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Destroy the ‘Mona Lisa’ for an NFT?

pixelated image of Mona Lisa painting

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Damien Hirst is a contemporary English artist whose work is world-renowned. Recently, I had the opportunity to view a collection of his work at the Galleria Borghese in an exhibition titled “Archaeology Now.” Hirst works almost exclusively in the genre of sculpture, but recently he has been pursuing a decidedly less physical kind of art — NFTs.

NFT, which stands for “non-fungible token,” is a piece of digital property that is unique — nobody but the owner of the NFT has that exact electronic object in their possession, and it is marked as an original in a way that digitally distinguishes it from all copies made. Hirst is part of a recent project, titled The Currency, in which artists submit works of art which are then turned into NFTs. For example: a sculptor can create a physical sculpture and put it on display in a museum or an art gallery. On the other hand, that sculpture could be turned into an NFT, and the owner of that NFT would then be able to print the image of the piece wherever they like, send the image to anyone who wanted to see the piece, or possibly even 3D print an exact replica of the piece. Art in the form of NFTs allows artists to send their works all over the world. And some would say that “sending” digitized artwork is much better than loaning physical works of art — there is no limit on the number of places one may send the image to and no time spent waiting for it to get there. The idea behind The Currency is a sort of competition between what we might think of as the “received view” of art — that the physical originals have a unique value that cannot be replicated by digital copies — and an emerging view that denies a difference of value between the two (or, perhaps, sees more value in the NFTs).

For artists, art connoisseurs, or even regular art-appreciators, the idea of destroying a physical work of art might be painful to think about. So much time, money, and resources have been invested in attempting to preserve original physical copies of works like the Mona Lisa that these efforts have become intertwined with the pieces’ value. Recent examples of near destruction of great works of art are similarly met with horror, sadness, and a rush to try to preserve the pieces. Just think of the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, or the vandalization of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Is Hirst’s project — one in which original works of art may be destroyed if clients choose to keep the NFT instead — a tragedy? While the project is unquestionably controversial, is there anything inherently wrong in destroying (the physical copy of) a work of art, so long as the NFT remains?

One argument in favor of owning NFTs over physical copies of works of art is that access to these pieces could be expanded greatly. Rather than having to travel to a museum to see a certain piece, viewers could simply download a digital copy reproduced by an NFT. This could be done, in theory, in a sensorily immersive way, such that there would be little difference between the digital experience and the in-person experience. Those who lack resources to travel, or the time to visit museums, could have access to the great works of art that they might otherwise be deprived of. This democratization of art could, in turn, boost education equity and improve education outcomes across demographics. The experience of art could be liberated from its typical exclusivity.

But there is another strong argument for answering “no” to this question, which relies on intuitions many have about what it is that is valuable about art. Philosopher Alexander Pruss pursues this question in relation to one particular form of art: music. In a blog post titled “Musical Beauty and Virtual Music” Pruss asks “where does the musical beauty lie?” He goes on:

“One day […] I expect many people will have direct brain-computer interfaces. When they ‘listen to music’, no sounds will be emitted (other than the quiet hum of computer cooling fans, say). Yet I do not think this will significantly change anything of aesthetic significance. Thus, the production of musical sounds seems accidental to the enjoyment of music.”

Pruss here argues that the way the music is produced, the technology through which the sounds are emitted, does nothing to change my experience of the music and, therefore, does nothing to change how valuable the music is. The beauty — and value — of music therefore must lie in the experience of it. Similarly, people who agree with Hirst may find themselves drawn in this direction with regards to other forms of art, like sculpture, paintings, performance art, etc. Perhaps the value of these pieces lies in what we experience when we observe them, and not in the physical manifestations themselves. Destroying the Mona Lisa, therefore, may be perfectly fine so long as the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa can be preserved. Hirst seems to have a similar idea about the value of art, saying, “I just think anything that looks good and feels good, and makes you feel good, you know, it’s good art.”

This picture of value calls to mind the famous “experience machine” thought experiment proposed by the philosopher Robert Nozick. In the fictional scenario, you are given the option of plugging into a virtual reality machine, where you will (1) forget you’re in a virtual reality, and (2) live an incredibly happy and fulfilling life, all while your body is kept alive for as long as possible. Guessing that most people would refuse to enter the experience machine, Nozick uses this thought experiment to argue that the value of good things in life goes beyond mere experience — there is value in the goods actually occurring in reality, outside of our perception of them. For example, we might think that it is better to actually have relationships with real others, than to merely believe you have relationships with real others, even if there is no difference between the experience of the real relationships and the experience of the simulation. Likewise, one might think that there is value in the original piece of physical artwork itself that goes above and beyond the viewers’ experience of it. The fact that Frida Kahlo herself put these precise, meticulous brush strokes on the canvas, for instance, may hold value that is not grounded in our experience of her work.

