On December 24, the film Do not seek started streaming on Netflix after a limited theatrical release. It’s a satirical story, directed by Adam McKay, about what happens when a humble doctoral student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and his supervisor (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that an asteroid the size of Everest is heading towards Earth. What is happening 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 was widely watched but was glued by critics. It was, said the Observer‘s Simran Hans, a “shrill and hopelessly no fun satire on climate change”. the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw found it to be “laborious, embarrassed and un-relaxed satire … like a 145-minute film. Saturday Night Live sketch without the brilliant comedy of Succession… Nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require ”.
These complaints about rawness and OTT rang a bell. It turns out that a markedly exaggerated satire published in 1729 elicited comparable reactions. Its author, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglo-Irish clergyman who was dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. The title of Swift – A modest proposal to keep the children of the poor from being a burden on their parents or their country and to make them beneficial to the public – only gives a glimpse of the savagery of the satire within . For the heart of the proposal was that the impoverished Irish could alleviate their economic woes by selling their children as food to wealthy men and women. “A healthy, well-nourished young child,” we read, “is one of the most delicious, nutritious and healthy foods at one year of age, whether baked, roasted, baked or boiled; and I have no doubt that it will also serve in a fricassee or a stew.
You get the drift. Swift’s target was the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, often absentee landlords living off the rents of their desperately poor Irish tenant while walking around Mayfair. McKay’s targets are more diffuse. It targets less a specific class than an entire lifestyle – people too dazed by consumerism, short-termism and social media, too hypnotized by the interests of big tech companies, to worry 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 yet to notice this obsession, an NFT is essentially a traceable code that is indelibly attached to a digital object such as an image or recording. Once someone has purchased this item, it becomes irrevocably registered on their ID and it can therefore be said that they are the owner of the code.
If that sounds obscure, that’s because it is. And yet, for about 18 months, NFTs have been causing a sensation in the art world or, at least, in its 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 digital artwork by Mike Winkelmann, who calls himself Beeple, sold for $ 69 million. Until then, Mr. Winkelmann had never sold a print for more than a hundred dollars.
You can guess what this sparked: an avalanche of budding Beeples, plus plenty of speculative scammers who see a possibility of smaller jackpots for relatively little work (say a recording of your lovely cat’s purring). Anyone can play the game, and there are some useful DIY guides on the web for those who want to give it a try.
So what’s not to like? Surely it is a good thing that artists who struggled to earn a crust during the pandemic can get paid? He is. But there is a small catch: the technology that ensures that the NFT you bought is a blockchain similar to the ones that power cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or Ethereum. And the computation necessary to provide the certification which is the USP of blockchains requires massive amounts of electricity, which comes with a significant carbon footprint. A single transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, for example, currently requires 232.51 kWh, which is equivalent to the power consumption of an average American household over 7.86 days.
If McKay decides he’d like to try the Swiftian satire again, there’s an opening for him here. Nero was content to fiddle around while Rome was on fire: we were enthusiastically bidding for NFTs while warming the planet.
What i read
One more thing
Why I Traded My Fancy Rock Climbing Gear for a Pair of Dilapidated Watches is a lovely blog post from Conrad Anker that will make sense to anyone cursed (or blessed) with a collectible gene.
Back to the future
The great robotics expert Rodney Brooks gives his annual review of the predictions he made in 2018.
The great Escape
The Haunted California Idyll 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 LA.