THROUGH THE FIRE: Behind the NFT madness

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By BRETT FUJIOKA

I recently found out that a friend has invested in Nonfungible Tokens (NFTs). readers of The Rafu You may have heard of the recent frenzy of so-called digital art consumption.

There is a great deal of confusion among laypeople as to what NFTs are and their potential novel uses. In short, it is a data entity using blockchain technologies linked to digital files such as photos, music and videos. I may have lost some readers with the previous sentence and therefore there is not enough space in the column to describe what cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies are.

I’ll come back to that later. In the meantime, I’ll talk about how my cousin represents the consumer profile for NFTs and how that relates to the Little Tokyo community. Many Little Tokyoites are NFT consumers and even producers. And some of the readers walk by them day in and day out, whether they realize it or not.

Before we get into that, I need to talk about my boyfriend. Let’s call him “Eddie”. Eddie is what millennials and some zoomers call “hypebeasts”. A hypebeast was a formerly pejorative word used to denigrate consumers who pay exorbitant sums for exclusive street and city wear such as Bathing Ape; Limited edition Nike and Adidas shoes; and other garments that run in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single garment. The people who may have seen Little Tokyoites line up at sneaker stores similar to RIF LA to buy limited edition sneakers.

In the past, Hypebeast took on an almost exclusively negative vibe because they thoughtlessly bought expensive products with little judgment or verification of their actual worth. As concerns faded in the 2010s and now the 2020s, the stigma of devaluation faded. Still, it’s important to discuss where the Hypebeast culture originated in order to fully understand why sites like Hypebeast.com are showing a particular interest in NFTs.

It is difficult to discuss the origin of the term without discussing the Shibuya and Harajuku boroughs of Tokyo. The two adjacent districts are practically the Akihabara for the anime nerds but for the fashionistas. And hypebeasts have more in common with the anime nerds (otaku) who frequent Little Tokyo than either will admit.

Long ago, anime and Japanese fashion gained niche interest among millennials. Clothing from Bathing Ape and “Exclusives” from Nike, Adidas and other sportswear from Japan gained popularity among consumers of urban wear and hip-hop apparel.

Nigo, the founder of Bathing Ape, had an exhaustive list of celebrities to promote his brand. Rap videos featuring everyone from Kanye West to Pharell Williams wearing this coveted line of clothing cemented it in consumer perceptions of popular culture at the time. This was a moment where the aesthetic of anime became as intertwined with niche hip-hop as it is with K-pop these days. Takashi Murakami, the artist who consistently celebrates otaku culture, designed the cover art for Kanye West’s 2017 album Graduation. Pharell and a few others regularly collaborated with musicians abroad in Japan.

Apparently, consumers of urban fashion are much more hygienic than the cartoons of anime fans. Even the latter have become so assimilated into contemporary popular culture that even the seemingly most normal and well-functioning audience casually watches the anime Demon Slayer.

A lot has changed since then, and I’ll get into why and how that relates to cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and the blockchain in a moment. The most important thing to remember about Hypebeasts is that they are fixated on authenticity. They don’t necessarily care about authenticity like punk rockers or other hip-hop heads do. In other words, it’s less about whether a person is a poser or not and more about whether their clothing is “real” or not fake.

As high-end hypebeast clothing is highly sought after and produced in limited quantities, counterfeits permeate the entire market. They are so sought after that, in the past, the only way to get certain releases was through third-party sources. As a result, consumers and sellers of these clothing lines are practically as vigilant as art appraisers to spot counterfeits.

Eddie made and continues to make money through similar ventures. As a millennial, he never quite matured or matured, and it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that he got interested in NFTs.

NFTs are related to blockchain technology. The latter is related to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The latter emerged just prior to the major recessions of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. Confidence in the financial market waned. It is a bit too coincidental that the Bitcoin white paper was published by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 when confidence in the market was beginning to erode and confidence in institutions was experiencing a major collapse.

Japan faced something similar. Philosopher Hiroki Azuma adopted French postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard’s phrase “the collapse of the grand narrative” to explain how otaku culture came about. In his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, he argued that a grand narrative collapsed for Japan after its asset price bubble burst in 1991 and the country slipped into a long recession that arguably never ended.

The disasters of the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo and the great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 further tarnished the country’s national spirit. A grand narrative in this case is a system of ideologies like institutions. Belief in the narrative of perpetual progress for the country collapsed.

This is where the otaku consumer culture emerged. As the cliche goes, the otaku had a difficult time coping with the struggles of reality, often turning to commercial fiction for help. Otaku ideology is complicated for such a deceptively clueless subculture. So much so that there is an exhaustive body of academic literature devoted to studying their consumer culture in Japan and around the world.

Nevertheless, it is undisputed to say that they are particularly fixated on the authenticity of the fine arts. Around this time, hypebeast consumer culture began to germinate even further in Shibuya and Harajuku before gaining mainstream and then international attention during the aughts.

This brings us back to the NFTs. Obviously we live in an era of not only mechanical but also digital reproduction. NFTs are intended to secure a so-called certificate of authenticity that these digital objects are “originals”. In the age of the Internet, there are few ways to prevent the illegal duplication of digital objects beyond several copyright laws. And as we’ve seen with peer-to-peer servers like Napster, even that is difficult to monitor.

However, certain audiophiles also value the quality of their music, which is why they prefer to buy hard copies such as CDs and vinyl. Even cinephiles avoid streaming and pirated movies to enjoy the original cinematic experience.

Unfortunately, digital images can still be reproduced with a right-click. NFTs are said to protect the rights of artists and ensure they make money from selling digital art. It is also about whether the digital object itself is an original or not.

This is where I think the issues surrounding otaku and hypebeasts neatly overlap and why the latter is so interested in the company. The former tend to be cynical and radically skeptical. The closest analog in the US to the otaku is gamers. And they have almost unanimously rejected all attempts by developers to integrate NFTs into video games.

I cite Hypebeasts and Eddie as a frame of reference because the former is not an insignificant part of the consumer market. They’re partly one of the reasons the Nike brand has steadily grown. Enthusiasts of NFTs also insist that they are an integral part of the future of the burgeoning project for the next phase of the Internet with Web 3.0. You didn’t convincingly explain how.

Likewise, the emerging architects of Web 3.0 have not yet offered a clear and definitive vision. If Web 3.0 is the future and NFTs are a key feature then we need to take both seriously. I would never in my years insist on anyone investing in cryptocurrencies or NFTs because only first movers actually make massive profits and that ship has long sailed, so I suspect Eddie has dabbled in the latter but not fully invested has.

Eddie was always more well-read when it came to the internet than I was, and he figured out how to play games to take advantage of it in small ways. As much as I poked fun at him for spending hundreds of dollars on a JPEG, I’m not writing off the fact that one day he might have the last laugh.

Brett Fujioka can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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