Further, we may wonder whether the experience of seeing original works of art in person really can be preserved in an NFT. Anyone who has been deeply affected by the experience of viewing their favorite originals face-to-face may be skeptical that NFTs can truly capture the full experience. One difficulty would be recreating the awareness of sheer size, something important to the experience of carved works like the Appennine Colossus or Landowski’s Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and to large-scale paintings like the Sistine Chapel. Such awareness requires something like a sensory comparison of your size compared to the size of the work of art — something that would likely be difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for an NFT to facilitate.

A further complicating factor is that we tend to believe that pictures of art are not themselves art. For example, if you go to the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel, and then purchase a poster print of The Creation of Adam at the gift shop, you probably do not actually believe you have taken the painting home with you. Moreover, you also likely do not believe that your poster is equally as valuable as the original painting on the roof of the ceiling. The gift shop certainly thinks there is a difference in value, as a poster of the painting costs only about as much as one admission ticket! Whence the difference in value? Does it have to do with scale? But we can easily imagine a to-scale replica of the Sistine Chapel. Is the difference in value related to the wide availability of replicas compared to the limited availability of originals? If so, NFTs would retain the single-original status of works of art, and thereby (presumably) keep their value high, giving the owners of the NFTs full rights over any reproduction of the work. Additionally, some creators have sought to solve the problem of the inherent value of the original by positing that creators and artists may decide for themselves which work is the original: the physical copy, or the NFT. Choosing to designate the NFT as the original, as one YouTuber suggests, may change our understanding such that the physical copy becomes merely a “tool” used to create the final product, the NFT.

And finally, we may question whether Hirst’s project — exchanging original physical works of art for NFTs — would work for other kinds of art beyond painting and sculpture. There are, for example, works of art specifically created by the artist to exist only for a moment. Instances of this kind of art include a recent piece by Banksy titled “Girl with Balloon” which was secretly designed to self-destruct a few hours after it sold (the destruction was only partially successful), as well as performance art such as Chris Burden’s famous “Shoot” in which his friend shoots Burden in the arm with a gun.

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about buying and selling art as NFTs, it is clear that the emerging technologies raising these philosophical questions will have a large impact on our view of art — what counts as art, who counts as an artist, and how we can best experience the work of those working with digital and physical mediums. May it make us more creative, and more open to appreciating the creative talent of others.

Forget PINs, Forget Passwords

photograph of two army personnel using biometric scanner

By 2022, passwords and PINs will be a thing of the past. Replacing these prevailing safety measures is behavioral biometrics – a new and promising generation of digital security. By monitoring and recording the pattern of human activity such as finger pressure, the angle at which you hold your device, hand-eye coordination and other hand movements, this technology creates your digital profile to prevent imposters from accessing your secure information. Behavioral biometrics does not focus on the outcome of your digital activity but rather the manner in which you enter data or conduct a specific activity, which is then compared to your profile on record to verify your identity. Largely used by banks at present, research sites predict that by 2023, there will be 2.6 billion biometric payment users.

Biometric systems necessitate and operate based on a direct and thorough relationship between a user and technology. Consequently, privacy is one of the main concerns raised by critics of biometric systems. Functioning as a digitized reserve of detailed personal information, the possibility of biometric systems being used by unauthorized parties to access stored data is a legitimate fear for many. Depending on how extensive the use of biometric technology becomes, an individual’s biometric profile could be stolen and used against them to gain access to all aspects of their life. Adding to this worry is the potential misuse of an individual’s personal information by biometric facilities. Any inessential use of private information without the individual’s knowledge is intuitively unethical and considered an invasion of privacy, yet the US currently has no law in place requiring apps that record and use biometric data to disclose this form of data collection. If behavioral biometrics is already being used to covertly record and compile user activity, who’s to say how extensive and intrusive unregulated biometric technology will become over time?

Another issue with biometric applications is the possibility of bias towards minorities, given the prominence of research that suggests certain races are more likely to be recognized by face recognition software. A series of extensive independent assessments of face recognition systems conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2000, 2002 and 2006 showed that males and older people are more accurately identified than females and younger people. Therefore, algorithms could be designed without accounting for the possibility of unintended biases, which would make these systems unethical.

