establishment of capitalist liberal democracies — have all subscribed to a need to expand in order to dominate, to source raw and cultural material regardless of its impact on people and the environment, and to impose new cultural practices and threaten risk of extinction (and, later, socio-economic ostracism) in order to drive submission and compliance. This is a point elegantly expressed by Jonathan Crary in his book 24/7 (2013), which discusses the perpetual drive of market forces to secure relentless participation, consumption, and control. For Crary, this ideology fabricates pseudo-deficiencies for which new technologies are offered as the essential solutions. 

Engaging and normalizing, or ignoring and being excluded?

Despite the emergence of a discourse of inevitable adoption of the blockchain across all professional practices, as well as social and cultural groups, adhering to such discourse is never mandatory and should always be accompanied by critical judgment about the socio-economic forces driving it. Adopting NFTs or any other blockchain-based means of transacting cultural artifacts may be a tempting option for many disadvantaged communities to facilitate dissemination and awareness about their cultures. This is particularly true at a moment when Web3 stands in the spotlight. In that sense, its adoption can be tactical, but could it ever become strategical? Could the NFT model (or a future iteration of it) become a means of widening cultural awareness while asserting cultural autonomy?

What might be the potential benefits and (unintended) consequences of engaging with the techno-social structures fueling the Web3 hype machine? And could those new colonial structures ever be appropriated and subverted by previously colonized communities? 

This enquiry also raises questions about representation and self-determination: Should cultures previously exploited by colonization claim their space and trace their own pathways through new technological landscapes before they are chosen for them? Or does the very act of engaging with new technologies — which they may not even need — normalize and validate the colonizing forces already at play, thereby doing more damage than good?

Between engaging with colonial practices enacted through technology, and rejecting technology’s potential benefits altogether, one possible way forward involves the creation of new ecosystems which do not necessarily subscribe to the logic of capitalist production, competition, and value speculation. In a 2018 paper, Ahmed Ansari argued that “to practice decolonial design means thinking beyond design as it exists today […] to propose alternatives to Western value systems that define abstract concepts like freedom, equality, justice, and choice on their terms.” On these terms, the potential benefits purported by a new technology must be decoupled from the ecosystem it currently operates in. 

For NFTs, this might involve decoupling the benefits of a recognized trail of transactions tracing back to the original author — as offered by the blockchain — from the trade in cryptocurrencies, or reliance on resource-hungry and environmentally destructive crypto-based ledgers. In any case, the effort of navigating this process must necessarily be led by each community itself at a grassroots level. It is the community that must arrive at its own position toward the blockchain (or any new means of cultural production, for that matter) and collectively choose how to opt in, or whether to opt out.

Encrypted fine print

The problem, as is almost always the case with so-called “general-purpose technologies,” is that their overly positive claims about their benefits invariably provoke stark warnings about their dangers. While such technologies may foster utopian visions of social emancipation, they tend to overlook the potential unintended consequences of such technologies, and their appropriation for malicious purposes or colonial projects.

Let’s take, for example, some of the core tenets of the blockchain: Decentralization, community self-governance, verifiable ownership, accountability, transparency. These are the core values of Western liberal democracies, which makes sense, since that is where the technology originated. 

The devil, as always, lies in the details. Even within Western liberal democracies, do such values apply in all possible scenarios? Indeed, are they always desirable? And how, exactly, are those values enacted through the technology? What other values are encoded in the algorithms and transactional mechanisms adopted by minting and trading platforms? Who implements those algorithms? What data are used to train them? And would they make sense anywhere else?

The marriage between NFTs and DeFi seems particularly worrisome: If NFTs can only be traded using cryptocurrencies, then anyone who wishes to release their digital art as an NFT must, necessarily, become involved in crypto finance. But if NFTs are simply a digital mechanism to register ownership of an underlying asset (digital or otherwise), then there is no underlying requirement to link this ownership to crypto trade or any other financial market. NFTs are currently monetized through cryptocurrencies mostly as a convenient way to provide financial rewards to the individuals or organizations running the computer nodes that constitute the blockchain network infrastructure. But even within that ecosystem, there is no intrinsic need for rewards to be paid in cryptocurrency. As it currently operates, the NFT ecosystem is “self-referential,” offering no escape.

Likewise, not all cultural artifacts are tradeable, nor are they available for consumption by the general public. The tokenization of cultural experiences and rituals ends up stripping them from their original context and purpose, thus reducing them to mere aesthetic remnants, fragmented and judged by the cultural lenses of the “colonizer.” But the problem runs even deeper: NFTs, as they currently exist within the Web3 techno-social infrastructure, are really nothing more than a digital certificate granting ownership of an asset to an individual or organization. Whether that ownership is recognized or not depends on consensus between the various actors within the marketplace in which it is traded. And the only way to ensure that consensus is by having some form of centralized governance (for example, from an art dealer or museum) overseeing the process, which contradicts the blockchain business model. Insofar as that governance lies outside the community of creators, the potential for colonizing methods of exploitation remains.

Relationality over decentralization

So, are DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organizations) the answer? Well, maybe, but only if we insist on applying a techno-solutionist lens to the problem. DAOs and community-led voting mechanisms make sense in a world in which the blockchain ecosystem is the only (or optimal) viable option to enact community governance. 

However, Indigenous cultures have engaged in sustainable forms of communal governance, embedded in their respective cultural protocols of engagement, since time immemorial. Do they really need DAOs? What would be the cultural, social, and economic benefits for them from their perspectives? 

