THEn December 24, the movie Don’t look up began streaming on Netflix after a limited release in theaters. It’s a satirical tale, directed by Adam McKay, about what happens when a humble Ph.D. student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that an asteroid the size of Everest is heading for Earth. What happens is that they try to warn their fellow Earthlings about this existential threat only to find that their target audience is not interested in hearing such bad news.
The film has been widely viewed but has received criticism from critics. It was, he said ObserverSimran Hans, a “strident and desperately graceless climate change satire.” The guardianPeter Bradshaw called it a “laborious, self-conscious and not relaxed satire … as a Saturday night live sketch without the brilliant comedy of Succession… Nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require ”.
Those complaints about rawness and the OTT rang a bell. As it happens, a clearly exaggerated satire published in 1729 drew comparable reactions. Its author, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglo-Irish clergyman who was dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Swift’s title, A Modest Proposal to Prevent Poor People’s Children from Being a Hindrance to Their Parents or Country and to Make It Beneficial to the Public, only hints at the savagery of satire within. Because the heart of the proposal was that the impoverished Irish could alleviate their financial problems by selling their children for food to wealthy gentlemen and ladies. “A healthy, well-breastfed toddler,” he says, “is, at the age of one, a more delicious and healthy nutritious food, whether it is stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I have no doubt that it will work equally well in a fricassee or in a ragout. “
You understand drift. Swift’s target was the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, often absent landlords who lived off the income of their desperately poor Irish tenant while they meditated in Mayfair. McKay’s goals are more diffuse. It targets less of a specific class than of an entire way of life, to people too dumbfounded by consumerism, short-termism, and social media, too hypnotized by the interests of big tech corporations, to care about the future of humanity.
Which brings us, oddly enough, to a contemporary obsession: the frenzy that now surrounds non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. For those who have not yet noticed this obsession, an NFT is basically a traceable code that is indelibly attached to a digital object such as an image or a recording. Once someone has purchased that object, it is irrevocably recorded on their ID and thus can be said to be the owner of the code.
If it sounds abstruse, that’s because it is. And yet, in the last 18 months or so, NFTs have become a sensation in the art world or, at any rate, in the part controlled by the big auction houses. Last June, Sotheby’s held an NFT auction with prices ranging from $ 9,000 to $ 11 million. At a previous Christie’s auction, a Mike Winkelmann digital artwork, calling himself Beeple, sold for $ 69 million. Until that time, Mr. Winkelmann had never sold a print for more than one hundred dollars.
You can guess what triggered this: a flood of would-be Beeples, plus plenty of speculative con artists who see the possibility of more modest prizes for relatively little work (let’s say a recording of your lovely cat’s purr). Anyone can play the game and there are helpful DIY guides on the web for those interested in trying it out.
So what am I not going to like? It’s surely a good thing that artists who have struggled to make money in the pandemic can get paid. This. But there is a slight downside: the technology that ensures that the NFT you have purchased is a blockchain similar to the ones that power cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or Ethereum. And the computation required to provide the certification that is the USP of blockchains requires massive amounts of electricity, which comes with a correspondingly heavy carbon footprint. A single transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, for example, currently requires 232.51 kWh, which is equivalent to the energy consumption of an average American household for 7.86 days.
If McKay decides he’d like to retry the Swiftian satire, there’s a chance for him here. Nero just fiddled while Rome burned – we’re enthusiastically bidding for NFT while warming the planet.
What i have been reading
One more thing
Why I traded in my fancy climbing gear for a couple of rickety watches is a nice blog post by Conrad Anker that will have meaning for anyone cursed (or blessed) with a collector gene.
Return to the future
The great robotics expert Rodney Brooks makes his annual review of the predictions he made in 2018.
The big escape
The Idyll of the Haunted California of German Writers in Exile is a beautiful essay by Alex Ross in the New Yorker about the intellectuals and artists who fled Hitler and ended up in Los Angeles.