On NFTs and Authenticity

Published on March 23, 2021

When I saw the salty two-word tweet from graphic designer Beeple on March 11th, I knew something big was up. The tweet was profanely simple, “Holy <a-word-that-rhymes-with-duck>”. The congratulatory responses to his tweet mentioned an amount – $69 million. Christie’s had just auctioned an NFT of Beeple’s digital art for an obscene $69 million!

At this point if you’re going, “Henri Matisse’s Horses! Cut out the geek-speak, and explain to us what a Beeple and/or an NFT is!” I fully understand. You could be among the 99.99 percent of the world’s population with that question.

NFTs and Digital Art Authenticity

Beeple is Mike Winkelmann, a digital graphic designer who’s now the third most valuable artist alive. And, an NFT (non-fungible token) is basically a certificate of authenticity, with two differences. One, the work of art is usually digital, as in an image, a video or any type of file. And two, blockchain technology, which is an un-hackable ledger on the internet, keeps track and essentially guarantees its ownership. It’s really that simple.

So why is social media melting down about NFTs? Well, part of the craze is the astronomical sums involved with Beeple’s art. After all, prior to October, the highest sum paid for one of his pieces was a hundred dollars. Since then, his art has sold for increasingly higher amounts. He sold a couple of pieces for $67k each in October, and a collection worth $3.5M in December. The Christie’s auction was for “Everydays – The First 5000 Days” – a collage of art from Beeple created over the past 14 years. He published a new piece every day for 5000 days, and then created a collage.  The other cause of the excitement is NFT itself; it’s the “in” thing.

By the way, NFTs aren’t new, they have been around since 2014. And, blockchain as a concept has existed since the 1990s. It’s the monetary speculation using NFTs that’s new.

The Hype Around NFTs

Of course, this wouldn’t be as cool if Elon Musk wasn’t involved in some way. In this case, he participated in the hype by producing a techno-music track about NFTs, which he then put up for auction as an NFT. The “art” is a looping video of a trophy with a golden orb which reads “Vanity Trophy” and “HODL” (an acronym for the phrase “hold on for dear life,” which is used by traders who invest in bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies). The video actually had a bid above a million dollars when Elon changed his mind about selling it.

Musk hasn’t been alone. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey just sold rights to his first ever tweet from 2006, via NFT for $2.9M. So, apparently anything digital is fair game to speculate on. And that includes (I kid you not) an audio file of a year’s worth of gassy noise emissions made by a Brooklyn film director and his friends during quarantine!

NFTs Place a Value on Authenticity

So, clearly a part of the hype is due to monetary speculation. But, there’s a nugget of gold in all the dirt – the ability to guarantee authenticity of the art. And, the concept on placing value on authenticity is worth dwelling upon. Blockchain is new, but authenticity is timeless. Copies of the Mona Lisa are worthless, but the original masterpiece at the Louvre is priceless. In many ways the NFT boom is like a worldwide experiment on placing a value on guaranteed authenticity.

How do we place a price on absolute authenticity of an object? Or, for that matter, a person? There is a good reason why the topic of authentic leadership is seeing a revival. During times of turmoil, facts and data are among the first casualties. That’s been true of the first three industrial revolutions and its equally valid in the current fourth industrial revolution.

Authentic Leadership for Digital Change Management

More to the point, to be effective as change leaders during digital disruption, we need to place a high value on authentic leadership. Research has demonstrated that authentic leadership leads to stronger relationships and a commitment to the vision of the organization. Authentic leaders put legitimacy, ethics and positive psychological capacities first. Ethics are key – authentic leaders use a strong moral compass to withstand external pressures and influence.

So, is there an NFT for personal authenticity? Not yet, but it doesn’t take away from our human desire for authenticity.  Watching your baby’s first steps on video will always be a poor substitute for the original moment. Team bonding over Zoom will never fully replace live team building. And the most eloquently delivered message tracks will never substitute authentic change leadership. So, no, there’s no NFT for authentic change leadership, but there is something better. After all, the hype around NFTs and digital art will eventually settle down. Technology will evolve until there’s something even better. However, the most human of desires, to be guided by a leader with a visionary, ethical and caring compass – that’s immortal!

Tony Saldanha is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. He is the President of Transformant, a consulting firm specializing in assisting organizations through digital transformations. During his twenty-seven-year career at Procter & Gamble, he ran both operations and digital transformation for P&G’s famed global business services and IT organization in every region of the world, ending up as Vice President of Global Business services, next Generation services. He is an advisor to boards and CEOs on digital transformation, a sought-after speaker, and a globally awarded industry thought leader.

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