This story originally appeared in Jacobin on Jan. 26, 2022. It is shared here with permission.
Sometimes a single image or episode capturing triumph, tragedy, or disaster sums up the spirit of a moment better than prose ever could. In pondering the most iconic frames in American history, several obvious candidates come to mind: the flag raising on Iwo Jima; the beaming face of a relaxed John F. Kennedy seconds before he met an assassin’s bullet; Neil Armstrong moved to tears in the cockpit of Apollo 11 following communion with the infinite on the surface of the Moon. Though it may never be elevated to the same illustrious perch, it’s difficult to think of anything quite so evocative or emblematic of our own stupendously stupid time than this week’s sublimely bizarre segment of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon featuring Paris Hilton.
True to the genre, most of the conversation between Hilton and Fallon is classic late-night schtick, the kind of mindlessly innocuous banter you idly catch out of one eye while falling asleep or stumble upon after giving up on Netflix for the third time in two hours. Things then quickly take a turn for the weird when Fallon asks about Hilton’s NFT hobby (Hilton, incidentally an early pioneer in the postmodern commodification of the self, is currently ranked at #7 in Forbes’ NFT Top 50), and the two carry out what can only be described as a sort of a scripted infomercial somewhere between low-effort celebrity ad read and probable hostage video.
As vaguely dystopian mad libs go, “Paris Hilton Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT” is already about as emblematically 2022 as it gets. Channeled through Hilton and Fallon’s hilariously strained delivery, however—watch the clip for yourself and you’ll see it’s easy enough to imagine that the host is taking his cues from masked gunmen holding placards just off screen—the whole thing soon passes into an entirely new realm of the bizarre. Here’s a short sample:
FALLON: [Since you were last on the show] Forbes has named you one of the top 50 most influential people in the NFT space, so congrats on that.
HILTON: Thank you, I’m so proud. I love being a part of this community and being a voice and sharing my platform and just getting the word out there. Cause I think it’s just such an incredible thing to be a part of.
FALLON: Yeah, I jumped in.
HILTON: I know, I heard. I’m so happy I taught you what they were.
FALLON: You did, you taught me what’s up and then I bought an ape.
HILTON: I got an ape too, because I saw you on the show with Beeple and he said you got on MoonPay so I went and I copied you and did the same thing.
There’s plenty more in this vein, the two showing off their respective ape JPEGs before Hilton announces an Oprah-style giveaway for the blockchain era and gifts everyone in the audience with her latest NFT, declaring the moment “iconic” as the show cuts to break.
Beginning at some point in 2021, the Non-Fungible Token—the latest cryptocurrency-adjacent fad to sweep the nation — was suddenly everywhere. As if by way of some unknowable alchemic process, it seemed, people were somehow turning a profit by trading thoroughly unremarkable clip art images while others were inexplicably shelling out big to claim their title deeds.
Celebrities and social media influencers can’t shut up about them. From Serena Williams and Logan Paul to Matt Damon and William Shatner, the NFT craze quickly transcended generations and swept up an eclectic cavalcade of the rich and famous in its wake. (Jimmy Fallon, incidentally, spent more than $200,000 on the Bored Ape NFT that now graces his Twitter profile.) Beeple, name-dropped by Paris Hilton in her Fallon segment, fetched more than $3.5 million in an NFT auction. Ape NFTs have been “stolen” in digital heists. One B-list reality star has even gotten in the action by monetizing her own farts (these NFTs, incidentally, come with the tagline: “Be part of history with the first ever generative Fart Jar NFT collection—Imagine the smell!”)
If you’re not already immersed in this glorified Pokémon card ponzi scheme, it’s all a little perplexing, and you may be wondering what any of it actually means. In essence, an NFT gives you exclusive ownership over a digital object of some kind (images, songs, tweets, and virtually anything else can be turned into an NFT).
On its face, buying one can be a bit like buying an original artwork, though with digital usage rights and stored on a blockchain. You can’t, in other words, actually hold it in your hands like a poster or painting. The NFT market being a kind of property rights Wild West, some have been converted into tokens without their author’s knowledge or consent. Still more incredibly, the original media object almost always remains totally accessible to anyone online—essentially rendering the whole premise of exclusivity moot (except in the abstract sense of “bragging rights”).
In a word, NFTs are bullshit. And, like most forms of bullshit in America—think WeWork, the Fyre Festival, or any number of other venture capital-hatched disruption rackets—they’ve come packaged in a phony populist language of community and an even phonier rhetoric of innovation.
Like cryptocurrency, it’s hard to make a case for their actual use value and, like the very dumbest Silicon Valley startups and multilevel marketing scams, they’re best understood as speculative investments in which a privileged few can wring money from something of no redeeming social benefit. The majority, in fact, are about as useful as trash. As Vulture’s Rebecca Alter put it, most NFTs “are about as valuable as a QR code on a Coke bottle cap that sends you to a dead link to an mp3 download.”
Value in any recognizable sense, suffice it to say, is not really the point.
Decadence and Boundless Commodification
The NFT boom, fittingly enough, has coincided quite directly with a period of particularly grotesque collective hardship and surging inequality. As both a threat to public health and an historic economic disruption, the COVID era has been an extraordinarily difficult time for many working and middle-class Americans, but a veritable land of milk and honey for its corporate overlords and lumpen bourgeoisie.
Events of recent years have been the best occasion in decades to reimagine the fundamentals of American society and transform the economy into something other than a handful of hedge funds and tech monopolies sitting on top of each other inside a trench coat. Instead, the country’s bipartisan ruling class opted to greet mass death with a dollop of inadequate and temporary social protections while its criminally undertaxed ultrarich were left to seek out novel ways of profiting from their own money and new totems of their elite status.
Nothing has been more symbolic of this trajectory than NFTs, the latest symptom of a decadent and increasingly post-democratic consensus resting on little more than predatory rent-seeking and boundless commodification. As the New Republic’s Jacob Silverman put it last year:
NFTs reflect a view of the world in which anything can be monetized, even if its value is entirely specious. Having exhausted traditional investments like property and stocks — as well as boutique services like concierge doctors or privileged access to the COVID-19 vaccine — the country’s idle elites are now seeking to expand their financial footprint to cover, well, anything to which they wish to lay claim. . . . It’s the financialization of everything, with practically anything eligible to be tokenized, chopped up into tranches, converted into securities that intrepid day traders could buy and sell.
In effect, a political economy that has eschewed even the thinnest notions of social contract or public good in its elevation of the market—along with a manufacturing base that once actually built things—is laying the groundwork for a new and more expansive kind of post-materialist commodification.
In this latest incarnation of our second gilded age, speculative bubbles based in the digital ether will help affix an ersatz sheen of innovation and progress to a top-heavy economy structurally incapable of delivering the real kinds. As digital commodities, NFTs thus signal the ongoing descent of capitalism into pure simulacrum and the growing remove of its greatest beneficiaries from anything even resembling productive activity.
As a civilizational metaphor on the other hand, they’re perhaps the perfect symbol of a political order so dismally unjust and a regressive culture so thoroughly exhausted that even the rich people brandishing them on late-night TV struggle to do so with any conviction.