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Seneca, Art Blocks and Sustainable Communities
A Past Present to the Future
Web3 has instigated the financialization of culture. Much has been written to unpack the implications, including gems from Jarrod Dicker, Jesse Walden, Packy McCormick, Patrick Rivera, Cooper Turley, Toby Shorin, Kinjal Shah, Pet3rpan, Mario Gabriele, Fred Ehrsam, Maria Shen, Andrew Steinwold and Li Jin.
It's hard to overstate the TAM unlock instigated by this shift from consumer-object to owner-participant. In Thoughts at the Intersection of Web3 and Creative Culture, I wrote:
My overarching thesis is that we are at the early stages of a multi-decade super-cycle of retail empowerment driven by the fact that “consumption, culture and community” are now tradeable assets. Consumption is no longer ephemeral, but persistent. No longer private, but communal. No longer limitless, but scarce. Consumption is, for the first time, collectable.
Yet, amidst all the rah-rah, I find myself wondering: is this all but a foggy haze, a series of infinite rabbitholes to nowhere? What if macro empowerment were actually micro entrapment? Why, for a social movement returning "power to the person", does web3 feel so dehumanizing?
"We" may be ready for it, but am "I"?
I started writing as a forcing function for mental clarity. True to purpose, this post is less an exposition of convictions already formed, and more a leisurely stroll to interweave disparate strands floating in the ether. Not from a broad societal perspective, but from the lens of the individual. And specifically, me.
Perhaps somewhere in between the wisdom of the past and the passions of the present lie the roots of a more sustainable future....
I. The Past — Seneca’s Ancient Wisdom
A few days ago, I read (and re-read) a well-known set of essays from Seneca entitled On the Shortness of Life. It's remarkable how relevant the piece remains for our times. The modern plight is demonstrated by Serenus in Seneca's On Tranquility of Mind:
I decide to restrict my life within its walls, saying, 'Let no one rob me of a single day who is not going to make me an adequate return for such a loss. Let my mind be fixed on itself, cultivate itself, have no external interest -- nothing that seeks the approval of another; let it cherish the tranquility that has no part in public or private concerns.' But when my mind is excited by reading a convincing account of something and spurred on by noble examples, I long to rush into the forum.... This weakness in my good intentions pursues me in every sphere. I fear that I am gradually getting worse, or (which is more worrying) that I am hanging on an edge like someone always on the point of falling, and that perhaps there is more wrong than I myself can see...
In the context of the current environment, Seneca remains more relevant than ever. At any given point in time, there are just too many interesting things happening, all at once. Amidst the never ending stream of chances gone by, I took a great deal of comfort in that ancient wisdom, which I distilled for myself into four key takeaways:
#1: Opportunity is just a click away. With instant gratification, our attention is constantly there for the taking. Once having relinquished control, it's hard to regain that most precious asset of all: time.
Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives -- why, they themselves even invite in those who will take over their lives. You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.... It is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.
Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.... For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make the time pass. And so they are anxious for something else to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome... Yet the time of the actual enjoyment is short and swift and made much shorter through their own fault. For they dash from one pleasure to another and cannot stay steady in one desire.... They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing the dawn.
#2: There will always be new money games. Few will stick around in the long run. For the zero sum remainder, if your gain is another's loss, is the game even worth playing? Don't ever buy just to sell. Reframe expectations, it's OK not to participate in every ruffle of the waves.
You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.
Many are occupied by either pursuing other people's money or complaining about their own. Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, in constant and never satisfied with itself.
Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.
Though he piles all these up, they will never sate his insatiable soul, just as no amount of fluid will satisfy one whose craving arises not from lack of water but from burning internal fever: for that is not a thirst but a disease.... However much you heap up for it will not mark the end of greed, only a stage in it.
#3: Herd behavior flows with the counter-culture crypto ethos, but the glorification of ape mentality has got to go. In outsourcing diligence to the crowd, you lose agency and the capacity for self-reflectivity, and delegate personal well-being to a house of cards.
Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.
The minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.
So it is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.
#4: You can be a believer without leveraging every facet of your waking consciousness into the cause. If it's on your mind at all, it's too much already. Nothing is ever "only up", so why mortgage attention to expectancy?
The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune's control, and abandoning what lies in yours.
It is easier to bear and simpler not to acquire than to lose, so you will notice that those people are more cheerful whom Fortune has never favoured than those whom she has deserted.... How much happier is the man who owes nothing to anybody except the one he can most easily refuse, himself!
All the greatest blessings create anxiety, and Fortune is never less to be trusted when it's fairest. To preserve prosperity we need other prosperity, and to support the prayers which have turned out well we have to make other prayers. Whatever comes our way by chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall. Furthermore, what is doomed to fall delights no one.
Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me -- money, public office, influence -- I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me.... No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours.... So I have never believed that there was any genuine good in the things which everyone prays for; what is more, I have found them empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colours, with nothing inside to match their appearance.
II. The Present — Art Blocks
Only after deleting ape mentality can one double click into the movements that actually resonate. And in unpacking what makes certain projects special, one can begin to differentiate the communities that will be around for decades, not days.
The creative community that has grabbed 100% of my mindshare of late is Art Blocks (AB), the generative art launchpad created by Erick Calderon ("Snowfro"). Those who fall into this community don't just like it—they LOVE it, with an intensity hard to express in words. What it is about AB that makes everyone participating in the movement feel "alive"? For me, it's the magic of what happens when you mix natively digital media (generative art) with digital scarcity as a primitive, supported by the passion of a tightly knit artist-collector community, mixed with a bit of gacha style luck in the minting process, all propelled by a steady stream of creative inspiration.
Generative art has a long history, and Jason Bailey's piece Why Love Generative Art? is a fantastic starting point for appreciating why digital scarcity is so foundational to the expansion in the generative art movement. For those looking to dive deeper into the space, commonly cited references include Processing - Creative Coding and Computational Art, The Nature of Code and Generative Design.
I first learned of Art Blocks after reading Ricardo Stuven's piece on the importance of on-chain art. Foundationally, the idea of art not as the output of software but as the software itself—with the code embedded directly on the blockchain and certified by the artist through the minting process—struck a chord with me. Matt DesLauriers wrote a wonderful piece explaining this in more detail.
As code and generative art became more widespread, and more accessible to share on the web, we entered into an era of realizing and displaying the software itself to global audiences, rather than a still or video reproduction of the software’s output.
More broadly, the idea of "code as art" lends itself to all kinds of interesting second-order effects relating to interoperability and composability within the evolving metaverse. As Derek Schloss and Stephen Mckeon write in Punks, Squiggles and the Future of Generative Art:
With Art Blocks, any artist can use previously generated outputs as building blocks to create new projects in an entirely trustless way. The on-chain data that lives within each Art Blocks output will unlock future utility and intersect with metaverse projects like CryptoVoxels, AI-powered NFT projects like Alethea, or simply act as access keys for new artist drops.
Several other fantastic pieces have been written on AB, including Druid's Art Blocks 101 guide on how to mint AB pieces, Zeneca_33's comprehensive overview of the ecosystem and every one of the Jeff Davis artist interviews.
I myself have become a Top 5 Art Blocks collector, and spend more time than I care to admit in the ever entertaining #sales-chat channel (just today renamed to #block-party) of the Art Blocks Discord. What I care to drill into here is why I have become so obsessed with generative art (after never collecting art previously), and what the Art Blocks metagame reveals about how to build a lasting and meaningful community.
The best way to understand what makes the AB experience special is through a deep dive into some of the projects that have been released on it. Some of my personal favorites include: Fidenzas (Tyler Hobbs), Ringers (Dmitri Cherniak), Apparitions (Aaron Penne), Subscapes (Matt DesLauriers) and Chromie Squiggles (Snowfro).
