THE internet exploits us. The internet liberates us. The internet makes us poorer. The internet makes us richer.

In truth, it does all these things at the same time, to different people.

But sometimes phenomena come along which flash a big light on its inner structures, and make us realise what a disruptive force we’ve accepted into our lives.

I came upon two of these this week. Firstly, a report on the death of NFTs, or “non-fungible tokens”. These are basically digital artworks with encrypted signatures, which prove their unique status for potential buyers. The market for them was worth £17 billion in 2021. Today, 95% of NFTs are worthless. Many have lost fortunes.

The second one is the Channel Four documentary, shown last Thursday, called The Great Amazon Heist. The prankster Oobah Butler perpetrates various indignities upon the Amazon system. One of which is to use its own e-commerce processes to sell the branded urine of Amazon couriers (they have to pee into bottles in their cabs, due to the company’s punishing work schedules).

The NFT craze genuinely conjures up cash value (or a bubble of it) out of nearly nothing – some lines of code, some dreadful artwork.

The Great Amazon Heist shows how brutish the human conditions are that lie behind one’s blithe online clicking.

But both of them illustrate how quicksilver the net makes our lives. Scraps of nearly nothing swell to multi-billions – and then vanish. Giant edifices have digital fissures in their base that can be opened wide. They show that it’s the quality of our imagination and activism, as much as the design of the technology itself, that makes progress possible from the internet.

It will maybe help to understand NFTs if we break down the term.

The “token” part is the unit of currency that a cryptocurrency system like Bitcoin or Ethereum runs on. “Fungible” tokens do the same job as ordinary money: they’re ubiquitous, general, able to be exchanged. So “non-fungible tokens” are digital items that are non-interchangeable, unique, indivisible, and irreplaceable.

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An original Van Gogh can be photographed and copied, but it can’t be replaced; there’s only one Starry Night, and somebody owns it (it happens to be the Museum of Modern Art in New York).

NFTs allow artworks, and other inimitable objects, to be digitally “owned” or authenticated – as the only item, or a limited run, coming from an identified creator.

You can guess that the art market exploded around this. At one point in 2021, NFTs were themselves as big as the rest of the market for all collectables.

The frenzy was all-too-explicable. At one end, lean and hungry visual artists were imagining that, finally, this might be a way to make continuing money from their creativity.

Perhaps a royalty could be legally encoded into each digital artwork – so that every time it was sold on, the artist would be automatically entitled to a share of the price?

And perhaps this relationship could be directly with consumers, rather than requiring the usual agents, galleries, reviews? (One notes, in passing, how quickly abandoned was the open-source, dot-com idealism of the early net, previously embraced by artists.) At the other end, net-worth individuals thought they saw an opportunity to buy into the beginning of a new class of valuable objects.

Not only did celebs like Lionel Messi, Paris Hilton, Snoop Dogg, Melania Trump and (er) John Terry shell out for them, they tried to sell NFTs associated with their own brand. The kick-start for this particular frenzy was the March 2021 sale of Beeple’s Everydays – a collage of his daily artworks – for $69 million at Christie’s.

From the bubble, to the inevitable pop. The September 2023 report by dappGambl discovered that 69,795 out of 73,257 NFT collections are worth zero Ether (that’s the cryptocurrency commonly used for NFTs). So 95% of those with NFT collections – or 23m people – have investments that are effectively worthless.

A tulip bubble, a speculative craze, for people with too much money and no evident taste … some might find it hard to lament the end of NFTs.

The dappGambl report also notes that, materially, NFTs were not made from the stuff of dreams. The amount of computer processing required to create these authenticated digital objects was equivalent, energy-wise, to “the carbon footprint of 4061 passengers flying from London to Wellington, New Zealand.”

There's a different story about NFTs, though.

I know crypto gurus – like Scotland’s Vinay Gupta – who think that the digital identification of objects, more generally applied, could be the saving of humanity, at least ecologically.

Vinay imagines a new economic system where our ability to digitally track manufactured objects has very desirable outcomes. We could reduce massively on waste, compel manufacturers to design for repair not obsolescence, and create a new consumer culture – with fewer, better, more treasured items in our lives. Look up Gupta’s project Mattereum for more.

But to show the need for the grand new plans, it may help to make a fool of the oppressive current structures.

Butler rose to fame when he gamed the digital travel platform TripAdvisor into rating his garden shed as the top restaurant in London.

Butler does the same in this documentary. He marshalls a circle of friends to buy enough of his piss-bottles – bright yellow and branded “Release Energy” – to get them to the number one bestseller slot in Amazon’s “Bitter Lemon drinks” category.

Oobah tweaks Amazon splendidly throughout this show. Appalled that their tiny tax burden could be preventing potholes being filled in the road, he buys roadfiller from Amazon, fills local potholes with it, then asks if he can return his purchase … while filling the containers with exactly the same weight in beachsand.

He also gets his four- and six-year-old nieces to order lethal gardening and kitchen blades over an Alexa device: he’s highlighting the company’s seriously inadequate standards for age monitoring.

Great, wild fun. These are all hacks, in the original MIT sense. Ways of testing the systems around us, to show their limitations and exploitations.

But hackers, contrary to their popular reputation, usually want to improve these systems – or even encourage us to build new and better ones.

Some of the early pioneers of computation and the internet (notoriously Apple’s Steve Jobs) forged their skills in phone phreaking.

Phreaking involved manipulating dial tones so you could get free international calls.

That’s fraud, right?

Or it’s a kind of healthy, critical ingenuity, which urges humans to attain more control of the massive and implacable systems around them.

In a Vice magazine interview, Butler expresses exactly this hacker ethic: “You could look at this cynically – argue that the odour of the internet is so strong nowadays that people can no longer use their senses properly. But I like to be positive.

“If I can transform my garden into London’s best restaurant, literally anything is possible.”

We know literally anything is possible by means of the internet: wars, financial crashes, atrocious working conditions in rare metal mines, in order to construct all these networked devices ... there’s an obvious litany.

But I treasure the spirit of the NFTers and Oobah Butler – both for their conjuring-up of entire economies out of nothing, and to be able to crack open new forms of exploitation.

Are there other platforms to invent, and other forms of justice to pursue, as well as their combination – would that we had the energy and vision?

The disruptions of the internet could be ours, not just something wreaked upon us.

Oobah Butler’s The Great Amazon Heist is now available online.