When will digital ownership go mainstream? What are the cultural vehicles that can make this possible? Where are the roadblocks? Ben Roy makes it his business to consider such questions, and he sat down with Leo Nasskau to offer some answers. Clovis McEvoy tells the story.
Ben Roy thrives on big-picture thinking, new possibilities, and emergent properties. Both on Twitter and on his personal blog, he makes a habit of picking apart the artistic impact of web3 and its cultural implications.
Also the co-founder of Accelerate Art — a non-profit that supports emerging digital artists — with AI artist Claire Silver, Ben’s blockchain journey began with an interest in bitcoin and evolved into a fascination with how the underlying blockchain technology could power what he calls “a new movement in creativity.”
“I think it’s a natural transition that many of us have gone through,” he reflects. “When I realised that this was a platform that people could build upon, when I started to understand how the blockchain worked and how cryptography worked, it was clear that this was unlocking a new way of owning things on the internet.”
Ben sees the cultural and societal impacts of blockchain as profound — yet the Canadian is also clear-eyed about the challenges that currently hinder its progress. Moving blockchain from a niche subculture to a technology woven throughout daily digital lives begins with a deceptively simple premise: reframing our conception of digital objects and their social significance.
“This was unlocking a new way of owning things on the internet.”
— Ben Roy
“There needs to be new norms around collecting and owning items online,” he argues. “It could start with something as simple as tickets. Say, I get to go see a band that I really love. As a child, I might have pinned that ticket to my corkboard just to remind me of the experience. I think a digital version of that is interesting, and it helps you remember better: ‘oh I flew here, I did this, I saw that.’”
As Ben points out, marking past experiences through memorabilia is a practice as old as human society itself. While saving digital e-tickets for international flights or the premiere of a new Star Wars film might seem to lack the same emotional resonance, it’s entirely possible to elevate digital tickets to an artistic level — just look at the strategy adopted by singer-songwriter Isla Rae, who meaningfully tokenised her recent tour by creating unique NFTs for each city she stopped in.
While mementos can be deeply personal, NFTs can also function as a status within a community. “It can add a social layer on top of your hobby or area of enthusiasm — because now you have a ticket in your wallet that proves you were an early fan of that band.”
Showing the world that you were an early adopter is one thing, but, for many people, the shortest route to a higher social status is through displays of wealth and luxury — here too Ben sees a path for mainstreaming NFTs.
Unlike physical objects, digital artefacts are almost infinitely scalable in their reach. He draws a comparison with fine art: “If you have a Monet painting in your house, there's only so many people you bring into your home to show that off to; there's a limited scale to displaying that verifiable status. Online, you have an infinite way of scaling your status.”
Of course, the cachet of a status symbol — or any token for that matter — is intrinsically tied to public perception and the amount of attention it receives. “A lot of what's been deemed successful in the crypto art space has been so because it was able to generate attention. There's a social nature to all the things that we're doing here.”
“It taps into an essential human behaviour: we like to collect things.”
— Ben Roy
The core driver of public attention, in Ben’s view, is narrative. “Storytelling has always been important,” he emphasises. “But I think the attention economy adds fuel to that fire, and then crypto adds a monetised layer on top which accelerates this inherent human behaviour.”
“My sense is that we’ll see this in entertainment first,” he predicts. “I think it will be music, film, and any area where you are creating relationships between the creator and the consumer. Crypto has a key ability to disintermediate those relationships and allow something more direct to happen.”
“Online, you have an infinite way of scaling your status.”
— Ben Roy
Ben welcomes the regulatory questions that come with that. “It’s a good thing for politicians to stop and consider. My hope is that we’ll have a couple of years as politicians wrestle with the core questions, but then we get some openness and clarity around how they can contribute to business, arts, and culture.”
Having lived through what he describes as the “euphoria” of 2021, Ben has seen NFTs on the cusp of mainstream adoption before receding. For him, this is all part and parcel of a rising tide — one that will eventually spill over into popular consciousness. Digital ownership is simply a question of when, not if. “This is an inevitability,” he says simply. “Because it taps into an essential human behaviour: we like to collect things.”
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