A considerable amount of our lives are now spent in programmed software environments. All of the digital tools that you use were shaped by teams of programmers. Our methods for creating, sharing, and viewing the content of our culture (writings, images, videos, and games) are all constructed with code. If wood, concrete, glass, and steel were the core materials of important new construction in the 20th century, coding has easily supplanted these in the 21st. Art must keep up with evolutions in the fabric of society, and coding isn't just shaping our buildings (although it is doing that), it's shaping our relationships, our communication, our consumption, our creation, our learning, our memory, our very view of ourselves.
I love how Tyler details the fine intricacies of creating generative art, the tension between predictable quality and unexpected variation:
You may sense the artist working to turn their artistic instincts into explicit instructions. Computers don’t take fuzzy instructions. They have to know exactly what you want them to do, and how to do it. The artist will labor to inject a sense of wonder and surprise into an ecosystem that was carefully engineered to behave predictably. You may see the artist use the computer as the perfect workhorse that it is - never tiring and never stopping, regardless of the massive scale or infinite detail or sheer preposterousness of the design.
Fidenza evolved from earlier experimentations. It's based around flow fields, a technique that I've been exploring in depth for a few years now. I love how they add an organic sense of unpredictability, while at the same time remaining extremely well-structured. That blend of order and chaos is something I've come to deeply appreciate about nature.
Ringers has been the culmination of a few years of work on my end. I’ve been creating algorithms to automate the wrapping of a string around a set of pegs and playing with many different peg layouts and ideas, but Ringers was really the first time that I applied all of those forms into one single series and unleashed the power of generative art and blockchain technology together.
I think a lot of generative art is somewhat bland, including my own sometimes. Generative Art is great for smooth clean lines and geometric art, but it’s really hard to give you that organic feel with curves and colors so once you have something that does work, it’s worth exploring more and using reusable code helps a lot to do that. In this case, I had a lot of experience working with the form so I took a lot of those lessons I’d learned through trial and error and applied them here.
My goal as a generative artist is to create artwork that inspires curiosity, leading viewers to simultaneously see the work as computer generated and hand crafted, because it is both.
Writing the core algorithm was relatively quick as I knew exactly what I wanted it to do. Maybe 2-3 days. At the beginning of a generative art project it's easy to feel like you are getting what you're envisioning. However, it took months of tweaking this algorithm to get the desired outputs, variation, and colors. Once you start iterating on an idea, the ideas compound, and bugs become features, and the artwork starts taking on a life of its own.
Typically when working on a generative artwork, the artist gets to curate the outputs, only showing a handful of the most visually appealing pieces. As we know with Art Blocks there is no artist curation, the collectors are invited to be part of the creation process itself. This is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. The nature of the generative minting process means we have to ensure all outputs are interesting and visually "good". This means weeks of running the program, finding a strange look, then spending hours coding it out of existence. Or finding something surprising and interesting, and coding that into existence.
Matt DesLauriers wrote an exposition of the Subscapes traits that wonderfully illustrates the depth and quality that go into top-tier AB drops. It's no wonder that Subscapes has become one of the most sought-after AB collections out there.
For my first Art Blocks project, I wanted to create something natural and familiar. The many outputs form a sort of multi-verse of possible worlds. Each landscape sits in its own unique ecosystem of color, structure, and topology. I wanted to create the experience of hunting through landscapes, searching for the moments where all the chaos and generativity of the algorithm aligns to create something sublime.
Snowfro and his Chromie Squiggle was Project 0 on Art Blocks. It is amazing to hear Erick talk about the origin story of Art Blocks and Chromie Squiggles with Josie, Kevin Rose, Ponyo, and many others. Suffice to say that Erick has inspired an entire generation of artists and collectors, and even a DAO dedicated to the collection of Squiggles.
