Fighting nihilism, The Nothing, and NFTs
By Mark Hurst • March 18, 2021

I keep thinking about the emptiness. In last week's column I wrote about the void at the heart of NFTs, the new crypto-assets that pump up nothing whatsoever, temporarily, into perceived value.

And the thought won't leave me: after nearly 30 years of web development, we're now building technology in service of... nothing? I mean, apart from the carbon emissions and all the other so-called externalities. We've reached the point of writing code, lighting up server farms, deploying platforms, all to produce and promote - literally nothing.

Weren't we supposed to create something?

I'm not trying to be flippant. It's a worrying trend, and a real danger, if our digital technology accelerates its slide toward nihilism. Technology that encourages more technology, for the sake of technology, to improve technology, with nothing at its heart. In fact, that's exactly the opposite of what technology was supposed to do - or so we were told in those early internet years - which was to improve our lives.

Technology was supposed to do things to help us - as individuals, as communities, as living members of the ecosystem on this planet. Instead, NFTs seem to be alerting us that our tools and platforms are serving themselves. Our role, if we're offered one at all, is to help the technology.

Of course, NFTs are just an edge case, so far, and so I shouldn't overstate the risk. I think it's fair to say that most digital technology today is still nominally oriented toward having some real-world benefit. The Nothing, the void-spreading villain of The Neverending Story, hasn't won yet.

(The Nothing, in The Neverending Story.)

And yet even with the technology that claims to be human-oriented, there's a nagging problem: namely, technologists still don't pay very much attention to the humans. I wrote a book, Customers Included, on this very issue - telling stories of companies that flatly ignored the people they claimed to be serving.

The alarming cost of not listening

Here's an easy example from the book. About a decade ago, Walmart decided to compete more fiercely with Target, which was seen as a threat due to its clean, well-lit, uncluttered aisles. (This was pre-pandemic, pre-Facebook genocide, even pre-2008 crisis, a time when people still got exercised about things like the amount of clutter in store aisles. Anyway.) Having decided that cluttered aisles were a major problem, Walmart leadership ran a customer survey, asking hundreds of thousands of shoppers one single question: Would you like it if Walmart stores were less cluttered?

You'll never guess what the customers said.

Armed with the data from this supremely poorly designed bit of customer research, Walmart leadership went on to redesign dozens of stores, at a cost in the millions - probably hundreds of millions - of dollars. And as part of that decluttering process, Walmart removed up to 15% of popular brands from the stores.

What did customers do when they discovered that Walmart no longer carried their favorite products? They left, to shop at Target! Sales at the redesigned stores went down quarter after quarter, until Walmart leadership - at great expense - quietly redesigned the stores again, returning them to their cluttered state.

I wish I could say "lesson learned," especially since this case study has been in print for years now. But the problem persists. A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published The Many Ways Companies Waste Money With Technology Spending, which includes this story of a midsized retail company (emphasis mine):

Take the case of Harry Rosen, a 17-store luxury menswear chain based in Toronto. In 2018, it did a customer survey, asking if buyers would use PayPal if the company offered it on the site - and a significant number said yes. So, the company hired a systems integrator to add PayPal into its e-commerce platform, at a cost of $80,000.

But then only a small portion of the company's online payments came through PayPal - just 10% by late 2018. The trouble seemed to be that PayPal wasn't a one-step process. Customers had to click "buy," fill out their payment information on the PayPal platform, and then go back to the Harry Rosen site to complete the transaction.

In retrospect, says Ian Rosen, Harry Rosen's executive vice president, digital and strategy, the company should also have asked customers about a broader question: What kind of payment experience best suits your needs? The company might have realized that customers wanted a simpler payment experience overall, not necessarily PayPal itself.

Let's review. A retail company asks customers, "Would you like this thing we already believe you might want?" Customers, being presented with an impossibly narrow yes-no question, say yes - but it's a misleading result. The company hasn't actually included customers, as there's no way for customers to tell the company what they really want. The company goes on to build the wrong thing, wasting a ton of money, and now customers are ticked off. Cue the facepalm: "In hindsight, maybe we should have listened to our customers."

Building tools, and platforms, even retail stores, that actually serve people is difficult. It's so much easier to build something with emptiness at its heart, just a technology that only serves to spread more technology. That's our choice today: do we grapple with the difficulty of creating for the benefit of people, communities, and the living ecosystem? Or do we despair, surrender to The Nothing, and build our tools with the kind of nihilism we see at the heart of NFTs?

I'll close with a thought by Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, from his poetry collection H'm (thanks to Paul Kingsnorth for the pointer, in Dark Ecology):

The machine appeared
In the distance, singing to itself
Of money. Its song was the web
They were caught in, men and women
Together. The villages were as flies
To be sucked empty.

Sooner or later, we'll all have to decide how to respond to the machine. I've made my choice: I'm fighting against nihilism. Against "empty." I'm hoping for something. How about you?

Update on NFTs

Since last week's column on NFTs (here's the link again), several notable items have appeared:

• The buyer of the $69 million Beeple NFT has been identified (sources: NYT and Insider). It's someone who goes by "MetaKovan" who - surprise! - just happens to be an investor in an NFT marketplace. Here's a quote from a Bloomberg piece suggesting that MetaKovan is enthusiastically embracing the "greater fool" scheme I described.

• Speaking of unsurprising news, an NFT marketplace just got hacked, according to The Verge, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Beautiful descriptions of NFTs that I missed before I published the column: a thread by Josh Millard, a one-line reply ("love to burn a small country's worth of coal to print monopoly money to buy a receipt for the brooklyn bridge"), and a perfect comic by Abessinier.

• NFTs have a real impact on climate change. Read The Verge, or read this perfectly titled ARTnews piece: "NFTs are Creating the Opposite of Everything They're Meant to Fix."

• Finally, a limerick about NFTs, courtesy Limericking:

The NFT market has grown,
As eight-figure auctions have shown.
The overall price is
A worse climate crisis
For art you pretend that you own.

Until next time,

- Mark Hurst

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