By the same token, people with disabilities may face obstacles when enrolling in biometric databases if they lack physical characteristics used to register oneself in the system. An ethical biometric system must cater to the needs of all people and allow differently abled and marginalized people fair opportunities to enroll in biometric databases. Similarly, a lack of standardization of biometric systems that can cater to geographic differences could lead to compromised efficiency of biometric applications. Because of this, users could face discrimination and unnecessary obstacles in the authentication process.

Behavioral biometrics is gaining traction as the optimum form of cybersecurity designed to prevent fraud via identity theft and automated threats, yet the social cost of incorporating technology as invasive and meticulous as this has not been fully explored. The social and ethical consequences the use of behavioral biometrics may have on individuals and society at large deserves significant consideration. It is therefore imperative that developers and utilizers of biometric systems keep in mind the socio-cultural and legal contexts of this type of technology and compare the benefits of depending on behavioral biometrics for securing personal information against its costs. Failure to do so can not only hinder the success of behavioral biometrics, but can also leave us unequipped to tackle its possible repercussions.

MAGA Hats, Nathan Phillips, & Journalism in the Social Media Age

photo of ABC "eyewitness news" news van

Social media inundates its users with information at a rapid rate. The intersection of seemingly boundless and immediate digital information with the expectations of traditional journalism poses some compelling ethical concerns such as whether journalists should be responding to news as quickly as it comes to them. The frenzy that was aroused from a brief video clip of a MAGA hat-wearing high school student and a Native American activist serves as a case-study of these concerns. That frenzy calmed, in part, because how the incident was originally portrayed was not entirely accurate. It is worth pondering if the inaccuracy was caused by the rapidity of information innate to our digital age.

In its original article, The New York Times described the setting of the video as: “a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.” The reporter continues, explaining that the high schoolers in question were being investigated by their school, Covington Catholic High School, and could be subject to punishment by expulsion.

An effort was made to portray this video as being emblematic of the political division in the country:

The encounter became the latest touchpoint for racial tensions in America, particularly under Mr. Trump, who has painted immigrants in broad strokes as rapists and drug dealers and recently mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren with a reference to Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there.”

This characterization arguably extends beyond the realm of objective reporting and flirts with editorializing. Some may argue that the article is simply situating the incident within a larger national context, attaching it to a larger issue to make its significance more clear. While this article, relying on incomplete information for its content, was never retracted, a clarificatory article was published the following day after a longer video became available, disproving early characterizations.

The New York Times was not alone in its haste to interpret the social significance of the video. Nearly all the major news sources did the same. Perhaps that is the effect of an era dominated by social media in which there is a free-flowing abundance of information. The major traditional news sources must compete not simply with each other but also with this waterfall of events and happenings to remain relevant. They are forced to respond to news as it occurs because everyone is receiving the information at the same time.

There are two issues of note: firstly, should journalists be taking a stand on newsworthy incidents? In other words, should they offer their opinion on events and should they be the ones to grant import or assign value to such events? And secondly, should journalists be responding so rapidly to the information they receive? There may be public value to having a detached fourth estate in society – one that is not only independent from ideology and does not advance political interests, but also refrains from offering “hot takes” on events as they occur. And there may be long-term value in allowing things to settle before attempting to make sense of them. The answer to both of these questions lies in what ethical obligations journalists ought to adhere to.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics provides a comprehensive list of objectives that the ideal journalist should meet. Of course, the SPJ’s code of ethics is not the end-all, be-all of ethically appropriate behavior, but it does provide a useful touchstone by which we can judge news stories. The maxims most relevant to the encounter between Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips are included below:

Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story…

Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant...

Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting

Label advocacy and commentary...

Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate…

According to the first maxim, The New York Times was well-within its ethical bounds to provide a larger context for the story. Although, the reporter (and numerous others) did so without complete information, which led to a misrepresentation of the incident.

The second, third, and fourth maxims relate to the question of subjectivity in journalism.

The misrepresentation of events by news outlets has greater significance today not only because political tensions are at their height, but also because of how quickly an incorrect portrayal can spread throughout the internet. Those two factors resulted in strong reactions. Nick Sandmann claims that he was subjected to cyberbullying and received death threats and is suing the The Washington Post for their alleged role in stoking the reaction. It would not be preposterous to suggest that the media’s portrayal was responsible for such a negative reaction to the incident.

Perhaps the journalists failed to follow the ethical dictums that inform objective journalism. Or maybe the age of social media has rendered those dictums irrelevant and in need of revision. Either way, a nation quickly formed an opinion based on an erroneous portrayal at a moment in its history when political friction sparks violence.