All told, I've collected dozens of artists on Art Blocks. Many of them are truly inspirational. Here is a small sampling of thoughts from some of the many other talented artists on the platform that particularly resonated with me:
As a generative artist, I tend to look at my pieces as functional systems turning numbers into visuals. The goal of creating such a system is to achieve an unexpected, complex, emergent behaviour, striking a balance between ungraspable chaos and a clear structure. I had long thought that this sense of complexity and chaos could be achieved only through the sheer randomness of the input, but it has gradually become clear to me that it may very well emerge from simple, deterministic rules as well, like cellular automata, regular grammar etc. From this realization, my work has slowly shifted its focus from structuring and visualising large bodies of random numbers to creating complex systems that can emerge from potentially very few inputs.
I’ve worked in many different ways and with different ideas, but code is at the root of everything. Motion and change are the essence. I started coding in the late 1990s because I wanted to make drawings that I felt I couldn’t make any other way and I’ve been running with it ever since.
Fun colors and funky shapes. I wanted to make something that was simple yet contained a lot of hidden complexity. I especially wanted to create static compositions that felt alive. And of course, seeing how much variety I could create while maintaining a core style.
A lot of generative art is very geometric because there are numbers and algorithms behind it, so I decided to make something bright and associated with generative art. I used a hexagonal grid, which using isometrics turns into blocks, each side of which is a small generative art. I tried to use smooth animations, so that this work placed for example on the wall (now that there are special displays for NFTs) was not something distracting, but on the contrary something to look at and calm down or meditate.
There are some recurring themes in my art: identity, sense of belonging, past, the joy of living, Memento Mori... Frammenti is all about how our memories define us. Every fragment represents one memory. When combined, they define who we are.... If their union symbolizes our life, their explosion represents our death, as one cannot exist without the other. And even if we no longer exist in one shape, those memories will outlive us in all the people we have shared our lives with.
I’ve always been fascinated with the phenomena found in the natural world, especially the aesthetics of fluid motion. I once saw a video of water droplets in zero gravity and remember being delighted by how playful the liquid blob looked as it floated around and morphed. I wanted to capture that playfulness in this project, as well as add personality through color and motion.
By buying into an Art Blocks release, you are participating in a community that has every right to exist decades from now, and will only strengthen over time. Liquidity is the lifeblood of any marketplace, and off-market pieces get scooped in seconds. As one case in point, I recently took 20 ETH of loans against my collection on NFTfi where offers were provided within minutes at reasonable APYs (2.5% per month). The blue chip perception of Art Blocks pieces has second-order effects, where liquidity begets additional liquidity and interoperability across the broader DeFi stack. Together, these effects compound, and will draw liquidity away from “isolated” NFTs without similar platform effects.
It's no wonder that the floor prices of several of the foundational sets exceed 5 ETH ($10k at writing). My view is that these floors will increase over time, as early sets rotate into the hands of long-term collectors who are unlikely to break up complete sets. It's still early days, with only 5,936 wallets holding Art Blocks pieces as of July 1, 2021 according to cryptoslam.io.
To me, the most compelling indication of where we are heading is how many Art Blocks collectors have started creating fan art around their sets and integrating it into their identity, such as mixing a Fidenza background behind their Cryptopunk avatar. As Jade Raymond writes:
In 2021, the mark of a successful blockbuster franchise is not one that produces a ton of sequels. Nor is it when a game successfully goes transmedia, generating best-sellers across media categories. Today, a franchise is truly successful when fans start writing fiction … and making art depicting your two hetero male lead characters kissing. For fans, that imagined liplock is a sign of personal investment — there’s a deep appreciation that goes hand in hand with this type of fan interpretation. When fans fall in love with characters or a certain narrative, the franchise becomes part of their identities.
The future looks bright.
