Yesterday at the CogX conference, I sat in a room listening to companies pitch their blockchain based startups. Because I hate myself.
One in particular caught my attention. On the surface it seems to solve an important economic problem - art forgery and provenance.
By putting your artwork on the "BitCoin Blockchain", Verisart will ✨hand wavy magic✨ increase the trust in art dealers and reduce fraud.
That's a pretty neat idea. A distributed public ledger of who I have sold my art to. And, if they sell it, they have a cryptographically signed certificate proving its provenance. The seller can sign the certificate with their private key to say they've sold it to the new owner of a specific public key. Nifty!
Except… and I hate to bring the art industry into disrepute… what if I sell a fake and keep the original in my Underground Vault?
There's no way to permanently attach a digital certificate to a physical work of art.
Incidentally, this is the problem with all the startups claiming the blockchain will revolutionise the integrity of global logistics markets. Sure, you can slap a QR code on a crate - but nothing stops an unscrupulous middle-man from replacing or adulterating the contents of the crate.
Let's get back to Verisart's other issue. Proving that I am the creator or owner of a piece of artwork.
Long story short, I convinced them that I painted the Mona Lisa. An excellent situationalist prank. Much avant-garde, so postmodernism.
For this "proof" I provided Verisart with...
- An email address
- A photo of the Mona Lisa from Wikipedia
- That's it!
That was all that was required. I didn't have to provide them with a public key, a certified copy of my passport, a high resolution copy of the artwork. Nothing.
Because the blockchain is immutable, that "proof" is there forever now. You mustn't make mistakes when irrevocably signing something.
So, what does this mean? Can I waltz into the Louvre and ask for "my" painting back?
No, obviously not. Not even a moron in a hurry would think that I was a time traveller or that I owned the most famous portrait in Europe.
But, if it is certified on the blockchain, it must be true!
I'm sure there are many sensible uses for this technology. I'm also sure there are many investors who will throw money at any pitch which contains the right buzzwords.
It's almost as if we can't just throw technology at the social problem of trust…
I don't understand the blockchain hype.
A startup has certified my artwork & placed their verification on the bitcoin blockchain.
Now art dealers & auctioneers can feel secure that I am the original artist.
— Terence Eden is on Mastodon (@edent) June 11, 2018