Decentralization acquires a very different meaning when viewed through the lens of relationality, a core aspect of First Nations peoples’ world views.¹ While from the Western perspective, we tend to see decentralization as a “breakaway” from ruling institutions, it is still very much human-centred, rooted in the understanding that human needs and wishes drive decision-making. Relational cultures, on the other hand, approach life on the basis of relationships between humans and everything else, including the environment and all things within it, living or not, as well as the cultural capital derived from them — stories, rituals, customs, and beliefs. In these cultures, decentralization operates at an existential level, with humans no longer in a central position of superiority but constituting just another element within a broader cosmos.

Perceiving the world through a relational lens, and caring for the impact of any action on everything else, naturally leads to sustainable modes of production and consumption — the exact opposite of the extractive approach adopted by Western colonialism. And since the integrity of resources, both material and cultural, is respected within that sustainable framework, relationality also leads to community autonomy.

Of course, there is a valid argument for the (already existing) participation of non-Western cultural producers within Western art markets and the benefits they offer. These include tangible benefits such as copyright and financial compensation for the trade in approved cultural artifacts. There are also intangible benefits such as cross-cultural awareness, mutual understanding, and increased social capital. Crucially though, I would argue that participation in these markets is only legitimized when led by non-Western artists or cultural organizations, who should also be empowered and respected in their ability to judge whether or not those benefits truly apply to them.

Indigenous design as possible inspiration

In their book Design: Building on Country (2021), Page and Memmott discuss some of the principles underscoring culturally appropriate design with Australian Indigenous communities. They highlight how, in many Indigenous cultures, the actual product created is often not as important as the process involved in creating it, which at its core should always be collaborative. The principles they establish could serve as a blueprint to inform a decolonized approach to digital art forms which may or may not evolve from what we currently understand as “NFTs.” While these principles were proposed in the context of engagement with Indigenous Australian communities, I argue that they can perhaps offer value even beyond First Nations peoples. To that end, I adopt a slightly more general terminology below to describe each principle:

1. Deep listening

Dedicating sufficient time for consultation with cultural groups is key to ensuring appropriate community engagement and co-ownership of the services and products developed. For art on the blockchain, this may require the participation of acknowledged cultural custodians throughout the process of conception, promotion, and dissemination of cultural artifacts.

2. Culturally-led

Any solution and service promoting art on the blockchain, including strategies for trade and exhibition of artworks, must necessarily be led by the artists themselves and other representatives of their cultural groups. This ensures ownership and self-determination about both the artwork and the processes promoting it, including what cultural aspects should or should not be included, and how. So far, it has been argued that technologies like the blockchain could provide valuable strategies to ensure self-determination, yet a lack of consultation and the current shape of the crypto ecosystem may also pose significant barriers to it.²

3. Community-specific

Cultural groups are diverse, and what works for one may simply not work for others. The “one-size-fits-all” approach offered by the Web3 discourse blatantly overlooks that reality. On the contrary, enough time and money needs to be spent with each group to ensure that their voices are heard, that they can lead with their own approaches in order that specific cultural nuances are understood, respected, and promoted.

4. Shared benefits

Artists from diverse cultural backgrounds should be guaranteed fair participation in the outcomes of their creations, especially if these involve financial gains. In doing so, the technological ecosystem would help to correct past injustices, while offering paths forward that are more equitable and socially just. This is potentially one of the main incentives offered by NFTs to cultural groups previously excluded by colonial institutions. Yet, once again, the critical questions discussed above must be addressed in any engagement with crypto to determine how fair the engagement actually is. To this end, it may be relevant to consider whether bypassing traditional cultural institutions, including museums and online art platforms, only to be locked in by crypto marketplaces does not simply move the colonial goalposts further down the chain.

5. Respecting cultural knowledges

Digital artifacts do not exist in isolation, but rather reflect the cultural context in which they originate, and its knowledge systems. It is important to ensure that mechanisms to inform the tokenization of artifacts carried out through NFTs, or similar solutions, do not risk ignoring the intangible elements associated with the artifact, which may be integral to its existence and understanding.

Conclusion

Good intentions when creating and promoting new technologies are simply not enough, and are often appropriated by larger forces subscribing to value systems that may be detrimental and exploitative to many groups. To address the risks of perpetual colonialism, it is crucial that new technological discourses surrounding Web3 nurture alternative solutions to prevent the coercion of colonized groups, which may feel compelled to join the ecosystem out of fear of renewed social exclusion or cultural extinction. 

Of particular importance is to shift the focus toward relational approaches to the production, promotion, dissemination, and consumption of digital artifacts, thereby avoiding extractive approaches that have been normalized over the centuries: Taking cultural artifacts, knowledges, and stories from their original context without proper recognition and articulation of them, thus voiding their original meaning, purpose, and identity. This consideration also begs the question: Could digital technologies (blockchain or otherwise) be useful in acknowledging and communicating the network of cultural relationships that exist around an artifact to audiences outside the culture in which those artifacts were created?

Finally, it is essential to promote self-determination of non-Western cultures, avoiding the two extremes of enforcement (through imposition of agendas and underlying colonial power structures) and exclusion (through suppression of access to digital services, and discouragement of their understanding) — something all too common in technically heavy and jargon-laden ecosystems such as Web3. It is my hope that the points presented in this essay can serve as starting points toward more thoughtful developments and discussions about this and future digital technologies.

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Luke Hespanhol is a Senior Lecturer in Design and Director of the Master of Interaction Design and Electronic Arts at The University of Sydney, Australia, 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 L Tynan, “What is relationality? Indigenous knowledges, practices and responsibilities with kin”, cultural geographies, 28(4), 2021, 597-610.

² C Alcantara and C Dick, “Decolonization in a digital age: cryptocurrencies and indigenous self-determination in Canada”, Canadian Journal of Law and Society/La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société, 32(1), 2017, 19-35.