Understanding the value of the Nyan Cat and the Metaverse through the lens of Jean Baudrillard (or at least trying to)

What the media and the detractors of NFTs are not accounting for when it comes to criticizing the current state of affairs, is that the notion of value in our postmodern society is multi-layered and therefore, analyses on prices of goods like art or even cryptocurrencies, have to be analyzed from multiple perspectives, not only from the economical outlook.

For this purpose, I believe it’s worth revisiting the concepts of the contemporary philosopher and culture critic Jean Baudrillard as a starting point. Of course, one can continue to delve into postmodernist thinking and discover broader or more diverse outlooks by tapping on other thinkers, but for now, let’s stick to Baudrillard.

It’s worth noting that this blog post is as much a defense of NFTs as it is a criticism. Please read till the end before casting judgment.

Enough prelude, let’s get to it.

One of Baudrillard’s most famous texts (alongside the favorite Simulacra and Simulation which we’ll touch upon in a bit) is The Systems of Objects.

To Baudrillard, society and culture are but a system of signs. Objects within a society are classified into non-functional objects, functional objects, and metafunctional objects. As objects do not exist on their own and are sublimated within systems, and it is within these systems that the objects’ value comes to the surface.

Let’s for example, analyze the Nyan Cat NFT. The Nyan Cat is a pixel illustration born in 2011, the creator, Christopher Torres AKA PRGuitarman, uploaded it to a site as a GIF, and later on, was combined with a Japan-originated song called “Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya!”, and uploaded to Youtube by a user called Saraj00n. The video became viral and the meme took the name Nyan Cat.

The Nyan Cat was adopted by many internet communities, but probably the most prominent one was the Ethereum community, that adopted the cat, displayed it on websites, promoted it as part of the family of memes that constitutes Ethereum’s brand image (alongside, of course, with Kabo-chan the original Doge) and beyond.

This year, PRGuitarman, the original creator, decided to auction the Nyan Cat NFT through the popular Ethereum-based NFT marketplace Foundation, selling for 300 ETH (587.000 USD at the time of sale).

The Nyan Cat example and its (money) value is especially interesting because it’s embedded in several systems. First, the Nyan Cat is a combination of two objects that before the act of combining them was not related at all. Secondly, when uploaded to YouTube the Nyan Cat acquired a value it had not had before, went viral, and became a cult meme. Third, the Nyan Cat was adopted by the Ethereum community which is not only a large internet subculture but also one with a lot of capital. Fourth, the Nyan Cat took it further, and beyond its already well-earned cult status on YouTube and within the Ethereum community, by becoming Ethereum-based (aka getting minted as an NFT on Foundation).

It should be now obvious to claim that NFTs cannot be pinned only to their monetary value and analyzed in economic terms when they are multi-layered objects embedded in systems that, combined together, transpire into the money value.

Sidenote: many more elements of Systems of Objects can be used to further analyze NFTs — this is just a very superficial example. Would love your commentary.

In his most known essay Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard talks about how symbols and signs relate to contemporaneity. He claims that society “replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs and that human experience is of a simulation of reality.”

Simulacra then are “merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives.”

From the time Baudrillard wrote this essay in 1981, to now, we can assume that a large number of simulacra have continued to take place and that what we perceive as reality, is not reality at all but hyperreality. But since reality has replicated into millions of simulacra, then the notion of reality has lost meaning, and the simulacra have taken over. So why not consider that maybe in the future, something like the metaverse will be the defacto simulacrum of the time?

To know this kind of hyperreal scenarios have succeeded before (and died, as well) one doesn’t have to be a philosopher. The most natural and cliche example is Disneyworld. Disneyworld was a precursor of the metaverse. Which sounds bad, but it’s not. Fictional worlds that blur the limits with reality have existed for a long. They replicate the dynamics and elements of the real world and take it into their own realm. Simulations are a part of our multi-dimensional reality, therefore, the metaverse as the future of simulacra/ the hyperreal, makes sense.

To therefore invest — time, money, whatever — in building the metaverse with the conviction that it is the future, is understandable. Being an early adopter of the new hyperreal costs money, especially in times of capital overflow like nowadays within crypto. Whether it is, indeed the future, or just another hypercapitalist fever dream, we’ll just have to wait and see.

As a final remark, and in the light of the current statement by Metakovan, who bought the 69MM USD Beeple in the Christie’s auction, special considerations about the context around which the NFT community are basing their purchase decisions, need to be made.

When looking at NFTs in the context of all I have mentioned above, an NFT becomes a bet for a certain simulacrum (I’d say paradigm, but we’re getting all Baudrillard-y here, so let’s stick to it). Think of NFTs as stocks of the metaverse, and their monetary, conceptual, and sign value will make more sense. They are conviction-based futures and a bet towards the manifestation of the metaverse. At their core, beyond speculation, NFTs can just be how the metaverse proponents show their skin in the game.

We could, as well, easily draw the parallelisms between the metaverse believers and builders and transhumanists. But maybe that’s another essay… bye for now.

Blockchain and OSS fundamentals fan person and advocate. Advisor to the Board at Golem Network. Managing Director and Founder at Department of Decentralization.