Rethinking the Everyday: Fungible NON Fungible

Feature Story

The word "fungible" lived in a dusty corner of the English language until it was recently plucked from obscurity, and became associated with Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT)—one of the biggest information technology breakthroughs since the advent of the internet, or maybe even the printing press. 

Look up "fungible" in a dictionary and it will go along the lines of, "something that is able to replace, or be replaced by, another identical item; mutually interchangeable." A commonly used example is government-issued money, but the same principle applies to digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, and any medium of exchange. Whether it be soft drinks or automobiles, mass-produced goods also have some degree of "fungibility" depending on how difficult, or expensive, or even possible, it is to find or create another. 

What then is "non-fungible"? By extension, it is something that cannot be replaced by an identical item. Land is very non-fungible, but so too is an artistic creation. Both are considered unique assets, and their relative values are reached by consensus of the marketplace. For example, the Mona Lisa is deemed an artwork of immeasurable value, and the Louvre trustees would never be convinced to part with it in exchange for a very good print of the same artwork. Though, if by chance the painting did change ownership, it would take a very complex process requiring lots of trusted financial, security and transport intermediary organisations. A testimony to its uniqueness and scarcity. 

For better and worse, we live in an era of highly fungible information abundance, where it is possible to endlessly copy and reproduce any digital image, text, sound, and at almost no cost. These are circumstances that defy non-fungibility. The inability to create "scarcity" and "uniqueness" has been a stumbling block for digital creators, denying them appropriate value for their labour. That is, until 2017 when a new internet buzzword was born with the acronym NFT. As we read in the following pages, beyond the art market, this technology holds profound implications for the future of the economy and social organisation.