As an archivist, I’m excited about what disruptive innovations like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and artificial intelligence may mean for archives. But I’m also worried. These developments pose existential threats to our field, and by extension, to the survival of human history and culture.
I give old films away for free. It started in 1999 when I was seduced by the promise, excitement, and just-felt-rightness of the gift economy. Not 30 seconds after we first met, Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle asked me, “Want to put your film archives online for free?” Braving the new world of video digitizing and sputtery streaming changed my life. Our archival footage enabled thousands, maybe millions of artists, videomakers, educators, and even post-Communist Polish village kids to remix history and bring the past into the present. I never knew how many people were using our material or who they were—but wasn’t that the point?
In 1999 the future of our archives was to be consumed, to enrich public memory with new evidence without hassle. I wanted our archives to be as ubiquitous as infrastructure, to work their way into every corner of the net, to propagate everywhere without need for attribution or credit. I wanted our archives to vanish in the web.
I still do.
But now the survival of archives as we know them is uncertain. Whether we know it or not, we all rely on a patchwork of chronically underfunded public and private institutions that hold the world’s histories and cultural heritages in trust for all of us and make them accessible. Every time we see an old photo, hear a historical recording, see a news clip, or find a family history document, it likely originated in an archive. While we see and touch massive digital archives online, most archives are still largely undigitized collections of physical media like film, video, music, photographs, and paper documents. By design, archives are deliberate and thoughtful, with a timeline designed to preserve culture “forever.” They’re not built to nimbly weather disruption.
It was only a matter of time before the market figured out a way to manufacture and sell digital scarcity, and the marketplace for cultural objects has moved well past the archival ecosystem. Artists, gamers, entertainers, athletes, and executives now sell NFTs, tokenized digital objects whose authenticity is said to be assured by the reverse traceability of blockchain transactions. The combination of Covid-19 isolation and cryptocurrency profits created a powerful incentive for digital-positive collectors to compete for these NFTs, and some creators are raking in Ethereum.
Law professor Tonya M. Evans optimistically suggests that crypto art offers Black artists and communities opportunities to bypass white art gatekeepers and “capture and own the value of the culture that they produce.” While the current boom may well go the way of the 1920s Florida land-rush hype, NFTs are the first step in what’s likely to be a robust market for unique or scarce digital objects. Many of these digital objects won’t be born-digital; instead they’ll be one-off digitized copies of physical materials, for which there could be a huge market. Who wouldn’t want to own the master digital copy of their favorite author’s journal, a photograph of Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass, or the recently rediscovered newsreel of the 1919 Black Sox scandal?
Nothing could be a greater cultural and ethical shock to archives than NFTs. Prevailing archival ethics generally dictate that all users are treated equally, and that archival materials aren’t exposed or sold only to high bidders. And once archives select materials for retention, they consider themselves in most cases ethically bound to do so permanently.
If an archive has a merch business, it’s tiny: keychains and postcards. As poor a fit with archival DNA as tokenizing archive collections as NFTs may be, the possibility of leveraging digital scarcity by selling NFTs while retaining physical materials is a hefty temptation. The archival world is a world of inadequate budgets and financial constraint, filled with underpaid workers and massive, poorly resourced projects like digital preservation, and the challenging task of digitizing analog materials. Will archives be tempted by the potential upside of NFTs and tokenize digital representations of their crown jewels (or the rights to these assets)? This would worsen an already bad situation, where institutions like our Library of Congress hold physical copies of millions of films, TV programs, and recordings that can’t be touched because someone else holds the copyright. Ideally, archives and museums should own and control both the physical and digital states of its collections. That won’t happen if they have to sell or license NFTs in order to survive. And there’s another risk: Minting NFTs requires a lot of energy (though we may hope for a cleaner process), and the future security of archives is threatened by climate change. Researchers have discovered that almost all archives will be affected by risk factors like sea level rise, increased temperature, or heavy rainfall.