III. The Future — Sustainable Communities
Imagine a world where, as Jesse Walden recently declared, "investing is culture and culture is investing”. Everyone can become a stakeholder, not just culturally but financially, in the causes that resonate with their interests and values. Global communities of like-minded individuals form overnight, where what you do defines who you are. Open markets and personal passions combine to form the beginnings of "squad wealth", woven together by the melody of good DAO vibes, and constrained only by the limits of collective imagination.
Yet, is any of this real? I'm a believer, but reality has some catching up to do. For most projects, “community” is not the glue of likeminded passion and potential energy, but short-term marketing used to attract new entrants into a zero-sum money game.
In experimenting with RNG, I had this vision to create a virtual "Soho House" of gamers, artists and creatives. Strangers bound together by a vision of common currency, with collective ownership of the upside. With engagement off the charts in those early days, I proudly asked respected game designer Raph Koster what he thought of my self-proclaimed wizardry. I was unprepared for the reality check that followed—in his words:
Community exists because of what they share first: values and interests. Money is a way to reduce friction and improve trust between people who don't share values, interests, and the like. Money exists so you can engage in exchanges with people you do not know or trust or like. Communities exist for the exact opposite reason. You do not build a community around a currency. You build a currency around connecting communities.
This is not really an "organic" community, by my definition. Organic communities don't have external incentives (tips) to shape behavior, they are purely internally motivated. If I had to analogize to real world communities, this is less like a community springing up naturally at an intersection and more like a company town. Or a conference.
Another way in which it hasn't behaved like an organic community is that it's built out of multiple interests long before that would have organically happened. The core interest unifying everyone is basically forms of cryptocurrency, but that's a very big tent, and we basically have subcommunities here of game players, thinkers, funders, makers, etc. It's not yet an ecosystem, it's a crowd, because the relationships between these haven't formed.
One structural thing contributing to that is the proliferation of channels. There's no clear "town square." Every human community on earth is organized around a water feature and a town square. Without that place, different groups do not intersect naturally. When we build virtual worlds, we generally structure them with a single onramp aiming at that square....
Frankly, I myself am unclear on why the community exists -- meaning, as an entity, what it's communal group identity is, what it's for; instead it feels like there are many reasons. But for governance, you need to know, you need to know your ethos, your raison d'etre. It's why your users are here.
Those are words I've thought about many times since, particularly in the context of the many self-proclaimed "communities" that have sprung up around every new NFT and DeFi project. When the initial speculative frenzy dies down, there can only be so many of these projects with active, multi-year communities. Because minds are simple, attention is short, and there just isn't enough mental space for us to each have 72 digital avatars and two dozen yield farms, and continue to care about every one. This is one reason why I very rarely buy NFTs without "platform effects" like Art Blocks: there is no ongoing metagame that justifies a continued increase in value to the ecosystem over time.
Social tokens I think paint a different story. In a Stream of Social Token Consciousness, I dwelled on the formative conditions for creating long-term community games. From my vantage point, we are just at the beginnings of bringing a rubric for shared ownership to mainstream consumer applications of all kinds. As I wrote in Mario Gabriele's recent briefing on What to Watch in Crypto:
Today, 99% of creator economy companies are thinking about how they can sell more stuff to fans — the next iteration will involve constructing a framework for shared upside that rewards fan engagement and allows for long-term games. It's not about the creator economy. It's about creating an economy.
If you start with a fungible virtual currency that aligns the interests of the platform, creators, and users, and distribute it over time based on engagement and contribution, everyone can “play to earn.” We are about to witness what happens when the incentives of all become aligned under a rubric of common values and shared upside—the results are going to be explosive.
First and foremost though, the path to sustainability lies not in token economics, but creating a game that people want to play, fostering an inclusive community around that experience, and making every player feel a sense of wonder and humility at the opportunity to be a part of the creative explosion. And there is no better example of that today than Art Blocks. I have the ancients to thank in getting me to focus on the games I actually care about, and to shut out all the ones I don’t.